Saturday, September 27, 2008

Amazon Travel Narrative

I’m sitting on a beach in a fork of the Teles Pires river feeling somewhat hypocritical. I’ve come on a project to map deforestation rates on ranches in the Amazon, but here I am chewing on strips of barbequed tropical cow - the production of which, I’ve learnt, is the overwhelming cause of rainforest clearance in this part of Brazil. The vegetation bordering the river, which is a tributary of the Amazon, is the exuberant, impenetrable mass of tropical forest. I’ve seen white-whiskered spider monkeys, a harpy eagle, troupes of capivaras, and a video of a two-day battle between a caiman and an anaconda. Nobody knew for sure which won, but a dead caiman washed up on shore the following day. Red macaws often pass silently overhead, always in pairs. I’ve forgotten my repellent and long trousers, both of which are a must in a tropical forest, and I’m providing a feast of exotic blood for the local gnat population. My body, increasingly vermillion from the irritation, provides some atonement for my consumption sins, as well as amusement for my colleagues. So, despite thoughts of anaconda vs. caiman, I go for a relieving swim in the river - one of those things you promised yourself not to do when you were lying in bed at home.

This is the Southern edge of the Amazon rainforest, the largest and single most
valuable forest ecosystem remaining to mankind today. It stores a volume of carbon equal to fifteen years of net anthropogenic emissions at current rates, it is the richest bank of biodiversity on the planet, and it is estimated to be cycling up to one fifth of the world’s water at any time. The cost of manufacturing any of those ecosystem services would be staggering, so why is the Amazon disappearing at faster rates than any other forest on earth and why are the people living around it so poor?
Alta Floresta is an end-of-the road town built around two avenues not more than three miles long. In the heat and dust of the afternoons, it feels empty and slow. But in the first few weeks of my stay, the big event of the agricultural fair is on every night. I’m surprised to find it solid with people in their finest hats, leather string ties and boots, babies on their shoulders, coming to watch the rodeo. But don’t call them ten-gallon hats, cowboy ties or boots, or indeed their kids “sonny”. You should know before you go that it’s ‘nothing at all like America’. They are vaqueiros, Caipiras and they’re here to stay.

So where did all these people come from? Despite having this vegetable version of Fort Knox on their doorsteps, the vast majority of the regional population is very poor. I’ve met farmers who have zero financial income, live in bare wooden constructions with only a few prayers on the walls, coffee, and home-grown crops to see them through. I imagine that most people spend their time out in the cerrado, the sprawling savannah and cleared pasture areas, only venturing to town for special occasions. But a minority of proprietors are both powerful and wealthy: their ranches sprawl over such enormous areas that, in the area known as the Amazon Portal, over 80% of the land is in the hands of just 20% of the people. In Alta Floresta for example, the mayor is also the largest landowner. Consequently, during the heated political gatherings which frequently empty the entire town, many politicians deride laws promoting eco-friendly practices as governmental tools of oppression.These large ranchers, and the soy producers in other states, have been singled out as the principal agents of Amazon deforestation. But past political drives aiming to colonize the Amazon ahead of the perceived foreign invasion (“integrar para não entregar”) assigned great prestige to land settlers, so the people are by no means to blame.

Those organic dishcloth-wielding, WOMAD festival-loving individuals such as myself cry out “why doesn’t somebody do something about this destruction?” Well, they do. Forest-conservation NGOs, governmental bodies, environmental police and ecotourism businesses are abundant all around the Amazon. But NGOs, governmental and international policies which create protected forest areas for conservation do so at a cost - locals lose rights to the land which has previously been at their disposal. During my stay, one particular European NGO made claims on their website to be investing in sustainable development projects run by my employers, but were shown to be lying. Loss of control over land is, for similar reasons, at the heart of Brazil’s refusal to take part in those mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol involving developed nations meeting their reduced emissions targets by purchasing them from developing ones.

Who, then, could blame the usually fantastically friendly Brazilians for the occasional bit of scepticism towards foreigners? In fact, even as a reeling drunk rancher put forward some unfounded claims about the sexual habits of my mother in the ‘80s in front of my entire dinner table and told me to get out of Brazil, I felt an unexpected amount of sympathy. The British ran out of timber for industry and had to start sending in trees from Norway as far back as Roman times. Generations later, their descendants get worried, fly west over the Atlantic wearing their bourgeois recycled pyjamas and start preaching conservation to people who are just trying to make a living. I felt sheepish.

But recent innovations in the Kyoto context, known as reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) policies, may be one source of light at the end of this tunnel. The concept is simple: pay individuals and companies for environmental services rendered. This could be good news for rainforest-rich countries because, as is true locally in Mato Grosso, economic poverty and ecological wealth are a common co-occurrence in the world’s rainforest-rich nations. Accordingly, although past experiences in alleviating poverty and curbing deforestation simultaneously have often been unsuccessful, nations such as Costa Rica, Papua-New Guinea, Indonesia, and many countries in Africa are interested.

There is a hope, then, that forest conservationists may cease to be regarded as a fly in the economic ointment in future, and come to represent an actually interesting business prospect. But try telling that to the soused rancher at my dinner table.


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