In Brazil, Violence Looms at the Forest Edge

This is the first feature in a three-part series on the growing pressures facing the Amazon rainforest and its people.

Deforestation in Mato GrossoOn Monday, Blairo Maggi was in need of some help. Known as the "Soybean King," Maggi is a former soy plantation owner and now governor of the western Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. He is considered one of Brazil's most powerful men, but with tensions rising in the region, he recently turned to Daniel Nepstad, an Amazon-based U.S. ecologist, for advice.

"He was saying he was about ready to throw in the towel, unless...there will be some effort to help him govern this vast forest reserve," said Nepstad, who works for the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts and conducts research on one of Maggi's farms. "The fans of revolution are pushing embers up into the air."

In Mato Grosso, as in other parts of the Amazon, the rapid expansion of agriculture is triggering mounting tensions between locals and environmental authorities. Satellite imagery released in January showed that as much as 2,700 square miles (4,345 kilometers) of the massive Brazilian Amazon was cleared between August and December of 2007-about 60 percent more land than during the same five months in 2006. Experts attribute the rising deforestation to growth in global meat consumption, which is driving soybean and beef production, and to a lesser extent to the boom in biofuels, which is reportedly pushing cattle ranchers off conventional farmlands and deeper into the Amazon.

To counteract this trend, the Brazilian government decreed in December that any landowners found to be illegally felling trees would be fined and possibly embargoed, which would cut them off from domestic and international trading. And in February, the government ruled that as of July 1, 2008, both public and private banks would have to demand environmental permits from landowners before supplying any loans. Such enforcement is seen as necessary to stop deforestation, but it has resulted in sweeping civil unrest.

Earlier this year, thousands of residents filled the streets of frontier towns in the southern Amazonian state of ParĂ¡ to protest a government crackdown on illegal logging. Brazil's elite National Security Force was required to contain the violence, and troops confiscated more than 500 truckloads of illegally cut hardwood after residents and loggers forced environmental officials to flee the area.

In Mato Grosso, tensions came to a head last week when Brazil's Ministry of the Environment announced that 1,200 properties faced embargoes for alleged deforestation without a permit - though, according to Nepstad, the number was quickly reduced to 400 due to widespread complaints. "This is really creating a very explosive situation here in Amazonia," he said. "Property owners have felt unjustly accused and all of a sudden cut off."

In addition to fears of violent protests, criminal land-grabbing is still a concern. Landowners who follow more sustainable environmental efforts are often threatened by ranchers who seek to expand their pastures. "When a rancher wants more land, anyone who stands in their way gets shot," said Robert Goodland, a senior fellow with the Washington, D.C.- based World Resources Institute. "There's all-out violence now. People are murdered there all the time."

Most notoriously, the American nun Dorothy Stang, an advocate of sustainable agriculture, was brutally shot in 2005. A rancher was found guilty last year for ordering the killing.

John Carter, an American-born cattle rancher in Mato Grosso who is featured in this week's Time magazine, has been receiving death threats, said Nepstad, who is a friend of Carter's. "He left me and others the phone number they should call to see if he's still alive because... he is very outspoken for good land stewardship," Nepstad said.

Ben Block is a staff writer at the Worldwatch Institute who covers everything environmental for Eye on Earth. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.