Amazon Ablaze

IBAMA, the Brazilian Environmental Protection Agency is promoting what they call "sustainable industrial logging" in the Amazon forest. The world's scientific community has not even proven that sustainable logging is possible in small scale, let alone on an industrial scale. An initial experiment of logging in the area was harshly criticized. Now, IBAMA is trying to get support from the communities that will be affected.

Beto Borges

Forest burning in the Brazilian Amazon has increased by 28% between 1996 and 1997 according to INPE, the government's National Institute for Spatial Research. Government officials, however, argue that this figure is lower than for 1995. What they do not say is that the satellite used in 1995 to monitor forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon, NOAA 14, passed over the region during the day when cattle ranchers and small farmers use fire to clear forest lands.

There is a very significant difference now. The new satellite used to monitor forest fires, NOAA 12, covers the region at night, when most of the fires started during the day have been extinguished. But even without capturing most of the fires burning in the Brazilian rain forests, the satellite shows an increase by 28%.

The interest on the part of Brazilian society about the future of the Amazon region also seems to be increasing. I just returned from Brazil where I was invited to address a Congressional Committee that is investigating the presence of foreign logging companies operating in the Brazilian Amazon, especially companies from Southeast Asia that have started to log in the region in the past three years.

This Committee is headed by Congressman Gilney Viana from the state of Mato Grosso, a long time advocate for better environmental protection policies, who was until recently the head of the Commission on Environment, Human Rights, and Minorities at the House of Representatives. I was asked to give a presentation about the systems of logging concessions in the national forests of the United States and Canada as part of a series of hearings that the Committee has been carrying out on logging practices in the Amazon region of Brazil.

Why a hearing about forest practices in the United States and Canada? Because the Brazilian government is trying to allow logging companies to log in the Brazilian National Forests. This means that forests all over the country, principally in the Amazon region, that have been closed to industrial developments such as logging may start supplying the ever increasing demand for tropical hardwoods for the Brazilian and foreign markets.

The Tapajós National Forest in the state of Pará is the first where logging concessions are being proposed by IBAMA (The Brazilian Environmental Protection Agency). The link between the Brazilian plan and forest practices in the United States and Canada is that logging in these countries has been taking place for many years inside national forests. The results have been disastrous. For instance, only 3% of primary forests now remains in the United States. In Canada, much of Alberta's Wood Buffalo National Park has been clearcut, and clearcuts have left just a few remnants of the temperate rainforest giants of British Columbia.

This first experiment of logging in Brazil's National Forests has received a lot of criticism from Brazilian environmentalists. It has also been halted by a Federal Court order because the communities who live in the Tapajós National Forest were not consulted as to whether they wanted logging to take place in their forest homelands or not. Now, IBAMA is trying to bring the communities into the loop and will try to approve its plan before the end of the year.

Some critics suggest that IBAMA's motivation is political. They note that Eduardo Martins, the agency's president, has aspirations to become the next minister of Environment and that the "privatization of Brazilian national forests," as many like to call it, would position him well to be nominated for the Ministry of the Environment in next year's presidential elections.

IBAMA's proposal to log Brazil's National Forests is very controversial. The agency wants to put a hypothesis into practice before its scientific conclusion. The hypothesis is that the ecologically sustainable logging of the rainforest is possible. But worse yet is IBAMA's vision for the National Forests. It has announced that it will promote "sustainable industrial logging" in the Tapajós National Forest. The world's scientific community has not even proven that sustainable logging is possible in small scale, let alone on an industrial scale.

Foresters within IBAMA who wish to remain anonymous are against the plan on technical grounds, calling it inadequate. They say likelihood for further environmental devastation in the Brazilian Amazon is very high. Not surprisingly, local environmentalists, the media, and some Congress officials are very concerned. The National Forum of Brazilian NGOs and Social Movements, an organization representing hundreds of other groups of environmentalists, scientists, indigenous peoples, and other traditional forest peoples, such as the rubber tappers, has recently released a lengthy declaration that criticizes the federal government's forest policy as largely inadequate.

The Congressional Committee that is investigating the Asian and other foreign logging companies in Brazil has announced that it is getting close to its conclusions and the media has been covering the increased rate of burning in the Amazon with special interest. Unfortunately, business seems to be proceeding as usual for the federal government. Despite the seriousness of the forest destruction in the Amazon, it is always trying to portray an image of being on control of the situation.

Antônio Carlos do Prado, a high official within the Ministry of Environment, told O Estado de S. Paulo, one of Brazil's largest newspapers, that the arrival of Asian logging companies from Malaysia and China in the Brazilian Amazon is a positive fact and that with their presence it will be easier to control logging in the region. But many informed Brazilians are asking a very legitimate question. "What can guarantee us that these Asian companies that had no respect for their own national forests will do any different in Brazil?"

World renowned scientist and former Secretary of the Environment, José Lutzenberger is also very concerned about the arrival of the Asian loggers, "It will be very difficult to control their insatiable demand," he said recently. President Fernando Cardoso has recently stated that there is no major problem with burning in the Amazon region of Brazil. However, a New York Times editorial of October 20 criticized Cardoso's role in protecting the Brazilian Amazon region.

Unfortunately, the Amazon issue made it only to the margins of the official agenda between U.S. President Bill Clinton and Cardoso, during President Clinton's recent visit to Brazil. They preferred to talk about trade, as if trade had nothing to do with the environment.

While the presidents argued over Mercosul and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the official data on the environment was leaving through the back doors of the Palácio do Planalto: increased deforestation by 34% between 1991 and 1994, increased burning in the Amazon by 30% between 1996 and 1997, and the most alarming of all, their Intelligence Agency's reporting that 80% of all logging in Brazil is illegal and predatory.

Brazilian born Beto Borges is an ecologist and Brazil Program Director for Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco, California. He can be reached by phone at 415-398-4404 or by email: brazilpro@ran.org