Saving Brazil's Forests
“Paragominas is a model demonstrating that it’s possible for economic development and environmental protection to work hand-in-hand.”
Benito Guerrero, Nature Conservancy private lands strategy coordinator
When staff from The Nature Conservancy began working in São Félix do Xingu — a remote municipality in Brazil’s Amazon frontier — it had a reputation as a “no man’s land” with little government oversight and a history of violent, sometimes deadly, property disputes. Forests were quickly disappearing, illegally cleared to make way for ranches, farms or plantations.
A sprawling jungle region about the size of Panama, São Félix has some of the largest tracts of rainforest left in the Eastern Amazon — nearly 31,000 square miles. But since 2008, it has been ranked number two on Brazil’s “black list” of 43 municipalities with the highest rates of deforestation, resulting in commercial embargoes and credit restrictions for rural farmers.
Things, however, are beginning to change for the better.
When Conservancy representatives attended a recent workshop to help farmers and ranchers register their lands with the government and come into compliance with Brazil’s forest protection law, the mayor of São Félix welcomed them as “part of the family.”
Already, with the Conservancy’s help, more than 1,400 property owners here have signed their farms up with the environmental registry in less than a year.
Paragominas Leads The Way
Nearby Paragominas became the first municipality to come off the government’s “black list” in March, largely with help from the Conservancy and its partners to register rural land. In order to be removed from the list, municipalities must control deforestation and have 80 percent of their territory enrolled in the government registry.
“People are starting to believe that rural registration is really working,” says Benito Guerrero, coordinator of the Conservancy’s private lands strategy in Brazil. “Paragominas is a model demonstrating that it’s possible for economic development and environmental protection to work hand-in-hand.”
Land registration is the critical first step in a pilot program for REDD — Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation — being developed in São Félix by the Conservancy to stop the massive amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from destruction of Brazil’s forests.
As the world’s fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases — 70 percent of which comes from forest destruction — Brazil has pledged to slow deforestation by 80 percent and reduce emissions by 36 percent to 39 percent by 2020.
Brazilian policies during the 1960s and 1970s had encouraged thousands of settlers to relocate from the crowded coasts to the unpopulated Amazon, and required forests to be cleared to gain access to credit.
Yet, the government has now recognized the importance of keeping forests in tact. Standing forests:
- serve as a home to indigenous peoples;
- act as storehouses of biodiversity;
- prevent devastating climate change and
- sustain rainfall for agriculture.
Brazil’s Forest Protection Law
Since 1965, Brazil has had a sweeping “Forest Code” on the books, requiring landowners in the Amazon to maintain 80 percent of their property in native forests.
But with few resources or manpower to track properties in the vast Amazon region, it has been nearly impossible to implement. Clear ownership records exist for less than 4 percent of private land in the Amazon.
In January 2010, Brazil made it mandatory for all rural properties to be mapped and registered through a government system known as CAR (Cadastro Ambiental Rural).
With support from Brazil’s Amazon Fund, the Conservancy is working with the states of Pará and Mato Grosso to implement CAR in 12 municipalities — including São Félix.
“CAR is the first step towards enabling all rural property owners to meet their Forest Code obligations,” says Guerrero. “It’s also fundamental for landowners who want to make the most out of their properties — through ranching and farming and sustainable forest use.”
The Conservancy works directly with landowners, providing tools to help them comply with the Forest Code by:
- planting trees on cleared lands;
- intensifying productive areas so less forest is cleared and
- developing ways to maximize the economic benefits of their farming activities, while maintaining the forested portions of their lands.
As one of the world’s largest producers of beef and soy, Brazil is looking to tap into growing markets for legally and sustainably produced products. The beef company Frigol, which is building a slaughterhouse in São Félix, is supporting the Conservancy’s efforts to facilitate the environmental registry process among beef suppliers there.
U.S. Policy Could Help
Just because much large-scale clearing in Brazil’s Amazon is technically “illegal” – up to 90 percent by Brazilian government estimates – that does not mean damage to forests, or the resulting emissions, are easy to stop.
U.S. policy makers have resisted enacting climate policies that provide funding to help foreign governments enforce existing laws, saying emissions reductions from such efforts should have happened anyway. But well-intentioned – yet under-resourced – landowners and government agents need support to put laws on the books into practice, or the status quo will continue.
U.S. assistance for efforts such as CAR would provide forest-rich, cash-poor nations the support they desperately need to reach their goals of lowering emissions and protecting their forests.
With the help of the Conservancy and others, São Félix is on this path. Luis Alberto Araújo, Vice municipal Secretary of Environment, says that soon, “São Félix will be not a problem, but a solution."