The Washington Post
March 23, 1999
Killing the Forest for the Trees
Brazil's Diseased Economy Infects Its Sensitive Ecosystem

                  By Anthony Faiola
                  Washington Post Staff Writer
                  Tuesday, March 23, 1999; Page A11

                  UNA BIOLOGICAL PRESERVE, Brazil—In this strip of the Atlantic
                  Rain Forest in northeastern Brazil, the calls of fluorescent toads and
                  golden-faced monkeys echo through the dense undergrowth. Black
                  millipedes waltz on ferns below the vivid green canopy. From this
                  perspective, one of the most endangered ecosystems in the Western
                  hemisphere seems an enclave far away from man-made Brazil.

                  But just across the river bordering the 7,000-acre nature preserve, the air
                  is pungent with the smell of burnt wood. Pinched by Brazil's financial crisis
                  and deepening recession, nearby landowners are stepping up the illegal
                  practices of logging and burning forest for pasture and cropland.

                  They are now cutting into the sensitive buffer zones abutting pristine jungle.
                  Three weeks ago, Fernando Gomes, mayor of the nearby town of Itabuna,
                  illegally logged 124 acres just across from the preserve, federal authorities

                  The mayor's property, part of the habitat of a primate species with fewer
                  than 400 members left in the wild, was among the sites to be studied for
                  long-term preservation of sensitive land in this forest, which has been
                  reduced to 7 percent of its original size in the past 200 years. But the
                  Brazilian government slashed funding for the project, and for more
                  enforcement officers, as part of millions of dollars in environmental
                  spending cuts forced this year by the continuing economic crisis.

                  "The crisis has made me even more pessimistic about the future of the
                  environment here," said Paulo Paiva, a local director of the federal
                  government's environmental enforcement arm, whose 1999 budget was
                  reduced by 19 percent.

                  "It's not just that we don't have enough resources to do the job. Yesterday,
                  we caught a small farmer selling illegal timber from his land that a year ago
                  would fetch [$250], but now he was only asking [$20]. He said he needed
                  money to feed his family, but feeding his family means cutting down even
                  more forest than before."

                  The situation in the Atlantic Rain Forest, which environmentalists rank with
                  the jungle of Madagascar as the Earth's most threatened, underscores the
                  degree to which the economic troubles of Latin America's largest nation
                  are undermining efforts to protect its environment.

                  A cash-strapped government and greater human need -- and, in some
                  cases, greed -- are combining to reverse the ecological gains made in
                  recent years in a country that has historically been one of the world's
                  principal environmental battlegrounds.

                  International environmentalists consider Brazil to be perhaps the world's
                  most ecologically important nation -- harboring the richest diversity and
                  number of plant and animal species and representing 30 percent of the
                  Earth's rain forest. Its jungles play a major role in absorbing the
                  "greenhouse gases" linked to global climate change.

                  Brazil's mysterious forests are also believed to hold the keys to developing
                  drugs to fight human ailments from headaches to cancer. They also shelter
                  tribes of indigenous peoples -- including some "discovered" in only the past
                  two decades.

                  Despite its historic suspicion of outside efforts to protect Brazil's forest
                  lands, the government has begun to work out compromises with
                  environmentalists in recent years aimed at preventing reckless

                  Now, however, the budget squeeze at the federal and state levels has
                  reduced spending by as much as 78 percent on several projects
                  considered essential to protecting not only the Atlantic Rain Forest but also
                  the much larger Amazon jungle to the northwest.

                  The cuts, environmentalists say, may also mean that Brazil could lose
                  additional millions in international matching funds for a number of
                  eco-projects. Deputy Environmental Minister Jose Carlos Carvalho said in
                  an interview that the government is doing "everything it can" to preserve
                  environmental spending at a time of severe budget pressures.

                  Its foreign lenders, including the International Monetary Fund and the U.S.
                  Treasury, have insisted that Brazil reduce its bloated budget deficit. In the
                  two months since Brazil devalued its currency, the real, the turmoil here has
                  sent the currency nose-diving 40 percent and driven up unemployment and

                  Carvalho said the government has tried to limit cuts to a few select
                  programs, while succeeding in allocating millions of dollars to several new
                  projects. "It's not just the environment," he said. "There have had to be
                  adjustments in all kinds of spending to keep the stability of the real."

                  But environmentalists, while lauding the efforts of Brazil's environment
                  ministry to preserve spending during the crisis, say the cuts threaten the
                  gains of recent years. They also worry about renewed pressures from
                  logging and farming.

                  "Our biggest worry now is that the government is going to lose control of
                  attempts to control deforestation," said Gustavo Fonseca, director of the
                  Center for Biological Science at Washington-based Conservation
                  International. "This is undermining the very basis for what
                  [environmentalists] have been trying to accomplish in Brazil."

                  Here in the poor, rural Brazilian northeast, the situation is particularly dire.
                  After decades of rampant deforestation along the Atlantic coast -- once a
                  gigantic stretch of green larger than the Eastern Seaboard of the United
                  States -- the jungle has been reduced to a few surviving patches of pristine
                  forest and regenerating, secondary growth.

                  Even before Brazil's recent economic slowdown, this region in southern
                  Bahia state was facing tough times. The major crop, cacao -- the plant
                  used to make chocolate -- has been crippled in the 1990s by a virulent
                  fungus and low commodity prices. That has brought high unemployment
                  among the laborers who used to toil on the large plantations here.

                  The recession has contracted the job market in general, and many laborers
                  have turned to clearing larger areas of jungle for subsistence farming and
                  pasture to survive, local environmentalists and enforcement authorities say.
                  Environmentalists had succeeded in recent years in lobbying for laws that
                  forbid such practices, but finding and prosecuting violators is difficult, local
                  authorities say.

                  Joaquim Blanes Jorda, an agronomist with the Social Environmental
                  Institute of Southern Bahia, had hoped to encourage landowners and small
                  farmers to plant alternative "eco-friendly" crops, such as cupuacu, which
                  can be grown in the jungle without clearing large tracts of land. Its fruit can
                  be used to make a powder whose taste resembles that of chocolate, he

                  Standing in his experimental greenhouse about 15 miles from the Una
                  preserve, one of the few parcels of jungle not in private hands, he pointed
                  to the little cupuacu plants, which look like pale green poinsettias and
                  lamented elimination of funding for the project in the 1999 federal budget.

                  "It's frustrating" he said. "But I'm not going to just let this idea die. I'm going
                  to talk to the farmers anyway and see what I can do on my own."

                  One of the farmers he would like to win over is Eufrasio Chaves da Mota,
                  64, who lives in a wooden shack on the edge of the preserve with by his
                  eight children. Family members spend hours each day on the steaming
                  hillsides cultivating the cassava and squash he sells to the middlemen who
                  transport them to town.

                  He said he does not know if they would buy other products from him and
                  is skeptical about the idea. "This is what I know," he said of his current

                  So for now, he burns.

                  On a recent humid evening, he talked by candlelight in the pitch-black
                  night, reluctant to admit that he has been illegally clearing land for cattle and
                  new crops. He said government officials came and asked him to stop the
                  fires, but he said he cannot, because the soil is not good for raising grass
                  and other crops. In addition, fire is the cheapest way to clear land to
                  sustain his family, especially now that prices are going up for such
                  essentials as gas and batteries.

                  He respects the forest, he said. In fact, one of his sons is an employee at
                  the nearby reserve. But "fertilizer is just too expensive," said Chaves. "And
                  you know, we've got to eat."

                           © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company