The future of the forest
From The Economist print edition
Brazil’s government hopes that land reform in the Amazon will slow deforestation. Greens doubt it
THE tiny village, where naked Ticuna Indians live in wooden houses raised on stilts, looks out over one of the rivers that becomes the Amazon. No place seems farther removed from the ups and downs of the world economy. But this is misleading. The Ticuna, who now have a large reservation at Novo Paraíso near Brazil’s borders with Colombia and Peru, took their first steps towards globalisation when they had the misfortune to encounter Portuguese raiders several centuries ago. Later, rubber drew the Amazon into the list of hinterlands that could be tapped if supplies were tight elsewhere, allowing growth to accelerate in much of the world from the 19th century onwards. And today new demands on the Amazon’s riches will determine the future of the forest.
About 900 miles (1,500km) downriver to the east, in Amazonas state, stands Manaus. Rubber barons built the city from the 1860s onwards. Its early residents made up for their distance from the European centres of fashion by trying to outdo Paris during the belle époque in drinking and debauchery. Now Manaus’s Zona Franca is the workshop for most of the televisions, washing machines and other white goods sold in Brazil. Special arrangements allow firms such as Sony and LG to import parts tax-free from elsewhere in the world and assemble them there. Despite being surrounded on all sides by thick forest, Manaus hums with manufacturing.
Some 350 miles to the south-east, in Pará state, the high gold price has encouraged a few hundred garimpeiros, or wildcat miners, to follow rumours of a strike and trek for days through the forest to a place, not far from Itaituba, which they have optimistically named “Bom Jesus”. They live in shacks with tarpaulins to keep off the rain, digging square holes and sifting through the red soil in the hope of finding a seam of gold. Malaria lurks there, and the men say there is cyanide in the water. Apart from a visiting government minister and some other dignitaries and journalists who have come for the day by helicopter, there is nothing to indicate that the Brazilian state exists. Its place has been taken by a local boss who claims to own the land (though it actually belongs to the federal government) and takes a percentage of any gold found, while charging the workers exorbitant prices for supplies that are dropped off by small planes.
South by 400 miles, in Mato Grosso state, the Amazon meets the agricultural frontier. Much of the world’s growing demand for protein is satisfied here. The state, which was once thought to have poor farmland, has been transformed over the past few decades and is now the country’s biggest producer of soyabeans for vegetable oils and cattle-feed. Mato Grosso is also home to an unproductive kind of agriculture, which involves ranching small numbers of cattle on newly deforested land. The forest in the state shrank by 105 square miles in the three months from November to January, according to the Brazilian Space Research Institute, which uses satellites to monitor deforestation.
All these places are part of the Amazon rainforest, an area one-and-a-half times the size of India, or nearly eight times the size of Texas. Most of it lies within Brazil. It is home to 20m Brazilians, or 10% of the country’s population. Many of them live a hardscrabble existence in places that are hot, wet, often disease-ridden and sometimes dangerous. These people have gone from being heroes who answered the government’s call to populate and subdue an empty region, to environmental criminals who are wrecking the planet, all the while standing on the same spot and doing what they have done for decades.
No government would think of condemning so many voters to persistent poverty in the name of saving trees. Moving them is impractical and would be unjust, since the state moved them in the first place, under a policy that began in the 1960s and lasted for 20 years. (Other institutions helped too; the World Bank provided a loan that financed a large migration from the south of the country to Rondônia state in the days before it cared about greenery.) A vast migration was accomplished with promises of free land, subsidies and a slightly menacing marketing campaign that exhorted people to ocupar para não entregar (“occupy it or lose it”). Parts of Brazil’s government still fret that covetous foreign powers may try to annexe the Amazon forest unless the country can find something useful to do with it.
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government has often seemed to sympathise more with these voters than with environmentalists, who are anyway politically weak in Brazil. His first environment minister, Marina Silva, resigned in frustration last year. This pleased the bancada ruralista, an informal block of representatives who defend agricultural interests. They were glad to see the back of Ms Silva, the daughter of rubber-tappers who grew up in the forest and became the most eloquent spokesman for the need to preserve it. This agricultural lobby makes up 20-25% of Congress, according to João Augusto de Castro Neves, a political consultant.
