Brazil's environment minister announced yet another series of measures to halt deforestation of the Amazon this week, but their impact was weakened not only by the fact that destruction had increased sharply once again but that the government itself was among the worst culprits.
A federal agency charged with implementing agrarian reform and giving land to the poor filled the top six spots on a list of the nation's 100 worst deforesters since 2005, according to the list, published by the environment ministry on Monday. The top 100 deforesters cut down the equivalent of 160,000 soccer fields, said Environment Minister Carlos Minc.
"The numbers are terrible," he admitted to reporters. The statistics were a surprise and an embarrassment to Mr. Minc, who took office in May after his predecessor resigned, complaining that her hands were tied by a government more interested in economic growth than environmental protection.
Minc said the ministry would investigate all 100 offenders and open criminal charges against those responsible. It slapped the Agency of Land Reform (INCRA) with a fine of 264 million reais (about $137 million).
Land reform agency denies fault
INCRA denied it was at fault and said the list was compiled with the help of out-of-date satellite photos, a recurring complaint by those accused of deforestation. The agency acknowledged that some of those peasants given land had inevitably cut down trees but said it could not be held responsible for individuals' actions after they moved in.
INCRA was being punished for being a legal entity, unlike the land owners called grileiros who falsify title deeds and cut down trees with impunity, said its president Rolf Hackbart.
"I don't see the big grileiros [on the list], they don't appear because their properties aren't legal," Hackbart said. "They are the invisible deforesters. You can't claim that destruction is the fault of land reform."
As if the report that the government was responsible for most of this year's deforestation wasn't embarrassing enough for the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, it came on the same day that deforestation for the month of August rose 134 percent. The monthly total this year was 1,868 acres, up from 568 in 2007.
Minc announced a plan of 12 new measures that include the hiring of 3,000 additional forestry agents and the creation of six checkpoints on main Amazonian highways to better halt the transport of illegal timber and charcoal.
Will new measures help save the rain forest?
However, the measures include no major funding initiatives and the creation of two new committees that environmentalists deride as merely adding to the bureaucracy.
The moves come just eight months after another campaign was launched amid much fanfare. That campaign, code-named Operation Arc of Fire, won worldwide attention as hundreds of federal agents descended on the rain forest to close sawmills and hit highways used by illegal timber merchants.
Arc of Fire is ongoing, but it and the new measures are stopgap ones, said Greenpeace. The group warned Minc's predecessor a full year ago that INCRA was hiring logging companies to clear land for settlements rather than seating people on already felled areas, said executive-director Marcelo Furtado.
Despite assurances to the contrary, no action was taken, he added.
"Unfortunately, this is not news," says Paulo Adario, the Amazon Campaigns Director. "We need to change the current policy of giving fiscal incentives to predatory activities and start investing in responsible actions that keep the forest standing. We can halt all deforestation in the Amazon by 2015 by linking economic development to environmental protection."