Brazil moves to protect rainforest

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The Independent Online
Dramatic new measures to save the Amazonian rainforest have been decreed by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil. They offer the best hope yet both for the world's biggest rainforest and for controlling the international mahogany trade.

The decrees follow alarmingevidence that deforestation in Amazonia is accelerating, and mark Brazil's first top-level acknowledgement of the scale of the crisis. Environmentalists hailed them last week as "of potentially massive significance".

A two-year moratorium will be imposed on felling mahogany and virola, Brazil's two most important tropical hardwood trees, and the proportion of privately-owned rainforest land that can be logged for any species has been cut from a half to a fifth. The decrees, which apply to 10 Brazilian states covering virtually all Amazonia, follow satellite evidence that the rate of rainforest destruction has jumped by a third since 1991. This so alarmed Gustavo Kraus, Brazil's environment minister, and Luis Felipe Lampreia, its foreign minister,that they prevailed upon President Cardoso to act.

This marks a change of policy by Brazil, which has traditionally played down the danger to the rainforest, and is likely to have worldwide repercussions for the mahogany trade. Brazil blocked international agreement two years ago on regulating trade in the wood under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. But the regulation proposal will come up again at the next meeting of the convention in 1997, and Brazil now seems unlikely to repeat its opposition.

Environmentalists are concerned that the decrees could be overturned by the Brazilian congress, and point out that enforcement is notoriously difficult in the rainforest. But Charles Secrett, executive director of Friends of the Earth, who has long campaigned on the issue in both Britain and Brazil, described them yesterday as "a very important development". He added: "There has never been anything like this before. Brazil has now recognised the problem at its most senior level for the first time. If this is the future, it is very good news."

Following Friends of the Earth campaigns, imports of Brazilian mahogany to Britain have dropped by nearly two-thirds, to 18,000 tons a year, over the past five years.

So far about half the world's original rainforest is thought to have been felled, and most of what remains is in the Amazon basin, where it covers an area two-thirds the size of the United States. But vast as it is, Amazonia has come under increasing pressure: some 30 million acres of forest in the state of Rondonia, on the Bolivian border - about half its original cover - has been destroyed or severely degraded in recent years.

The main threat to the rainforest comes from poor farmers - some 150 million worldwide - who cut down the trees to clear land to grow food for their families. Since rainforest soil is poor, it is soon exhausted, and they move on and fell more trees. This problem can only be tackled by attacking poverty, for instance by land reform to give the farmers better land elsewhere.

The second biggest cause of deforestation is logging for timber. If small patches are cleared at a time, the forest can regenerate and provide a constant income, but instead vast areas are usually felled to maximise short-term returns and the rainforest cannot recover.