As a recent policy adviser to the United Nations in a programme intended to address environmental threats in the Amazon, I would caution readers of your Special Report 'Brazil goes to war against logging' (Nature 452, 134–135; 2008). Although this analysis of Brazil's “military-style crackdown on deforestation” is valuable, it perpetuates some perilous assumptions.
You aptly note that mining on the fringes is among the problems, but I would question some of the solutions you suggest. Urging international donors to help national governments such as Brazil to fund 'traditional' policies for enforcement neglects the reality that local governance agents, not national enforcers, can be more appropriate custodians; foreign donors frequently make this mistake. Also, there needs to be greater global awareness of the unwanted consequences of the so-called traditional policies of eco-militarization, which have wrought pervasive problems not only in the Amazon but worldwide.
Police interference in indigenous people's lives can have devastating effects, often leading to more environmental harm rather than less. My own experience with peasants who mine illegally in conservation areas suggests that resentment of the government drives illegality and marginalization. For example, indigenous groups in the Amazon captured more than 600 hostages in the past two years, protesting against injustices with regards to mining rights. One tribe took a UN worker and four others hostage a few months ago, angry that the government and international agencies ignored their resource claims; the government sent in police troops instead. That tribe was seeking the rights to mine its land — but only a multinational corporation was granted those rights. Brazil has millions of peasant ('artisanal') miners, but licences only very rarely go to poorer communities.
Some 337 large-scale commercial mining permits violate Brazilian law, falling within 28 federal conservation areas; another 5,283 pending applications also impinge on federal conservation areas. Environmental violations are pervasive in both legal and illegal scenarios — and the concept of legality itself is blurred.
It is time to politicize the Amazon, not militarize it. Conservation advocacies should focus on socio-economic empowerment of vulnerable populations. Military enforcement should be a rare last resort.
It is time to listen to the poorest 'illegal' people and let them shape policy. Creating new mega-reserves, even if appropriate, is rarely an effective solution. Combating deforestation requires helping workers to find livelihoods while participating equitably in the intricate politics of nature.
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