Brazilians angered by Swedish tycoon’s Amazon price tag

A Swedish-born tycoon who acts as a deforestation advisor to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has stirred up controversy in Brazil for reportedly claiming all the Amazon could be bought for $50 billion.

Johan Eliasch, the 46-year-old boss of the Head sports equipment company, is under investigation by Brazilian police and intelligence services for the alleged comments and for 160,000 hectares (395,000 acres) of Amazon forest he is believed to have bought, the newspaper O Globo reported on Monday.

He reportedly made the assertions to stimulate land acquisition as part of his role as director of Cool Earth, an organization he co-founded which finds sponsors for the rainforest as a way of protecting it.

“Eliasch held meetings with businessmen between 2006 and 2007 in which he proposed that they buy land in the Amazon, and told them ‘only’ $50 billion would be needed to acquire all the forest,” according to a report by Brazil’s Abin intelligence agency cited by O Globo.

The issue is a sensitive one for Brazil, which has been offended by statements by British politicians suggesting that the Amazon is too important to all of mankind to be left to the management of Brazil’s government alone.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Monday stated that “the Brazilian Amazon has an owner, and that owner is the Brazilian people.”

He told a gathering in Rio de Janeiro that while he was conscious of the need to conserve the forest, “there is also need to develop the Amazon.”

Brasilia has been progressively tightening laws aimed at protecting the huge forest by cracking down on illegal ranchers, farmers and loggers, and stepping up vigilance against foreigners looking to exploit its biodiversity.

Eliasch, who lives in London and has an estimated net worth of $790 million, stopped being a significant donor to Britain’s conservative party last September. He switched allegiance to Brown’s Labour Party, apparently winning his special consulting post in the process.

Although Cool Earth has generally received positive evaluations in Britain and the United States, some accuse the organization of embarking on “green colonialism” and compounding the problems of indigenous groups living in the Amazon.