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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Brazil's Environmental Policy Void

Air Date: Week of

NPR's David Welna reports from Rio de Janeiro on the environmental policy void left by the impeachment of Brazilian President Fernando Collor. With the country's political leaders distracted by scandal and uncertainty, protection of the Amazon forest and its inhabitants has all but disappeared, and the illegal extraction of mahogany for the US and overseas market is on the rise.


CURWOOD: Last June, as Brazil hosted the United Nations Earth Summit, the distrust between Brazil's authorities and the international environmental movement seemed to lessen as Brazil busily preened itself in the world spotlight. But with its president impeached, Brazil is now in political turmoil. As NPR's David Welna reports from Rio de Janeiro, the country's environmental policy is in disarray, and the assault on the Amazon forest continues.

WELNA: Even as the Earth Summit took place, Brazilian news media were already replacing their special ecology pages and broadcast segments with a more sensational and politically explosive topic -- corruption charges against the country's president and official host of the Earth Summit, Fernando Collor. With Collor's impeachment, vice president Itamar Franco has now taken over the presidency. Not much is known about the new President's attitudes towards environmental protection. But Franco does have a reputation as a nationalist, who in the past has supported a military-run program aimed at beefing up security along Brazil's Amazonian borders. Environmentalists have uniformly opposed that program; they say it disrupts delicate ecosystems in the rainforest. But Jose Augusto Padua, who heads Greenpeace in Brazil, says environmentalists are encouraged that Franco has upgraded the environmental secretariat to be a full ministry. Padua credits the Earth Summit for the environment's higher status here.

PADUA: We have very clear now the officialization of the legitimacy of the environmental discussion; it's a central problem, there are no voices these days telling as in the former years that this is not a central problem, and the environmental movement needs to use this as a tool to improve its own demands.

WELNA: But while having an environmental ministry rather than simply a secretariat is a step forward, Padua and other environmentalists here aren't quite sure yet what to think of Fernando Coutinho Jorge, the man who now heads the ministry. Prior to his appointment, he'd never set foot in Brazil's environmental protection agency. Up to now, Jorge has made no major policy statements. The new minister is from the Amazonian state of Para, and he's known to favor economic development in the Amazon. He's also a close ally of Gilberto Mestrinho, the popular and influential governor of the state of Amazonas who, in an interview earlier this year, defended cutting down the Amazon's biggest and oldest trees.

MESTRINHO: Isso da um processo de renovacao constante e ate a . . . (fade under)

WELNA: According to Mestrinho, cutting down old trees renews the rainforest by making space for saplings to grow; young trees, he argues, absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than old ones do, and are therefore better for the environment as a whole. And the old trees are indeed coming down.

(Sound of sawmill slicing wood)

WELNA: At a sawmill in the western Amazon, 120-year-old trunks of mahogany, measuring five feet across, are sliced up for export. Last year, the Brazilian Government estimates that nearly five million cubic feet of mahogany were shipped abroad -- the equivalent of more than a hundred thousand trees. Most of that "green gold" was extracted illegally from Indian reservations, or from other protected areas, such as extractive reserves set up for rubber tappers. Brazilian officials, rather than punishing the loggers, have simply looked the other way. To protest this, members of Greenpeace recently invaded another sawmill in the Amazon, where they forced the owners to stop operations temporarily by draping themselves across mahogany logs headed for the sawblades. Jose Augusto Padua of Greenpeace was one of those protesters; he says the main objection to mahogany logging is that removing the widely scattered trees leads to greater environmental destruction.

PADUA: It's now the main factor in the southern Amazon for the opening of new roads in the direction of the forest. Because after the mahogany loggers open these roads, these roads are there for the use of speculators, colonists, cattle ranchers, and so the frontier of the deforested area is being each time more open.

WELNA: What's more, none of the mahogany is being replanted, and some species in the Amazon are now near extinction. Efforts to grow the tree on plantations have been hampered by a scourge of defoliating moths. So Greenpeace and 70 other Brazilian organizations are demanding a moratorium on mahogany logging here, and on consumption of mahogany abroad. The United States buys 40 percent of Brazil's exported mahogany; much of the rest goes to Great Britain. Uncertainties continue about just what Brazil's new environmental ministry will do, or not do, to save the Amazon. But in the meantime, some significant action, such as a mahogany boycott, is possible outside Brazil -- depending on the kinds of wood one buys at the local furniture store. For Living on Earth, I'm David Welna in Rio de Janeiro.



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