Bureaucrats fan the flames of Amazonia

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OFFICIALS in the remote Brazilian Amazon jungle state of Roraira, ravaged by wildfires for the past two months, are angry over what they say is a slow response from the federal government in Brasilia.

They say the government has been holding back promised funds for firefighting helicopters and other measures to halt the blaze, which has already charred 22,000 square miles, a quarter of the state's forests. The fires, following the area's worst drought in 30 years, are threatening 15 villages inhabited by hundreds of Yanomami Indians, the world's last surviving Stone Age tribe. The blaze has already wiped out one-third of the state's crops and burnt alive 12,000 cows.

"We want the federal government to release the funds we need to control these fires," Roraira state spokeswoman Consuelo Oliveira told the Associated Press. "So far we haven't seen a penny."

Many Brazilians were already critical of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso over an environment bill passed by Congress last month. The bill imposed strict penalties for several ecological crimes, but after lobbying by wealthy logging companies, Mr Cardoso diluted the bill by vetoing nine articles. One would have handed down three-year prison terms on farmers or loggers who cut or burnt forest areas without permission.

The government is due to announce a new "Green Package" this week, offering farmers incentives to discourage them from the traditional "slash and burn" technique of burning down trees to create farmland.

After delaying statistics for many months, Mr Cardoso's government finally admitted in January that deforestation of Amazonia had reached record levels over the past two years, doubling between 1994 and 1995 alone. One-eighth of Brazil's rainforests has been destroyed, by farmers or loggers chopping down trees for lumber or burning them to create cattle pastures or farmland, over the past 20 years.

Roraira state governor Neudo Campos has visited the federal capital, Brasilia, three times over the past two months in an effort to get federal aid, particularly a promised $2.4m (pounds 1.5m) for 22 specially-converted firefighting helicopters from the US and Russia.