Air Date: Week of March 27, 1998
Massive fires are sweeping through the drought afflicted rainforest and grasslands of the northern Brazilian state of Roraima. The blazes are also a major threat to the indigenous Yanomami people. The fires come just months after the Brazilian government revealed that deforestation in the Amazon reached a new peak in the mid 1990's due to population pressures and the demand for tropical timber. Steve Curwood spoke with William Schomberg who is a Reuters News Service correspondent in the capitol Brasilia, Brazil. He says the government is taking steps to fix the problems, but the challenges may be overwhelming.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Massive fires are sweeping through the drought-plagued rainforest and grasslands of the northern Brazilian state of Roraima. The blazes are also a major threat to the indigenous Yanomami people. The fires come just months after the Brazilian government revealed that deforestation in the Amazon reached a new peak in the mid-1990s, thanks to population pressures and the demand for tropical timber. William Schomberg is a Reuters correspondent in Brasilia. He says the government is taking steps to fix the problems, but the challenges may be overwhelming.
SCHOMBERG: The logging industry has long been singled out as a villain in terms of deforestation. In the 1970s, the military dictatorship in Brazil encouraged big companies to buy huge tracts of Amazonian lands and basically gave them incentives to cut that down. Those patterns seem to have changed, and what the Brazilian government is now saying is that it is small-scale farmers, families who are being settled under the Brazilian government's land reform program, who are really the new threat to the Amazon. And measures are being considered to change the criteria for the land reform program instead of settling families in the rainforest area, settled them in areas which have already been cleared. It seems an obvious step to take.
CURWOOD: Well, haven't you reported that some of the big companies are involved in this by giving incentives to small farmers to do this burning?
SCHOMBERG: There is increasing evidence that some of the big logging companies in the Amazon region are providing credit to small-scale farmers and settlers. In return, the small farmers pay back their debts by giving over trees, and this enables the international and Brazilian logging companies to say, "Look, we don't use, we don't have any land, we don't chop down any trees." But very quietly, they're buying timber cut down unofficially, outside the law, from these small-scale farmers.
CURWOOD: How much of the logging in the Amazon right now is illegal?
SCHOMBERG: It's difficult to say exactly, but last year eyebrows were raised when a Brazilian newspaper published a report of a document which it said had been leaked from the government's intelligence outfit, which suggested that as much as 80% of the timber felled in the Amazon region was cut down illegally.
CURWOOD: The Brazilian government is taking some steps to deal with the deforestation problem. President Cardoso has signed, what, it's called the Environmental Crimes Act, that takes effect on March 30th. Is that going to help? What does it do?
SCHOMBERG: The new Environmental Crimes Law sets down a whole new range of fines and jail sentences for crimes against the environment. Previously, the punishments, the fines, were only set down in ministerial dictates which didn't stand up in court. The government says that this new law is a good law, it's a strong law, and it will stick. Environmentalists agree. They say that it is a big important step forward. The big concern, however, is that the government doesn't have the physical means to actually make this law stick in the majority of cases.
CURWOOD: I'm wondering how Brazilian politics influence policy in the Amazon. For political reasons, is this not a very high priority for President Cardoso?
SCHOMBERG: It's not a high priority for Cardoso as much as it might be if he was president of a western state. Brazilian public opinion is concerned about the Amazon, but nothing like to the extent in the United States or in Europe. Cardoso's hands are also tied when it comes to laying down new rules for the Amazon by a very strong and very vociferous group of Congressmen who come from the region who are often linked to logging companies or to big farming interests or to mining interests in the region. The Brazilian government has been very careful not to lose support from these groups, while it has been trying to push through very important structural reforms of the civil service and the social security system. The votes of these guys from the Amazon are crucial.
CURWOOD: William Schomberg covers Brazil for the Reuters News Service. He spoke with us from the capitol, Brasilia.
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