Brazil Stops Issuing Permits For Destroying Amazon Rain Forest
By William Schomberg
BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil said on Thursday it was stopping all new permits for clearing land in the Amazon River basin, a day after reporting that the rate at which the world's biggest rain forest is being destroyed jumped nearly 30 percent last year.
The Environment Ministry said it would review all existing permits to cut down trees in the region, pursue irregularities in court and compile a list of cleared areas covering more than about 5,000 acres, where it would "intervene immediately" to fight the "champions of deforestation."
The announcement was made in a statement, and no one was available for comment at the ministry.
But an official at the Brazilian Environment Institute, which is responsible for overseeing the Amazon, told Reuters the move was a response to preliminary data, announced on Wednesday, showing that an area more than half the size of Belgium -- 6,500 square miles -- was totally cleared in 1998.
"This might help slow down the rate of deforestation," said the official, who asked not to be named. "It will depend on how long the suspension lasts and whether the government really brings people breaking the law to book."
The Brazilian government has announced an array of measures over the last few years in a bid to bring the destruction of the Amazon region under control, but to little effect.
The latest move comes just a few weeks after Jose Sarney Filho, the son of a former president, took over the Environment Ministry with promises to come to grips with deforestation.
The figures announced on Wednesday represented a 27 percent increase from 1997 -- when the equivalent of 5,000 soccer fields of jungle were lost every day, according to one estimate -- but were slightly lower than in 1996.
The 1998 figures, however, did not include damage from the massive fires that raged between January and March in Roraima state on Brazil's border with Venezuela, destroying as much as 4,250 square miles of forest and savanna, according to separate government estimates.
Environmental groups, speaking before Thursday's announcement by the Environment Ministry, said the numbers showed Brazil had to act quickly to stop deforestation from soaring.
"We weren't surprised at the numbers," said Garo Batmanian, executive director of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
He said several anti-deforestation measures announced amid fanfare by the government had been implemented only partially or not at all.
A plan announced by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso last April to protect 10 percent of the Amazon rain forest has been put on hold after $300,000 in World Bank funding was delayed by Brazilian government paperwork.
"But the real problem is that the policy-makers have not yet understood that the environment has to be a factor in all its policies," Batmanian said.
"There's no point in the environment minister flying about in a helicopter to crack down on deforestation if the land reform minister is settling landless people right in the middle of the jungle," he said.
Joao Paulo Capobianco, executive secretary of the Socio-environmental Institute in Sao Paulo, said deforestation might rise again in 1999, since Brazil last year relaxed rules on the use of fire to clear land and reduced the amount of land farmers must keep as nature preserves.
Those changes were made in August and November, so their impact will be felt fully this year, Capobianco said.
"As well as failing to control deforestation, the government is taking measures that actually contradict its attempts to preserve the Amazon," he said.