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Brazil Activists Hope New President Will Improve Environment Policies

Environmentalists in Brazil are hoping the newly elected leftist president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, will do more than his predecessor to protect the country's environment. They consider imposing curbs on mahogany trade as a key test for the incoming government.

Environmental issues did not play a big part in the presidential campaign that led to the October 27 victory of Mr. da Silva. However the election of the former labor leader has heartened environmentalists across the country.

In his first official speech after his election, Mr. da Silva made a point of highlighting the need to protect the fragile Amazon environment.

"Our government will be a guardian of the Amazon, and of its diversity. Environmental responsibility will be the hallmark for our development programs, especially for that region," he said.

The Amazon region which makes up about 65 percent of Brazil's territory is being steadily deforested, especially by illegal logging. In the last 30 years, an estimated 15 percent of the Amazon rainforest has been cut down an area larger than France.

Paulo Adario, the Amazon coordinator for the environmental group Greenpeace, says the current government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso could have done much more to protect the environment but was hampered by budget constraints. These stem from Brazil's ongoing commitments to the International Monetary Fund to reduce spending.

Mr. Adario says the incoming government will face the same restrictions, but may be able to do more.

"The new government will lack money as the Cardoso government did, and Lula already made these statements that he will respect international agreements, including the agreement with the IMF," he said. "What I believe can be different is that Lula is supported by hundreds of local NGOs, local entities, social movements, and these will help the new government to be more effective in environmental protection because normally the victims of environmental destruction are in this country the very poor. And these people who are promising to work very closely with Lula, will help the government increase, for instance monitoring, and this will be helpful."

Another Brazilian environmentalist, Edson Vidal of the scientific research group IMAZON says he is hopeful because of the environmental track record of Mr. da Silva's Workers' Party.

If the new government, he says, can bring to office people who really know the situation of the Amazon then there can be positive developments. Mr. Vidal cites the P.T. governor of the Amazon state of Acre, Jorge Viana, and the state's P.T. senator, Marina Silva as being among those who would have valuable input in the new government. Ms. Silva reportedly is among those being considered for the post of Environment Minister.

However, environmentalists say an important test of the president-elect's commitment to environmental protection is coming up soon over the issue of mahogany.

Brazil, along with 157 other countries, is a member of the 1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. The pact was meant to ensure that the international trade of wild animal and plants does not threaten their survival.

At a CITES meeting early next month in Santiago, member countries will consider a petition by Nicaragua to include mahogany on a list of species whose trade must be controlled by licensing.

Brazil so far has not declared its position on the issue. The Brazilian logging industry strongly opposes the measure for fear it would open the door to restricting the trade of other timber species.

The Cardoso government has decided to concult with Mr. da Silva's transition team over what position to take. Paulo Adario of Greenpeace says this will be an early test for the incoming government. "Yes, for sure. I don't believe they were expecting this so soon because they are establishing right now the transition team and the decision needs to be taken next week," he said. "We are expecting that mahogany will be discussed in Santiago on November 10… so there's no time to lose." Right now, Brazil bans the export of mahogany altogether, but the wood is still being shipped out illegally under other names. According to Mr. Adario, importers want Brazil to extend Appendix 2 of the protection treaty to mahogany as a way of legalizing the trade.

"What is happening right now is that the legal market is closed; there is no legal mahogany leaving the country," he said. "We have received from important traders, particularly in the U.K. and Canada, letters supporting the inclusion of mahogany in Apendix 2 to reopen the market that is closed. Right now, importers in the U.S and in Europe don't trust anymore in what the Brazilian government is saying about the origin of the species…So listing mahogany in Appendix two will help to reopen the market for these species, to the contrary of what the logging industry believes right now."

If mahogany is placed under CITES controls, the Brazilian government would have to license the trade and appoint a panel of expert advisors on the effects of the trade on the species.

The hopes of much of the environmental community are riding on how the da Silva transition team handles the mahogany issue and whether, as Imazon's Mr. Vidal puts it, the new president will match his pro-environment rhetoric with action.