Tensions Over Protecting the Amazon Rain Forest

Brazilian farmers complain about a government campaign against illegal deforestation.

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva (R) with former Environment Minister Marina Silva at the opening ceremony for the 'Maintainable Program for the Amazon'.

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva (R) with former Environment Minister Marina Silva at the opening ceremony for the 'Maintainable Program for the Amazon'.

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Alta Floresta, Brazil—Here, around this remote city in central-western Brazil, the country's growing agricultural prowess is colliding with efforts to protect the Amazon rain forest from unauthorized eradication.

Tensions over that clash of interests have intensified in recent months after the surprising news that, after three years of declines, deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon had accelerated in the last half of 2007. And this week, Brazil's high profile Environment Minister, Marina Silva resigned, saying that she didn't have sufficient political backing to protect the Amazon against powerful business interests and their supporters in the government. It's not immediately clear how her departure—she will still push on environmental issues from her seat in Brazil's senate—will alter current policies, but environmentalists said they have lost their main champion in the government.

Reacting to the report of accelerating rain forest loss, Brazil's environmental agency, known as Ibama, has launched a tough enforcement campaign against illegal deforestation known as "Operation Arc of Fire." Since February, the federal police presence in this area and others where significant parcels of forest and farmland meet has grown noticeably. Millions of dollars of fines have been levied, deforestation suspects arrested, and tons of suspect-origin lumber impounded.

Brazilian environmental officials and ecology activists consider the effort critical to slowing further encroachment on rain forest, protecting the Amazon's major biodiversity, and combating global warming. It also comes as environmentalists and an industry group are reporting success in discouraging recently cut forest land from being used to produce soybeans. A two-year moratorium on the purchase of such soy was negotiated by the ecology group Greenpeace and major commodity companies, including U.S.-based Bunge, Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland, cooperated on that moratorium.

On the government's new enforcement campaign, however, many local farmers and ranchers, with the backing of their local and state officials, are crying foul. They say that it has been unnecessarily heavy-handed and, in some cases, misguided after satellite photos of deforestation were misinterpreted. Tree-clearing seen by the authorities as recent and illegal had taken place long before relevant restrictions were put in place, say farmers and ranchers. They have found a sympathetic ear in the powerful governor of Mato Grosso state, Blairo Maggi.

The government, says rancher and fruit grower Leocir Jose Dellani, should focus on "rebuilding the environment and not giving fines." Dellani, a former Alta Floresta environmental official, spoke as a half dozen Brazilian federal agents lunched at the next table of a local restaurant here—a reminder of the intense crackdown underway in the region.

Many of the ranchers and farmers in this part of Mato Grosso state were originally drawn to the area by the Brazilian military government of many years ago. The military was determined to populate some of the area in an effort to secure it permanently. Having heeded the call (and responded to incentives) to come to the area, many of the locals now feel they have been characterized as villains by Brazilian environmental officials and international opinion alike. Dellani described a pervasive "feeling of being treated like a criminal."

That attitude may not bode well over the long run. Winning over the ranchers and farmers operating in or near the Amazon could be the key to sparing more actual rain forest—and reforesting some of what's been lost.