"LOOK, THIS IS THE PIT OF JATOBÁ and this is of guanandi,” said Santino Sena, a man with gnarled hands collecting native seeds that had floated to the surface in a swamp in the jungle of Canarana, a municipality of Mato Grosso in west central Brazil.
“Before, I didn’t think twice—and now it hurts if I cut a tree,” said Sena. He owns a house, a small Fiat and a motorbike that he paid for in part with seeds. In a year, he can earn up to R$10,000 ($6,000). The seed market is now moving onto the Internet. And it’s just one arm of recent reforestation efforts in Brazil, a country that for many years had the highest rate of deforestation in the world.
Vast red-dirt roads pave the way to the new agro-industrial frontier in Mato Grosso. The landscape is breathtaking. On one side of the road sits pastureland populated by cows that raise their heads to follow the passing cars. On the other side of the road, industrially planted soy mega-crops stretch to the horizon, forming perfect geometric patterns. Occasionally, a patch of forest breaks the monotony, a reminder that this land was once part of the world’s largest rainforest.
Deforestation of its Amazonian rainforest—host to one third of the world’s tropical forest—is largely to blame for Brazil’s status in 2005 as the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, if land use is taken into consideration. Faced with such a reputation, as well as pressure on the international stage, at gathering like the UN climate change summits, the Brazilian government was pushed to take action.
In 2003, under former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the government began to enforce long-neglected forest laws, one of which deemed that money could be withheld from states that failed to either prevent deforestation or ban the sale of products grown in illegally deforested areas. The government used satellite imagery to monitor lawbreakers, sent in police to raid illegal loggers and black-listed municipalities with the worst deforestation records. The strategy paid off: in six years, the rate of deforestation had fallen by 70 percent.
“Things have been turned upside down”, said Valmir Schneider, a soybean farmer in the town of Querencia, a soybean production region in Mato Grosso. “First they asked us to come to these lands and now we are the villains for turning it productive.”
Schneider moved here from Rio Grande do Sul, a southern state with a large German migrant population, in the 1980s during a government-sponsored colonisation settlers project. At that time, deforestation was national policy—a bid to populate the far-flung Amazonian jungles, which the government regarded as unproductive. The colonisation project, as it was called, was championed by the military government that took power in a coup in 1964. That same year, a Brazilian land law was passed that supported ownership of land by those who produced on it. If a person could demonstrate cultivation for a year and a day, then that person could claim the holding.
The scattered groups of indigenous people living in the Amazon were neglected and frequently displaced, sometimes violently.
Thirty years later in Mato Grosso, intensive deforestation and agrobusiness have taken their toll. “The Xingu has changed,” said Ianukula Kaibi-Suiá, who lives in one of the indigenous towns along the Xingu River, the state’s main water source and one of the tributaries of the Amazon River. “There is little fishing, the water is murky and there are fewer species,” he explained.
Despite the fact that Xingu valley is designated as a national park, a growing number of soybean farms and cattle ranches encircle the reserve. Farmers have chopped down river banks and trees, in turn drying up the water sources that run into the Xingu.
In 2004, about 6,000 native Amazonians, whose habitat is dependent on water sources in the reserve, issued an SOS to activists and local authorities. Several organisations initiated a project to encourage farmers and landowners to reforest and comply with the law.
Schneider is one of the farmers who were convinced to take part. But he did so only after his municipality was blacklisted by the federal government and local authorities put pressure on those not complying with the law. He acknowledges that only 25 percent of his 2,000 hectare property is currently preserved as forest. The current law stipulates 50 percent. Like Schneider, nine out of 10 farmers are out of step with the law.
Natura, a Brazilian cosmetics firm on a mission to be seeen as a ‘green’ company, is supporting the reforestation of Schneider’s land by buying seeds and funding the replanting over a period of 30 years.
“The true incentive would be for me to be paid for keeping the forest standing up,” said Schneider. “It’s a long term commitment and a huge responsibility but I don’t get much out of it,” he said.
In the absence of financial incentives, other factors play a part. “They don’t do it necessarily because they love nature or care about the environment,” said Natalia Guerin, a researcher for the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), the NGO which leads the reforestation project, “but because that they see a benefit in it—avoiding fines and prosecution and protecting the water they desperately need.”
In fields deforested for pasture, the trees grow back only if there are no cattle. Time and barbed wire are the ultimate technologies. But in soil that has been industrially planted, native seeds have been removed or killed. Thus the market for Sena’s native seeds.
The demand for native seeds has grown not only from government pressure but also thanks to technology. The ISA has put in place a technique to use soybean planting machinery to plant forest seeds, speeding up the process and reducing the need for labour.
But reforestation is going at a snail’s pace compared to the rate of multimillion-dollar business expansion. Brazil is the largest exporter of beef in the world and the second largest exporter of soybeans after the US. Agriculture accounts for 22 percent of the country’s GDP. Controlling and securing food production today is as strategic as having oil or a nuclear warhead. Experts estimate that to restore life to the Xingu valley, 300,000 hectares need to be reforested, of which so far only about 3,000 have been recovered.
Environmentalists fear that even the newfound support from farmers for reforestation will be damaged by a controversial Forest Code just passed in Brazil’s Congress at the end of April. The code, which had been approved in the lower chamber and redrafted in the Senate with subtle modifications that still enrage environmentalists, was being pushed forward by ‘ruralistas’, the powerful bloc of politicians who defend agro-industry interests. They call it a more realistic law in line with developing the Brazilian economy.
Environmentalists such as former presidential candidate Marina Silva claim, however, that the code will simply foster deforestation by reducing conservation areas and granting amnesty to those who chopped trees in the past. “Brazil is going through a crucial moment,” Silva said. “Since 1965 we have a law to protect forests in Brazil but the new forest code reverses the logic: it is a law to facilitate farming.”
This article was published in The Caravan (India) magazine. To see the piece as it ran, click here.
Lorenzo Morales is a freelance journalist based in Colombia. He is a Pulitzer Center grantee and teaches journalism at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá.