Saturday, February 19, 2005

Brazilian President Reacts

Brazilian Prsedent Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, reacting to outside pressure, ordered the creation of two massive new rain forest reserves Thursday in an attempt to reign in lawlessness from violent loggers and ranchers after the killing last weekend of an American nun who fought to protect the jungle.

The decrees were announced after more than 60 groups signed a letter to the president demanding strong moves to curb "violence and impunity associated with the illegal occupation of lands and deforestation" in the Amazon -- and especially in Para, nearly twice the size of Texas. Though environmentalists were pleased with the decrees, they said they have lobbied Silva's administration for similar moves for two years and were dismayed they came only after Stang's death. "It is sad to see that things had been in the pipeline for months and years needed a tragic development in order receive priority," said Roberto Smeraldi, director of the environmental group Friends of the Earth Brazil.

The president also ordered a six-month moratorium on logging licenses on 20 million acres of land in Para near a jungle road scheduled to be paved in an area that environmentalists say is already rife with deforestation and land conflicts. During the moratorium, environmental authorities will define which areas should be protected. The government will pave a road, currently impassable to heavy trucks for much of the year because of constant rain, giving farmers in the top soy producing state of Mato Grosso access to an Amazon River port in Para for cheaper shipment abroad.

Lawlessness has long been common in Para, where ranchers, backed by hired gunmen, ensnare poor workers in an endless cycle of debt akin to slavery. Tensions rose further when the government recently ordered ranchers to evacuate land they occupied but couldn't prove they owned. Ranchers and loggers blocked roads and rivers, and the government relented, allowing ranchers with dubious claims to the land to continue logging.

There is good news and bad news in this story. Governments can be susecptible to foreign pressure when human rights abuses become widely known. Unfortunately, it took the death of an American citizen to bring that spotlight to Brazil. The death of hundreds of Brazilians is still worthless coin in the international arena.


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