By Fergus Nicoll
BBC News, Amazonas state, Brazil
Seen from a small boat emerging from Puraquequara lagoon into the full flow of the Amazon River, this is a world reduced to water, trees and sky.
It’s a full three kilometres to the other side and at that distance even the forest giants that tower over the canopy seem reduced in size.
Amazonas state – a territory three times the size of France but with a telephone book just a centimetre thick – is 98% pristine rainforest.
But it is an environment threatened by powerful forces – like the march of economic development.
Former Harvard law professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger, the man charged with implementing Brazil’s new Plan for a Sustainable Amazon (PAS), is under no illusions about the difficulties he faces.
This report is part of a BBC World Service special on the Amazon rainforest.
Starting at 0500GMT on Thursday 15 May, there are live and recorded broadcasts.
Highlights include a double edition of Newshour, presented live from three locations in Brazil – Manaus, Pargominas and Alta Floresta – at 1200 and a one hour special at 1600.
“The Amazon is not simply a collection of trees,” Unger, Brazil’s minister for strategic affairs told the BBC.
“It’s a group of people: 25 million Brazilians.
“If those people lack economic opportunities, the practical consequence will be disorganised economic opportunity, which will hasten the deforestation.
“What we must do is develop a regulatory legal and tax regime, ensuring that the forest standing is worth more than the forest cut down.”
‘No Amazon support’
The PAS plan is a detailed, yet controversial roadmap. Environmentalists have criticised it for focusing more on development, than protecting the environment.
Even the appointment of Unger to oversee the plan – rather than the former environment minister and staunch defender of the Amazon, Marina Silva – added to this impression.
Ms Silva resigned on 13 May and she criticised what she said was a lack of political support to protect the Amazon among Brazil’s leaders.
However, the plan’s supporters say seizing control of development in a structured manner is the best way to safeguard the forest’s future.
Among the PAS plan’s initiatives are:
* Develop the infrastructure of the region with new roads, navigable river routes and more hydroelectric dams
* Set up a tax regime benefiting those using sustainable practices
* Establish a legal framework for transferring parts of the forest from public to community control
* Add 3m hectares to the “officially protected” zone
* Seek ways of allowing the international community to help preserve the forest.
In Amazonas state, there are practical examples of how these initiatives might work.
Virgilio Vianna of the Foundation for Amazonas Sustainability said that since 2003, tax breaks on commodities such as fish and fruit had made local producers richer.
One of the state’s most ambitious, and controversial, environmental programmes – The Bolsa Floresta (forest bursary) scheme – was set up to compensate the state’s traditional and indigenous people.
It amounts to a straightforward exchange – cash in hand for trees left standing.
To qualify for a hand-out of 50 reais (US$30) per month, a family must attend a two-day training course on environmental awareness and commit to zero deforestation.
Local community associations can get up to $3,000 under the scheme, financed by a partnership between Amazonas State and Brazil’s largest private bank, Bradesco.
Another programme offers cash for sustainable activities that do not produce smoke, such as bee-keeping, fish-farming or forest management.
But there are those who say the Bolsa Floresta has been ill thought-out, and imposed from above.
“One of the problems is that there was no discussion with the communities concerned, it was a top-down policy and very focussed on [state capital] Manaus,” said Marta Cunha, of the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission.
The compensation levels are also regarded by some as very low – “derisory” according to Angelus Figueira of the Amazonas Green party.
Defenders say the project – now eight months old – is in its early stages.
Investments by Bradesco and the state should provide more than enough funds to sustain the Bolsa Floresta, its backers say.
And according to Vianna, it’s a sign of the “private sector associating itself with the protection of the forest”.
Another programme – a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification scheme – addresses the question of “ethical logging”.
In a typical FSC-accredited business, just five trees would logged from an area of 10,000 square metres of pristine forest.
Growing global demand for Brazilian commodities has helped accelerate destruction of the Amazon forest.
Deforestation increases and declines according to international prices of beef and soya, as well as the relative strength of the real to the dollar.
But some argue growing demands from the global food market will be matched by increasing concern for environmental responsibility.
Daniel Nepstad, a forest ecologist with more than 20 years of Amazon experience, believes international markets and financial institutions will require more responsible land management on the part of Brazil’s beef ranchers and soya farmers.
“There may be a silver lining to the cloud of globalization that has spread across the Amazon,” Nepstad wrote in a recent report for the Woods Hole Research Centre in Massachusetts.
Nepstad also predicts Brazil will benefit from the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) initiative, launched under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
We do not see any contradiction in principle between an active economic project and the conservation of this treasure for humanity
Roberto Mangabeira Unger
Under the scheme, he says Brazil would be rewarded for reducing deforestation, because burning the trees releases a vast amount of carbon into the atmosphere.
