In the Amazon: conservation or colonialism?

Posted in Latin America , Other | 27-Jul-07 | Author: Larry Rohter| Source: International Herald Tribune

The Anavilhanas Nature Reserve on the Rio Negro, one of the conservation areas in the Amazon Region Protected Areas program in Brazil.

ANAVILHANAS ECOLOGICAL STATION, Brazil: Depending on one's point of view, the World Wildlife Fund's financial support of a nature reserve here on the Rio Negro is either part of a laudable attempt to conserve the Amazon jungle — or the leading edge of a nefarious plot by foreign environmental groups to wrest control of the world's largest rain forest from Brazil and replace it with international rule.

In 2003, after signing an agreement with the WWF and the World Bank, the Brazilian government created the Amazon Region Protected Areas program. Since then, more than a score of national parks and reserves covering an area larger than New York, New Jersey and Connecticut combined have been brought into that network and provided with an infusion of new funds.

The program's objective is to set up "a core system to anchor bio-diversity protection for the Amazon," Matthew Perl, the WWF's Amazon coordinator, said during a June visit to the area, a sparsely populated archipelago of 400 islands northwest of Manaus. "It's part of a strategy to buy time, bring each protected area up to certain standards of management and pool resources for monitoring and enforcement."

But that effort has aroused the suspicions of powerful business and political groups in Brazil that want to integrate the Amazon into the country's economy through dams, mining projects, highways, ports, logging and agricultural exports.

"This is a new form of colonialism, an open conspiracy in which economic and financial interests act through nongovernmental organizations," said Lorenzo Carrasco, editor and co-author of "The Green Mafia," a widely circulated anti-environmentalist polemic. "It is evident these interests want to block the development of Brazil and the Amazon region by creating and controlling these reserves, which are full of minerals and other valuable natural resources."

Such views are widely held in Brazil, cutting across regional and class lines. In a survey of 2,000 people in 143 cities conducted in person in 2005 by the country's leading polling organization, Ibope, 75 percent said that Brazil's natural riches could provoke a foreign invasion, and nearly three out of five distrusted the activities of environmental groups.

Winning the battle for Brazilian public opinion is crucial to any global effort to preserve the environment and, by extension, curb climate change. Brazil is the world's fourth largest producer of the principal greenhouse gases; more than three-quarters of those emissions result from deforestation, most of which occurs here in the Amazon.

But the notion that foreigners covet the Amazon has long been widespread in Brazil, fed in part by anxiety about the central government's tenuous control of the region. Those concerns have been exacerbated in recent years by the Internet, which has become a home for fabricated documents and declarations meant to convince Brazilians that their sovereignty is at risk.

The most notorious example is a widely reproduced map supposedly used in an American middle-school geography textbook. Rife with misspellings and errors of syntax of a type common to speakers of Romance languages like Portuguese, it shows the Amazon as an "international reserve," and describes Brazilians as "monkeys" incapable of managing the rain forest.

Other spurious documents say that both President Bush and Al Gore made speeches during the 2000 presidential campaign in favor of wresting the Amazon from Brazil. Elsewhere, the documents quote an apocryphal American general, who leads an agency that the Pentagon says does not exist, as saying, "In the event Brazil decides to use the Amazon in a way that puts the environment of the United States at risk, we must be ready to interrupt that process immediately."

Since the Iraq war began, accusations of American military designs on the Amazon are often invoked to denigrate environmentalists and their complaints about government policy. At hearings late last year on a proposed dam on the Madeira River, proponents distributed a map showing what they said were American "forward-operations locations" in the region meant to block Brazil's development, including military bases and advisers in Bolivia and Venezuela, two countries not exactly on friendly terms with the Bush administration.

Some of the material circulating has been traced to right-wing nationalist groups sympathetic to the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. But in an unusual instance of former adversaries agreeing, organizations on the extreme left — even in the governing Workers' Party — have also endorsed the notion of a foreign plot to seize the Amazon, as have some active duty segments of the military.

"Everything indicates that the environmental and indigenous problems are merely pretexts," said a recent Brazilian military intelligence report, which was made available to The New York Times by a Brazilian who received a copy and who was concerned at the views expressed. "The main NGO's are, in reality, pieces in the great game in which the hegemonic powers are engaged to maintain and augment their domination. Certainly, they serve as cover for those secret services."

In reality, Mr. Perl, the WWF coordinator, said, his organization hopes merely to create a buffer around the nature reserve here through the creation of a larger "Rio Negro Conservation Bloc." He said the idea was to protect the existing reserve by helping existing Indian reservations, state parks and nature reserves along the banks of the river to operate more effectively.

By 2012, Mr. Perl said, his organization and its partners hope to bring an area larger than California into the system. A fund administered by a Brazilian foundation that aims to raise $390 million and includes donations from the German government and others has been created.

In the mid-1990s, part of the area surrounding the archipelago was in fact declared a state park. But little was done to make that decree effective, and since then the federal government's land-reform agency has settled 700 peasant families here and the Brazilian Navy, Marines and police have set up jungle training centers in the protected area.

"There is layer upon layer of claims, plan upon plan, and so this has become an area of conflict," said Thiago Mota Cardoso, who monitors the park for the Institute for Ecological Research, one of the WWF's regional partners. "It is ironic that this land belongs to the federal government, and yet the government does nothing."