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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 September 2006, 09:54 GMT 10:54 UK
Bumpy road to Amazon sustainability
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website, Rio Branco

It was one of the more bizarre contradictions you could think of: an organisation dedicated to saving the rainforest carrying to hospital someone who had just been trying to burn it.

Fatima and Mayara Gonsalves.  Image: BBC
With reduced-impact logging and certification, you know you are going to have some forest left to leave to your children
Fatima Gonsalves
Not that it was easy to think, as we almost flew over the serrated dust track leading out of the forest, with WWF press chief and part-time rock impresario Max Arraes hammering the pickup truck to ever greater speeds.

Right now our priority was saving a life, not a tree. In the back seat of our truck lay an elderly man with burns covering both legs - burns sustained as he fell in a fire of his own making, hit on the head and knocked unconscious by a tree his fire had killed.

In the Amazon, this sort of land clearing has been a way of life for decades.

Seduced into believing cattle-raising is the route to riches, often encouraged by the government's economic development agencies, settlers have nibbled away at the edges of the Amazon forest, clearing hectare after hectare for pasture.

A thought I tried unsuccessfully to keep away from as we bumped towards the local hospital was that a little part of the forest had finally taken some small revenge on the slashers and burners.

Family business

We had met the old man towards the end of a day which had taken us about two hours north of the state capital Rio Branco into a forest owned by Fatima Gonsalves.

For the BBC World Service, we had come to Acre state in the far west of the Brazilian Amazon to find out what sustainable forestry means here, and whether it can succeed.

Locator map of Acre
Fatima is one of its poster children.

She comes from a family of loggers, she told us; a family which has not always played by the law, and which saw the forest as something to be exploited for maximum instant gain.

But Fatima had a Damascene conversion; and the agent of change was her daughter Mayara.

Mayara recounted how she had been ashamed at school when the teacher asked her class about their parents' jobs. "I pretended they were doctors because I didn't want to say they were destroying the forest," she said.

Eventually Mayara's embarrassment persuaded her mother to contact WWF, whose forest trade office Estevao Braga introduced Fatima to the concept of reduced impact logging.

Sawmill. Image: BBC
Fatima Gonsalves maintains a sawmill close to Rio Branco
This is markedly different from selective logging, which is unreservedly commercial and aims simply to remove the most profitable trees irrespective of any damage to the health of the forest.

Reduced-impact logging, by contrast, begins with what you must leave behind.

You do not log near streams or lakes; you do not cut trees which are important for mammals or those which provide copious supplies of saplings.

"With reduced-impact logging, you don't extract more than six trees per hectare, sometimes even less than that," Estevao told me as we wandered among the trunks and creepers, insects whining powerfully all around.

"You don't come back to log in the same place for 25 years; and that allows the forest to maintain all its services, like biodiversity, water quality and air quality, while at the same time providing wood that will create income."

Now a large slice of Fatima's forest is certified as meeting Forest Stewardship Council standards, a complex set of environmental and social conditions.

The expenses may be greater, the income correspondingly less; but she is happy.

"I realised I was harming my family, my society and the forest itself," she said.

"Although the money is higher in conventional logging, you are taking the risk of being fined, being arrested; and with reduced-impact logging and certification, you know you are going to have some forest left to leave to your children."

Forest power

In an "active" sector of Fatima's forest I took a ride on a skidder, a bulldozer-like beast of incredible power which ploughs its way into the forest at walking pace, engine revving and gears grinding, crushing all in its path.

Sergio Safe. Image: BBC
We have the trees that will be cut down, and the ones that will be left to regenerate the forest
Sergio Safe
During the 10 minutes I spent in the skidder's iron-grilled cab, we made one foray into the forest and pulled out one huge trunk; we also uprooted about 16 saplings on the way. Is this really something that a self-respecting environmental group can endorse, I asked Estevao?

"It is, because we must consider the power of the forest to recover itself," he responded.

"If you come back in two or three years from now, where that log was hauled out of the forest, you won't be able to tell that a skidder had gone through it."

For reduced-impact logging to work, you must first have a detailed map of the forest - and someone skilled enough to make it.

"We mark all the trees in the plot, all the trees in different categories," explained Sergio Safe from the forest consultancy Tecman.

"We have the trees that will be cut down, and the ones that will be left to regenerate the forest."

Sergio is currently employed by the Acre state government to make "microzone" maps of the Antimary state forest, which means walking up and down along grid lines marked by stakes, 25m apart, plotting every tree of loggable size - usually more than 45cm (18in) in diameter.

Watercourses are marked too; and then foresters decide where to build the temporary roads they need to get the trunks out with minimal disruption to the rest of the trees and everything that lives among them.

Estevao Braga. Image: BBC
Certified logs must travel with documents detailing their origin
It is physical work in the humid jungle, and not without its risks; everyone I met who spent time regularly in the forest had contracted leishmaniasis, an insect-borne infection which can take years and heavy courses of drugs to cure.

And all the good work can be undone in an instant. On the way into the Antimary forest we drove through an area which should have been free of human interference.

It was anything but. Swathes of forest had been burned; a pair of soccer goalposts, made from fragments of a once mighty tree, stood mockingly at either end of a clearing, with branches still smouldering behind.

Something had gone wrong. Perhaps forms had gone astray, perhaps the economic development officials had not consulted the environment officials; perhaps money had changed hands.

Either way, the forest was gone.

Flames of history

Xapuri, a few hours west of Rio Branco, is the home of Chico Mendes, the inspirational activist against destructive cattle-ranching whose murder at the hands of ranchers in 1988 lit a "fire of forest awareness" in Brazil.

Mendes developed the concept of an "extractive reserve" - a community-owned forest where people would extract what they needed to live, hunting mammals, collecting nuts and berries for eating and for selling, tapping rubber trees for latex, logging trunks which the forest could afford to lose.

Burned rainforest. Image: BBC
Settlers had cleared forest which was supposed to be preserved
"A rubber tapper doesn't need to take a lot from the forest to have a decent life," explained Chico's cousin Nilson Mendes, who lives the extractive reserve dream today.

"The most important tree for us now is the castanheiro, the Brazil nut tree. This year I've already taken 25 cans of 18 litres each with the nuts, and I can sell each can for about 10 reais ($5)."

Alongside all the forest provides in food, these small sums are clearly enough to live on; but not, one suspects, much more.

The government, led by former forester Jorge Viana, plans to meld the traditions of people like Nilson Mendes with modern business expertise.

The idea is to generate as much wealth as possible from forest products by processing them locally; so Acre will export timber decking rather than raw logs, and cartons of juice made from the fabulous acai berries rather than the berries themselves.

Nilson Mendes. Image: BBC
Nilson Mendes lives according to the ideas of his cousin, Chico Mendes
Sawmills and other plants are springing up along the roads into Rio Branco.

Acre has all the tools and conditions for the establishment of truly sustainable forestry. It has the social history of the rubber tappers, a committed state government, a wealth of professional expertise and copious NGO support.

If it succeeds, it will be a model for those other Amazon states where ranchers or soya barons hold the political reins and deforestation continues unabated.

If it fails, the outlook for this incredibly special part of the planet, and the services it brings to the rest of us, will be a good deal bleaker.


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