Brazil's Amazon settlers 'scratching out a living'

Deforested sector of the Amazon rainforest The rate of deforestation in the Amazon has suddenly increased this year

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The charred tree stumps in the Amazon rain forest tell their own story.

Even though the trees here are probably the best-protected anywhere on earth - at least in theory - someone is still cutting them down and burning them.

For several years now, the Brazilian government has insisted that the rate of deforestation in the Amazon has declined sharply.

But earlier this year, it suddenly jumped again, to a rate five times higher than last year.

These trees play a vital part in the management of global weather patterns.

They absorb carbon dioxide, which otherwise would contribute to climate change. That is why Brazil is under pressure to protect the forest.

'Villains'

Waldemar Vieira Neves understands that but he says there are other considerations as well.

He is what is known in Brazil as an Amazon settler and, the way many people see it, it is the settlers who are the biggest threat to the survival of the rain forest, burning down trees to clear more land for their cattle.

Waldemar Vieira Neves Waldemar Vieira Neves says he has to work hard to survive

Waldemar is a small, wiry man, 64 years old, with sharp features and a deep sense of grievance.

"I know everyone thinks we're villains," he says. "But what people don't understand is how hard we have to work to scratch out a living."

We were talking in a small clearing in the forest.

He has lived there for 12 years, ever since the government offered him the opportunity to start a new life as an Amazon settler.

He used to live in the far north-east of Brazil, with no land and not much hope.

So, like tens of thousands of other settlers, he took the opportunity and did what the government wanted him to do - made a new home for himself in the forest and cleared the trees.

Law breakers

Brazil's laws on deforestation are extremely strict.

No-one who farms in the rainforest is supposed to be allowed to cultivate more than 20% of the land he owns. The rest has to be left untouched, as a way of preserving the forest and protecting the environment.

But sometimes, says Waldemar, people feel they have to break the law. What else can you do if there is no other way to survive?

"People say we're destroying the forest," he says. "We're not. We're protecting it, we depend on it. But we have to find a way so that both we and the forest can survive."

The settlers complain that they need more help in finding ways to make a living while keeping on the right side of the law.

They say they need education, not punishment, if the government wants them to farm the land but protect the trees at the same time.

Within the next few months, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who came to office six months ago, will have to decide whether to veto proposals to relax the Forest Code, which restricts how much land in the Amazon region can legally be cultivated.

Farmers and big international agricultural business groups say they need to be able to farm more land to provide the food that the world demands.

Tough decisions

They want an amnesty for farmers who may have cleared forest land illegally in the past, proposing that - instead of being fined - farmers who have broken the law should be required to buy more forest, equivalent to what they have cut down, in return for an undertaking to leave it untouched.

Rain forest settlement Amazon settlers say the government encouraged them to move there and clear forests

Brazil now exports more beef than any other country in the world, and agriculture makes up a quarter of the country's entire economic output.

It is the world's second biggest producer of soya, which is an essential ingredient in animal feed, and pressure from the huge soya producers south of the Amazon who are desperate to buy more land is pushing smaller farmers like Waldemar Vieira Neves deeper into the forest.

On the one hand, President Rousseff does not want to risk jeopardising Brazil's rapid economic growth by damaging its powerful agri-business interests.

On the other, she is under intense pressure from environmentalists not to approve any law that could encourage more deforestation in the Amazon.

Before her election last year, she pledged to veto any plan that would weaken the Forest Code and, within the coming months, she is going to have to decide whether to honour that pledge.

Robin Lustig's full report was broadcast on The World Tonight on Monday 4 July at 2200 BST on BBC Radio 4. It will also be available on the BBC iPlayer.

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