Brazil environment agency seizes Amazon soy, corn

SAO PAULO Tue May 20, 2008 9:46pm BST

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SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazil's environmental agency Ibama said on Tuesday it seized some 4,740 tonnes of soy, corn and rice grown on illegally deforested land in the Amazon as the country struggles with its environmental image abroad.

Brazil's farming, biofuels and ranching sectors, Latin America's largest, have come under fire, especially in Europe, for unregulated expansion at the cost of the environment, particularly in the Amazon. The European Union has been pushing to limit imports of commodities such as biofuels from Brazil on the grounds of sustainability.

The government and large farming interests in Brazil have begun to realize the importance of public relations in trade and are investing to improve the country's environmental, sanitary and labor image abroad.

"The seizure is a milestone in the battle against deforestation, since it hits exactly at the activities that stimulate environmental crime," Leandro Aranha, the coordinator of inspection at Ibama in the northern state of Para, in the lower Amazon Basin, said.

Very little of Brazil's grains and biofuels production occurs anywhere near the Amazon, but the price of beef has risen to levels that makes ranching in the Amazon profitable.

Loggers, shadowy real estate companies and squatters account for most of the illegal deforestation in the region.

Aranha said agents took over the fields of a farm in the southeast of Para state. Although the owner of 500 hectares (1,235 acres) in the town of Dom Eliseu had previously been fined for illegal deforestation, a second inspection showed crops were planted there.

The owner was fined an additional 8 million reais ($4.8 million), Aranha said. The fields that are beginning to harvest contain 1,740 tonnes of soy, 2,640 tonnes of corn and 360 tonnes of rice, Aranha estimated. The owner has 20 days to present his appeal in defense against the fine.

The seized soy, corn and rice may go toward the government's Zero Hunger program that subsidizes food for Brazil's poor.

"We want to give some social end to the seized grains," Flavio Montiel, director of Environmental Protection at Ibama, said.

(Reporting by Reese Ewing; Editing by Christian Wiessner)

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