By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 23, 1999; Page A11
UNA BIOLOGICAL PRESERVE, Brazil—In this strip of the Atlantic
Rain Forest in northeastern Brazil, the calls of fluorescent toads and
golden-faced monkeys echo through the dense undergrowth. Black
millipedes waltz on ferns below the vivid green canopy. From this
perspective, one of the most endangered ecosystems in the Western
hemisphere seems an enclave far away from man-made Brazil.
But just across the river bordering the 7,000-acre nature preserve, the
is pungent with the smell of burnt wood. Pinched by Brazil's financial crisis
and deepening recession, nearby landowners are stepping up the illegal
practices of logging and burning forest for pasture and cropland.
They are now cutting into the sensitive buffer zones abutting pristine
Three weeks ago, Fernando Gomes, mayor of the nearby town of Itabuna,
illegally logged 124 acres just across from the preserve, federal authorities
The mayor's property, part of the habitat of a primate species with fewer
than 400 members left in the wild, was among the sites to be studied for
long-term preservation of sensitive land in this forest, which has been
reduced to 7 percent of its original size in the past 200 years. But the
Brazilian government slashed funding for the project, and for more
enforcement officers, as part of millions of dollars in environmental
spending cuts forced this year by the continuing economic crisis.
"The crisis has made me even more pessimistic about the future of the
environment here," said Paulo Paiva, a local director of the federal
government's environmental enforcement arm, whose 1999 budget was
reduced by 19 percent.
"It's not just that we don't have enough resources to do the job. Yesterday,
we caught a small farmer selling illegal timber from his land that a year ago
would fetch [$250], but now he was only asking [$20]. He said he needed
money to feed his family, but feeding his family means cutting down even
more forest than before."
The situation in the Atlantic Rain Forest, which environmentalists rank
the jungle of Madagascar as the Earth's most threatened, underscores the
degree to which the economic troubles of Latin America's largest nation
are undermining efforts to protect its environment.
A cash-strapped government and greater human need -- and, in some
cases, greed -- are combining to reverse the ecological gains made in
recent years in a country that has historically been one of the world's
principal environmental battlegrounds.
International environmentalists consider Brazil to be perhaps the world's
most ecologically important nation -- harboring the richest diversity and
number of plant and animal species and representing 30 percent of the
Earth's rain forest. Its jungles play a major role in absorbing the
"greenhouse gases" linked to global climate change.
Brazil's mysterious forests are also believed to hold the keys to developing
drugs to fight human ailments from headaches to cancer. They also shelter
tribes of indigenous peoples -- including some "discovered" in only the past
Despite its historic suspicion of outside efforts to protect Brazil's forest
lands, the government has begun to work out compromises with
environmentalists in recent years aimed at preventing reckless
Now, however, the budget squeeze at the federal and state levels has
reduced spending by as much as 78 percent on several projects
considered essential to protecting not only the Atlantic Rain Forest but also
the much larger Amazon jungle to the northwest.
The cuts, environmentalists say, may also mean that Brazil could lose
additional millions in international matching funds for a number of
eco-projects. Deputy Environmental Minister Jose Carlos Carvalho said in
an interview that the government is doing "everything it can" to preserve
environmental spending at a time of severe budget pressures.
Its foreign lenders, including the International Monetary Fund and the
Treasury, have insisted that Brazil reduce its bloated budget deficit. In the
two months since Brazil devalued its currency, the real, the turmoil here has
sent the currency nose-diving 40 percent and driven up unemployment and
Carvalho said the government has tried to limit cuts to a few select
programs, while succeeding in allocating millions of dollars to several new
projects. "It's not just the environment," he said. "There have had to be
adjustments in all kinds of spending to keep the stability of the real."
But environmentalists, while lauding the efforts of Brazil's environment
ministry to preserve spending during the crisis, say the cuts threaten the
gains of recent years. They also worry about renewed pressures from
logging and farming.
"Our biggest worry now is that the government is going to lose control
attempts to control deforestation," said Gustavo Fonseca, director of the
Center for Biological Science at Washington-based Conservation
International. "This is undermining the very basis for what
[environmentalists] have been trying to accomplish in Brazil."
Here in the poor, rural Brazilian northeast, the situation is particularly
After decades of rampant deforestation along the Atlantic coast -- once a
gigantic stretch of green larger than the Eastern Seaboard of the United
States -- the jungle has been reduced to a few surviving patches of pristine
forest and regenerating, secondary growth.
Even before Brazil's recent economic slowdown, this region in southern
Bahia state was facing tough times. The major crop, cacao -- the plant
used to make chocolate -- has been crippled in the 1990s by a virulent
fungus and low commodity prices. That has brought high unemployment
among the laborers who used to toil on the large plantations here.
The recession has contracted the job market in general, and many laborers
have turned to clearing larger areas of jungle for subsistence farming and
pasture to survive, local environmentalists and enforcement authorities say.
Environmentalists had succeeded in recent years in lobbying for laws that
forbid such practices, but finding and prosecuting violators is difficult, local
Joaquim Blanes Jorda, an agronomist with the Social Environmental
Institute of Southern Bahia, had hoped to encourage landowners and small
farmers to plant alternative "eco-friendly" crops, such as cupuacu, which
can be grown in the jungle without clearing large tracts of land. Its fruit can
be used to make a powder whose taste resembles that of chocolate, he
Standing in his experimental greenhouse about 15 miles from the Una
preserve, one of the few parcels of jungle not in private hands, he pointed
to the little cupuacu plants, which look like pale green poinsettias and
lamented elimination of funding for the project in the 1999 federal budget.
"It's frustrating" he said. "But I'm not going to just let this idea die.
to talk to the farmers anyway and see what I can do on my own."
One of the farmers he would like to win over is Eufrasio Chaves da Mota,
64, who lives in a wooden shack on the edge of the preserve with by his
eight children. Family members spend hours each day on the steaming
hillsides cultivating the cassava and squash he sells to the middlemen who
transport them to town.
He said he does not know if they would buy other products from him and
is skeptical about the idea. "This is what I know," he said of his current
So for now, he burns.
On a recent humid evening, he talked by candlelight in the pitch-black
night, reluctant to admit that he has been illegally clearing land for cattle and
new crops. He said government officials came and asked him to stop the
fires, but he said he cannot, because the soil is not good for raising grass
and other crops. In addition, fire is the cheapest way to clear land to
sustain his family, especially now that prices are going up for such
essentials as gas and batteries.
He respects the forest, he said. In fact, one of his sons is an employee
the nearby reserve. But "fertilizer is just too expensive," said Chaves. "And
you know, we've got to eat."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company