The Brazilian government's agrarian reform programme is among the key factors that have led to a rise in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazonia, said the country's Environment Minister Carlos Minc.
The accusation made late Monday in Brasilia caused a crisis in the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, dpa reported.
According to the former environmental activist Minc, settlements set up by the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (Incra) in the state of Mato Grosso have destroyed 228,000 hectares of Amazonian forest.
The state organ will therefore have to pay fines imposed by the Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) worth close to 1.4 million dollars.
Incra tops a list of the 100 agents most responsible for the destruction of Amazonia 2005-2008, whom Minc promised to take before the courts so that they are punished "with jail, preferably forced to plant trees until the end of their lives."
Neither party cited precise figures on forest loss, but Brazil's space research institute Inpe recently reported an astonishing doubling or more of rainforest destruction in the month of August alone, Brazilian media reported.
"We cannot say that land reform in Amazonia is doing wonderfully, because it is not. But we are not saying that it should be stopped. We will find the way to carry out agrarian reform with environmental sustainability," Minc noted.
However, his comments sparked an angry reaction from Incra President Rolf Hackbart, who stressed that the settlements on Minc's list are "old" and were created 1995-2002. Hackbart warned that he has no intention of paying the fine imposed by IBAMA.
"IBAMA fined Incra based on a satellite photograph of 1997. Most of the photographs were taken in 1997, and there is one dated 2006. When did deforestation happen? They have not told me yet," the head of Incra complained.
"The priority of agrarian reform is to protect the environment, food," Hackbart said.
He added that 7,239 peasant families live in Incra settlements included in the controversial list, and that these people and indigenous communities are among those who do most to protect the environment.
Satellite surveillance by the Inpe showed that 756.7 square kilometres of Amazonian rainforest were destroyed in August. The area is equivalent to half that of Sao Paulo, the largest metropolis in Brazil.
Compared with August 2007, when 230.7 square kilometres were destroyed, the rise amounts to more than triple loss in just a year, or 228.7 per cent.
Minc blamed the increase on Sunday's municipal elections, in which 130 million Brazilians are set to elect authorities in over 5,500 towns. Controls have become more lax, he complained.
"No mayor or governor wants to be unpleasant. IBAMA officials want to act, but they need the (municipal) police to assist them," the minister said, as he announced the creation of a federal force to combat environmental crimes.