Two news stories caught my eye this week, showing trouble brewing in the Amazon.
The first story isn't actually the Amazon, but rather the Pantanal, a swamp region in the southwestern part of Brazil. Three American graduate students were arrested there, accused of "crimes against the patrimony" by stealing minerals, as well as doing scientific research on tourist visas. The American and Brazilian coverage, as usual, differs considerably, in that the Brazilian coverage assumes the gringos are automatically guilty.
Here's an excerpt from the US Today story:
Roberto Lins, the men's Brazilian lawyer, says the students may not go before a judge for six months and could face up to five years in prison if convicted of illegally prospecting for minerals."
Here's an excerpt from the Globo story:
"Segundo a polícia, o grupo fazia pesquisa sem autorização de nenhum órgão governamental brasileiro e sem comprovante de intercâmbio ou convênio com entidades de pesquisa do Brasil.
Ainda de acordo com a PF, eles faziam coleta de sedimentos, por meio de prospecção mineral. O material seria levado para os Estados Unidos, onde seriam analisados."
There are a couple of lessons to be gleaned from this story, and none of them are good. The first is that in rural areas like this one, you can get away with robbery, murder, and kidnapping, but not studying sand. And in this case, a study intended to do good, by monitoring climate change. The second is that this is yet one of several cases of foreigners being accused of scientific piracy and exploitation in Brazil, and it creates a major deterrent to scientific research and innovation there. The third is that Brazilian universities and scientific institutions need to be better prepared when working on projects like this, since the American students had trusted that USP had all of their permits in order and had followed their directions "just to apply for a tourist visa." If not, foreigners won't be able to trust these institutions and will go elsewhere to carry out similar projects. And finally, another lesson for foreigners in Brazil is to always, always have your paperwork in order. In the country of Great Bureaucracy, it's always better to be safe than sorry.
The second story takes place in Rondonia, the far northwest of Brazil. Ibama, the government agency responsible for protecting the environment, invaded a national park there. Though the land is supposed to be protected, 3,000 people live there raising 30,000 heads of cattle, and as a result, a quarter of the forest in the park has been destroyed. Ibama went in with 400 men to fine the cattle ranchers and to make them remove the cattle from the land immediately. However, the ranchers were angry, since the Minister of the Environment recently turned over part of the park land to the state to allow residents to stay on the destroyed part of the land.
So some ranchers decided to let Ibama have it. They set one of their cars on fire, and left this pathetically written threat:
It is in this note, I think, that the problem of environmental protection in Brazil becomes clear. The government and conservationists are up against uneducated, armed peons with few options for employment (and rich, well-connected businessmen who can get away with anything) amidst a sea of red tape and conflicting authorities and laws, none of which are effectively protecting the rainforest. This deadly combination spawns chaos, and so far, no solution has allowed the Brazilian government to figure out how to manage the delicate balance between development and conservation.