Brazil OKs Paving Amazon Road on Environment Day
BRASILIA, Brazil Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva gave the green light Monday to paving a controversial road through the Amazon rainforest, benefiting farmers and worrying environmentalists.
Lula authorized paving a 975-mile section of the highway from Cuiaba to the Amazon River port of Santarem, a move that would bring Brazil's main center-west soybean belt closer to foreign export markets like Europe and Asia.
The improvement of the road, now little more than a dirt track that washes out in seasonal rains, will help cut transport costs for grain exports. Currently, grains like soybeans are sent far to the south, where the main ports lie.
However, environmentalists fear paving the road will speed the destruction of the world's largest rainforest by squatters, ranchers, loggers and soy farmers.
The government said it is adopting strict environmental controls to help protect the rain forest and has created a "sustainable forestry reserve" of 19 million hectares around the road.
"This project will show how we can be Brazilian without being predators, as foreigners often say about Brazil," Lula said during a ceremony marking World Environment Day.
Lula generated great hopes among environmentalists by appointing fiery conservationist Marina Silva as his environment minister after coming to power in January 2003, but has since been criticized for doing too little to slow deforestation of the Amazon.
In March, he approved a measure that will offer timber companies the chance to log 13 million hectares of Amazon jungle under a sustainable development plan.