From: Michael Astor, Associated Press
Published March 6, 2007 12:00 AM

Brazil Biofuel Program Has Environmental Risks, Opportunities

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- A proposed ethanol alliance that President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is expected to forge with President Bush later this week poses both opportunities and risks for the environment, a top U.N. environmental official said Monday.


Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, said growing international demands for ethanol and other biofuels can threaten the Amazon rain forest if safeguards are not put in place because the world's largest remaining tropical wilderness is a target area for agriculture.


Brazil's main biofuel is ethanol made from sugarcane. While sugarcane cultivation is minimal now in the Amazon, some environmentalists fear that growing demands for the fuel could push cane growers into the rainforest.


"I think at the end of the day ... it's a question of whether the Amazon is sufficiently protected and whether the expansion of the ethanol production happens in the context of government policies that try and direct that growth potential in a sustainable base," Steiner told The Associated Press after meeting with Brazil's ministers of environment, energy and foreign relations in the capital of Brasilia.


Bush and Silva are expected to forge an "ethanol alliance" Friday aimed at creating quality standards for the alternative fuel, while joining forces to promote production of ethanol in nations lying between Brazil and the United States.


Brazil is the world's second-biggest producer of ethanol after the United States, and is the biggest exporter. The country has also taken the lead in producing soybean-based biodiesel.


Steiner praised Brazil for reducing Amazon deforestation by 11 percent last year. But many environmentalists say much of the reduction in deforestation was due to an overvalued currency and stagnant prices for soybeans on the international market, which made it far less lucrative to cut down remote forest plots to grow soy beans.


In the near term, soybean growers likely will continue to expand into the Amazon as farmland in Brazil's south and central regions move to sugarcane, which requires greater infrastructure.


"While the whole process of alcohol fuel is less damaging to the climate than fuel from gasoline or oil, what can be positive for the environment can turn negative depending on the extension of the plantations," said Paulo Adario, director of the Greenpeace's Amazon Campaign.


The Amazon region, which covers nearly 60 percent of Brazil, has lost 20 percent of its forest -- 1.6 million square miles -- to development, logging and farming.


Source: Associated Press


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