Issue of June, 30, 2007
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Steel vs. trees in the Brazilian Amazon.
Credit: Photo Stock
Steel and Eucalyptus Heat Up Eastern Amazon
By Mario Osava, Special to Tierramérica

The Brazilian government's plan to reforest with eucalyptus trees an area of the Amazon that was logged by the steel industry has only added fuel to the fire of decades-old conflicts.

CARAJÁS, Brazil, Jul 2 (Tierramérica).- Brazil's Environment Ministry entered a minefield when it proposed a sustainable forest district to contain deforestation in the steel-making center of Carajás, one of the most devastated and violent areas in the Amazon.

With a resounding "'No' to projects that involve destruction and death," local social and environmental movements rejected the idea, which they see as a continuation of the deforestation process of the eastern Amazon, aggravated by promotion of eucalyptus monoculture to obtain charcoal to fuel the steel factories.

Meanwhile, the industry executives want to change the legislation that requires preserving up to 80 percent of the forests of existing properties within the boundaries of the "Legal Amazon", encompassing nine Brazilian states.

The local companies "will only sustain themselves if there is a 50-percent reduction" in the forest coverage quota, because there are too many agricultural problems and previous deforestation, says Ricardo Nascimento, president of the Iron Industrial Syndicate, of the northeastern state of Maranhão.

But that move would trigger protests from a world increasingly mobilized against climate change, one of whose principal causes is precisely the deforestation of the vast Amazon region.

The Carajás sustainable forest district (DFS - Distrito Florestal Sustentável), proposed by the government's newly created Forest Service and still under public debate, has inflamed the environmental, agrarian and social battles being fought in the region for five decades. Highway construction and incentive policies to settle the region have fomented deforestation, especially for lumber and livestock.

The giant bed of iron ore was discovered in 1967 in the Carajás hills led to the development of an industrial enclave centered on export, and got a boost in the 1980s from an 892-kilometer railroad and an Atlantic port in Sao Luís, capital of Maranhão.

Since 1987, along the railway have sprung up 14 producers of pig iron, the raw material of steel, created from carbon, limestone and iron in high-temperature ovens, has built up pressure on the forests. The environmental authorities calculate that 60 percent of the charcoal (plant-based carbon) used by the industry is illegal and has consumed 59,835 hectares of forest that the sector should replace.

That "is not true", Nascimento told Tierramérica. The steelmakers utilize the tree waste left over from the lumber industry, which is of greater volume than reported, and was previously just burned. They also use the vegetation from extensive forests that will be flooded by hydroelectric dams, and wood waste remaining on already-deforested lands or from areas far from the agricultural expansion frontier, he said.

Producing charcoal in native forests costs more than double that of other sources, he argued.

Furthermore, he said, the industry is reforesting areas with the support of a fund set up by the companies themselves. His firm, Gusa Nordeste, has already planted 15,000 hectares of eucalyptus outside the Carajás complex, 300 km from its headquarters in Açailandia, Maranhão, and will be self-sufficient by 2011, said Nascimento.

The Carajás DFS would promote sustainable self-sufficiency in charcoal for all local steel mills by around 2015, according to the project, which covers a 25-million-hectare area on a radius of 200 kilometers, where forest development and conservation activities would be promoted through agricultural, industrial, educational and infrastructure policies. In the Carajás case, it would also involve recuperating already deforested lands.

"We reject this project imposed on us with vague information, designed without society's participation" and whose ends are "exclusively economic," Edmilson Pinheiro, executive secretary of the Carajás Forum, a network of social-environmental groups, told Tierramérica.

There is no assurance that the steel mills will produce carbon in a legal and sustainable way, which is more costly than continuing to plunder native forests, and the expansion of eucalyptus plantations will aggravate environmental and social deterioration, pushing peasant farmers from their lands, he said.

The Carajás DFS is intended only "to save the steel mills, exonerating them from replacing the forested areas they deforested," says agronomist and sociologist Raimundo Cruz Neto, head of a grassroots education and research center in Marabá, the central city of the Carajás complex.

"It's been three decades of incentives for deforestation, which continues with soybeans and eucalyptus. Beyond the conservation and indigenous zones, in privately held areas there is only 20 percent of the forest left," not the 80 percent indicated by the law, he told Tierramérica.

Pinheiro's hopes lie in economic pressures, which he says are more powerful. The Vale do Rio Doce Company, owner of the Carajás mines, is threatening to suspend iron ore supplies if deforestation of the Amazon continues, and the foreign markets are beginning to reject imports of products that violate environmental and labor standards.

The Carajás steelmakers are also facing denunciations of slave labor in their charcoal plants, but they say the work is contracted out to third parties. In 2004 the Citizens' Carbon Institute was created to monitor charcoal suppliers and exclude those who commit serious abuses against workers.

"They're looking for a scapegoat. We're not responsible for past deforestation, stimulated by government policies" that offered tax and credit incentives to convert forest into pasture, says Nascimento, defending an industry that generates "60,000 direct and indirect jobs" and produces four million tons of pig iron, whose export price is seven times greater than iron ore.

* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent.

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