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Photo by James Blair

Can local sustainable development save the Amazon?

Local sustainable development 2.0, that’s how we should call what is happening in 80 municipalities of the Brazilian giant state of Pará, in the Amazon region. Pará is 1.8 times the size of Texas. These 80 towns are basically dominated by cattle-ranching and some timber production. Beef, timber, and soybean have been the main culprits for a long history of illegal logging, that has claimed about 20% of the Amazon rainforest, and 27% of Pará’s forest cover.

Until recently, local development in the Amazon has been based on small scale cooperative-based extractive activities for the production of rubber, fruit or fish. Now local development has to address large-scale production, usually for beef, soybean, and wood products exports.

Deforestation has declined sharply over the last five years, from more than 25,000 sq. Km a year to around 7,000 sq. km. Forest degradation, though, has been rampant, especially over the last three years. Degradation has two main sources. One, is selective logging for  timber production. Loggers cut the most valued species and leave those with less or no commercial value. The other is land clearing for pasture or soybean production. Loggers also cut selectively, to hide the process from common satellite detection, until it is too late for authorities to prevent full clearing.

The state government has recently launched the “green town” program aiming at stopping deforestation. The goal is to commit cattle ranchers to sustainable practices that would ensure more sustained economic activities, free of environmental barriers for their domestic and overseas sales. The large supermarket chains and major importers from developed markets have already committed not to buy beef or soybean from farms found to be illegally clearing their land.

The program comes after extensive command and control actions by the Federal Government to curb illegal logging in the Amazon. The Federal Environmental Agency – IBAMA – listed 43 towns that concentrated most of the illegal logging. The National Monetary Council prohibited public financing for companies charged for deforestation. Agribusiness in Brazil is mainly financed by public banks. The Federal Attorney Office branch in Pará started judicial action against cattle ranchers, and created the Legal Beef (Carne Legal) program. A judicial agreement whereby ranchers would formally commit to zero-deforestation, land regularization and environmental licensing. Mayors started fearing that their local economies could go asunder, and tax revenues would plummet.

Paragominas, was the first municipality to react. Laying along the historic Belem-Brasilia highway, it has a territory of 19,310 sq Km, a population of less than 100,000 people. A former settlement, it developed rapidly through land-grabbing, illegal logging (40% of its forests were cleared) and armed violence. The mayor decided to determine an embargo on any land clearing activity. He asked for the support of the local Association of Cattle Ranchers, and an exporter of wood flooring laminates. The Association had a few associates that were already complying with all environmental rules, and were losing foreign markets because the city was listed as a major deforestation area. The owners of the flooring company were facing strong pressure from their European consumers. The company’s tiles are made of certified wood from planted forest, but the Paragominas label was harming their reputation. The result was a “Pact for Zero-Deforestation”. Logging was prohibited within the town’s borders. An ambitious reforestation program was designed to recover 20% of the lost forest cover. The success of the Paragominas model induced other mayors to seek support for zero-deforestation policies. Under the “green town” program, municipalities willing to continue as beef suppliers would have to sign a binding commitment to target zero-deforestation, enable full environmental registry of agricultural property, monitoring and traceability of cattle herds. Environmental registration entails georeferencing of the property, location and measurement of forest cover, and riparian vegetation.

The program got the adhesion of 80 towns out of the state’s 144. Many others are likely to adhere. The required environmental registration of properties has already been implemented in 90% of participating communities. Satellite monitoring of deforestation shows that 90% of the remaining illegal logging has happened in the 10% lacking environmental property registration.

The agreement also demands that monitoring and traceability be implemented for a municipality be able to become a fully certified beef supplier. Towns have quantified targets for reduction of deforestation and degradation. As they meet each period’s targets they move upwards on the “green towns ranking”. Mayors hope that in the future a higher rank could become a key competitive asset for their exports.

The key forces behind the program were community participation; the active involvement of local business associations, the intervention of the Federal Attorney Office; and the adhesion of mayors. It has also benefitted by the highly technical support of Pará-based “think-action tank” Imazon.

Will this model of sustainable local development save the Amazon? Not by itself. To be sustained it requires other supporting policies. The region needs new high value-added economic activities to generate jobs and income to a population that hovers around 20 million people. If successful, local sustainable development 2.0 will create the indispensable micro-foundations for a new model of development for the Amazon. It gives forest sustainability local popular support and legitimacy. But it will not prevail if the macro-foundations for this model are not forthcoming.

The Amazon needs a high-tech model of development. One able to extract value from the forest without tampering with it. A bio-industrial infrastructure that could realize the value built into forest biodiversity. This calls for massive regional investment in education, science, and technology. Such an ambitious project depends on the Federal Government’s resources and leadership to attract private capitals to establish high biotech ventures in the Amazon. Scientists from the Academy of Sciences have sketched out the public university and research facilities required by this model.

The Amazon could become the starting point for the transition of the Brazilian economy to a low carbon one. This transition implies a long-run shift towards a new low-carbon biotechnological industry, capable of producing low-carbon feedstock, second and third generation biopharmaceuticals, biofuels, and biopolymers. The central hot spot for this strategy is the Amazon. No low-carbon future could be envisaged to Brazil that would not contemplate stopping deforestation in a very few years. To sustain a zero-deforestation strategy Brazil has to occupy the Amazon with nonintrusive science and technology, replacing soybean plantations and pastures.