USAID $50 Million May Entice Conservationists to Violent Amazon

WASHINGTON, DC, March 8, 2006 (ENS) - The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is offering an initial $50 million in grants over the next five years to help preserve biodiversity in the Amazon Basin. But conservationists who participate in the Amazon Basin Conservation Initiative may find themselves staring down the barrel of a gun.

USAID says its investment will support community groups, governmental entities and public and private organizations in the Amazon region to conserve the basin's "unique and globally important resources." The agency announced a request for applications from parties interested in obtaining the Amazon Basin Conservation Initiative grants in a March 2 statement.


Intact rainforest in the Amazon Basin. Approximately 85 percent of the Amazon rainforest still exists (Photo credit unknown)
Still the world's largest area of intact tropical rainforest, the Amazon river basin encompasses 20 percent of the world's freshwater resources. USAID said its program is needed because the region's biological assets are threatened.

The initiative aims is to bring together indigenous and local communities, conservationists and decisionmakers from the Amazon region countries to help address common conservation challenges, such as conflicts over the use of forests and other valuable natural resources.

To date, about 15 percent of the Amazon Basin has been deforested. The USAID document says continued deforestation within the basin might "disrupt local and regional climate processes, resulting in less rainfall with far-reaching" effects on biodiversity, agriculture, fisheries and the "livelihoods of indigenous people who have lived in the Basin for millennia."

"Sound development options with the potential to equitably benefit" the approximately 30 million residents of the Amazon Basin "must be a key component of addressing these conservation challenges," the agency said.

In a February 2005 concept paper announcing the plan, USAID said the initiative is designed to address the "shared responsibility" of the United States for the "stewardship of globally important biodiversity."


Clearcut logging in the Amazon Basin. Over 26,000 square kilometers of forests was lost in 2004 - an area more than half the size of Switzerland. (Photo credit unknown)
The concept paper said that through these initiatives, the U.S. government works "to address enormous conservation challenges in critical areas around the world by providing people with sustainable livelihoods, improving natural resource governance, and developing conservation programs appropriate for each region."

But conservationists may face threats of violence in their attempts to protect the Amazon. Hundreds of activists have been beaten and killed in the past two decades.

In an effort to curb the violence, two unions today announced a campaign to change the attitude of Brazilian judges that they see as a root cause of the problem.

The Brazilian Farm Workers Union (Contag) and an international union (Uita) are launching a protest campaign called "Enough Violence in the Countryside," which targets Brazil's judicial system as responsible for much of the land conflict violence in the country, according to the state-run news agency Agencia Brasil.

According to Contag and the Land Pastoral Commission, a Catholic organization, over the last 20 years there have been 1,500 rural activists, workers and leaders assassinated in Brazil, but only 76 cases of land conflict violence ever went to trial.

"We want the international community to be aware of this problem and pressure the Brazilian judicial system to find a solution," says Paulo Caralo of Contag.

Last year there were 37 deaths related to land conflicts. The best known case is that of the American Catholic nun Dorothy Stang. Her assassination led to such an uproar that the government sent in the Army and captured suspects in a few days. So far, two of the accused have been sentenced and three more are awaiting trial.


American nun Dorothy Stang, a member of the Sisters of Charity, worked for the land rights of rural communties and sustainable development in the Amazon for 30 years until she was shot to death February 12, 2005. (Photo courtesy HWM)
Stang was killed in the state of Pará, considered to be the main center of violence against rural activitists and a place where most of these crimes go unpunished. According to Contag, in Pará in 2005, 16 people were killed because of land conflicts and there are another 40 who have received death threats.

The organizers of the campaign intend to hold public discussions with judges about the problem of violence carried out with impunity. Many see the social relationships that judges have with landowners as one of the main problems in dealing with impunity. Other problems are the traditional concentation of land in the hands of a few and weak legislation, the unions said.

Violence erupted on March 3, in a remote area of the forest in Pará, about 120 kilometers (80 miles) from the city of Santarém, where local residents and Greenpeace members were protesting land clearing to plant soy. The group of 50 people traveled for five hours over rough roads to reach an area of 1,650 hectares of total devastation, known as Pacoval Soil.

The Brazilian Institute of Environment and Natural Resources, or IBAMA, calls this area the largest deforestation of the Amazon region in the past seven years.

There, says Greenpeace Brazil, the group stretched an enormous banner bearing the the message "100% Crime" and planted chestnut trees, a species encouraged by the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture.


Greenpeace banner and chestnut trees on cleared land. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace Brazil)
The president of the Association of the Agricultural Producers of Santarém, José Donizetti Pires de Oliveira, identified by IBAMA as responsible for the deforestation, reacted with violence to the protest. Greenpeace says he and his associates drove a car over the banner to destroy it, broke the glass of one of their pickup trucks and attacked the protesters. Nobody was wounded.

"The destruction of the Amazon always walks hand in hand with violence and land conflicts," said Raimundo Mesquita, vice-president of the Union of Rural Workers of Santarém. "Although IBAMA fined the farmer two times, he continues to clear lands, destroying the forest, our chestnut trees and our desire for a peaceful and sustainable future."

The Amazon Basin Conservation Initiative request for applications is listed online at: under Funding Opportunity Number: LAC-RSD-2006-2-LMA.

The USAID will offer a second opportunity for funding for the regionwide component for program facilitation and collaboration. This program component will award one contract through an request for proposal that will be posted on: