Brazil has created two new national parks in the Amazon rainforest and expanded another to preserve an environmentally sensitive region next to where the government plans to pave a major road. The protected area is roughly twice the size of Belgium.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva signed a decree placing 1.5 million hectares of rainforest completely off limits for development, in a surprise ceremony late on Monday.
"This is very important and should be celebrated," said Environment Minister Marina Silva, who is not related to the president.
The president also created four national forests where sustainable logging will be permitted and an environmental protection zone where development is allowed under strict regulation.
In total, the decree granted some form of environmental protection to 6.4 million hectares on the western side of the so-far unpaved BR-163 highway.
The controversial highway, stretching from the midwestern city of Cuiaba to the jungle port of Santarem, cuts through the heart of the rainforest and environmentalists warn that paving it will open a swath of destruction across the world's largest remaining tropical wilderness.
The protected land lies in an area where the president declared a logging moratorium after the killing last year of US nun and environmental defender Dorothy Stang.
Stang, who spent the last 23 years of her life defending poor communities against the loggers and land grabbers who abound in the Amazon, was killed in a land dispute with a rancher on Feb. 12.
Her killing sparked an international uproar, and within days the government declared the creation of two massive national parks and two reserve areas where people can live as long as they don't damage the forest -- along with the logging moratorium along the BR-163.
Two gunmen have been convicted for Stang's killing and two ranchers are awaiting trial on charges of ordering her death.
On Tuesday, David Stang, the brother of the slain nun, praised the new forest as "a great victory."
"Dorothy is still having an enormous influence in Brazil," he said from his home near Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Environmentalists offered more measured praise.
"The moratorium proved to be effective because it gave the state power to act against those who thought they could illegally seize public lands," said Claudio Maretti, coordinator of protected areas for the World Wide Fund for Nature in Brazil. "But the government should be quicker to declare protected areas in other regions."
The moratorium was decreed to give the government time to decide how to zone the area along the BR-163 highway before paving would begin.
Soy farmers, who have been expanding rapidly into the Amazon in recent years, want the highway paved as a way to speed their shipments abroad.
Environmentalists, however, estimate that each road cut into the rainforest causes destruction for 48km on each side within a few years as invaders arrive to cut trees.
"At least these areas were created. The next step is implementation," said Paulo Adario, director of Greenpeace's Amazon campaign.
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