Jobs, economics complicate Brazil's Amazon fight

AP News
Posted: Nov 27, 2009 1:48 AM

Drawing his .40-caliber pistol, Severiano Pontes dashes across the steaming, muddy jungle floor, a hunch telling him what he would find around a bend.

The thick Amazon rain-forest canopy suddenly opens to a clearing where massive Jatobas and other hardwood trees have been reduced to 40 waist-high trunks lying on the ground. Fires set to help clear the underbrush still smolder nearby, sending sinewy gray smoke columns into the sea-blue sky.

Pontes and his environmental agents patrol the Amazon to prevent illegal clearing, part of Brazil's new, aggressive effort to preserve a jungle the size of the U.S. west of the Mississippi River. The government says such teams are the main reason that deforestation has slowed this year to its lowest level in two decades.

But more often Pontes' agents arrive too late.

Instead, they find graveyards of felled trees resembling twisted, blackened fossils and earth covered in a gray layer of ash. They leave with their hands and faces coated with charcoal dust and a barbecue smell that lingers even after showering hours later.

Pontes holsters his pistol, confident armed ranch hands who often defend the illegal clearings are not around, and pulls out a tape measure.

"This one, let's start with this one here!" Pontes yells, pointing to a huge chunk of a Jatoba, trees that grow higher than 35 meters (120 feet) and are popular for flooring in the U.S. and Europe. "We've got to measure all this up."

The evidence will help their agency, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, or Ibama, impose fines and other penalties.

"These trees have been cut, you cannot reverse that," Pontes says. "What must be done at this point is swift punishment to stop more from being knocked down."


World leaders set to gather in Copenhagen next month to draft a new accord on fighting climate change already admit the much-anticipated summit won't produce a global treaty. There are too many disagreements among countries on how to reduce heat-trapping carbon emissions blamed for warming the planet.

So far, the Brazilian government has focused mostly on enforcement.

The Brazilian Amazon is arguably the world's biggest natural defense against global warming, acting as a "sink," or absorber, of carbon dioxide. But it is also a great contributor to warming. About 75 percent of Brazil's emissions come from rainforest clearing, as vegetation burns and felled trees rot.

Advocates have long pressed to defend the world's rain forests, to save animal and plant species, safeguard watersheds and protect indigenous people's homelands. For Brazil, water vapor from the forest is also vital to its rainy climate. But the government now has another reason to protect the Amazon: A new global climate agreement is expected to reward countries for "avoided deforestation," with cash or credits tradable on the global carbon market.

In the last year, the government says its stepped-up patrols have confiscated about 230,000 cubic meters (8 million cubic feet) of wood, have frozen development on more than a million acres of land and have resulted in $1.6 billion in fines.

But policing a giant region that is mostly impassable because of thick vegetation is daunting for any country, rich or poor.

So the Ibama strategy has been limited to selective shock and awe, targeting states such as Para _ home to Novo Progresso _ where deforestation rates from August 2008 through this July, the period Brazil uses to calculate its annual deforestation, were three times that of other Amazon states.

Ibama doubled the number of agents to 1,400 to cover the Amazon. About 50 at any one time are concentrated in Novo Progresso, a county the size of Maryland with its 14,800 square miles (38,300 square kilometers) and 21,500 residents, most of whom make a living off jungle clearing.

They say it worked: Novo Progresso has since dropped off the list of top deforesters.

Critics say Brazil's increased enforcement is not behind the dramatic drop in deforestation. Rather, the fall in destruction tracks the global recession and the decline in prices for cattle, soy and timber _ the products that are killing the Amazon.

The destruction will resume unabated when profits again outweigh the risk of getting caught, environmentalists argue.

In the jungle, there is this simple truth: Until the region's 25 million inhabitants believe it is in their economic interest not to slash and burn the forest, it will continue to fall.


"If they take my cattle, they take my life."

Rancher Waldiron Henrique Lopes says it simply, his voice not raised:

"And if they come to take my cattle, they're going to have to take me out in a sack, because I'm not leaving this piece of land alive."

Lopes, 39, is running 1,100 head of cattle on 2,400 hectares (5,900 acres) _ about 75 percent of which is still untouched rain forest.

He arrived in 2003 after spending more than a decade scraping together cash and loans to buy the land for about $140,000, then rented a bulldozer and tore a winding 90-kilometer (56-mile) road through the forest that connects his property with Novo Progresso.

