The Amazon: The Heart of The World (#GotBitcoin)
With Peru’s surging economy and blossoming international startup scene comes a new audience eager to explore the mighty river. The Amazon: The Heart of The World (#GotBitcoin)
We left Cusco at dawn, heading southeast toward Bolivia. Breakfast was at a roadside cafe an hour into the drive, black coffee and a large bowl of chicken stew—a thigh and a drumstick in a tangy broth of ginger and lime, with chunks of potatoes and corn kernels the size of my thumbnail. My glasses fogged as I ate. Then we bundled back up and drove a few minutes more to the village of Checacupe, turned off the asphalt and onto a dirt track, and began to climb into the Andes.
A Link To Our Peru / Amazon Vacation Photo Gallery
I had come to Peru for the Amazon, having ditched my initial plan of traveling its broad waterways in Brazil because I was drawn to the geographical contrasts on the Peruvian side of the border. I wanted to see how the great river came together.
Trekking to the source wasn’t feasible—the location is still somewhat under dispute and isn’t easy to reach—but I could approximate the general trajectory of the water, follow the flow of tributaries from the high Andes down into the rain forest in an attempt to understand the ecosystem of the largest river in the world.
The Amazon hasn’t always dumped its muddy waters into the Atlantic. It was a network of rivers that flowed west until roughly 15 million years ago, when the uplift of the Andes along the Pacific coast formed a barricade, creating an inland sea that slowly became a massive freshwater lake.
Other geologic shifts about 11 million years ago began to push the water eastward, eventually draining the lake and forming the river we know today. The expanse of that ancient freshwater lake is now an ecological palimpsest, a zone dominated by the world’s largest tropical rain forest, home to the richest diversity of plants and animals on earth.
By nearly any metric, the size of the Amazon is difficult to fathom. Incredibly, there is still debate over the length of the river, and over which river is longer, the Amazon or the Nile. Conservative estimates put the Amazon at 4,000 miles in length, and some experts think it is closer to 4,300 miles, which would surpass the Nile.
The river’s rain forested drainage basin sprawls across nearly 2.7 million square miles, an area that is almost as big as Australia and twice the size of the planet’s next-largest drainage basin—that of the Congo, in central Africa. During the rainy season, the Amazon and its tributaries swell, solid ground vanishing in the lowlands as the river floods and nourishes the forest floor.
The weight of the flooding river at low altitudes compresses the earth’s crust by about 3 inches. Measuring the river’s flow is notoriously difficult—some estimate that at its peak, the Amazon carries 11 million cubic feet of water per second. Others joke that they can calculate the Amazon’s discharge “give or take the Mississippi.”
The Amazon rain forest—accounting for more than 60% of the world’s remaining rain forests—functions as the lungs of the planet, absorbing some 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually and producing 20% of the planet’s oxygen. The drainage basin is thought to be home to half of the world’s species of plants and animals. It is the most important ecosystem on the planet.
It is also the least understood. Scientists believe they are aware of only a fraction of the species that live in the Amazon, and have only a rudimentary understanding of many of the ones they have documented. Locals, meanwhile, are frequently forced to abuse the ecosystem, resorting to illegal hunting, mining, and deforestation in countries that all too often do little to encourage alternative and sustainable ways of life. And far away, the industrialized world churns on, choking the atmosphere with carbon at such a rate the rain forest can’t keep up.
The Amazon isn’t a top travel destination. Generations of explorers promoting heroic tales of often fatal expeditions, helped along by photographers reveling in the exotic, depicted an inhospitable landscape filled with savages. It is an image that persists today.
This perception, combined with unsteady (but improving) infrastructure in the rain forest and travelers’ preference for nearby attractions like Machu Picchu, have kept the Amazon from attaining the same kind of rugged high-end status enjoyed by other far-flung destinations that offer similar wilderness-based adventures.
