Monday, December 12, 2011

Saving the Amazon, from forest floor up

Saturday, December 10, 2011
Source: San Francisco Chronicle


Just three years ago, the manmade fires here were so fierce smoke would blot out the Amazon sky, turning the days dark. Towering rainforest trees exploded in flames, their canopies cleared to let pasture grow for cattle.

The ash that snowed down onto this jungle town was shin-deep. Dirty layers hid red-hot timber chunks, glowing coals that burned the bare feet of children walking through the cinder drifts.

Paragominas was losing forest faster than nearly any other place in the Amazon.

Today, the town has risen from those ashes to become a pioneering "Green City," a model of sustainability with a new economic approach that has seen illegal deforestation virtually halted. Experts say the metamorphosis is the best hope for showing the 25 million people who live in the Amazon that the forest is worth more alive than dead.

The transformation came after Brazil cracked down on 36 counties responsible for the worst deforestation in the Amazon. A resulting economic embargo left the town with two options. It could fight against change, or it could embrace a new path and promote development with minimal harm to the environment.

Mayor Adnan Demachki is the unlikely environmental warrior driving the change, a plump 46-year-old bespectacled lawyer who grew up here, and was mayor when his town was one of the worst deforesters.

"Our city was on the government's 'black list,'" Demachki said. "There was no way out other than the new path we had chosen."

His "Green City" plan aims to halt all illegal deforestation through a mix of enforcement, the creation of the Amazon's only local environmental police force, and promotion of an economy that doesn't rely on clearing jungle. Instead, the focus is on sustainable development — using managed forestry for a wood industry, and introducing modern farming techniques to increase production while using less land.

In the past year Demachki's success has earned him high praise from environmental authorities that once harshly criticized his town. He's been featured on Brazil's biggest TV news programs and traveled around the country to spread the gospel of his Green City.

"Paragominas is an example of how to successfully overcome deforestation and begin the transition to an economy that conserves the forest," said Mauro Pires, head of the Environment Ministry's department that fights Amazon destruction. "They changed their stance and followed their leaders down an alternative path, one that coexists with the forest."

The Amazon rainforest is arguably the biggest natural defense against global warming, acting as a giant absorber of carbon dioxide.

As it's cut, the world not only loses this defense, but the destruction itself adds to the problem. About 75 percent of Brazil's emissions come from rainforest clearing, as vegetation burns and felled trees rot. That releases an estimated 400 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, making Brazil at least the sixth biggest emitter of the gas.

Nearly 20 percent of Brazil's Amazon has been cleared.

The destruction began in force five decades ago, when Brazil's government gave away free land to those who agreed to clear 50 percent of their plot, and incentives didn't end until the 1990s. Endless waves of migrants followed, carving a livelihood out of the jungle. Wood cutters, ranchers and grain farmers chewed up virgin jungle along the Amazon's southern border, a yawning 2,600-mile upside-down arc stretching between Brazil's western and eastern borders, the distance between New York and San Francisco.

The global economy's growing demand for hardwood timber, soy and beef pushed deforestation into overdrive, hitting a peak in 1995 when 11,220 square miles (29,060 square kilometers) were razed. The vast majority of the deforestation was against the law. But less than 5 percent of the land is deeded, and enforcing environmental laws is difficult when authorities cannot prove who owns it.

The Amazon is the size of the U.S. west of the Mississippi River, and much of it is wild, ruled by the gun in the absence of governmental and legal institutions. More than 1,150 rural activists have been murdered in the last 20 years by gunmen hired by loggers to silence voices decrying illegal cutting. Only a handful of those responsible are in jail.

Its massive expanses and wild nature make it impossible to uniformly enforce environmental laws. Under pressure from the nation's agricultural lobby, Brazil's Senate passed a bill last week that would loosen those laws. The bill is expected to pass both houses within weeks.

The Paragominas experiment is significant, experts say, because it shows it's possible to convince people at the local level that saving the forest is in their best interest.

In 2008 the Brazilian government for the first time set a concrete goal to decelerate rainforest destruction, aiming to reduce it to 1,900 square miles (5,000 square kilometers) by 2017. Armed field agents targeted Paragominas and others on a blacklist of 36 counties, handing out massive fines, confiscating cattle herds and shutting sawmills.

In Paragominas, home to about 100,000 people, federal agents closed nearly 300 illegal sawmills. The town lost 2,300 jobs within a year and the federal government cut off agricultural credits.

Paragominas leaders knew they had to change. So they took an unheard-of leap of faith in the Amazon: they asked the very environmental groups that had been castigating them to help them go green.
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