Lula's "horrific mistakes" continue (25/9/2004)

Latest Battle in 'War' Over Transgenics
Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Sep 24 (IPS) - The Brazilian government has made "horrific mistakes" regarding the issue of transgenic crops and is about to make another, according to 14 organisations that have sent an open letter to President Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva.

Once again, Lula, a former trade unionist, has found himself in the difficult position of having to adopt a supposedly "one-time" emergency measure -- although this is the third time since last year -- to authorise the planting of transgenic soybeans.

Transgenic or genetically modified (GM) crops are banned in Brazil. On Thursday, however, Lula announced to 13 radio journalists from throughout the country that he will sign a new emergency measure, subject to approval by the senate, to authorise the planting of GM soybeans in the coming weeks.

The 14 environmental, campesino and consumer protection organisations that signed the letter say they are "deeply troubled" by the president's willingness to adopt an emergency measure that contravenes the biosafety bill that Lula himself introduced in Congress. The bill has already been approved by the Chamber of Deputies, but still needs to be passed by the Senate.

Moreover, they say, the measure "violates the precautionary principle of the Convention on Biological Diversity," to which Brazil is a party, by permitting the cultivation of GM crops "with no prior studies to determine their environmental impact or potential effects on the health of consumers."

"Mistakes" like these with regard to such an important issue have "deeply frustrated" civil society organisations in Brazil, the letter states.

They are also a source of "disappointment for all those in Brazil and abroad who applauded the appointment of Environment Minister Marina Silva as a guarantee that environmental issues would be a priority for this government," it adds.

Marina Silva, who is highly respected for her past record of social and environmental activism in the Amazon region, clearly expressed her opposition to the new measure authorising the planting of GM soy, arguing that the matter should be subject to regulations enforced by Congress.

The problem is that the Senate vote on the biosafety bill will not take place until October 5, having been postponed several times. Furthermore, because the text has undergone a number of changes recommended by specialised committees, it will now have to go back to the Chamber of Deputies for approval once again.

This means that final approval of the bill will not be possible until after soybean planting season has begun -- and the planting would be illegal if the emergency measure is not adopted.

Farmers in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul have announced that they will plant the transgenic seeds no matter what, whether or not it is legal," because they have no other seeds.

The local Federation of Agriculture estimates that 90 percent of the soy cultivated this year in the state will be transgenic, which translates into almost eight million tons.

In fact, an ever-increasing amount of GM soy has been grown in Rio Grande do Sul since at least 1997, with seeds smuggled in from neighbouring Argentina. But legal authorisation for this practice was only sought for the first time last year.

Lula cautioned that this matter should be handled "with great care", taking into account the "interests of the nation." In other words, the idea of ordering the destruction of food in a country suffering from poverty and hunger is unacceptable.

In any event, the version of the biosafety bill to be voted on by the Senate faces opposition from environmentalists, the campesino movement and consumer protection groups, which argue that the bill approved by the Chamber of Deputies in February was modified to the extent that it is practically unrecognisable.

The main point of contention is the authority granted to the National Technical Commission on Biosafety, a branch of the Ministry of Science and Technology, which would be empowered to authorise the production and sale of GM crops and products.

That would diminish the power of environmental and health authorities, by permitting the cultivation of GM crops before environmental and health impact studies are carried out, as required by the country's constitution.

Cotton is now following along the path forged by soybeans. A transgenic variety has already been found growing in parts of the midwestern state of Mato Grosso, and cotton producers are demanding the same treatment as that given to soy farmers.

Lula and his government are facing other challenges in the environmental sphere. There are a number of major projects being planned that have sparked considerable controversy.

One of these projects is the paving of the BR-163, a road stretching 1,765 kilometres from Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso, to Santarém, a port on the Amazon River in northern Brazil.

The newly created highway would greatly facilitate the transportation of soy and other export commodities. Mato Grosso is the country's largest soy producer.

The project has been the subject of ample consultation with all of the sectors involved, in an effort to ensure sustainability and avoid the disasters provoked by other highways through the Amazon region, such as deforestation, local conflicts and violence.

But environmentalists fear a repeat of these problems. The mere announcement of the project set off a rush of speculative activity, like the illegal occupation of neighbouring land and the first steps towards deforestation, according to Roberto Smeraldi, head of Friends of the Earth-Brazilian Amazonia.

A similar controversy has erupted over the diversion of the Sao Francisco River, which links central and northeastern Brazil. The purpose of the project is to bring water to semi-arid areas in the northeast, the country's poorest region. Ensuring that the poor have access to drinking water at the very least is a "humanitarian question," says Lula.

The idea has been discussed for nearly two centuries, but never brought to fruition, given the disputes it has generated and the high costs involved. In addition, the river has suffered serious deterioration over the last decades, because of deforestation along its banks, an increase in sedimentation, and a decrease in flow.

The river's vast watershed area will need to be revitalised before any part of its water is diverted. That would be a lengthy process, and one that would undoubtedly lead to even further debate. (END/2004)

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