INTERNATIONAL

Scores held over destruction of Amazon

DENUDING THE EARTH: An aerial view of an area deforested by soybean farmers in Novo Progreso, Brazil, in this September 2004 file photo. — PHOTO: AP

DENUDING THE EARTH: An aerial view of an area deforested by soybean farmers in Novo Progreso, Brazil, in this September 2004 file photo. — PHOTO: AP  

Gareth Chetwynd

RIO DE JANEIRO: Brazil mounted its biggest swoop against environmental criminals this week as 85 persons, including 48 officials, were arrested and accused of allowing the illegal extraction of enough Amazon timber to fill 66,000 giant logging trucks.

Turning a blind eye

Those arrested included a forestry director with the national environmental agency and the Environment Secretary of the Mato Grosso, a State whose Government has been accused of turning a blind eye to environmental devastation to feed a boom in soya farming and cattle ranching.

Federal police agents unearthed evidence of an extensive logging racket whereby officials issued permits classifying swaths of forest as savannah, permitting loggers and farmers to destroy it as though it had never existed.

The investigation also uncovered the industrial-scale falsification of documents to disguise the origin of timber, some of which was exported.

Police said the gang had logged and shipped 1.9 million cubic metres of timber, worth an estimated $370 million.

In May, Brazil recorded its second highest annual rate of deforestation, confounding government predictions. The forest retreated by 16,000 sqkm, with almost half of that in Mato Grosso State.

Most of the arrests made this week were in Mato Grosso, whose Soya-farming Governor, Blairo Maggi, has emerged as the emblem of Brazil's breakneck deforestation.

Among those apprehended was Mr. Maggi's Environment Secretary, Hugo Jose Scheuer Werle.

Conservationists welcomed the arrests, but called for the operation to be extended to other Amazon states.

They pointed out that President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had only spurred his Government into action in the wake of a string of critical press reports.

Some analysts believe that Brazil's environmental record has also begun to threaten the President's efforts to win concessions against U.S. and E.U. farm subsidies.

Robert Smeraldi, the director of Friends of the Earth in Brazil, said: ``The motives may not be simple, but there is suddenly a political will to put people in prison for illegal logging, and that is new.'' — © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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