WASHINGTON (AP) -- The largest single commitment to preserve land in the Amazon region of Brazil will take place over the next 10 years, when a minimum of 10 percent of the rain forest will be set aside in an effort to preserve the region's extensive biodiversity.
The area will become some of the most strictly protected land in the history of nature conservation through a program funded by the Washington, D.C.-based Global Environment Facility, the World Wildlife Fund and the Brazilian government.
Brazil has long been known as the most biologically diverse country in the world, but it also has been a prime target for logging and mining companies. They have exploited much of what was pristine wilderness by targeting rare hardwoods and mineral resources.
In the 1970s and 1980s, loggers and farmers cut down or burned vast stretches of the forest. International condemnation since then prompted the government to begin action toward preservation.
Even so, destruction has continued, to the point that illegal logging and farming last year destroyed an area of the Amazon rain forest larger than Hawaii, according to the Brazilian government's annual report on devastation of the world's largest rain forest.
'The lungs of the Earth'
The Amazon ecosystem is the most plant-rich in the world.
"The Brazilian ecosystem is important to the whole world for many reasons," said GEF senior environmental specialist Mario A. Ramos.
"The Amazon is the largest area of continuous tropical rain forest in the world compared with that of the Congo or Indochina. For example, one-fifth of the world's plants are found in the Amazon ecosystem."
One in six of all the world's birds, one in 11 of the world's mammals and one in 15 of the world's reptiles are found in the Amazon ecosystem.
But massive deforestation and development have fouled the environment and jeopardized many plant and animal species.
The GEF says the project will benefit not only the region but the entire world, given the size and importance of the Amazon rain forest's biodiversity.
"The tropical forest keeps a stock of 120 million tons of carbon that are sequestered in that forest, which leads some observers to call the Amazon the lungs of the Earth," said GEF chairman Mohamed T. El-Ashry.
The deforestation of the Amazon and the public outcry that resulted have prompted the government to move toward adopting environmentally friendly policies for sustainable development.
But selection of land for reserves has been controversial, as land and water rights and the interests of local communities have had to be balanced with environmental priorities.
Selection of land for protection under the new program will be based on biological content: Areas with the largest number of species and areas with unique species will be prioritized.
1 protected area larger than Costa Rica
Three percent of Brazil's Amazon region is already set aside as protected reserves, and an additional 28 percent is reserved for the use of indigenous populations.
The first of these sustainable development reserves is Mamiraua, currently the world's largest protected block of rain forest and part of an area of protected wilderness larger than Costa Rica.
It was founded on the basis that the people living in it -- some
20,000 in dozens
of villages -- would be allowed to stay and play a major role in protecting the natural resources.
Harvests in the area have increased, and there are new sources of earnings, such as an ecotourism. And, as the local population has benefited, it has taken responsibility for enforcing conservation laws.
Volunteer guards patrolling the reserve report violations to authorities. Without participation by the local residents, government officials say it would be almost impossible to provide sufficient money and guards to protect the 22,000-plus square mile (57,000-plus square km) reserve.
But the GEF says its project, originally agreed to by Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1998, will be even more strictly protected to preserve its precious biodiversity.
Copyright 2000 The Associated Press.