11 March 2009

Brazil moves to oust foreign NGOs in Amazon

By Raymond Colitt, Reuters, 10 Mar 2009 15:14:09 GMT

BRASILIA, March 10 (Reuters) - Brazil is preparing to oust scores of foreign aid groups it considers a threat to national security and will restrict foreign ownership in the Amazon, a senior government official told Reuters.

Foreign non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, had until early February to provide detailed accounts of their operations and register with half a dozen authorities, including federal police. Only 90 of several hundred foreign NGOs complied.

"All others are now clandestine and will be shut down. Those responsible will be deported," Secretary of Justice Romeu Tuma Jr. said in an interview late on Monday.

The government accuses some groups of industrial spying, undermining the culture of native Indians and biopiracy -- stealing medicinal plants for pharmaceutical purposes.

Tuma says the federal police has proof of foreign NGOs breaking the law but he could not give any examples. In the past, many were expelled without a proper trial, he said.

Nationalists, especially in military and intelligence circles, have long harbored conspiracy theories that foreigners are scheming to take the Amazon forest's vast resources.

The more recent crackdown on foreigners, critics say, may be a reaction to growing international pressure for Brazil to reduce deforestation.

"We want partners but not people who question the ownership of that land. The Amazon is ours," said Tuma.

Last year the army chief for the Amazon warned that Brazil's borders were vulnerable to incursions through tribal Indian territories harboring foreign aid workers.

Land Ownership Restrictions

The government is pushing ahead with a law to restrict foreign ownership of land in the Amazon, Tuma said.

Farmers in some areas have complained that foreign acquisitions have driven up the price of land. Nationalist legislators were up in arms because foreign conservationists sold Amazon land on the Internet.

Tuma said there is "political will in the government to restrict, create effective control" of foreign ownership.

"It's a question of sovereignty," he said.

The objective was to permit productive investments but prohibit foreigners from speculating with land.

"We need to find a balance that is constitutional," Tuma said.

In the huge, often lawless Amazon region, church groups evangelize Indians and ranchers chop down trees at will. Disputes are often solved through hired gunmen, not police.

"We want to know who is there, when they come and go, what type of work they're doing," Tuma said in reference to a planned police operation to control NGOs.

Foreign scientists visiting Indians, who harbor knowledge of medicinal plants useful to pharmaceutical companies, must now get their credentials validated by a national authority.

Many foreign groups are staffed by Brazilians and are legally domestic NGOs.

"These measures apply to all NGOs but it affects mostly foreigners because they weren't registered," Tuma said.

He rejected suggestions the measures were a drop in the bucket, given the size of the country and the number of foreign tourists that were potential spies.

"I don't think a tourist will clandestinely commit biopiracy and inflict huge losses," Tuma said. "The main perpetrators put up a facade of legality. They're organized."

Editing by John O'Callaghan

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