On February 17th, Brazil President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva announced the creation of two forest mega-reserves in the Amazon state of Para, the scene of the assassinations of 73 year old American Nun Dorothy Stang and three union activists since February 12. The reserves would link together already protected Amazon forests to create the world's largest tropical forest reserve.
"What's at issue here is the future of the Amazon," said Environmental Defense anthropologist Stephan Schwartzman. "The criminal oligarchs of Para; have explicitly challenged any form of government authority in this region. It's critical that the state and federal governments show that they intend to govern, and protecting the Terra do Meio is a very good start."
The announcement today of the creation of the Terra do Meio (Land in the Middle) reserve, which will cover about 9.8 million acres, in the National Park and Ecological Station, will be complemented next week by the protection of an additional 7.4 million acres of sustainable development reserves, largely for traditional forest communities. The protection plan signals the government's intention to exert control over one of the most lawless and violent regions in the Amazon frontier.
Land and illegal logging mafias, who organized widespread violent protests over suspension of logging permits earlier this month, are presumed responsible for the recent murders. Stang was shot to death just as Environment Minister Marina Silva held her first public meeting in a recently created Extractive Reserve in the state. Land grabbers, or "grileiros," oppose the protected areas because creating them prevents the legalization of illegal land claims. Illegal occupation and subdivision of public lands has increased dramatically since the government announced its intention to pave the nearby Cuiaba; – Santarem highway, or BR 163, the region's major soy and cattle export corridor. The announcement to pave the road has drastically driven up land values around it.
Creating the proposed mosaic of reserves in the Terra do Meio will do more than just protect an area about the size of Maine, which is currently suffering heavy invasion from land grabbers. The reserves will also link two existing groups of indigenous territories, resulting in the creation of the largest continuous corridor – nearly 62 million acres, about the size of the United Kingdom – of protected tropical forest in the world.
The proposal for creation of the reserve mosaic was originally formulated by the grassroots Movement for the Development of the Transamazon and the Xingu (MTDX), a coalition of small farmers along the Transamazon highway. The grassroots organizations promote sustainable family farming as the basis for regional development, and view uncontrolled frontier expansion driven by illegal occupation of public lands and expulsion of forest peoples as a threat to their security. The farmers also fear that more deforestation, as soy farming and cattle ranching expand, will reduce rainfall and cut crop yields.
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