Page last updated at 17:55 GMT, Thursday, 15 May 2008 18:55 UK

Lawlessness mars Amazon dreams

By Carolina Glycerio
BBC Brasil, Alta Floresta, Mato Grosso

Carlito, a cattle rancher
Cattle ranching is blamed for up to 70% of current Amazon deforestation

Carlos Alberto Guimaraes (or "Carlito") is one of the biggest individual deforesters in the Amazon rainforest.

Since he moved here four decades ago, he has been responsible for clearing 100,000 hectares of trees across three states to make way for his cattle.

He is straight-talking and matter-of-fact about his role in destroying the rainforest.

"Deforestation is a necessary evil," he says.

The fact is land in the Amazon rainforest is much more valuable with the trees cleared off it - whether this is to make way for cattle or crops - and nobody has yet come up with a viable economic incentive not to cut down trees.


Cattle ranching is generally held responsible for up to 70% of the current deforestation in the Amazon, but to point the finger solely at cattle ranchers would be to miss a central point about the Amazon region.

Amazon Paradox graphic

This report is part of a BBC World Service special on the Amazon rainforest.

Starting at 0500GMT on Thursday 15 May, there are live and recorded broadcasts.

Highlights include a double edition of Newshour, presented live from three locations in Brazil - Manaus, Paragominas, and Alta Floresta - at 1200 and a one hour special at 1600.

This is frontier land and many people are trying to exploit it, from ranchers to farmers to the landless movement to land grabbers.

Travelling around Mato Grosso state, the more complicated the picture became.

In some areas, authorities are nowhere to be seen and there is a sense of disorder and lawlessness.

The region attracts people with a frontier mentality.

They do not trust the government and they firmly believe that they have as much right to their piece of land as anyone else, no matter how they got it.

And almost all are deforesting their land at an alarming rate, pushing back the edges of the jungle.

'Eating dust'

Sebastiao is part of the landless workers movement, the MST, that campaigns for land redistribution.

The Amazon rainforest
Largest continuous tropical forest
Shared by nine countries
65% Brazilian territory
Covers 6.6m sq km in total
Pop: 30m - 23.5m are in Brazil

He is among some 1,000 people who seven months ago were granted land on a farm expropriated by the government.

But red tape means he and his family are yet to take possession of their land.

"We are here eating dust at the side of the road just waiting", he says.

To add to Sebastiao's problems, the land he has been promised has already been "grabbed" by others who have started clearing it for their own use.

"It is not right that we are crushed here and there are people making money out of our forest," Sebastiao said.

Among the "landgrabbers" is Lindomar, who we met down a long road that a group of 500 families had cut out of the forest.

Grey area

Rolling a cigarette and resting beside his two chainsaws, Lindomar readily admits he took his land illegally.

Milton, a "settler"
The region attracts people with a frontier mentality

His justification is there is no proper land title and public land belongs to the people, so unlike Sebastiao he did not go through official channels to be allocated land.

"I do not think it is right to invade a land that is properly documented. But if it is something they haven't paid taxes for and that they don't take good care of, we should have it", he says.

Further along the road was Milton, working on a piece of land he said he had bought 45 days earlier.

He falls in that grey area between land grabber and land owner, so we'll call him a "settler" for argument's sake. He says he has a legal deed for the land and he paid for it, but he also admitted he knew all along it was disputed property.

"If someone asks us to leave, what are we going to do?" he says, banging his machete against a fence post.

"I can't go anywhere else, my family are here, all my money is in this land. What is our option?"

He says he fears the Indians, because he knows he is on land that was given to them by the government, but he says he has never tried to speak to them because he considers them "enemies".

'Corrupt politicians'

But for Damaio, the chief of the nearby Xavante Indian settlement, everyone else in the region, from ranchers to politicians, are enemies of the forest.

People here are aware of the bigger issue of deforestation but are also convinced it is their right to make a living from their own parcel of land

"They got here and finished with it all," he said.

The Xavante need government help to keep their 166,000 hectare reservation safe from land invaders, Damiao says.

Suspicion of outsiders is rife in this region and I was warned more than once that I should be very careful what we said to whom.

Corrupt politicians, hired gunmen, night-time attacks were mentioned, and two of the people I spoke to freely admitted they had threatened to kill each other at one point.

People here are aware of the bigger issue of deforestation but are also convinced it is their right to make a living from their own parcel of land.

They also feel they alone should not be blamed for deforestation.

Brazil as the biggest beef exporter and second largest soya exporter in the world is under pressure to create more agricultural land, especially given the rising prices for foodstuffs.

For Carlito it is pure hypocrisy for the rest of the world to criticise him as a deforester.

"There are a lot of people in this world that have been living on the food I produce", he says.


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