A Protected Forest's Fast Decline
Despite Brazilian Policy, Park in Amazon Falls Prey to Farming, Logging and a Lack of Government Resources

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 6, 2009

BOM FUTURO NATIONAL FOREST, Brazil -- Antonio Elson Portela had already passed acres of charred stumps and rows of corn and coffee plants when he drove up behind a flatbed truck hauling logs out of this Amazonian forest.

It was yet another affront to Portela, an environmental official responsible for protecting this rapidly dwindling national forest from settlers and loggers, but both Portela and the truck driver knew where things stood. The driver leaned out and smiled and waved, casually. Portela gripped the steering wheel and flushed.

"I want to do something," he said. "But there is nothing I can do."

Brazil is considered a world leader in conserving its environmental bounty. The federal government late last year set ambitious goals to reduce deforestation by 70 percent over the next decade. It has demarcated more than 300,000 square miles as federally protected areas, a territory more than twice the size of the U.S. national park system.

But as the case of Bom Futuro National Forest shows, such designations do not always prevent, or even slow, the destruction of the rain forest. Here, across 700,000 acres of Amazon rain forest in the western Brazilian state of Rondonia, poverty pushes settlers in search of new lands, and any attempt by the government to interrupt their destiny has met with resentment and an adamant refusal to leave.

Across the Amazon, such development pressures are challenging Brazil's aspirations to halt the destruction of the world's largest rain forest. The stakes are particularly high not only because of the rich biological diversity and immense freshwater resources found here, but also because the rain forest plays an important role in removing gases from the atmosphere that contribute to global warming. Scientists say about one-fifth of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from cutting down rain forests, and much of that from the Amazon. Brazil is one of the world's top four emitters of greenhouse gases. More than 4,600 square miles of the Amazon was deforested last year.

In Bom Futuro, settlers and prospectors have carved out a hard living by cutting trees, despite environmental rules that declare their very presence illegal. And a combination of pressures -- farming, logging, cattle ranching, road-building, hunting -- and the speed of the forest's disappearance have brought Bom Futuro to the top of the government's environmental agenda.

Through last May, Bom Futuro had lost nearly 170,000 acres of forest, roughly a quarter of the park. At the current rate of deforestation, environmental officials estimate, half the forest will be pasture in five more years. By 2021, it will be all gone.

"This is a very serious case. It's an example of total destruction of a protected area," said Brazilian Environment Minister Carlos Minc. "We intend to take out the cattle. Remove the trucks that are taking the wood illegally."

Last summer, the Environment Ministry and local environmental authorities drafted an aggressive plan to use military and police to relocate some of the park's roughly 3,000 residents and 50,000 cattle. The 83-page "evacuation plan," intended to "reverse the alarming scene of environmental degradation," said it would be "difficult or impossible" to achieve any of the recovery plans without first throwing out the settlers. The plan also calls for erecting border checkpoints to control traffic into the park and reforesting degraded land.

Although environmental officials expect some form of the plan to begin soon, Minc has recently proposed adding new protected territory outside the forest to make up for cleared land and to avoid a confrontation with residents. "No one in their right mind thinks that we will go there with tractors and knock down the churches, the schools and the city itself. We are not going to do this," he said. "We will not remove the people living inside of it."

Inside Bom Futuro, the threat of action has nevertheless angered and worried the settlers, who have banded together in rejection of any effort to make them or their livestock budge. This is a ragtag group, self-made and sunburned, living obstinately off-grid. With no government to provide services, they pool money to build roads and schools. They consider themselves producers not profiteers, but an outlaw ethos prevails, and justice here can get ugly.

In November, police reported that a married couple and their teenage son were shot to death inside the park in an apparent dispute over who owned a single cow. During the last serious police effort to relocate park settlers, in December 2003, residents staged a four-day protest blocking a federal highway, burned bridges inside the park and planted boards bristling with nails to prevent police access.

"We have only God to protect us here," said Daniel Bernardo da Silva, a 60-year-old resident. "Fear is the law."

Men such as Sebastiao Alves dos Santos came first to Bom Futuro, itinerant farmers alone with machetes, hacking through more jungle than they could ever clear.

Santos chose a spot in the forest, and over the next 14 years, he chain-sawed trees and battled bouts of malaria, forging a fresh beginning for his wife and 6-year-old daughter. He cultivated coffee, rice and beans on his 750 acres, built a wood house, tended 100 cattle, fathered a second child. Others settled here, cleared roads, built schools, and opened hardware stores, churches, gas stations and a hotel.

"I fought for this. I gave my blood and my sweat," Santos said. "We made all this for our children. They can't take it away."

'This Park Is Totally Out of Hand'

Antonio Elson Portela, a 27-year-old soft-spoken former police officer, carries a .38-caliber pistol in the waistband of his bluejeans. Portela should have a government-issued firearm, as he is one of three officials tasked with protecting Bom Futuro for the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation, the agency with authority over the national forest. But he was still waiting for his weapon, along with a promised bulletproof vest and the authority to confront, in even a small way, the impunity that surrounds him when he visits Bom Futuro.