It was just this vexing blend of misperception and ecological import, there in a place of such hidden splendor, that made me want to see it. There was something mystical about the possibility that I could, over the course of only a few days, stand on glacial ice in the peaks of the Andes and then descend into the wet heat of the jungle—moving through a vast range of environments that all lay within the confines of a single ecosystem, bound together by the world’s greatest river.
But first we had some climbing to do. The road from Checacupe rises high above the Ocefina valley, following a narrow cut of silty water that tumbles over rocks and twists through farmland and grazing pastures. The road is a rough dirt path dug into the valley’s northern wall, a steep treeless face that is rutted from the gushing snowmelt waterways of early summer.
Most of the peaks and hillsides were barren by the time we were there, and the drive was like an Andean single-track version of Montana’s Going-to-the-Sun Road, but with alpaca instead of mountain goats, more than twice the elevation, and no guard rails.
Considering the numerous blind turns and rock slides, and the sheer drop-offs just a few inches from the truck’s downslope wheels, Leoncio, our driver, was forever blaring his horn, a warning to whoever might be barreling toward us around the next bend. Thankfully, there wasn’t much traffic. Some animals and a few people on foot or motorcycles, along with a couple of cargo trucks laden with sacks of alpaca fleece.
By midmorning we had leveled out with the stream and had come to a clearing, where the glacially carved valley broadened into a boggy flat-bottomed wetland, opening onto our first view of Ausangate, one of the highest peaks in the Peruvian Andes at nearly 21,000 feet. Scattered about were the homes of Quechua-speaking farmers, who live much the same way their Inca ancestors did for centuries.
Changes, though, have been coming rather quickly of late to the Andes. Warmer temperatures have allowed farmers to cultivate corn and potatoes at higher elevations than ever before, even as the rainy seasons have become less predictable and the glacial runoff more volatile. The boost in agriculture has been welcomed by locals, who have also used the expanding high wetlands to water their herds of llama and alpaca.
But the growth of the wetlands and farming land is temporary, bound to the fate of the glaciers that still dominate the surrounding peaks, even as they shrink at an alarming rate. “Ausangate is getting black,” said Efraín Samochuallpa Solis, a biologist and director of ACCA, a Peruvian environmental group that is dedicated to the conservation of the Amazon ecosystem. “It’s melting. Some parts are melting so fast you can see the mountain, the rock.”
Up and down the Andes, glaciers are vanishing at a pace that threatens the livelihood of local villagers, larger cities, and the Amazon basin itself. North of Lima, the people of Huaraz live in fear that the glacier above them will soon give way, releasing an avalanche into Lake Palcacocha and sending a torrent of mud and water that would wipe out anything in its path. In Cusco, the water supply relies heavily on glacial runoff. If the ice on Ausangate and other peaks is gone in 50 years, as some predict, the heart of Peru’s tourism industry will be in a very difficult spot.
At a rocky switchback, we were flagged down by Santos Cabrera, a stooped 49-year-old alpaca herder who had scrambled up a path to ask for help transporting his burlap sacks of fiber to the other side of the next ridge. We loaded a dozen or so of the sacks into the truck as he complained about how much more difficult his work had become in recent years. “The rains are supposed to begin in November, but now it’s starting in August,” Cabrera said. “Many of my animals died because of the heavy storms. The grass was washed away. They couldn’t tolerate it.”
Cabrera lifted his arm to the peaks looming over us. “All of these mountains were covered,” he said. “All the way to where we are standing now. In 12 years, the glaciers have shrunk so much. I’m scared we won’t have water in the future.” I trudged through the mud to a tongue of snow and ice that was spilling down from a high pass—a vestige of the glacier Cabrera had just described. The ice crunched under my boots and the glacier let off the sound of muffled rain as the meltwater fell away from the mountain in a buried stream.
We rumbled over the ridge and began our descent. Cargo trucks came out of nowhere at hairpin turns, and an hour or so before dusk a thick fog moved in, turning everything into an opaque mass of gray. Still, Leoncio hurtled on. I’d developed a profound respect for what Leoncio was able to do with that truck.
