Brazil environment minister fines cane mills

1/07/2008 - 20:51

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazil's new environment minister, Carlos Minc, called all sugar cane mills in the northeastern state of Pernambuco an environmental "disaster of disasters" and fined them 120 million reais ($75 million).

In a crackdown called Old Green Mill conducted jointly with the environmental protection agency Ibama, Minc said on Tuesday on the official government news service Agencia Brasil that all 24 mills in the state had committed a series of crimes.

Since he took over as minister after conservationist icon Marina Silva stepped down several weeks ago, Minc has targeted Brazil's powerful farmers, ranchers and miners, who are riding a global commodity boom, and blamed them for fueling deforestation.

The ministry has already seized thousands of cattle and hundreds of tonnes of soybeans and corn in the Amazon region in a crackdown against illegal logging. It has also fined several steel mills for using charcoal produced from illegal deforestation.

Minc said the 24 sugar and ethanol mills in Pernambuco were responsible for the loss of 85,000 hectares (210,000 acres) of Atlantic rain forest and were operating without environmental licenses.

"Not only in the Amazon" will environmental laws be enforced, Minc said. "The time of being soft on the northeastern mills is over."

Most of Brazil's sugar cane is grown in the center-south region but a smaller group of mills still maintains production in the northeastern states.

The rate of deforestation is increasing in Brazil this year for the first time since 2004 as growing demand for food is pushing farmers and ranchers deeper into forested regions.

"It doesn't matter how high the costs are for the millers. They are going to have to recover the area they have degraded," said Minc, who added that mills had the help of local politicians to operate outside the law.

(Reporting by Reese Ewing)

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