Sun, May 18, 2008 - Page 7 News List

FEATURE: Locals denounce Brazil's handling of logging raid


Sergio Tavares Araujo, 40, right, and his wife gather wood at the Santo Antonio sawmill in Tailandia, Brazil, on May 11.


Acrid smoke from making charcoal blankets this Amazon logging town with the smell of business as usual.

Less than three months ago, federal agents swooped in to close sawmills, confiscate wood and smash charcoal furnaces in a government crackdown on illegal logging.

But tractors are moving logs again in Tailandia, as Brazil’s renowned environment minister resigned this week, and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva met on Friday with leaders seeking to combat climate change.

Locals are back to turning wood scraps into charcoal.

“It’s starting up again, but it’s not like it was, and nobody knows for how long,” said Zenito Santiago de Souza, 44, who lost his job in the raid. “They’re saying the police are coming back on the 20th.”

Operation Arc of Fire was rolled out after satellite data in January projected a 34 percent spike in Amazon destruction — a political embarrassment for Silva after three consecutive years of decline.

But with 70 percent of jobs in the area tied to logging, the raid left behind widespread unemployment and crime.

Environment Minister Marina Silva, no relation to the president, resigned on Tuesday, apparently in despair over the obstacles she faced in policing places like Tailandia. She also criticized the government’s failure to provide sustainable alternatives to illegal logging.

Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon region, an area larger than Western Europe, releases an estimated 400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, making Brazil the world’s sixth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

February’s crackdown initially enraged residents. About 2,000 protesters burned tires, blocked roads and forced environmental workers to flee before heavily armed federal police restored order.

Sawmills working without registration lost their machinery or were shut. Registered sawmills that could not prove the origin of their wood were fined.

“Pretty much everyone was fined. Only one guy wasn’t fined, but I think they came back and fined him later,” said Flavio Sufredini, who runs a sawmill caught with illegal wood.

It’s nearly impossible to work legally in a region where the majority of land has no clear owner, he said. Loggers must provide land titles to receive logging permits.

“The guy who doesn’t have any title to the land just cuts it all down because the land doesn’t even belong to him, and so there’s nobody to fine,” Sufredini said. “It’s the guys trying to operate legally that are punished.”

Brazil’s environmental agency handed out more than US$25 million in fines. It now reports an 80 percent drop in deforestation in three Amazon states.

But environmentalists warn that the number is unreliable because little logging occurs between December and June, when conditions are too wet.

The government program Arc of Green will provide credit and assistance to rural landholders seeking to develop their land in sustainable ways, said Governor Ana Julia Carepa of the Para state, where Tailandia is located.

But Joao Medeiros, president of the Tailandia Union of Logging Industries, said the government should have offered those measures before the crackdown.

“I’d say seven out of 10 loggers want to work legally, but the government doesn’t have enough staff to approve management plans quickly,” Medeiros said. “And people are not going to go hungry waiting.”

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