I had spent years on rough dirt roads in various parts of Africa, but I had never seen driving as sure as this. Soon some small shrubs began to appear. And, not long after, trees. We emerged from the fog just as the sun slipped out of reach beyond the Andes.
A few days later and several valleys to the north, I was in a canoe downstream of Shintuya, on the Madre de Dios River. We had left the cloud forest behind and were dropping down into the rain forest of the Amazon basin. The Madre de Dios was a broad river by now, a few hundred yards across. On its left bank was the thick of jungle of Manú National Park, a protected Unesco World Heritage site and the largest tropical wilderness left on the planet. A large tapir fed on plants at the water’s edge, and macaws flew in pairs high above us.
Suddenly, my guide sat bolt upright and pointed downstream. There on the river bank stood nine people from an isolated tribe, watching as we floated toward them. They clearly weren’t cut off from civilization entirely, as most of them were wearing clothing given to them, probably, by missionaries or other travelers. Five were young children, two were teenagers, and two were adults in their 40s or 50s.
World Wildlife Fund has been working with the Peruvian government to create a protected reserve for isolated people, Alonso Cordova, a biologist with the organization, told me.
These kinds of collaborations have also worked with local entrepreneurs interested in offering eco-friendly adventures to travelers in conservation zones, providing stable jobs and slowing deforestation and illegal gold mining, and making it increasingly easy to visit fragile and stunning landscapes throughout the Amazon basin in Peru.
The people on the river bank seemed to want us to stop, though it was difficult to tell from their gestures. We floated past them, waved a final time, and continued downstream. A short while later a boat full of plastic jugs sped past. “Illegal gasoline,” Cordova said, indicating the apparent fuel traffickers on the boat. “For the gold miners.”
A hundred miles or so to the east lies the Tambopata, a protected river that flows into Puerto Maldonado, connecting with the Madre de Dios before entering Bolivia and going on to become the Madeira River, one of the largest tributaries of the Amazon. In Brazil, the Madeira runs through parts of the Amazon basin that have been hit hard by deforestation. But in Puerto Maldonado, the waterways have become known as the heart of Peru’s gold-mining industry.
“It used to be quaint,” said Kurt Holle, co-owner and former director of Rainforest Expeditions, which runs three lodges and a private villa on the Tambopata. “We’d stop by a dredge with some of our guests, say hi and take some photos, and the miners would explain the process.”
That all changed when the price of gold began to jump in the early 2000s. Within a few years, the price soared to $1,600 an ounce. “It became big industry quickly,” Holle said. “When the price goes up, it’s a massive driver of people relocating to the rain forest.” By 2009, there was a huge amount of money invested in gold mining, and the government began cracking down, sinking barges and chasing out miners. “It was a war zone,” Holle said.
Through it all, Rainforest Expeditions’ lodges have acted as a local “antibody,” keeping mining and logging out of the government-protected Tambopata area by offering viable jobs to area residents. “With so many areas protected, we need to figure out how to help people make a life,” said Holle, who recently became the director of WWF Peru. “Cutting trees, making farms, mining gold,” he said. “Most people here are just honestly trying to make a living.”
Holle was born in Lima and studied forestry in college before Amazon conservation and ecotourism captured his attention. One trick he had to figure out is how to make the rich Amazon ecosystem accessible to travelers. “In Africa you get in a truck, drive around, and see elephants, giraffes, hippos,” Holle said. “We can’t compete with those kinds of wildlife sightings. We have to get people interested in insects and birds.”
To make that easier — and to contribute to the never-ending work of learning about the world’s largest rain forest — Holle and his team established the Tambopata Research Center, several hours up river by boat from Puerto Maldonado.