"Here we don't call it a 'national forest,' we call it the 'national grassland,' " he said. "We do not have any control. This park is totally out of hand."

The lack of employees to monitor and deter illegal activity in protected areas is one of the major hindrances of environmental enforcement in Brazil. When Minc came to office last May, 82 of the 299 federally protected areas in the country did not have a single staff person assigned to them. Ana Cristina Barros, the Brazilian representative for the Nature Conservancy, said that about 1,500 people are employed to work in protected areas in Brazil but that about 10,000 people are needed to operate effectively.

"The responsibility for what is happening is mostly due to the lack of personnel, lack of staff and minimal investments," said Pedro Leitão, executive director of the nonprofit Brazilian Biodiversity Fund, or FunBIO.

With money spread across varied parts of a complicated bureaucracy, he said, Brazilian officials, until recently, have not known precisely how much the government is spending on protected areas. But with information derived from ARPA, the Amazon Region Protected Areas program, a network created in 2003, the government knows more about the costs of managing parks. "It's not an astronomic figure. We are very enthusiastic for the possibility of actually strengthening and consolidating the 299 federal protected areas," Leitão said.

Many environmentalists argue that protected areas, despite their flaws, are far better than nothing. A study reported in the February 2006 issue of Conservation Biology found that both uninhabited parks and inhabited protected areas such as indigenous reserves helped stem deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. The rates of deforestation outside the protected areas were two to 20 times as high, the study found.

"There's a very clear difference, and you can see this if you look at the satellite data," said Stephan Schwartzman, director for tropical forest policy at the Environmental Defense Fund and one of the authors of the Conservation Biology study. "But ultimately it won't matter how many reserves there are unless we can change the current equation whereby anything you do in the forest once you cut it down is more economical than the standing forest."

Portela faces the economics of the forest each day in Bom Futuro. From 2003 to 2005, loggers hauled nearly $60 million in timber from the national forest, according to government figures. One illicit logger said he hauls five loads of logs per week and earns $800 to $1,300 a trip.

"We know this is illegal," said Alessandro, 21, who gave only his first name. "But we need bread every day, we need to survive."

'We Will Die for Our Right to Stay'

One Sunday in December, residents convened in the settlement of Marco Azul inside the forest for a public hearing to discuss the growing threat of eviction from the park. They gathered on wooden benches under a tin-roof shelter lighted by a bare bulb, next to the bull-riding ring.

One after another they spoke out against the government's threats to their livelihood. Some argued that they never knew the area was a national forest until long after they arrived. Others said they are productive citizens being betrayed by their country. "Where is the patriotism? We are Brazilians," another said. "We will die for our right to stay here."

Then a thick-necked man in a red shirt addressed the crowd. "So suddenly the government decides to throw people out like dogs, like orphans?" asked Ernandes Amorim, a federal congressman who represents the region. "You together united are stronger than the government."

"You are not thieves, you're not kicking out Indians. You have lost relatives, you've had malaria, you've spent all your investment here. What moral authority does this government have to take you from your production, your work, your home?" he said. "If they throw you out, you come back. If they burn your house, you build another one."

"You will only leave here," he finished, "if you are carried out in bags."

The crowd greeted Amorim's fiery speech with enthusiasm, but Portela felt dejected. This only made his job more difficult. He did not want to be divisive, but to negotiate a peaceful resolution. Portela sympathized with the farmers' point of view and believed that moving these people, or re-creating a pristine forest, was impossible. He felt settlers could learn to care for the remaining forest.

One of the settlers who agreed was Cleofas de Oliveira, a 30-year-old farmer who has spent 12 years in Bom Futuro. "I don't want to deforest -- I'm aware now of this new environmental education," he said. "But my father's generation was different."

When Oliveira's parents, who were rubber tappers, came to Rondonia in the 1970s, it was under the auspices of an aggressive campaign by Brazil's military government to populate the Amazon. The Brazilian junta, which took power in 1964, wanted settlers for economic development, to siphon them away from chronically poor cities, and to stake a claim to the wild frontier so neighboring countries couldn't. "Occupy so as not to surrender" rang the slogan.

Oliveira built up his ranch from humble beginnings. After smuggling himself over the U.S.-Mexican border, he worked construction outside Boston to save for his farm. He has invested $400,000 and now has 400 cattle and a yellow house with a white picket fence. "If I were to be relocated, I would lose my whole investment," he said.

Oliveira and others say they are willing to plant new trees and police themselves and the loggers in return for legitimate claim to their land. If a confrontation comes, he said, everyone expects problems.

"If they try to move people and do not offer something of value, people would burn the rest of this forest in protest: Okay, if we leave, the forest goes with us."

The sun was down and Portela, behind the wheel of a pickup truck, could see only the outlines of the passing fields, farmhouses and herds of white cattle. Portela never envisioned he would be an environmental defender. After working at a paper store, and later a trucking company, he chose to become a policeman to get out of the office, but he ended up working behind a desk. He said he wishes now he had less of the adventure he went looking for.

"I want to be transferred to a different conservation unit. Somewhere that has forest left, that has a management plan," he said. "This is too dangerous here. There is too much conflict."

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