By Peri Dias
Raimunda de Mello – known to her friends as Rai – is always on the road in São Félix do Xingu – the ranching region at the heart of the Brazilian Amazon’s expanding agricultural frontier. At 53 years old, Rai puts her background in agronomy to good use in São Felix, but still misses the Amazon she comes from – the Amazon of forests and rivers.
“I was born in Manaus and lived in Santarém, two regions with water wherever you looked. I miss the water, because southern Pará has a dry climate, which creates a different culture. This is a region of beef, milk, and pasture.”
Rai is the Conservancy’s Rural Land Registration Manager, in the Virada Verde Project (meaning Green Turn), which is supported by the Brazilian National Development Bank’s Amazon Fund.
As her title suggests, Rai’s first job is to make sure as many of São Felix’s ranchers and farmers as possible join the Rural Land Registry – a program that provides a kind of ID Card for their properties.
How Raimunda works for conservation
The Registry is comprised of satellite photos showing forests and pasture, comparing them to legal requirements that ranchers retain a certain percentage of native forest, as well as forest cover on vulnerable areas such as steep slopes and around streams and rivers.
Registration helps governments enforce environmental laws, but the Registry helps ranchers too – reducing legal uncertainties, keeping pace with increasingly demanding markets, and helping ensure they have access to credit.
Always in touch with farmers and ranchers
Even so, many ranchers are resistant to registering because they expect to be punished for earlier deforestation or unresolved land tenure issues, or because they can’t afford to pay for the satellite images.
That is where Raimunda’s approach – she’s an expert in rancher and a natural community organizer – comes in handy. For the last two years, she has been convincing ranchers that their concerns about the registry are unfounded.
A typical day involves serious mileage in a pickup truck over São Felix’s barely-passable roads, visiting ranches, organizing seminars for ranchers unions, meeting local government employees, and giving radio interviews.
“It’s easier to follow the law when you know what it’s for. We have straightforward conversations with ranchers, explaining that following environmental laws protects ranching – not just legally, but also because that’s what will ensure they can continue to produce cattle in the future.”
The new phase of the project
Rai’s work is paying off quickly – in Pará state, exactly 60,602 properties had been registered by October 2012 – including more than 80% of the rural area of several municipalities (“municipalities” is an almost misleading term here – São Felix alone is about a quarter the size of Arizona). And 80% is a magic number; it is one requirement for municipalities to escape the Brazilian government’s Deforestation Blacklist, which limits ranchers’ access to official lines of credit. Six municipalities have been taken off the blacklist so far, and São Felix is close.
This progress has given Rai new things to talk to ranchers about. “The Registry provides an opportunity to talk to ranchers about credit, productivity, and restoration. Often, that means talking about changing rancher’s practices they have been using for years or decades.”
Taking advantage of past experience
Changing ranching practices is, in fact, the next step as more and more ranchers register. Historically, Brazilian ranchers have invested little in increasing and sustaining the productivity of existing pasture – leading to very low productivity of as few as one cattle per two acres.
Investing in existing pasture, coupled with measures to protect standing forest and restore forests around streams and rivers, is one way to help meet growing global demand for beef while holding the line on the Amazon’s ranching-driven deforestation.
Discussing the possibility of shifting ranching techniques doesn’t always lead to easy conversations, but field visits with ranchers are still the way Rai recharges her batteries.
“I can only get things done when I’m motivated to, and it feels good to know that the Conservancy’s work here is truly transformative. It’s not like we have all the answers – like it was a recipe for baking a cake – but we know what our mission is and we see the results, including the deforestation numbers in this region.”
As the Conservancy begins to implement the forest restoration and pasture restoration work that the Registry has shown are needed, Raimunda will remain far from the Amazon where she grew up – “the Amazon of endless waters” – but she’ll be slowing the northward march of the agricultural frontier.