Thu, Jul 07, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Shrinking Amazon fuels paranoia of invasion

AP , Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

"There's a lot of suspicion of science or money coming from outside," Fearnside said. "It affects conservation. It prevents a lot of things from happening that might be done."

Despite great expectations for the rainforest, it remains mostly empty. The Amazon is home to only about 10 million of Brazil's 183 million people -- most Brazilians live far away, in the big cities of the south and the Atlantic coast.

For years, foreigners have tried and failed to strike it rich in what Brazilians often call the "green hell."

In the 1920s and 1930s, US tycoon Henry Ford spent US$20 million on a massive project to harvest rubber, only to see it fail when the trees were ravaged by leaf blight.

In the 1980s, automaker Volkswagen undertook a project for large-scale cattle ranching in Para state. It also failed, despite billions of dollars in tax breaks, because of high operating costs and poor infrastructure.

Perhaps the most ambitious project was conceived by US billionaire Daniel K. Ludwig, who shipped a floating pulp mill and a factory all the way from Japan -- only to discover that the jungle was inhospitable to the huge monoculture of gmelina trees planted to produce high-quality paper.

Ludwig turned the project over to a Brazilian consortium in 1981, which paid nothing but assumed the project's massive debt.

Today the Amazon is being invaded by soybeans. Environmentalists say soybean farming has driven up the price of deforested land, encouraging cattle ranchers to sell their pastures and head deeper into the jungle, clearing forest and selling the wood to loggers.

But Brazilian businessmen backing the soy expansion blame criticism on outside meddling.

"Behind the environmental concerns are economic interests. They are trying to impede or slow the growth of Brazilian production," Mato Grosso state Governor Blairo Maggi -- who is also one of the world's largest soybean producers -- said in 2003.

Albert Fishlow, director of the Institute for Latin American Studies at Columbia University in New York, said that although the Amazon remains desperately poor, Brazilians still see it as the land where millions of dollars can be made and live in fear that someone other than Brazil will get that money.

Fishlow called the theory of a foreign conspiracy politically convenient.

"These kinds of things have a way of emerging exactly when there's a frustration," he said. "It lets people focus, lets them see that Brazil is being saved from the rest of the world."

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