BRASILIA (Reuters) -- Brazil said on Thursday it was suspending all new
permits for clearing land in the Amazon River basin, a day after reporting
that the rate at which the world's biggest rain forest is being destroyed
jumped nearly 30 percent last year.
The Environment Ministry said it would review all existing permits to cut
down trees in the region, pursue irregularities in court and compile a list of
cleared areas covering more than about 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares),
where it would "intervene immediately" to fight the "champions of
The announcement was made in a statement, and no one was available for
comment at the ministry.
But an official at the Brazilian Environment Institute, which is responsible
overseeing the Amazon, told Reuters the move was a response to
preliminary data, announced on Wednesday, showing that an area more than
half the size of Belgium -- 6,500 square miles (16,800 square km) -- was
totally cleared in 1998.
"This might help slow down the rate of deforestation," said the official,
asked not to be named. "It will depend on how long the suspension lasts and
whether the government really brings people breaking the law to book."
The Brazilian government has announced an array of measures over the last
few years in a bid to bring the destruction of the Amazon region under
control, but to little effect.
The latest move comes just a few weeks after Jose Sarney Filho, the son
a former president, took over the Environment Ministry with promises to
come to grips with deforestation.
The figures announced on Wednesday represented a 27 percent increase
from 1997 -- when the equivalent of 5,000 soccer fields of jungle were lost
every day, according to one estimate -- but were slightly lower than in 1996.
The 1998 figures, however, did not include damage from the massive fires
that raged between January and March in Roraima state on Brazil's border
with Venezuela, destroying as much as 4,250 square miles (11,000 square
km) of forest and savanna, according to separate government estimates.
Environmental groups, speaking before Thursday's announcement by the
Environment Ministry, said the numbers showed Brazil had to act quickly to
stop deforestation from soaring.
"We weren't surprised at the numbers," said Garo Batmanian, executive
director of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
He said several anti-deforestation measures announced amid fanfare by the
government had been implemented only partially or not at all.
A plan announced by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso last April to
protect 10 percent of the Amazon rain forest has been put on hold after
$300,000 in World Bank funding was delayed by Brazilian government
"But the real problem is that the policy-makers have not yet understood
the environment has to be a factor in all its policies," Batmanian said.
"There's no point in the environment minister flying about in a helicopter
crack down on deforestation if the land reform minister is settling landless
people right in the middle of the jungle," he said.
Joao Paulo Capobianco, executive secretary of the Socio-environmental
Institute in Sao Paulo, said deforestation might rise again in 1999, since
Brazil last year relaxed rules on the use of fire to clear land and reduced the
amount of land farmers must keep as nature preserves.
Those changes were made in August and November, so their impact will be
felt fully this year, Capobianco said.
"As well as failing to control deforestation, the government is taking
measures that actually contradict its attempts to preserve the Amazon," he
Copyright 1999 Reuters.