A Protected Forest's Fast Decline

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 6, 2009

BOM FUTURO NATIONAL FOREST, Brazil -- Antonio Elson Portela had already passed acres of charred stumps and rows of corn and coffee plants when he drove up behind a flatbed truck hauling logs out of this Amazonian forest.

It was yet another affront to Portela, an environmental official responsible for protecting this rapidly dwindling national forest from settlers and loggers, but both Portela and the truck driver knew where things stood. The driver leaned out and smiled and waved, casually. Portela gripped the steering wheel and flushed.

"I want to do something," he said. "But there is nothing I can do."

Brazil is considered a world leader in conserving its environmental bounty. The federal government late last year set ambitious goals to reduce deforestation by 70 percent over the next decade. It has demarcated more than 300,000 square miles as federally protected areas, a territory more than twice the size of the U.S. national park system.

But as the case of Bom Futuro National Forest shows, such designations do not always prevent, or even slow, the destruction of the rain forest. Here, across 700,000 acres of Amazon rain forest in the western Brazilian state of Rondonia, poverty pushes settlers in search of new lands, and any attempt by the government to interrupt their destiny has met with resentment and an adamant refusal to leave.

Across the Amazon, such development pressures are challenging Brazil's aspirations to halt the destruction of the world's largest rain forest. The stakes are particularly high not only because of the rich biological diversity and immense freshwater resources found here, but also because the rain forest plays an important role in removing gases from the atmosphere that contribute to global warming. Scientists say about one-fifth of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from cutting down rain forests, and much of that from the Amazon. Brazil is one of the world's top four emitters of greenhouse gases. More than 4,600 square miles of the Amazon was deforested last year.

In Bom Futuro, settlers and prospectors have carved out a hard living by cutting trees, despite environmental rules that declare their very presence illegal. And a combination of pressures -- farming, logging, cattle ranching, road-building, hunting -- and the speed of the forest's disappearance have brought Bom Futuro to the top of the government's environmental agenda.

Through last May, Bom Futuro had lost nearly 170,000 acres of forest, roughly a quarter of the park. At the current rate of deforestation, environmental officials estimate, half the forest will be pasture in five more years. By 2021, it will be all gone.

"This is a very serious case. It's an example of total destruction of a protected area," said Brazilian Environment Minister Carlos Minc. "We intend to take out the cattle. Remove the trucks that are taking the wood illegally."

Last summer, the Environment Ministry and local environmental authorities drafted an aggressive plan to use military and police to relocate some of the park's roughly 3,000 residents and 50,000 cattle. The 83-page "evacuation plan," intended to "reverse the alarming scene of environmental degradation," said it would be "difficult or impossible" to achieve any of the recovery plans without first throwing out the settlers. The plan also calls for erecting border checkpoints to control traffic into the park and reforesting degraded land.

Although environmental officials expect some form of the plan to begin soon, Minc has recently proposed adding new protected territory outside the forest to make up for cleared land and to avoid a confrontation with residents. "No one in their right mind thinks that we will go there with tractors and knock down the churches, the schools and the city itself. We are not going to do this," he said. "We will not remove the people living inside of it."

Inside Bom Futuro, the threat of action has nevertheless angered and worried the settlers, who have banded together in rejection of any effort to make them or their livestock budge. This is a ragtag group, self-made and sunburned, living obstinately off-grid. With no government to provide services, they pool money to build roads and schools. They consider themselves producers not profiteers, but an outlaw ethos prevails, and justice here can get ugly.

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