Page last updated at 13:06 GMT, Thursday, 15 May 2008 14:06 UK

Seeking an Amazon solution

By Fergus Nicoll
BBC News, Amazonas state, Brazil

Amazonas river
The Amazon landscape is epic in scale

Seen from a small boat emerging from Puraquequara lagoon into the full flow of the Amazon River, this is a world reduced to water, trees and sky.

It's a full three kilometres to the other side and at that distance even the forest giants that tower over the canopy seem reduced in size.

Amazonas state - a territory three times the size of France but with a telephone book just a centimetre thick - is 98% pristine rainforest.

But it is an environment threatened by powerful forces - like the march of economic development.

Former Harvard law professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger, the man charged with implementing Brazil's new Plan for a Sustainable Amazon (PAS), is under no illusions about the difficulties he faces.

Amazon Paradox graphic

This report is part of a BBC World Service special on the Amazon rainforest.

Starting at 0500GMT on Thursday 15 May, there are live and recorded broadcasts.

Highlights include a double edition of Newshour, presented live from three locations in Brazil - Manaus, Pargominas and Alta Floresta - at 1200 and a one hour special at 1600.

"The Amazon is not simply a collection of trees," Unger, Brazil's minister for strategic affairs told the BBC.

"It's a group of people: 25 million Brazilians.

"If those people lack economic opportunities, the practical consequence will be disorganised economic opportunity, which will hasten the deforestation.

"What we must do is develop a regulatory legal and tax regime, ensuring that the forest standing is worth more than the forest cut down."

'No Amazon support'

The PAS plan is a detailed, yet controversial roadmap. Environmentalists have criticised it for focusing more on development, than protecting the environment.

Logging operation
There is a delicate balance between economics and environmentalism

Even the appointment of Unger to oversee the plan - rather than the former environment minister and staunch defender of the Amazon, Marina Silva - added to this impression.

Ms Silva resigned on 13 May and she criticised what she said was a lack of political support to protect the Amazon among Brazil's leaders.

However, the plan's supporters say seizing control of development in a structured manner is the best way to safeguard the forest's future.

Among the PAS plan's initiatives are:

  • Develop the infrastructure of the region with new roads, navigable river routes and more hydroelectric dams
  • Set up a tax regime benefiting those using sustainable practices
  • Establish a legal framework for transferring parts of the forest from public to community control
  • Add three million hectares to the "officially protected" zone
  • Seek ways of allowing the international community to help preserve the forest.

Ambitious scheme

In Amazonas state, there are practical examples of how these initiatives might work.

The Amazon rainforest
Amazon map
Largest continuous tropical forest
Shared by nine countries
65% Brazilian territory
Covers 6.6m sq km in total
Pop: 30m - 23.5m are in Brazil

Virgilio Vianna of the Foundation for Amazonas Sustainability said that since 2003, tax breaks on commodities such as fish and fruit had made local producers richer.

One of the state's most ambitious, and controversial, environmental programmes - The Bolsa Floresta (forest bursary) scheme - was set up to compensate the state's traditional and indigenous people.

It amounts to a straightforward exchange - cash in hand for trees left standing.

To qualify for a hand-out of 50 reais (US$30) per month, a family must attend a two-day training course on environmental awareness and commit to zero deforestation.

Local community associations can get up to $3,000 under the scheme, financed by a partnership between Amazonas State and Brazil's largest private bank, Bradesco.

Another programme offers cash for sustainable activities that do not produce smoke, such as bee-keeping, fish-farming or forest management.

Compensation 'derisory'

But there are those who say the Bolsa Floresta has been ill thought-out, and imposed from above.

"One of the problems is that there was no discussion with the communities concerned, it was a top-down policy and very focussed on [state capital] Manaus," said Marta Cunha, of the Catholic Church's Pastoral Land Commission.

The compensation levels are also regarded by some as very low - "derisory" according to Angelus Figueira of the Amazonas Green party.

Defenders say the project - now eight months old - is in its early stages.

Investments by Bradesco and the state should provide more than enough funds to sustain the Bolsa Floresta, its backers say.

And according to Vianna, it's a sign of the "private sector associating itself with the protection of the forest".


Another programme - a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification scheme - addresses the question of "ethical logging".

In a typical FSC-accredited business, just five trees would logged from an area of 10,000 square metres of pristine forest.

Growing global demand for Brazilian commodities has helped accelerate destruction of the Amazon forest.

Deforestation increases and declines according to international prices of beef and soya, as well as the relative strength of the real to the dollar.

But some argue growing demands from the global food market will be matched by increasing concern for environmental responsibility.

Daniel Nepstad, a forest ecologist with more than 20 years of Amazon experience, believes international markets and financial institutions will require more responsible land management on the part of Brazil's beef ranchers and soya farmers.

"There may be a silver lining to the cloud of globalization that has spread across the Amazon," Nepstad wrote in a recent report for the Woods Hole Research Centre in Massachusetts.

'Emergency measures'

Nepstad also predicts Brazil will benefit from the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) initiative, launched under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

We do not see any contradiction in principle between an active economic project and the conservation of this treasure for humanity
Roberto Mangabeira Unger

Under the scheme, he says Brazil would be rewarded for reducing deforestation, because burning the trees releases a vast amount of carbon into the atmosphere.

From the local level to the complexities of macro-economics, an increasing range of incentives is influencing the future of the Amazon forest.

For Roberto Mangabeira Unger, maintaining a careful balance is central to the success of his government's evolving strategy.

"The commitment to preservation has been long-standing," he says.

"Emergency measures are under way. The next step is to put in place the elements of a long-term programme.

"We do not see any contradiction in principle between an active economic project and the conservation of this treasure for humanity."


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