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Indigenous peoples make their protest in Belém


Indigenous peoples have been holding a mass and colourful protest at the World Social Forum in the Brazilian city of Belém against the destruction of their habitat.

At the same time, members of the Swiss delegation have been looking at the fate of Amazon rainforests, an issue that is high on the agenda of the conference.

"I have come to advance the cause of women and to defend nature," said Feliciana, an old Peruvian lady, resplendent in traditional costume.

She and many others from the countries covered by the Amazon rainforest converged on the WSF on Wednesday to call for their homeland to be protected.

Songs and dancing were used rather than lengthy speeches to show how lands were being destroyed by mining companies or how hydroelectric plants were having an impact on the forest's fragile ecosystem.

Others told of deforestation, violence, land dispossession and the struggle for territorial rights.

Many had hoped that Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the Workers' Party leader elected to office six years ago, would improve the situation. But there has been disappointment.

"For Lula and his government, ecology is first and foremost an obstacle to development," said Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian theologian and human rights supporter.

The Brazilian government's emphasis on biofuel production and the fast rise in beef exports have also worsened the situation, observers said.

First hand accounts

Members of the Swiss delegation to the WSF were able to witness the problems first-hand on a trip to the city of Ulianopolis, 400 kilometres south of Belém.

It is estimated 18,000 km² of primary forest has been cut down in the area in recent years, an equivalent to a third of Switzerland's surface area.

Upon arrival, dense smoke rises from the around 100 furnaces used to produce the coal to feed the iron works at Rio Doce.

"I am employed on a daily basis to fill the wood ovens," says a man. "I earn eight Real (SFr4 or $3.5)." This sum is well below the minimum monthly wage of 415 Real.

Everywhere land is given over to cattle raising, or the growing of soya, sugar cane or eucalyptus, which is used to make cellulose and destroys the soil and other plants. Pesticides and fertilizers are heavily used.

In places, you have to peer towards the horizon to see the forest.

The signs of deforestation are extremely visible. A field, which has just been sown, is covered with strange bumps. These are the roots of the largest trees, which are impossible to eradicate completely and are simply covered over with soil.

Human rights

Erica Hennequin, a Green Party parliamentarian for the canton of Jura, has long been aware of the damage to the environment caused by single-crop and factory farming.

"Too many pesticides and fertilisers are used and the profits only go to the large landowners," she said.

"But what I didn't realise before is the impact this type of farming has on human rights – the other day a non-governmental organisation showed a map on which the correlation between deforestation and human rights abuses was clearly marked."

A representative from the Brazilian NGO Land Pastoral Commission confirmed that its research had found a direct relation between rural violence and the expansion of farming. Large companies and farmers are not above falsifying land deeds and if necessary using violence to remove smallholders from their lands, it was claimed.

Despite these concerns, nobody at the WSF – billed as an anti-globalisation alternative to the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos - was suggesting that the rainforest should be turned into a kind of "Indian reserve", with no economic activity.

Economic concerns

"I was really hit by how much people love the forest, by their desire to preserve their heritage, for example by creating small seed banks," said Hennequin.

For some, the future could be in family-run farms, which are intensive but run along agro-forestry lines. They would mix crops and be environmentally friendly.

There are already many examples of this type of operation, and, according to research conducted by the French NGO GRET, they are not necessarily economically disadvantaged.

"The big agricultural firms which carry out single-crop and factory farming are clearly more profitable when it comes to per capita income," explained GRET's Philippe Sablayrolles.

"On the other hand, if you analyse the abundance of what is produced per hectare, the small farms do better."

This, the NGO believes, is the type of farming which would be most beneficial to the Amazon forests in the long run.

swissinfo, based on an article in Italian by Daniele Mariani in Belém

The Amazon Forest

The rainforest covers 5.5 million km², which is roughly equivalent to 11 times the size of France. It has the largest biodiversity of all the world's forests.

In the Brazilian Amazon forest alone (60 per cent of the total), the forest area has decreased from 4.1 million km² to 3.4 million km².

According to a Brazilian report, 52,000 km² of forest disappears each year. If this pace continues, there will be not forest by 2050, according to these estimates.

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The World Social Forum opened in the Brazilian city of Belém on January 27 and runs until February 1. Around 100,000 people and more than 4,000 non-governmental and social movements are taking part.

The WSF first took place in 2001, in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. It was conceived in response to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, which is held at the same time of year.

There are around 50 people in the Swiss delegation.

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