Brazil fines 24 local ethanol producers for environmental crimes

(AP) -- Brazil has slapped multimillion-dollar fines on 24 ethanol producers accused of environmental crimes in the country's dwindling Atlantic rain forest, Environment Minister Carlos Minc said Tuesday.

The companies together face 120 million reals (US$75 million) in fines for operating without licenses and planting sugarcane in illegally deforested parts of one of Brazil's most threatened ecosystems, Minc said. They will also be required to restore 143,300 acres (58,000 hectares) of degraded rain forest.

"We will not let companies that destroy the Atlantic rain forest have any peace," Minc told reporters. "If these environmental crimes continue, they will provide ammunition for those who want to slap trade barriers on the export of Brazilian ethanol."

International criticism of Brazil's massive sugarcane-based ethanol industry is mounting, with opponents saying it encourages environmental destruction and inflates world food prices. Brazilian officials deny those claims and note that ethanol producers are required to preserve much of their land.

The companies fined this week — mostly small Brazilian producers — violated rules requiring them to leave 20 percent of their forest lands untouched, Minc said.

The Atlantic rain forest once lined most of Brazil's coast, but only about 8 percent remains. In contrast, about 80 percent of the Amazon rain forest is intact, as laws there require land owners to keep 80 percent of their property as forest reserves.

Brazil is the world's largest ethanol exporter, and the second-largest producer after the United States. Its sugarcane-based fuel is significantly more efficient than the corn used to make U.S. ethanol.