Brazilian State Blazes Path To Sustainability in Amazonia

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Inside Climate News, Cachoeira, Acre, Brazil

Jeff Tollefson has been reporting from the Brazilian Amazon for eight weeks and exploring Brazil's efforts to protect the world's largest rainforestand the earth's climate. This is his final blog post. Read the full travelogue here

The queen of the forest stands strong. Blood was shed, but there she is, buttressed by tall and narrow root walls that extend outward in six directions, mirroring her canopy some 100 feet above. In between is a sun-speckled chamber of moist air abuzz with the sound of crickets and other forest denizens. 

"They killed a lot of people," says Antonio "Duda" Teixeira Mendes, generating a hollow boom as he thumps his fist on one of the samaúma tree's roots. "But for me, it was worth the fight."

"They" are the ranchers who began moving into the state of Acre ("pronounced AH-kray") in the 1970s, bringing a slash-and-burn agriculture to a remote region of the western Amazon that had previously sustained itself, if barely and often unjustly, on the harvesting of rubber and other forest resources. In the 1980s, the old rubber tapper families, many with roots in a bygone rubber era that dates back to the turn of the 20th century, began to stand up for their rights and resist the ranchers who sought to clear them, and the trees, away.

One of the people who was killed in the ensuing struggle was Duda's cousin Chico Mendes. Before his death in 1988, by gunshot outside his home in the town of Xapuri, Chico Mendes had garnered international recognition—and an invitation to testify before the U.S. Congress—for his leadership in the fight to preserve this particular patch of forest. Local rancher Darly Alves da Silva and his son Darci Alves were sentenced to prison for the murder.

Today, 88 families live in the Cachoeira reserve. It is one of many areas in Acre dedicated to small-scale extraction, where residents tap trees for rubber, collect Brazil nuts and otherwise eke out a living inside the rainforest. Poverty remains, but Mendes says their lives have improved. Their children go to school. Their land is secure. The community even runs its own eco-tourist lodge, which would serve as your correspondent's home for the night.

"Seventy percent of the forest is still standing, and everybody lives with dignity," Mendes says.

What happened here wasn't about trees, per se, but about people's place among them. It helped inspire a new kind of "socio-environmental" movement that has influenced Brazil, and perhaps the world, more than many would have imagined possible a quarter century ago. Marina Silva, who transformed Brazil's forest policies as the first environment minister under former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was a colleague of Chico Mendes. Acre's reserves are often cited as models when international bureaucrats discuss economic tools that will help keep forests upright.

And here in the state of Acre, the movement fostered a political majority that has governed in the name of people and forests for the past 15 years, making Acre a global leader when it comes to sustainable development policies. This includes a range of programs subsidizing markets for environmentally friendly products as well as the development of carbon credits that could be used to attract outside investors, be they businesses or governments, who are interested in reducing emissions by helping the state protect its forests.

Acre has already attracted investment from the German Development Bank and has signed an agreement with California that could allow for such transactions in the future. I came here to get a flavor for the history and see what comes next. 

Shortly after I arrived at Cachoeira, Duda Mendes took me on a working trail through the forest. Within minutes we passed a rubber tree that had been repeatedly slashed in angular fashion along the trunk, a method that produces a steady flow of milky white latex without killing the tree.

Production varies, but assuming around 300 pounds of latex at a price of about $3.60 per pound, a typical family could bring in more than $1,000 from May through November. Residents sell their latex to a local condom factory, which was developed with state assistance and currently serves the federal government's family planning programs.

Beneath a towering Brazil nut tree we encountered a pile of woody shells, the remnants of last year's harvest. Bring two halves together, and you get a fruit about the size of a baseball. These weigh several pounds when packed with nuts and come crashing dangerously to the ground. Conveniently, these fruits begin to ripen and fall as the rubber season comes to a close.

All told, Mendes says the residents of Cachoeira, working through a cooperative, sold around 550,000 pounds of Brazil nuts during the last harvest, enough to bring in an average of nearly $4,000 per family. Here again, the state helped expand the market for Brazil nuts by investing in a trio of processing centers that now serve producers in Acre and beyond.

Acre's latest investment is in family-scale aquaculture. The government is investing in a complex outside the capital city of Rio Branco in order to raise, package and sell catfish and another fish called pirarucu. Operating as a public-private partnership, the operation will sell small fry to producers and then buy the fish as adults.

The fishery is already operating, and the week I was there the government inaugurated an advanced fish-food factory based on Danish technology. The event came with considerable political fanfare in support of the governing Workers' Party and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. In the coming months, the packaging facility is expected to be complete.

The idea is that fish production will supply an alternative to beef and thus reduce pressure to clear forest, says Magaly Medeiros, who heads Acre's Institute of Climate Change and Regulation of Environmental Services. But the emphasis is on economic development, and the people I talked to clearly think of the project primarily in terms of jobs rather than the environment. Investors see opportunity. 

"They got out in front by really thinking differently," says Mário Peixoto Netto of Kaeté Investimentos, a venture capital fund supported by Brazil's National Development Bank, which has a 30 percent share in the project. "They built a system that comforts and attracts private investment."

That may be true in this case, but officials in Acre acknowledge that they have a long way to go. 

One such individual is Rodrigo Neves, the state's 39-year-old attorney general, who has helped design the full suite of environmental policies. Acre is growing and apparently at a slightly faster clip than its neighbors, but Neves questions how long the state can continue to shoulder the massive subsidies and incentives without external aid or a faster return on its investments.

Targeting international investors, the state has developed what might be the most advanced forest carbon framework in the world. The idea is that wealthy nations seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could invest in halting deforestation, which is currently responsible for roughly 10 percent of the globe's carbon emissions. Under the United Nations framework, the idea is known as REDD, for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

Hopes that an international carbon market would quickly generate such funds under a comprehensive global warming treaty have faded, but climate negotiators at the United Nations have adopted a framework for such investments. Donor countries have also pledged several billion in financing to get started, although significantly more will be needed to expand such efforts across the tropics.

So far, the German Development Bank has invested roughly $34 million in Acre's forest carbon program. Neves says the state is trying to understand the market and test new concepts, and he stresses that the goal is not to sell carbon offsets but to overhaul the way the state produces goods.

I did not make it that far into the reserve, but it isn’t hard to believe. Even a quick visit suggests that the progress achieved thus far is relative compared to the standards we have come to expect in the North. But coming from a place like the United States, where many environmental issues have bogged down amid partisanship, it is nonetheless impressive to see a political and governmental machine built around the idea of sustainability. 

When I asked Duda Mendes about poverty in the backwoods, he sighed and said it will take time and cooperation between residents and the government. But the imperative is there, he said, citing a new project that will extend roads and services farther into the reserve in question. "Five years from now, we want to have there what we have here," he said. 

After our hike, we headed back to the lodge, and I stationed myself at one of the observation decks overlooking a small swamp as darkness set in. A telephone rang in the distance, followed by the howls and barks of a dog, and then the evening gave way to a symphony of insects, frogs and birds.

It would be my last night in the forest before beginning the long trek back to the United States.