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May 15, 2008

Brazilian Amazon's future thrown into question

Marina2As soon as Brazil's famed Environment Minister Marina Silva announced her resignation Tuesday, farmers and pro-agriculture politicians started celebrating. Silva had been a passionate and, in some views, stubborn opponent of Brazil's powerful agribusiness industry and had held up hydroelectric products championed by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Then yesterday, Lula appointed Rio de Janeiro state environment secretary Carlos Minc to replace Silva. Minc is known principally for his quick approval of high-profile industrial projects such as a giant petrochemical plant he OK'd in a protected swamp in Rio's Guanabara Bay.

Then, also yesterday, Brazil's National Space Research Institute projected that deforestation in the Amazon would grow this year after three straight years of declines. Already, the institute's data showed deforestation spiked the last five months of last year.

You can see some of the institute's most recent photos here.

For environmentalists here, the picture doesn't look too promising for the world's most diverse biosystem and biggest rain forest, which is under threat from farmers, illegal loggers and illegal miners and has already lost about a fifth of its vegetation.

The consequences are global: Destroying and burning the forest, which is bigger than Europe, releases tons of trapped carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, enough to singlehandedly turn Brazil into the world's fourth biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, according to the U.S.-based World Resources Institute.

Silva, for her part, is trying to calm such fears. In a press conference that's happening right now, she said she was comforted by Lula's statement yesterday that the country's environmental policies won't change with her departure. She also expressed confidence that her replacement, Minc, would continue her main initiatives.

While her fights with Lula and other ministers over the government's development plans are well-known, Silva said her resignation wasn't necessarily a defeat because she had helped change the terms of the debate. Silva is a hero to many Brazilian environmentalists and was a friend of slain forest activist Chico Mendes.

"Today, all of us are worried about the Amazon," she said. "There doesn't exist a single governor who would win votes by promising to distribute chainsaws."

Either way, it's a symbolic move at a time when deforestation is making a comeback and growing soybean cultivation and other agribusiness is threatening the forest. Silva said she will keep up the fight when she returns to her federal senator post following the resignation. Despite all the encouraging words, however, it's hard not to suspect that major policy changes are on the way.

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jim wyss

Inside South America is written by Jim Wyss, the South America bureau chief for the Miami Herald and McClatchy Newspapers.

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