June 25, 2008

Brazil Confiscates Cattle to Protect Its Rain Forest

By Andrew Downie

In an unprecedented move against rogue cattle ranchers in the Amazon, the Brazilian government has seized livestock grazing there illegally.

Officials carted off 3,100 head of cattle that they said were being raised on an ecological reserve in the state of Para, in an operation intended to serve as a warning to other ranchers grazing an estimated 60,000 head on illegally deforested land in Amazonia, the environment minister, Carlos Minc, said.

"No more being soft," Minc told reporters Tuesday in the capital, Brasilia. "Those that don't respect environmental legislation, your cattle are going to become barbecue for Fome Zero," he said, referring to the government's food program for the poor.

Minc said the cattle would be auctioned in two weeks, with the proceeds going to Fome Zero, as well as to health programs for indigenous people and to finance cattle removal operations.

Though Minc announced the strategy Tuesday, the seizure took place June 7 by federal police officers and agents from Ibama, the government environmental agency. The cattle's owner had been fined 3 million reais, or $1.86 million, in 2005 for illegal deforestation and had ignored a court order to remove the livestock.

Fears have been growing over the future of the world's biggest rain forest. Though annual deforestation figures fell to a 16-year low of 11,222 square kilometers, or 4,333 square miles, in 2007 - from a 9-year high of 27,379 square kilometers in 2004 - government agencies reported this year that deforestation was on the rise again, and cattle farmers were blamed for much of the increase.

A recent report by the environmental group Friends of the Earth said that Brazil's growing dominance of the global beef market was in large part because of the expansion into the Amazon, where land is cheap.

Brazil surpassed Australia and the United States to become the world's biggest beef exporter in 2004, and has more than 200 million head of cattle. The report said a third of Brazil's fresh beef exports last year came from the Amazon, and three of every four head of cattle added to Brazil's herd since 2002 were added in the region.

Minc said that thanks to operations like those announced Tuesday, ranchers with cattle in embargoed and protected areas like indigenous reservations and forestry reserves were starting to move their herds for fear of having their livestock confiscated. He also announced that Ibama had begun legal proceedings to seize an additional 10,000 cattle grazing on illegally deforested land in Rondonia State.

Environmental advocates lauded the move but warned that it must be the first of many if Brazil is to have any chance of seriously stemming deforestation.

"This can be a good way of at least showing the government is concerned about the contribution of ranching to the problem of deforestation," said Peter May, associate director of Friends of the Earth Brazil. "It's an important strategy, but if they do it just once and then never do it again it will be seen as a media event."

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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