The lodge boasts the kind of high-end accommodations you would expect on a luxury safari in Africa, but also includes a laboratory for a dozen scientists who perform front-line research while assisting expeditions to see animal and plant life up close.
Outings start early—4:30 in the morning, just as the howler monkeys are starting their racket, like a chorus of blowtorches from on high. Parrots and macaws flash green, red, blue, and yellow at the world’s largest clay lick, a short trip from the lodge. There are jaguars, too, but they are difficult to see. We spotted two hidden in the grass along the river, the foothills of the Andes just visible in the distance.
The Amazon River doesn’t officially acquire its name until the Ucayali river joins the Marañón near Iquitos, more than 700 miles northwest of the Tambopata. I found a room built in the crook of an ironwood tree, 50 feet off the forest floor at the Treehouse Lodge, on the banks of the Yarapa, a tiny blackwater tributary of the Ucayali that is a couple miles upstream of the Amazon confluence.
With my guide, Alex, I visited Porto Miguel, a nearby village that had been ravaged in recent years by flooding, even as rains had decreased in these lowland areas. Most families had relocated to higher ground, but we found Raquel Inuma, a 44-year-old mother of five, in one of the last homes still standing. “There’s less rain than there used to be. We feel it,” Inuma said. “It’s sunnier now, and more sun is good.”
Inuma said most locals thought things were better now than they ever had been, with more powerful motors on their boats, and the completion a decade ago of the paved road from Nauta, the closest port town, to Iquitos, reducing that trip from 12 hours by boat to one hour by car.
Mostly, though, she seemed happiest about the weather. “Life is much easier,” she said. “The rainy season is very difficult.”
At sunset, we took the boat into the Ucayali, and watched pink dolphins swim by as the sun went down beyond the rain forest and the sky turned a fiery orange. The broad river grew calmer now, and as locals pointed their boats toward home, I looked around at the emptiness and felt lost in a kind of nowhere zone, 1,000 miles from the glaciers of Ausangate, and 3,000 miles from the Atlantic.
The river would enter Brazil in about 300 miles, multiplying in volume several times over on its way to the ocean and becoming something unrecognizable from the waterways I traveled over the course of two weeks in Peru. It felt too big to comprehend.
Alex had tried to sum it up earlier, when we had stopped at the massive and churning confluence of the Ucayali and Marañón. He stood up in the boat as it pitched back and forth, and spread his arms wide. “This is it,” he shouted. “This is the Amazon. The king of all rivers.”
Peru has much more to offer than Machu Picchu. To experience the cloud forest, consider a visit to Soqtapata, a few hours north east of Ausangate, hidden just off the Interoceanic Highway. A 23,722-acre conservation area, Soqtapata contains six micro climates (“soqta” means six in Quechua) and is thickly forested and steeply sloped, spanning 3,200 to 15,000 feet above sea level.
You can trek through the forest looking for wildlife and orchids and then cool off in a mountain stream. Pitch your tent in their open-air lodge and relax with other travelers or the conservationists frequently doing research there. (www.soqtapata.com)
For an unmatched experience in the Amazon basin—where you can see monkeys, macaws, and leopards, geek out with scientists at the harpy eagle nest or over variations of moths and spiders, and listen to the rainforest while relaxing in high-end rustic accommodations — set aside three or four days for the lodges of Rainforest Expeditions on the Tambopata River. They’ll pick you up in Puerto Maldonado and get you to your boat to start your journey—the several-hour ride upstream is half the fun. (www.perunature.com)
The Amazon River doesn’t acquire its name until the confluence of the Marañón and Ucayali Rivers, near Iquitos. But here the river is already gargantuan, making it hard to visit without feeling overwhelmed by its sheer size. A great way to carve out an intimate visit is to stay at the Treehouse Lodge, on the Yarapa River, a small tributary of the Ucayali, just upstream from the confluence with the Marañón.