To improve the lives of Brazilians living in the Amazon, the government has devised a set of policies known as Plano Amazônia. They envisage an expansion of road-building in the forest, as well as some big hydroelectric projects. Both are loathed by people who want to preserve the trees. Plano Amazônia also contains measures to slow deforestation, but these will be hard to enforce. Money is short, the area to be policed is vast, and the folk who make money when the trees are cut down are endlessly ingenious.
Many people derive their income from deforestation. In Tailândia, a town in Pará surrounded by sawmills, some 70% of the population depends on logging in some way, according to local officials in the state’s finance ministry. The loggers work in tandem with cattle farmers: once the loggers take the best trees from an area, the rest is cleared and burnt. The farmers then sow grass and raise cattle. The land is quickly exhausted as pasture, but it then passes to another type of farming, while the loggers and cattle move farther into the forest and begin all over again.
This pattern helps to explain why the rate of deforestation tends to move with prices for beef and soya, with a lag of about a year. Yet it is a wasteful way of using land. A recent study of some 300 municipalities in the Brazilian Amazon, published in the latest edition of Science, shows that deforested areas enjoy a short economic boom, then quickly fall back to previous levels of development and productivity as the frontier moves on. Deforestation also, of course, reduces the rainfall on which Brazil’s agriculture depends.
Consumers in America and western Europe who mind about deforestation may think they have some influence over all this. A recent study by Greenpeace encouraged them, by trying to show that bits of Amazonian cow were finding their way on to supermarket shelves in the rich world. They are wrong, however. The five leading markets for Brazil’s enormous beef exports (the country ships more of it than the total of the three next-largest exporters, Australia, Argentina and Uruguay) are Russia, Iran, China, Venezuela and Egypt, according to Roberto Giannetti da Fonseca of the Association of Brazilian Meat Exporters. And in any case the beef produced in the Amazon is mostly eaten by Brazilians in neighbouring states.
Even so, Mr da Fonseca says his association would like to see cattle-ranching removed from the Amazon, because of the damage it does to the reputation of exporters. The big soyabean exporters have already pledged not to buy from growers in the Amazon. Greenpeace, which helped to design the agreement, counts it as a success. This just leaves an internal market for cheap soyabeans and beef, which supports 30m head of cattle in the Amazon out of a total of 200m in the country.
Given the hardships that farmers in the Amazon face, it may seem surprising that they do not just give up. One reason is that clearance and cattle bring in extra money from other sources. The farmers are also property developers of a kind. Jungle land can be grabbed for nothing, avoiding what is normally a huge outlay in farming. And ranchers often sell the land they have deforested to another user, even though they do not legally own it. Most people who study deforestation reckon this creates an incentive for farmers to push farther into the forest, rather than staying where they are, spending money on improving their land and raising productivity.
Ending this cycle is one aim of a land-reform bill that was recently approved in Congress, though not without controversy. This law is now with the president, who has the power to veto some of it. The government claims that the legislation will at last enable it to discover which farmers are operating on illegal land and in the informal economy, and in the future will make it possible to work out who is committing environmental crimes. Many environmentalists, however, think the law merely rewards criminal behaviour. Ms Silva has appealed to Lula to use his veto.
Holdings in America’s Great Plains, impressively neat and rectilinear from the air, were laid out in various early land laws and then parcelled out among pioneers. Brazil’s frontier has never benefited from such an elegant application of geometry. A study from Imazon, a non-profit research outfit, suggests that just 14% of privately owned land in the Amazon is backed by a secure title deed. The rest is covered by fake documents (usually lovingly antiqued) or simply by right of settlement.
In the most contested parts of the forest, in Pará state, conflicts over who owns what are sometimes settled with a gun. In 2005 the murder of Dorothy Mae Stang, an American nun and environmental campaigner who lived in Pará, brought this to the attention of a wider public. In his trial, the man who pulled the trigger said he had been paid 50 reais ($20) for the job.
Tranquillity on the river
There are still gunmen for hire in Pará, according to the police in Tailândia, a town of 25,000 people. Rosenildo Modesta Lima, the local police commander, says that when he arrived there a couple of years ago there were seven murders over one weekend; now there are two or three a week. The police are on edge. Just the other day a heavily armed gang attacked a police station in a neighbouring town in an attempt to get more weapons. Two gang members were killed and a third injured.
