Applying Capitalism to Protect Dwindling Brazilian Forestland

Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 25, 2008; Page A10

AGUA BOA, Brazil -- Driving a farm truck across the mud roads of the eastern Amazon region is agony on axles, a careful slalom around slippery ruts and yawning craters. The scenery is unromantic: mostly cattle pasture and soybean fields, with the occasional stand of naked tree trunks charred by last year's fires.

Farmers have an incentive to keep traveling these roads, though: money. The world's soaring demand for beef and grains has turned this frontier into a ripe business opportunity, even as the forest has paid the price.

But what if global capitalism actually valued standing forest? Could these same farmers and ranchers -- for years considered by many environmentalists as the lowest links in a chain of destruction -- actually become frontline protectors of the Amazon?

The idea has been so energetically embraced in many parts of Brazil that the fundamental character of the environmental movement along the Amazon's most vulnerable edge has changed. Instead of being considered obstacles to conservation, farmers and ranchers are being wooed by many environmentalists as potential partners.

Here in the state of Mato Grosso, where Brazil's agriculture industry is strongest, nonprofit organizations are teaming with banks to create loans that favor environmentally friendly farms. Industry coalitions are meeting with farmers to try to draft certification systems for "responsible" soy and beef. Pilot projects are testing carbon-trading systems that offer money for ranchers with forested land.

"There's been a recognition that the traditional command-and-control approaches to conservation have not really worked," said Daniel Nepstad, a scientist who heads the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Research Center's projects in the Amazon. "It's the economy that makes the drivers of deforestation change their behaviors."

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's government has supported environmental certification and carbon-trading programs, and last year offered land concessions throughout the Amazon to private logging companies that promised sustainable timber harvesting. Critics charged that Lula wanted to "privatize the Amazon," but his backers maintain that strictly regulated private enterprise is the most pragmatic way for the country to develop a region they consider the key to the country's future.

"When people talk about sustainable activities, especially in Europe and the U.S., the images they have in their minds are of almost artisanal activities -- Indians and poor farmers wandering in the forest and taking sap out of the trees," said Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Brazil's minister of strategic planning. "We're not talking about that. We're talking about large-scale institutional innovation and big business. And that, therefore, presents an entirely higher order of difficulty to us."

Inducing Farmers to Keep Trees

The enterprising ideas are already starting to take shape in towns like this one. Last week, thousands of farmers drove toward Agua Boa's auction yard. Nearly 30,000 cows from local farms were sold in seven hours. But before the auction, the same ranchers that unloaded their cows into corrals here were being sized up as valuable commodities themselves.

"We want to be environmentally responsible, and if the international community wants to save the Amazon, that's fine with us," said Maurício Tonhá, the mayor and organizer of the Agua Boa cattle auction. "But they have to be willing to pay for it."

Marcos Reis used to work with Tonhá, caring for cattle on his ranch and others nearby. Now he works for a nonprofit called Alianca da Terra, or the Land Alliance. He tries to convince the ranchers that their trees could soon be worth money. If they have their land holdings catalogued, a professional mapping of exactly which areas of their properties remain forested, they could be first in line to cash in on new incentives.

It can be a tough sell, because current real estate values show trees as obstacles to prosperity: An acre of standing forest costs about $175 here, while the same acre cleared for plantation sells for about $1,215.

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