Many Parts of Brazil Could Become Off-Limits to Foreigners Lacking Special Visa

Sixty percent of Brazil could soon be off-limits to foreigners who don't get special permission to visit the world's largest tropical wilderness.

Those caught in the Amazon without a permit granted by military and justice authorities could face a fine amounting to $60,000.

The government plans to send Congress a bill to require the permits within months, National Justice Secretary Romeu Tuma Jr. told The Associated Press.

The bill is designed to prevent foreign meddling and illegal activity. It would cover all activity in the area Brazil considers the "legal Amazon" — including nature tours, business trips or visits to any cities across 2 million square miles.

"We want to establish the Amazon as ours," Tuma said. "We want the world to visit the region. But we want them to tell us when they're coming and what they're going to do."

The bill reflects suspicions among conservative politicians and the military that foreign nongovernmental organizations working to help Indians and save the rain forest are actually attempting to wrest the Amazon and its riches away from Brazil.

"We have information that some international groups disguised as NGOs have come to carry out bioprospecting and have entered public and indigenous lands to try and influence their cultures," Tuma said. "There is piracy and the theft of (traditional) knowledge in the region."

Bioprospecting refers to the search for plants or other organisms that might have medical or commercial uses. Some companies have won patents based on such discoveries.

Tuma said the government also is taking a look at Brazilian organizations in the Amazon for possible illegal activities.

He said the government was not trying to criminalize NGOs or foreigners, saying most do good work. But he added: "We want to separate the wheat from the chaff."

Brazil already requires government permission for non-Indians entering indigenous territories. But the new law would extend similar restrictions to foreigners across the Amazon region, which takes up about 61 percent of Brazilian territory.

The bill is likely to pass, said Alexandre Barros, a political analyst with the Early Warning think tank, if only because there is no strong lobby to defend the presence of foreigners in the region.

"There's a good portion of Congress that believes the Yanomami (Indians) are just raring to declare their reservation part of the United States," Barros said.

He warned the bill could harm Brazil's image and discourage groups that work to help Indians, the environment and the poor.

"The military regime tried to do similar things in the 1970s, but it was very hard to enforce," Barros said. "It's a kind of cyclical paranoia."

Thomas Lovejoy, president of the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, who has worked extensively in Brazil, said the law "would have a chilling effect on research."

"Anybody working in another country is willing to abide by whatever the requirements are, but if they get onerous, they go elsewhere," Lovejoy said by telephone from Washington D.C.

Philip Marsteller, president of Amazon Tours, Inc., said by telephone from Texas that the new law "could be very detrimental to tourism in the Amazon."