Go on a night excursion by foot or canoe, fish for piranha, and stay in one of eleven tree houses, built into Ironwood trees dozens of feet off the forest floor. (treehouselodge.com)
Squatters Cut Down The Rainforest. Brazil Wants To Give Them The Land
The idea is that slash-and-burn farmers will care for the land if they own it, instead of just abandoning depleted fields to carve out new ones.
For the past 15 years, Carlos Pacheco has raised cattle in what was once virgin forest. When pastures went bad, he would simply cut deeper into the Amazon, one of millions of farmers who have helped strip away about a fifth of the world’s greatest rainforest.
Because he expanded into land he doesn’t own, he can’t use it as collateral for a loan to buy equipment and fertilizer, nor can he tap the expertise of a government agronomist. The upshot is that he uses more land to raise each cow than do legal farmers in the breadbasket of southern Brazil.
It may sound counterintuitive, but Brazilian authorities think giving Mr. Pacheco a deed to the land he farms might curtail deforestation. The idea is it could help him become a more efficient farmer, able to produce more on less land, and also make him hesitate to just walk away from depleted pastures and carve new ones. In short, it might discourage him and squatters like him from cutting ever deeper into the jungle.
“If this doesn’t happen, we will continue to deforest,” said the 49-year-old rancher, the leader of a tightknit group of several hundred settlers on the forest frontier.
The administration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro wants to see if he is right. In February, it plans to start handing out deeds to some 300,000 Amazon squatters, with a plan that might help but has raised a howl of disapproval for rewarding bad behavior.
Officials in Brazil’s environment ministry think they can both improve the well-being of Amazon settlers and curb deforestation and large fires, such as those that caused global outrage last year.
“There’s more than 20 million people who live in the Amazon and need to survive,” said Ricardo Salles, Brazil’s environment minister. “If the economic incentive is wrong, the result is wrong.”
Defining which economic activity in the Amazon is legal, and where, could also help the state crack down on illegal logging and burning. If farms and ranches had legal boundaries and owners, authorities armed with satellite images and a digital registry could better pinpoint and police rainforest incursions, officials say.
Critics have plenty of doubts, both about the plan’s merits and the government’s ability to pull it off. One objection is the idea of rewarding squatters with deeds.
“Illegal land-grabbers and deforesters now have a reason to believe they will go unpunished,” said Mauricio Voivodic, who runs Brazil’s affiliate of the World Wildlife Fund. “Meanwhile, we’re losing important biodiversity.”
Others doubt the administration’s commitment to enforcing environmental laws, not to mention its ability to police a region the size of the western U.S.
One issue is Mr. Bolsonaro himself, whom many environmental activists view as a careless steward of a rainforest. The president, who has jokingly called himself Captain Chainsaw, won election in late 2018 in part by promising to unshackle Brazil’s economic potential, even in the Amazon.
He has often railed against environmentalists as radical agitators, and accused them last year of setting fires in the rainforest, without offering evidence. His critics say his image as a leader heedless of the environment emboldens wildcat farmers as well as illegal miners and loggers.
The Brazilian Amazon is so vast that it helps regulate global temperatures by absorbing an estimated 5% of all carbon dioxide emissions. When large areas are destroyed, the negative climate effect is twofold—not only are there fewer trees to absorb carbon from the air, but the trees that have been cut or burned release the carbon locked up in them. Carbon, in turn, raises global temperatures.
Much of the worst destruction occurred from the 1980s to the early 2000s. A swath of the Amazon nearly the size of Spain now is dedicated to crop fields and pastures.
In the 12 months through last July, the Amazon lost an additional 3,800 square miles, an area bigger than Delaware, according to satellite-image analysis at Brazil’s National Space Research Agency.
That was 30% more than lost in the prior 12 months and the highest level of deforestation since 2008, the agency’s data showed, accelerating since Mr. Bolsonaro took office a year ago.
“In the midst of the global climate crisis, we cannot afford more damage to a major source of oxygen and biodiversity,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres recently said. “The Amazon must be protected.”
