IMAGE: GREENPEACE PROTEST IN AMAZON
Daniel Beltra  /  AFP/Getty Images
Greenpeace activists block a road last August in Brazil's Altamira National Forest, a protected area at the margins of the BR163 road in the state of Para. The BR163 road, which is to be paved in the future, cuts through Altamira. Activists say that makes it easier for illegal logging  inside the protected area.
updated 2/15/2006 10:57:19 AM ET 2006-02-15T15:57:19

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has created two new national parks in the Amazon rain forest and expanded another to protect an environmentally sensitive region where the government plans to pave a major road.

Silva signed a decree placing 3.7 million acres of rain forest completely off limits for development, in a surprise ceremony late Monday.

"This is very important and should be celebrated," said Environment Minister Marina Silva, who is not related to the president.

President Silva also created four national forests where sustainable logging will be permitted and an environmental protection zone where development is allowed under strict regulation.

In total, the decree granted some form of environmental protection to 16 million acres — an area roughly the size of Belgium — on the western side of the so-far unpaved BR-163 highway.

The controversial highway, stretching from the midwestern city of Cuiaba to the jungle port of Santarem, cuts through the heart of the rain forest and environmentalists warn that paving it will open a swath of destruction across the world's largest remaining tropical wilderness.

U.S. nun killed in area
The protected land lies in an area where President Silva declared a logging moratorium after the killing last year of American nun and environmental defender Dorothy Stang.

Stang, who spent the last 23 years of her life defending poor communities against the loggers and land grabbers who abound in the Amazon, was killed in a land dispute with a local rancher on Feb. 12, 2005.

Her killing sparked an international uproar, and within days the government declared the creation of two massive national parks and two extractivist reserves — areas where people can live as long as they don't damage the forest — along with the logging moratorium along the BR-163.

Two gunmen have been convicted for Stang's killing and two ranchers are awaiting trial on charges of ordering her death.

On Tuesday, David Stang, the brother of the slain nun, praised the new forest as "a great victory. Dorothy is still having an enormous influence in Brazil," Stang said from his home near Colorado Springs, Colo.

Paving before protection?
Environmentalists offered more measured praise.

"The moratorium proved to be effective because it gave the state power to act against those who thought they could illegally seize public lands," said Claudio Maretti, coordinator of protected areas for the World Wide Fund for Nature in Brazil. "But the government should be quicker to declare protected areas in other regions."

The moratorium was decreed to give the government time to decide how to zone the area along the BR-163 highway before paving would begin.

Soy farmers, who have been expanding rapidly into the Amazon in recent years, want the highway paved as a way to speed their shipments abroad.

Environmentalists, however, estimate that each road cut into the rain forest causes destruction for 30 miles on each side within a few years as invaders arrive to cut trees.

"At least these areas were created. The next step is implementation," said Paulo Adario, director of Greenpeace's Amazon campaign. "If they are going to start paving without implementing the reserves we are going to lose everything."

Adario said the parks that were declared in the wake of Stang's killing exist mostly on paper, without any infrastructure or park rangers to keep loggers and ranchers from invading the wilderness.

Monday's decree brings the total area in the Amazon under some form of federal protection to 113 million acres, the environment ministry said.

The Brazilian Amazon sprawls over 1.6 million square miles, the size of western Europe. Experts say as much as 20 percent of the forest has been destroyed by development, logging and farming. Last year the forest lost a near-record 10,000 square miles.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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