Originally published on 11/23/2008 by O Estado de S. Paulo
Usiminas wants to build an airport next to a park. The Rio Doce State Park has already given the thumbs up for analyzing the license for the job. The works will expand the company’s installations in Ipatinga, in the “Steel Valley”, and create 16 thousand new jobs in the construction of a new mill and 3.5 thousand when it is in operation. Jobs are lacking in this region of poor cities that do not know the meaning of the word progress. Progress that, on the other hand, can damage the last untouched Atlantic Forest reserve in Minas Gerais, the home of rare and endangered species.
Researchers and environmentalists are not against development in the region, but they reject this project that will sit 600 meters from the border to the park. According to Usiminas, there is no other way out, since the land where its current runway is located will receive the construction of a new steel mill with investments of US$ 5.7 billion. In a survey of 100 sites, the company visited 14 and concluded that only 1, in Bom Jesus do Galho, could fit the new airport. The goal is to finish the undertaking in August 2009 at a cost of R$ 78.8 million with its 2000 meter long runway. It will be the second largest in the state, with the capacity to even receive Boeing 737s.
The Environmental Impact Statement/Report (EIS/EIR) elaborated by Brandt Meio Ambiente is questioned by those against the works. They allege the document is remiss or incomplete in relation to endangered species – more than a dozen were not even mentioned – and presents impractical solutions to reduce environmental damage.
“It is important to underscore the works will be outside the park. There will be an impact, but there are measures to prevent this from reaching the ecosystem,” ensures biologist Eduardo Figueiredo, environmental consultants at Usiminas. Figueiredo adds that the current airport is also near the park. When the planes land, they fly over the forest for a longer period of time (14 kilometers) and at lower altitudes (140 meters). In the future route, they will fly over 6 kilometers of the park at an altitude of 310 meters.
Professors from six universities – the Federal Universities of Minas Gerais, Ouro Preto, Viçosa and Goiás, Pontifícia Universidade Católica of Minas Gerais and Centro Universitário do Leste Mineiro – demand the Regional Superintendence of the Environment, tied to the state secretary, suspend the license analysis. They want the steel company to choose another site, even if it costs more.
District attorney Walter Freitas de Moraes Júnior signed a term of commitment with Usiminas imposing 17 conditions if the work moves forward. The demands include limiting aircraft flying over the forest, respecting the behavior of birds, maintaining a fire fighting base and regulating protected area land – there are still squatters present.
Environmental study ignored endangered plants and animals
The Northern muriqui (Brachyteles hypoxathus) was one of the species of primates ignored by Usiminas’ Environmental Impact Statement/Report (EIS/EIR). Extinct in Bahia, due to loss of habitat, it has one of its last refuges in the Rio Doce Park. Biologist Luiz Gustavo Dias has sighted 12 groups of this mammal in the unit’s 36 thousand hectares. It is an excellent number. In field work, the researcher has already seen the reaction of the animals to helicopters flying low or noisy trucks on the illegal road inside the park: panic, stress, falls and running away. In this case, the steel company stresses the helicopters are also used to count the muriquis.
Most of the time, the primates have reproduced well – there are 40 to 80 individuals in each group – because they find tranquility, space and food. Right next to the bank of Doce River, where they intend to build the airport, there is dense vegetation. Among the plants we can find the white star apple tree (Chrysophyllum imperiale), with its large fruit for animals. This species of flora is the theme studied by researcher Tereza Cristina Spósito. It is endangered and is not in the EIS/EIR.
Animals and plants in a harmonious environment, fighting together for survival. The Northern muriquis eat the fruit of the white star apple, and when they move about they drop them on the forest floor, soon to become new trees that will feed new animals. “Building this airport goes against the expansion policy in ecological corridors, reducing the capacity for species connection in the remaining areas of the Atlantic Forest,” explains Tereza.
The land for the new airport is in the park’s buffer zone, considered a Biosphere Reserve. According to the law that created the National Protected Area System, only activities that do not result in damage to core areas are accepted in neighboring zones. But there was a eucalpytus forest in the area. Now, Usiminas says that when it moves forward with this project, it will help the scientific community conduct studies that provide in-depth knowledge of the relationship between the environment and works. And it will incur the costs of environmental preservation, such as economic-ecological zoning, which will arrange occupation around the park.
Delson Tolentino, consultant for institutional relations at Usiminas, says, “99.9% of the people are enthusiastic supporters of the project for the mill and the airport.” He says there has been no thought about not investing in expanding the mill if the new runway is denied. “The main issue for choosing the site was safety. We are not going to make any money with the new airport.”
The mayor of Bom Jesus do Galho, father Aníbal Borges (PT), says the controversy is unproportional since there are airports in the Amazon, including protected areas, and for the city’s 15.3 thousand inhabitants, the social benefits will be huge. The 32 board members for the park who could veto the project, approved the discussion about the license. The steel mill will use these arguments as a trump card. There is no other geographic, economic or environmental alternative.
Academicians say you cannot permit construction of the airport and then, after it is in operation, study the effects on fauna and flora. With hundreds of hours of observation, biologist Marcos Canuto, of SOS Falconiformes, questions how to reconcile the flights of planes with those of birds. “They have no territorial limit, no schedule. They fly all day long.” He has already sighted the endangered ornate hawk eagle (Spizaetus ornatus) flying over neighboring forests. In the past four years, the only five recordings of the bird of prey, the grey-bellied goshawk (Accipiter poliogaster), another endangered species, have been made.
Biologist Valéria Tavares, who has been studying the 32 types of bats in the park for the past 15 years, fears for the worst. “The most sensitive species (that eat fruit) tend to disappear, while common vampire bats could increase in number,” she says, recalling that the EIS/EIR did not analyze the frequency of the sounds the planes will emit and the movement on the paved road that will be built. If this population of vampire bats contracts the animal rabies virus, the disease will disseminate.
There are 44 research projects in the park, which received 18 thousand visitors last year. The park has a lake system with more than 40 natural ponds, including the largest in Brazil, and another 100 in surrounding areas. In Minas, only 3% of the Atlantic Forest is preserved and the Rio Doce park is one of its last shelters.