Mr. Bolsonaro counters that he wants to protect the Amazon by giving its inhabitants the ability to make a living without further large-scale deforestation. Responding to last year’s global outcry over forest fires, the president in January created an army task force to help environmental protection agents battle deforestation.
Researchers and policy makers who study the Amazon say an approach that brings legality to an outlaw region—with its untitled land and endemic corruption—is the only realistic solution to the sometimes-contradictory goals of controlling deforestation and reducing poverty.
In interviews across three Amazon states, wildcat farmers, ranchers and loggers who are relentlessly exploiting what was once jungle said that unless given alternatives, they were determined to continue their illegal activities, which carry few repercussions.
“Settlers are the people who deforest the most because they have no alternative,” said Minervina Silva, a small-town mayor and longtime farmer in the Amazon. “Deforesting is easier when you are doing so clandestinely. Once you’re legalized, you stop doing stupid things.”
Those who say farmers and ranchers need to be a part of the solution point to the success of Brazilian agriculture over half a century. Farms initially cut from the wilderness grew to be efficient producers that turned the country from food importer to a leading exporter of meat and grains. Brazil’s agricultural trade surplus rose fivefold since 1997 to $83 billion last year.
In areas where issues of land ownership have been resolved, many farmers have increased production without expanding deeper into the forest, thanks largely to technology, access to capital and state assistance.
That is particularly so in Brazil’s central and southern breadbasket, which shows how intensive agriculture could help slow deforestation, said Dan Nepstad, a veteran of more than 30 years of environmental work in the Amazon.
“Outside of the Amazon…production is increasing on a shrinking area of pasture,” said Mr. Nepstad, president of the Earth Innovation Institute, a nonprofit that supports sustainable economic activity. “We’re not there yet in the Amazon.”
He said modern land-use techniques such as feedlots, rotating pastures and fertilizing them permit raising cattle herds on fewer acres. New technology is on the horizon, including genetic manipulation to produce cattle that can stand the heat better. Meanwhile, farmers with access to loans might plant profitable new crops, such as cacao, on some former pastureland.
In Brazil as a whole, cattle numbers are up roughly 32% since 1998,while land devoted to pasture has fallen around 13%, according to the Brazilian Association of Meat Exporting Industries. Corn and soybeans grow on much of the former pasture.
Deeper in the Amazon, these trends are less pronounced but very much a reality. “You have had intensification of beef and soy in the Amazon at the same time that deforestation has declined pretty sharply from where it was years ago, even with the recent uptick,” said David Cleary, director of global agriculture for the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit focused on fighting climate change.
The question remains how long might it take Brazil to end predatory farming and the damage that scientists say is pushing the Amazon closer to a point where it is unable to replenish lost forest. The federal government cut funding for the environment ministry by more than 24% last year as part of a fiscal tightening.
Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina, who is overseeing the process of legalizing land ownership, said Brazil needs to both improve the policing of illegal deforestation and provide deeds and credit to Amazon settlers.
“These people are out there. Am I supposed to move them somewhere else, so they can deforest again?” she said. “Environmental protection must go hand-in-hand with economic development because prosperity, I think, leads to forest preservation.”
Though it might seem impossible to sell land without a deed, Amazon settlers make deals that transfer property. Those who have cut trees to produce a pasture or crop field often use it for just a few years and then, when its unfertilized soil has lost nutrients, abandon it or sell it cheap in one of these informal deals.
Most farmers in the Amazon are poor. Only 15% are in the middle class or above, said Katia Abreu, a former agriculture minister, based on research she did at the ministry.
Even some of the largest Amazon farmers and ranchers have illegal land. Over the decades, 73-year-old cattleman João Bueno cut into the forest in Pará state to build a network of ranches totaling 45,000 acres, with 28,000 head of cattle.
