Friday, August 26, 2011

Finding success stories in Brazil’s Amazon

When environmental inspectors in 2008 shut down dozens of illegal sawmills in the Amazon municipality of Paragominas, their offices and cars were torched in short order. The notoriously violent region, rife with land-grabbing and hit-and-run shootings, had over the years earned itself the nickname “Paragobalas” because of the all the stray bullets that filled the air. Illegal timber operations provided employment for almost half the area’s residents, and its extensive illegal clear-cutting landed it on Brazil’s blacklist of 36 municipalities deemed most responsible for Amazon devastation. Farmers were equally hostile to anyone seeking to enforce environmental laws.

Three years later, Paragominas has dramatically reduced deforestation levels, created legitimate timber enterprises that harvest trees rather than cutting down native vegetation, and established partnerships with nearly 50 non-profits to create consciousness about environmental responsibility.

As a result, it was one of the first to emerge from the deforesters blacklist, which means projects in that area can once again receive financing from the government’s powerful state-run bank BNDES. Its success inspired 94 of the 144 municipalities in the state to join the state run “Green Municipalities” program that seeks to shift economic activity away from deforestation.

Newsmagazine Exame reporter Ana Luisa Herzog and O Globo reporter Cleide Carvalho both have fascinating stories (read part of the O Globo story here in Portuguese) about Paragominas’ turnaround.

Farmers now listen calmly and take notes when authorities tell them they need to plow under some of their fields and replant them with native species. Paragominas has reduced deforestation to less than 40 square kilometers per year, and convinced 80 percent of landowners to properly register their land holdings – a crucial step to halt land-grabbers who take advantage of weak property titles to snatch properties at gunpoint. It is also building the region’s first particle-board factory that will take waste wood and turn it into material for making furniture, creating stable jobs for people who make a living from clandestine chain-sawing.

Amazon deforestation over the last three or four decades has principally been pressured by the expansion of cattle ranching, though the actual process tends to work in the following order:

1) Clearcutters pick out the most expensive trees and high-value trees, dragging them down with trucks and chains or cutting them down with chainsaws
2) A second wave of deforestation knocks down the remaining low-value trees and sells them to make industrial charcoal to be used by these guys
3) Cattle farmers bring in their herds to graze on pasture that springs up below
4) Farmers plant soy, cotton and corn with the help of copious amounts of fertilizer

The process doesn’t begin with cattle, but they are still the primary driver. This is in large part because ranchers in Brazil, accustomed to nearly limitless space available in the Amazon, on average use 1 hectare of land per head of cattle as opposed to the 3 or 4 head of cattle per hectare industry experts say is possible. Researchers in Paragominas are looking at ways to increase density of cattle pastures, which will open space for agriculture without knocking down more forest.

I’m convinced these gains won’t be quickly reversed because the strategy has been to make sure people have jobs, rather than simply outlawing a set of activities without consideration for the livelihood of the people involved. It also strikes me as a considerably more effective strategy for dealing with environmental problems than the chest-thumping nationalist posturing at the northern end of the Amazon, which is the closest in that region anyone has ever done to address the ecological disaster unfolding up there.

The good in Brazil news comes with a backdrop that’s not altogether encouraging. Paragominas has of course not entirely eliminated illegal deforestation or wiped out the timber mafias. Conservationists are still in shock of these assassinations just a few months back. The controversial reform of the forest code threatens to weaken legislation protecting sensitive areas such as hilltops and riverside forests from being cleared and could provide amnesty for farmers who illegally cleared forests to plant crops.

This means there’s a lot of gloom and doom about environmental policy in Brazil these days. But having spent enough time running with the cynics, I think its worth pointing out bright spots like this Paragominas. 

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