Amazon Destruction Continues as Leaders Talk Thu Aug 22,10:07 PM ET By Axel Bugge
PARAGOMINAS, Brazil (Reuters) - Under cover of a misty tropical night an unlicensed truck transporting vast tree trunks trundles along the main road not far from Paragominas, once the largest logging center in the Amazon.
A police car flags down the truck and the logs are confiscated. It marks a tiny victory in the colossal effort to save the Amazon -- the world's largest tropical forest, which is home to up to 30 percent of its plant and animal species and covers an area larger than all of Western Europe.
For environmentalists, Paragominas -- a town founded in 1965 and now home to 75,000 people -- is a sort of epicenter of Amazon destruction. It was precisely the kind of place that world leaders wanted to prevent from developing when they met in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 for the Earth Summit.
As it turned out, between 1992 and the meeting to be held in South Africa next week at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, nearly everything went wrong in Paragominas.
In the boom days of the early 1990s, the town was turning out an estimated $1 billion of tropical timber a year (out of a total from the Brazilian ( news - web sites) Amazon of about $2.5 billion) and there were more than 200 sawmills operating, generating 7,000 jobs.
Now, in this area which was blanketed by thick forest 20 years ago, there is no virgin forest on the horizon as far as the eye can see. Instead, there are unused fields of tall grass, the occasional burned-out tree, and a graveyard of shut-down sawmills with rotting old logs strewn across their grounds and languishing wooden shacks where the timber used to be cut.
"This is all over for us now, all the wood has been cut," said Mauricio Andre Hubner, whose father arrived here in 1981 from southern Brazil. About three months ago, the Hubner family's sawmill became the latest in Paragominas to shut down, leaving about 60 remaining.
Paragominas has come so far in its cycle of boom and bust that even local politicians -- who in the past had few incentives to question the logging that was making their towns rich overnight -- have woken up.
"SYMBOL OF VIOLENCE AND DEVASTATION"
Mayor Sidney Rosa wrote in a newsletter that Paragominas had become a "symbol of violence and devastation."
The forest's destruction, which amounts to about 15 percent of the whole Amazon since the mid-70s, continues unabated and still claims an area about half the size of Belgium every year.
While there are still large tracts of tropical forests standing in southeast Asia and the Congo basin in Africa, environmentalists focus on the Amazon's importance because its destruction is relatively new.
The Amazon basin, which extends to neighboring countries like Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela as well, represents about 40 percent of the world's remaining tropical forests.
Paulo Barreto, executive director of the Institute of Man and the Environment of the Amazon (IMAZON) -- whose environmental agency has produced leading research on Paragominas and the Amazon -- is a worried man.
"There is a strong risk that the paradigm of Paragominas will be repeated in the new frontiers," Barreto said.
The 'new frontiers' sends shivers down the spines of environmentalists. These are virgin forest areas hundreds of miles further into the depths of the Amazon than the 'old frontiers' of Paragominas and other timber towns along what is known as the 'arc of deforestation' -- which stretches along the Amazon's outer borders.
"Everybody here knew it was going to end one day," said Adriano D'Agnoluzzo, a manager at Floraplac -- Paragominas' largest private sector employer, which produces plywood. "If the same example of deforestation is followed in the new frontiers, the same will happen there as it has over here."
There are some reasons for optimism, such as a huge radar system to monitor the Amazon which was inaugurated this year and which environmentalists hope can be used to improve monitoring of forest destruction. Also, IMAZON and other environmental groups are working hard to introduce sustainable logging, which includes careful cutting which can maintain the forests.
Another key achievement has been the Pilot Program to Conserve the Brazilian Rain Forests, which includes Brazil's government, donors from the G7 industrial countries and the European Union ( news - web sites) and was set up in 1992. It has channelled $350 million to conserving the Amazon, and has made notable achievements such as demarcating Indian lands equivalent to the size of Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined.
But there are many reasons for fearing things will go badly. A big worry is a government plan -- the first in two decades -- to substantially develop the road network in the Amazon.
ROADS TO COVER ALL AMAZON?
An article published in U.S. journal Science has warned that up to 42 percent of the Amazon could disappear if the road plans go ahead, although the government has promised to do an environmental impact study.
It was the completion, in 1960, of the first major Amazon road, which runs from the capital Brasilia to Belem at the mouth of the Amazon River, that spurred the development of cities like Paragominas in the 'arc of deforestation' in Para state.
Meanwhile, the southwest of Para -- the second largest region in Brazil's Amazon -- has already turned into "something comparable to the Wild West," according to Luis Ercilio do Carmo Faria, the state's executive director for the environment.
Reports of corruption, lawlessness and an influx of immigrants as they descend on this 'new frontier' to cut down trees are now increasingly common, as loggers hope for a repeat of the quick riches they made in the old timber areas.
One common Amazon tree is worth more than $1,000 -- almost an annual Brazilian minimum salary. The wood from a mahogany tree -- the most valuable Amazon species -- can fetch $20,000.
Illegal mahogany logging in this region helped spur Greenpeace to stage a huge campaign, which resulted in Brazil's government stopping all mahogany logging and the European Union suspending all imports of the wood from Brazil. That has helped prompt the government to set up a task force including the army and environmental agencies to control the region.
But Carmo Faria is tranquil, saying the much greater awareness and presence of the state in the new frontiers guarantees that there will be no repeat of Paragominas. "Comparatively, it will not be so violent because the state is present," he says. "It will be much easier to control."
Still, in slum neighborhoods on the outskirts of Belem, there are shops advertising: "Mahogany furniture for sale."
"Faced with poverty it is very difficult to fight for the environment," says Carmo Faria. "We know our limitations." -- "The earth and myself are of one mind. The measure of the land and the measure of our bodies are the same..." -- Hinmaton Yalatkit, Nez Perce chief ____________________________________________
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