We can't regard forests as something without human presence

RUBENS RICUPERO, 57, Brazil's suave and diplomatic minister for environment, has an unenviable job: charting the destiny of the beleaguered Amazonian rainforests, the source of over 50 per cent of the planet's oxygen. In India recently to discuss environmental issues at the Agra Conference, he took time off to talk to SEEMA KALRA and SUMITA DAS GUPTA on wide-ranging issues, including the future of the rainforests, the role of the developed world in environment protection, and the mutually supportive role that Brazil and India can have. Excerpts:

Published: Friday 15 April 1994

What are you doing to check the massive deforestation in the Amazonian rainforests?
In the past three years, we have been able to substantially reduce the annual rate of deforestation from 20,000 sq km to 9,000 sq km.

And how did you achieve this?
In Brazil, fire is the only method adopted by the people to clear the forests. Then they plant rice for one or two years; only after that do they use the soil for other kinds of crops. The Brazilian space agency is continuously monitoring the region, and the moment a fire is sighted, a team is sent to the site. Although it is sometimes difficult to establish whether a fire is accidental or deliberate, we do impose a fine on the perpetrators, commensurate with the area of the damaged land. If the area is 500 ha -- which is a medium-sized territory in the region -- the fine is between US $40,000 and $50,000.

Is the controlling of forest fires the only reason for the downward trend in deforestation?
No. At present, 80 per cent of the Brazilian population lives in cities, so the pressure on agriculture land has been reduced.

There is also a misconception that the Amazon is losing its forest cover. In reality, 90 per cent of its forest cover is still there. And this is not because of any effort on our part, but simply because the Amazon has no transportation system. There are no motorable roads. The only way to reach it is by aeroplane.

What is your government's stand on forest management?
Very similar to the Indian government's. Your minister Kamal Nath recently said in Geneva that the forests should be considered a community resource. We have millions people who are rubber sappers in the Amazon, depending on the forests. Ricardo Mendes, a Brazilian rubber sapper, was murdered sometime ago by the large land owners because he was protesting against illegal deforestation. We now have an organisation of rubber sappers who are always on the lookout for the illegal cutting of trees. If they see such a thing happening, they adopt a non-violent method, like your sit-down dharna.

But do you completely agree with Kamal Nath's statement?
Yes. We can't regard forests as something without human presence. The problem is that we have many traditional cultivations in the forests: the people extract rubber, traditional medicines, etc. If the forest is destroyed, their way of living goes. To limit the people's entry into national parks and sanctuaries would be unrealistic.

Has the North helped you in any way to overcome these problems?
During the G-7 meetings in 1990, the industrialised countries offered to help us in protecting our rainforests. A common project was established through a trilateral approach between the Brazilian government, the European Community and the World Bank. It was a pilot project because it was supposed to set a model for the management of tropical rain forests. The first phase was to cost $250 million dollars. And this was agreed at Geneva in the middle of December 1991. Now we have been told that out of that, $34 million has been disbursed, but we have not received even a cent.

So are you unhappy with North's attitude towards your problems?
Yes, we are disappointed. It is taking too long. Anyway, in my opinion, the Amazon is still a deep, dark mystery to the scientists. So it would be wrong to impose a single formula of management on such a large area. People speak about the Amazon as if it were a single entity. But it is extremely diverse, with different soils, different reliefs, different microclimates.

What is your government's stand on the greening of the GATT?
We are concerned about the degree of protectionism that has come into international trade. We agree that it is necessary to have international trade restrictions, but what is objectionable is the unilateral manner in which these are being imposed. The problem with the US laws is that they go beyond the boundaries of the US: you know that export of shrimp is a major foreign exchange earner for Brazil. But the US wants to impose restrictions on it on the pretext of protecting sea turtles, shrimps, etc. This law may be justified for the Caribbean region, but Brazil has a coastline of 9,000 km.

It would be unfair to define the whole area unilaterally as a sanctuary. There are many fisheries in the northern region, but in the southern coastline this is not true. To protect life forms like the sea turtle, for the last 30 years we have had the Tamar project, started with the help of the then World Wildlife Fund. This project is very much like your tiger project. We have to constantly guard more than 1,000 sq km.

What we say is that none of the problems can be solved through unilateral measures. Only international measures can be truly effective, especially when we can establish international consensus.

Sometime ago, I was invited to an official conference in Washington where I raised the issue of international consensus and stressed that it was necessary. But someone in the audience objected to it and said, "If we adopt that line, we will have to settle for the lowest possible standard, because international consensus is only possible at the lowest common denominator." And I said that it is not true. Because the international consensus on the ozone convention was reached on a very strict standard. The problem occurs when they wish to impose standards, they do so arbitrarily, and when we refuse the standards, they say there is a lack of consensus. We had a problem with the biodiversity convention, but we still signed it. The European and the Japanese were ready to sign the Climate Change Convention, but finally it had to be watered down because of the US's intervention.

What effect did the Rio conference have on your environmental policy?
Before the Rio conference, there was not much awareness of environmental issues in Brazil. Now we have about 5,000 NGOs in the country working in the area of environmental awareness and protection.

And how has that affected the common people?
Lately, I believe that in Brazil the average village people have become more sensitive to their environment than the people who are living in the cities. For instance, most people in the Amazon basin depend on fish; they are the ones who come to ask me how the Amazon can be conserved. We have in Brazil the Blue Macao, the most endangered species in the region. There is only one Blue Macao in our country and this is living in one of the most impoverished regions of Brazil. Here 70 peasant families who have had to face drought for the past three years volunteered to shoulder the responsibility of protecting the precious Macao.

How does your government plan to deal with the fact that poverty has never been on the environmental agenda in international negotiations?
We believe that after the Rio convention, very little -- or practically nothing -- has been done in the area of poverty on the environmental agenda. In the Rio Conference, there was hope that the developing countries would receive special grants to facilitate environmental reforms. Now, almost three years after the Rio conference, industrialised countries have not made any financial commitment.

Have you received any technological help from the North?
At present, we are using the technology that is already available with us for the management of forests. But ozone depletion, for example, is due to activities in the North and we do not have adequate technology to handle that. It is a little difficult to get appropriate technology from the North.

What are your expectations from India?
From India, we would like to have bilateral exchanges in the area of the management of national parks, forests, public health sanitation and the handling of toxic wastes and urban pollution. We would also like to discuss environmental auditing and the method to estimate the value of natural resources.

We believe a very high percentage of automobiles in your country run on alcohol...
About 40 per cent of automobiles in Brazil run exclusively on alcohol. The gasoline that is being used in rest of the automobiles also has 18 per cent alcohol content.

How cost-effective has this been?
If you look at the pure economics of fuel efficiency, alcohol is not very efficient as a source of energy. Its cost-effectiveness is around 25 per cent. But in our minds it is justified because it is not polluting. It has also helped us in generating over 2 million jobs.

How did your industry react to these changes?
We introduced alcohol as fuel when we faced oil shortages in 1973-74 and in 1979. At that time, it became a profitable alternative for manufacturers and the people. Now it is justified because of its eco-friendly component. And I strongly believe that an eco-friendly economy is what we should all strive to achieve.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.