The new law will interpose the Brazilian state into this mess, judging between competing claims, handing smaller plots of land to their apparent owners and reclaiming very large ones (in excess of 1,500 hectares or 3,700 acres) for the state. This will undoubtedly entrench some old injustices. “It’s very hard to know who killed someone 20 years ago to get a piece of land and who just arrived recently,” says Denis Minev, the planning secretary for Amazonas state (which has a good record on deforestation). Even so, in the long run the measure may prove useful. “Land regularisation is of fundamental importance for halting deforestation,” says Carlos Minc, Brazil’s environment minister.
Enforcing the new regime will be as difficult as ever. IBAMA, the federal agency charged with this task, collects less than 1% of the fines it imposes during operations in the Amazon. “This is not something that is feared as a serious threat by people who break the law,” says Roberto Smeraldi of Amigos da Terra, an NGO. The sporadic weakness of the Brazilian state is partly to blame for this. But any government would struggle to police the frontier between forest and farmland, which is far longer than America’s border with Mexico.
This is why many environmentalists now argue that the only way to fix the problem is to give people who live at the frontier something more profitable to do. The government has begun to change the region’s economies. Since July last year farmers without titles to their land are supposed to be denied access to subsidised credit, though this too is hard to enforce.
Efforts to commercialise forest products, from Amazon river fish to oils for use in cosmetics, are also under way. Amigos da Terra, in a study of these businesses, finds them to be profitable when they form clusters and turn out finished products. “I am convinced that in 20 years we will have a viable forest economy,” says Mr Smeraldi. “Only by then we will have lost a lot of forest.”
Speeding up this process is one of the motives behind the $1 billion donation for the Amazon announced in September by Norway’s government. The Brazilian government has set up an Amazon Fund for this money and any future donations. Norway will have no say in how it is used, but the amount of money it releases from the fund will be linked to Brazil’s success in slowing deforestation. Germany will give something to the fund too. Turid Rodrigues Eusébio, Norway’s ambassador to Brasília, says lots of other countries are watching Norway to see how the experiment goes, and will chip in if it is a success.
Depredation from space
Amazon states hope to acquire another stream of money, in the form of payments for not cutting down trees, from the UN initiative known as REDD, which will be discussed in Copenhagen in December (see article). Payments of this kind are already being made in Amazonas state: $8.1m from private companies such as Marriott hotels and Bradesco, a big bank, is being handed over by the state government to 6,000 families in exchange for not cutting down any more trees. The challenge is to extend such schemes to the trees on the edge of the farmland, which are most at risk.
Still, argues Ms Rodrigues Eusébio, it will take more than changing cattle-ranchers into nut-gatherers to put a stop to deforestation. To bring a more elevated form of economic development to the region, Brazil’s government is convinced that it needs to build more roads in the forest. This too is controversial. Some 80% of deforestation happens within 30 miles of a road. Seen from Google Earth, the southern part of Pará state looks as if someone has dropped large fish skeletons on the jungle, as spines of deforestation push into the trees from either side of the roads. Deforestation is more severe where a road is good, which is why the proposed asphalting of the BR-163, from Cuiabá in Mato Grosso to Santarém in Pará, is held up by a legal wrangle.
However unpalatable road-building is, it may be needed if the people who live in the Amazon are to lead a better life. “The Everglades are very beautiful, but America did rule out building roads through them to connect Miami with other parts of Florida,” says Mr Minev of Amazonas state. The government now knows how to build roads without unleashing the loggers, he argues. Amazonas has recently signed an agreement creating nature reserves on either side of the BR-319, which runs from Manaus to Porto Velho. The road will help to integrate Manaus into the rest of the country’s economy. When the Zona Franca was established in 1967, it took 15-20 days to get goods to consumers in São Paulo, in the country’s south-east. It takes the same amount of time today.
In this vision of the Amazon, the forest will be preserved as a large national park with sprinklings of industry added to enrich its inhabitants. The agriculture at its edge will be more productive than it is today, making use of abandoned land and raising yields to meet domestic and foreign demand without encroaching farther into the jungle. This is aim is plausible, as well as commendable, but it will take decades to accomplish. In the meantime, the forest will continue to shrink. The fight today is over how fast that happens."