From the local level to the complexities of macro-economics, an increasing range of incentives is influencing the future of the Amazon forest.
For Roberto Mangabeira Unger, maintaining a careful balance is central to the success of his government’s evolving strategy.
“The commitment to preservation has been long-standing,” he says.
“Emergency measures are under way. The next step is to put in place the elements of a long-term programme.
“We do not see any contradiction in principle between an active economic project and the conservation of this treasure for humanity.”
Front line battle to save Amazon forest
By Gary Duffy
BBC News, Paragominas
In the small town of Paragominas, in the Brazilian state of Para, watching operation Arc of Fire can be an impressive sight.
This is the front line in the battle to contain deforestation – police and environmental officials setting off in a convoy of vehicles, with armed soldiers from the national security force for added protection.
The precautions are not unjustified – on a recent operation in the nearby town of Tailandia, residents angered by Arc of Fire and its impact on local firms clashed violently with police.
In Paragominas, bemused local people watch as the police cars, with flashing lights and sirens blaring, make their way out of town en route to a local logging firm three to four hours away.
These officials want to know if the wood there has been legally cut down, and if the owner has the paperwork to prove it.
When the convoy reaches the logging firm, the owner is not there, as is often the case, but officials begin checking the wood to see if the law has been broken.
If the owner cannot explain the presence of all the logs in his yard, it could be seized and he may face a significant fine.
A short distance away, police cars stop at a site where row after row of open air ovens are being used to burn wood for charcoal.
Checks reveal that more than the permitted number of dome-shaped ovens has been built, so two are destroyed on the same day.
This operation on the ground in the Amazon has been continuing for two months, and police chief, Sergio Rovani, who is responsible for tackling environmental crimes in Para, insists it is getting results.
According to the official statistics, Arc of Fire has recovered enough illegal wood to fill 1500 trucks, and 1600 hundred charcoal furnaces have been destroyed. Many fines have also been imposed.
‘Destruction is chaotic’
However Sergio Rovani also accepts the scale of the challenges is daunting.
“Para is a giant state which covers 1.3m sq km,” he says.
“It is really of continental dimensions, and we have only four local police stations so we don’t have many resources to confront destruction of the forest that nowadays is so chaotic.
“The police are every day investing more in equipment and recently got new recruits – who are being brought as a priority to states in the north to combat deforestation.”
Paulo Maues, who is the coordinator in Paragominas for Ibama, the Brazilian government’s environmental agency, also acknowledges the difficulties faced by his team.
“In regard to the wood, we have all sorts of problems -illegal logging, illegal transportation, illegal processing of the wood, fraud,” he says.
“People who deforest justify themselves, saying the state is very slow to release licences. However we’re here to do our job, and to execute the law.”
But public prosecutor Felicio Pontes says the Brazilian government is failing to live up to its responsibilities, and his hopes for the future are heavily qualified.
“It depends if we can get the government to recognise the importance of the question of Amazonia,” he says.
“With operations like Arc of Fire it won’t have effective results and we are going to be in a worse situation in four years time because the federal government is much more concerned nowadays about the money Brazil is getting through exports such as soya and beef.”
Deforestation rate rising
In Belem, the capital of Para, satellite images reveal in intimate detail what is happening on the ground in Paragominas, and in other parts of the Amazon basin.
These are being monitored carefully by Imazon, a non-governmental organisation which was the first to alert the world late last year that deforestation in the Amazon was on the rise again.
Senior researcher Paulo Barreto says deforestation dropped between 2004 and 2006, but in the latter part of 2007 and early 2008 the figures have again been showing a rise.
“Brazil has advanced in terms of improving field inspection, now they go there and issue fines against environmental violators,” he says. “But the application of fines is very weak.
“The second point is the free occupation of public lands in the frontier – allowing people to settle in public lands illegally. Land amounting to about three times the size of the UK is occupied by people who didn’t buy it, or pay a lease, and it is very hard to make these people responsible for environmental violations.”
However there are some signs of changing attitudes, with the local mayor supporting a pact to promote “zero deforestation” and encouraging schoolchildren to learn more about the environment.
The history of Paragominas is the history of deforestation in Amazon – those who came here first were viewed as pioneers opening up the rainforest in order to benefit the rest of the country.
Now they feel like they are environmental pariahs accused of destroying one of Brazil’s and the world’s greatest riches.
This is a community trying to reconcile its economic imperative to survive with the wider issue of protecting the environment.
Paragominas is one of the municipal areas with the worst record of deforestation in the region, and has already destroyed more than 45% of nearby forest cover. The scale of devastation is such that a municipality that used to have 240 sawmills now has fewer than 60, as other towns have taken over a leading role in deforestation.
Amid these changing times there is much talk among the local authorities of a new approach, but a lot of harm has already been done, and it will take even more work if that damage is to be repaired.
Fuente: BBC +amazon in graphics