Monday, October 15, 2018
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An eye on the Amazon
Latinamerica Press
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Critics say that a new satellite system favors US interests.

A satellite system that will increase police, military and environmental monitoring in the Brazilian Amazon has been dogged by strong criticism and accusations of corruption.

With 25 radar, eight airplanes, 87 satellite imaging stations and 200 data-gathering platforms, the system, known by its Portuguese initials, SIVAM, will vastly increase the real-time information available about the Amazon jungle, which represents 60 percent of Brazilian territory.

But even as President Fernando Henrique Cardoso presided over the inauguration on July 25 in Manaus, capital of Amazonas state, the daily Folha de São Paulo newspaper charged that Lt. Brig. Marcos Antônio de Oliveira, aeronautics chief of staff, had favored a US company in bidding on the US$1.4-billion project.

According to the newspaper reports, Oliveira passed on confidential information to favor Raytheon, the fourth-largest US military supplier, over the French company Thomson, now Thales.

The reports, based on 400 US State Department documents that the newspaper obtained, charged that Oliveira had also promised to pass information gathered by SIVAM to US officials.

The Manaus Regional Surveillance Center, the central information facility, was opened on July 25. Two other centers will begin operations within the next two months in Belém, capital of the northeastern state of Pará, and Porto Velho, capital of the northern state of Rondônia.

Only 75 percent of the SIVAM installations are complete. When it is fully functional, the project is expected to create 2,100 direct jobs.

Since implementation began in 1997, SIVAM has been beset by several scandals. Critics also worry that the United States will have access to secret information from Brazil.

Tarcísio Muta, director of Atech, the company responsible for developing the system’s computer programs, denied that such a risk exists. Defense Minister Geraldo Quintão has also called the charges unfounded, saying that criticism of the project, which he said was extremely important for national sovereignty, was unjustified.

Cardoso pointed out that bidding for the SIVAM project took place under his predecessor, President Itamar Franco (1993-94). At the time, SIVAM was the target of a congressional investigation and seven government audits.

"I have always defended this program and followed it closely from the beginning," Cardoso said. "This project has received a great deal of criticism, but its significance will go down in history."

Besides aiding in defense, control of air traffic and the fight against drug smuggling, Cardoso said, SIVAM will create an "innovative" opportunity for integration among the eight countries that share the Amazon jungle. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has expressed interest in obtaining information collected by SIVAM, he added.

SIVAM’s main goal is to monitor air traffic and provide warning of incursions by drug traffickers or armed groups, such as those operating in Colombia. The project is the brainchild of the Brazilian Air Force. There are nearly 1,500 unauthorized flights a year over Brazil’s Amazon jungle, 90 percent of them linked to illegal activities such as drug trafficking, according to authorities.

Radar on land as well as on aircraft and boats will now be able to identify planes of any size that enter Brazilian airspace, regardless of their altitude.

A bill approved by the Brazilian Congress in 1998, which the president has not yet signed into law, would give the Air Force permission to shoot down unauthorized planes whose pilots refuse to follow orders from Brazilian authorities. A similar policy in Peru led to the erroneous shooting down last year of a small plane carrying US missionaries, in which a woman and her infant daughter were killed (LP, May 7, 2001).

SIVAM could lead to a harsher response to illegal flights and to unauthorized watercraft on the rivers by sharing information with a parallel system, the Amazon Protection System, which will have its own planes and other military resources.

Air Force officials, however, claim that 80 percent of the SIVAM data will be related to the environment. Information from three meteorological satellites will shed light on deforestation, changes in water resources, and soil use.

The system will also allow monitoring of the Amazon jungle’s little-known mineral resources. Brazil has 88 percent of the niobium, 32 percent of the tin and 15 percent of the iron reserves in the world.

Environmentalists, however, are skeptical that the project will promote sustainable development or help curb destruction of the Amazon jungle.

Paulo Adário, who heads Greenpeace’s Amazon jungle campaign, said that while SIVAM will be "an important tool" for monitoring the Amazon, there are no guarantees that the government will use the information to crack down on those responsible for destroying the jungle.

Adário acknowledged that by improving understanding of the Amazon and the causes of its problems, the new system could favor sustainable development and environmental policies. He added, however, that SIVAM was not a substitute for direct enforcement on the ground to identify and punish those who destroy the Amazon forest and pollute and destroy the region’s ecosystems.

Since the project was first announced in the early 1990s, the Catholic Church’s Missionary Indigenous Council (CIMI) has expressed concern about the project’s effect on indigenous peoples in the Amazon.

"Besides the corruption, SIVAM could have a negative impact on the rights and will of the indigenous people and river dwellers of the Amazon region," the council said in a report. "SIVAM was conceived according to the mindset of the old militarist national security doctrine, which saw indigenous populations living near the country’s borders as potential enemies of Brazil."



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