Though Lopes holds a piece of paper he said proves his ownership, his ranch falls on the vast majority of Amazon territory that has never been titled as far as the government is concerned.

In 2006, Brazil created the Jamanxim National Forest as part of its plan to protect rapidly shrinking forests, making 13,000 square kilometers (5,000 square miles) west of Novo Progresso off-limits to development.

About 500 ranches _ including Lopes' _ and up to 400,000 head of cattle were already within the boundaries of the reserve.

In the past few months, Ibama agents have raided Lopes' ranch at least three times to serve him with more than $3 million in fines and orders to remove all his cattle.

"If I didn't eat for 100 years I couldn't pay these fines," Lopes said, spreading government paperwork on his open-air dining table.

He said the government should take the human factor into consideration. If Ibama would let him stay, he would not clear more land and he would agree to any reforestation project.

"This reserve fell on top of our heads," he said. "Now they say my ranch is illegal. But I was here first, and I say the reserve is illegal."


Brazil's Operation Arco Verde started last year to promote sustainable development in the Amazon by giving low-cost loans to landowners who agree, among other things, to reforest their property.

On paper, it gives the 43 counties with the highest rates of deforestation economic support, help with land titling and education about sustainable practices.

But Lopes had never heard of it. Neither had most residents of Novo Progresso. Town officials say they only see armed Ibama teams escorted by machine-gun-toting soldiers of the elite National Force.

The protection is justified. Angry mobs have trashed agents' field offices and physically run some out of other towns, though none have been killed.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva says help is coming. Since June, the government says, the Arco Verde program has reached 200,000 people in the Amazon. He says the government recognizes that policing alone will not stop deforestation.

"Punishment helps because it reduces in part this action, but it does not give us a guarantee that these people won't return to deforesting," Silva said this month.

Novo Progresso Mayor Madalena Hoffmann says the government has it backward. They should have brought sustainable development and help for people to gain legal access to their land before they started the enforcement crackdowns.

"We know that we can no longer cut trees, we can no longer burn the forest," Hoffmann said. "But we have the right to remain on the areas that are already opened. The fight is intense."

Since Ibama started its enforcement efforts three years ago, Novo Progresso has shrunk from a thriving town of 40,000 people with 34 operating saw mills to just half that.

Only two saw mills operating _ and only part time. More than 8,000 jobs have been lost.

Rather than declaring victory, Ibama agents suspect the illegal loggers have just moved to regions where there is less enforcement.


Scores of trucks stuffed with cattle roll out of the jungle near Novo Progresso south to slaughterhouses of Mato Grosso state, the dirt road so rutted that it takes 11 hours to travel the 300 kilometers (185 miles).

A few decades ago, Mato Grosso _ "thick forest" in Portuguese _ was covered by jungle. Today, it is an endless plain of soy farms and meatpacking plants that resembles the American Midwest.

For the last 20 years, Mato Grosso led all Brazilian states in Amazon destruction. Now, the deforestation is marching north to Novo Progresso and other areas of Para state.

"Five years ago, you couldn't see the sun during the day, they were burning the forest so much," said Almir della Costa, a 46-year-old business owner in Alta Floresta, near the Para border. "You couldn't breathe because all the forest was burning. Ashes fell from the sky like rain."

That does not happen anymore, Costa said. There is not much forest left to burn.

Gustavo Podesta, 29, leads the Ibama teams for the half of Para state where Amazon destruction is still the worst. He used to work in Alta Floresta and is clearly marked by what happened in Mato Grosso, where the forces fighting to keep the forest alive were defeated.

"That justifies the intensification of Ibama's work," Podesta said.


Soaked by a brief but hard rain, dark green paramilitary pants soiled with red earth, Pontes keeps yelling out measurements as another agent jots down the figures so a fine can be handed out based on the amount of timber.

A native of Para state, Pontes says he wants his area to be prosperous, but not at the cost of decimating the forest.

The last tree accounted for, he yells to his team that it is time to head back to their base in town.

"I'm trying to bring some order to a region, to industries that are working beyond all limits of acceptable behavior," Pontes said. "I believe this is the work God gave me to do."

He turns and walks up a muddied hill to his white, four-wheel-drive pickup truck, bright yellow tape measure in his right hand and a foot-long chunk of a destroyed tree in the other.