We care deeply about Amazonia, and Brazil is the country with the most deforestation in the river region, specifically from cattle ranching. But good news is coming from The Nature Conservancy in the April/May issue, where, as the article’s subtitle reads, “After decades of turning forests into pastures and fields, Brazilian landowners have begun reversing the trend.” Julian Smith reports for the TNC Magazine:
Lazir Soares de Castro stands amid white and gray Nelore cattle on his ranch in São Félix do Xingu, a remote and sprawling county on Brazil’s northeastern Amazon frontier. Beyond a wooden fence, high grass and scrub brush fade into sporadic trees in the distance.
Still vital at 70, Soares describes how different this area looked when he arrived in 1984, when it was all virgin rainforest. “It was the poorest area. There was no electricity, no telephone, no TV, no roads, nothing.” The military dictatorship then running the country was encouraging settlers to occupy the Amazon in the name of national security. “There was no organized environmental policy,” Soares says.
The results were sadly predictable. Deforestation spread rapidly across Brazil’s portion of the Amazon, an area more than two-thirds the size of the conterminous United States. By the time The Nature Conservancy started working in São Félix in 2009, says Ian Thompson, director of conservation for the organization’s Brazil program, the situation was so bad that the county had been added to a new environmental blacklist generated by the federal government. The county, nearly the size of Portugal, saw almost 300 square miles of its forests felled in 2008, the highest rate of municipal deforestation in the entire Amazon. “São Félix do Xingu was the symbol of a frontier out of control,” Thompson says.
Now, thanks to efforts by the Brazilian government, the Conservancy and other partners, the situation has started to shift. New tools are encouraging ranchers and farmers—who often don’t even have title to the land they homesteaded—to improve and restore the health of their holdings. A new land registry project shows where the most work needs to be done. And efforts are under way to develop a productive local economy that will keep forests intact while allowing residents to make a living.
“If São Félix can make this real for all of its communities, it will surely provide lessons for all of the Amazon,” Thompson says. But in the end, he says, success will hinge on ranchers like Soares.
Throughout Brazil’s history, the Amazon Basin has been the country’s equivalent of the old American West: vast, largely lawless and sparsely populated by indigenous groups. A century and a half after land grabs and Manifest Destiny pushed Americans toward the Pacific Ocean, a similar process occurred in Brazil. Government policies in the 1960s and 1970s encouraged settlers into the region, offering free land and economic assistance to impoverished families from crowded coastal regions in this “land without men for men without land.”
Airports appeared and roads sliced through the forest to tie the far-flung states to population centers in the east and south. The trans-Amazonian highway project, started in 1972 and still unfinished, currently stretches approximately 3,000 miles from east to west.
Soares was part of a wave of migration in the 1980s. An explosion in the soybean market spurred a second large migration in the 1990s and 2000s, when large agricultural firms snapped up farms and cattle ranches in other Brazilian states to plant soybeans, which can be harvested twice a year in the tropics. This pushed more settlers even farther into the forest.
The highly disorganized process birthed corruption and violence and left many settlers with land titles that were unclear or nonexistent. It also served as a recipe for deforestation. Just as settlers in the American West had to “improve” their holdings to receive government support—clearing the land, erecting buildings, and planting crops or grazing cattle—immigrants to the Amazon were essentially required to raze the forest as they went.
Luiz Martins Reis Neto, the owner of a small ranch in São Félix, says that in 1988 he came cortando, literally chopping his way through the trees. “We would cut down and set fire to the forest to create space to plant crops to feed the cattle,” he says. “Everyone would get together and torch the forest.” The settlers didn’t know any better, he said, and were given little or no guidance by the government about how to use the land efficiently. This started a vicious cycle rooted in the ecology of the rainforest. Nutrients do not run very deep in the area’s clay-rich soils, so after a few years of grazing or planting, the ground turns hard and unproductive. Farmers and ranchers were forced to clear more and more land for new fields and pastures.
From 2001 to 2012, Brazil was responsible, on average, for three-quarters of the deforestation in the Amazon Basin, primarily through ranching and large-scale agriculture. At deforestation’s peak in 2004, about 10,700 square miles of the country’s Amazon forest were cut down. The problem was especially acute in the state of Pará, where São Félix is located, in large part because it is home to the largest cattle herd in the country, at more than 2 million head.
About 80 percent of the Amazon forest still stands today, but in the 1990s and 2000s the rate at which it was falling caught the world’s attention. As national and international pressure followed a growing public awareness of deforestation and its effects on global climate change, Brazilian government policy began to shift away from promoting settlement and toward encouraging sustainable development. The creation of the blacklist in 2008 was a clear sign. Inclusion on the list resulted in stricter federal oversight and economic sanctions against counties to discourage deforestation.
Market forces were also coming to bear, as consumers demanded that products from the rainforest be sustainable. In April 2009, the Conservancy was invited to São Félix by a meat-packing company that was having problems finding suppliers in compliance with the country’s forest code. First passed in 1965, the code required (among other things) that Amazon landowners set aside 50 to 80 percent of their land as protected rainforest or regrowth, or else buy more property as an offset.
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