The latest recruits to Brazil's losing battle to slow Amazon destruction began training Wednesday at a new environmental police academy deep in the world's largest jungle.
RIO CUEIRAS, Brazil − The latest recruits to Brazil's losing battle to slow Amazon destruction began training Wednesday at a new environmental police academy deep in the world's largest jungle.
Ranks of young camouflage-clad federal police agents lined up in a rain forest clearing to learn how to raid illegal mining and squatter camps, nab foreigners stealing plant and animal species and shoot straight in the jungle.
"You are going to learn how to protect the jungle and stay alive," Kilma Manso, an instructor from Brazil's environmental agency, or Ibama, told trainees as she held up a big furry spider.
Environment Minister Marina Silva reminded agents of their mission the previous day when she opened Latin America's biggest environmental police training camp.
Silva, a former maid and human rights activist, said Brazil had wiped out 97 percent of its second-biggest natural treasure -- an Atlantic rain forest once a third the size of the Amazon -- and could destroy the Amazon jungle.
"What happened in the Atlantic rain forest could also happen in the Amazon if it becomes just another resource deposit for our economic demands," Silva said.
Four hours by riverboat from the Amazon capital of Manaus, the academy, sprawled across 135 square miles, is part of Brazil's push to stop destruction and theft of plants, animals and natural medicines that cost it billions of dollars a year.
Brazil's senior environmental detective, a silver pistol in his belt, said he has a mandate to launch an unprecedented crackdown. The problem is where to start.
"I just have to drive into the hills near my neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro to see hundreds of environmental crimes. It's everywhere," said Jorge Barbosa Pontes as he raced up the Amazon's muddy Rio Negro to the training school.
Brazil has some of the most rigorous environmental laws in the developing world but struggles to enforce them in a continent-sized nation with a cash-strapped government and business and agricultural elites that regard environmental protection as a barrier to progress, Silva said.
Amazon Front Line
The ruling Workers Party, a traditional ally of the environmental movement, failed to prevent Amazon destruction reaching its second-highest level in 2003. Ranchers and farmers, often using workers in slave conditions, cut down an area of forest equivalent to the size of New Jersey.
Rather than seek outright conservation, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's government wants sustainable environmental use to slow disintegration of indigenous and rural communities and create long-term economic growth.
Since Lula entered office in January 2003, environmentalists have accused him of speeding Amazon destruction in his haste to create jobs for the 53 million Brazilians who live on less than $1 a day.
Environmentalists fear destruction of the jungle the size of Western Europe -- known as "the lungs of the world" for its ability to absorb greenhouse gases -- because it is home to 10 percent of the world's fresh water, 30 percent of the world's plant and animal species and a vital source for medicines.
World Conservation Union, in its 2004 "Red List" released Tuesday, said Brazil held a particularly large number of threatened animal species, from parrots to frogs.
One of Lula's most controversial projects is a plan to turn an Amazon dirt road into an asphalt highway to serve farmers and ranchers driving Brazil's export-led economy.
Silva expects 31 miles of rain forest to be destroyed on either side of Brazil's Highway 163 unless the project is given environmental safeguards and strict policing.
Federal Police Agent Delano Lopes expects to serve on the front line in that fight.
"The wealth of this country is the environment and the federal police has been told to protect that wealth," he said.