Brazil's president said that "gringos" should pay Amazon nations to prevent deforestation, insisting rich Western nations have caused much more past environmental destruction than the loggers and farmers who cut and burn trees in the world's largest tropical rain forest.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva made the comments Thursday just before an Amazon summit in which delegates signed a declaration calling for financial help from the industrial world to halt the deforestation that causes global warming.
"I don't want any gringo asking us to let an Amazon resident die of hunger under a tree," Silva said. "We want to preserve, but they will have to pay the price for this preservation because we never destroyed our forest like they mowed theirs down a century ago."
In Brazil, the word "gringo" does not only mean American, but generally refers to anyone from the northern hemisphere.
Silva convened the meeting to form a unified position on deforestation and climate change for seven Amazon nations ahead of the Dec. 7-18 Copenhagen climate summit. But the only leaders who attended were Guyana's Bharrat Jagdeo and France's Nicolas Sarkozy, representing French Guiana, prompting top Silva aides and environmentalists to admit the gathering will have a muted impact.
Other nations sent vice presidents or ministers, and the presidents of Colombia and Venezuela embarrassed Brazil by canceling at the last minute.
Sarkozy supported a recent proposal by Silva to create a financial transaction tax that would be used to build a fund to help developing nations protect their forests. Details will be discussed in Copenhagen.
Home to 30 million people
Despite the lackluster summit showing, Silva aides said it was important to drive home a message that the Amazon is home to 30 million people, most of whom depend on the forest's natural riches to eke out a living. About 25 million live in Brazil's portion, which has about 60 percent of the Amazon, an area larger than Western Europe.
"In Europe everyone has opinions about the Amazon, and there are people who think the Amazon is a zoo where you have to pay to enter," said Marco Aurelio Garcia, Silva's top foreign policy adviser. "They don't know there are 30 million who work there."
Brazil has managed to reduce Amazon destruction to about 7,000 square kilometers (2,702 square miles) a year, the lowest level in decades. But that is still larger than the U.S. state of Delaware.
Massive absorber of carbon dioxide
The Brazilian Amazon is arguably the world's biggest natural defense against global warming, acting as an absorber of carbon dioxide. But it is also a big contributor to warming because about 75 percent of Brazil's emissions come from rainforest clearing, as vegetation burns and felled trees rot.
Brazil has an incentive to protect the Amazon because the new global climate agreement is expected to reward countries for "avoided deforestation," with cash or credits tradable on the global carbon market.
Norway is making payments to give Brazil $1 billion by 2015 to preserve the Amazon rain forest, as long as Latin America's largest nation keeps trying to stop deforestation.
The nation was the first to supply cash to an Amazon preservation fund Brazilian officials hope will raise US$21 billion to protect nature reserves, to persuade loggers and farmers to stop destroying trees and to finance scientific and technological projects.
Brazilian Environment Minister Carlos Minc has said Japan, Sweden, Germany, South Korea and Switzerland are considering donating to the fund.