He has a special document that allows him to produce and sell cattle to a slaughterhouse, but it isn’t a title, so it doesn’t allow him to use the land as loan collateral. Mr. Bueno said tapping credit would permit him to modernize his operation with fertilizer and techniques common elsewhere, raising three times as many head of cattle on the same acreage.
“Land without documentation is nobody’s land, so people take advantage of it to clear forest for pastures,” Mr. Bueno said.
The immensity of the task of bringing order in the Amazon is evident in remote outposts such as Jonas Lopes de Souza’s farm.
Sinewy, with leathery hands and a weather-beaten face, Mr. de Souza, 43, said his goal is putting food on the table for his wife and three children. He grows cacao and raises cattle on a once-forested plot the size of 55 football fields, about 75 acres.
He readily acknowledged, as he walked in worn-out flip-flops through a pasture, that he would cut and burn his way into the brush and trees when he needs fresh land to plant cacao.
“I slash with the scythe, then comes the big red,” Mr. de Souza said with a grin, referring to the fires he sets in the dry season to burn the downed vegetation. “I can’t make money keeping the forest.”
Pará, an Amazon state three times the size of California, is pocked with the small farms of settlers like Mr. de Souza who arrived with the hope of a better life.
Years ago, it was large outfits that fueled much of the deforestation. Now, small settlers are to blame, said Daniel Silva, who leads a team at the Brazilian space agency that analyzes satellite images to spot deforestation.
On the computer screen in his office, he pointed to red dots on an outline of the Amazon. “The smaller those areas, the hardest for us” to pinpoint damage, he said.
Until the deed program, the task of changing settlers’ behavior fell mostly to outgunned agents such as Denilson Ferreira of Ideflor-bio, a state agency that promotes sustainable development. His job is teaching farmers how to make better use of land, in the hope they can be productive without cutting deeper into the forest.
The lack of legal ownership complicates his work. “We don’t even know for sure how many people live in this region,” Mr. Ferreira said.
Meanwhile, employees of the federal environmental protection agency, Ibama, say they have too few resources to go after illegal loggers and corrupt officials who sell fake land titles.
Recently, at the dry-season peak when felled trees are burned, only three Ibama agents were operating in São Félix do Xingu, a county the size of South Carolina.
When Ibama found out about a major lumber-smuggling operation, its agents couldn’t respond because all three had been deployed to guard several hundred head of cattle seized at an illegal farm. An army unit assigned to help protect Ibama agents when they go on risky operations was left cooling its heels, the soldiers kicking a soccer ball around.
“The state is absent here,” said Major Afonso Neto, who was leading the army operation. “People here learn from childhood to slash and burn.”
Exploit The Amazon: Brazil Unveils Its Radical New Sales Pitch
The country’s environment minister says the best way to save the region from burning is to open it up to business.
Brazil’s environment minister has a vision for the Amazon — as a money-making venture open to business.
In meetings with international fund managers, Ricardo Salles pitches the rainforest as a novel opportunity ripe for investment. Where conservationists see a fragile region in urgent need of protection, Salles sells an image of cosmetics and pharmaceutical companies exploiting the jungle’s myriad exotic herbs, nuts and fruits.
“We have to attract private capital to the Amazon,” Salles, 45, said in an interview last month in his office in Brasilia, a large map of Brazil’s environmentally protected areas on one wall and a view of the capital’s treetops behind him. “This is my approach in all of the meetings that I have in Europe and the U.S.”
That’s a tall proposition for many given the Amazon is under threat. In June, 29 global money managers holding $3.7 trillion in assets told Brazil that President Jair Bolsonaro’s government needs to prove it’s got the forest’s destruction under control if it wants to see any money.
Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump, a Bolsonaro ally, means that Salles will soon face a U.S. administration pledging to “lead the world in addressing the climate emergency.”
Salles is undeterred. Though his plans have triggered unease at home and abroad, they typify the unorthodox attitude of one of the world’s most controversial environmental officials.
Brazil is home to more than half of the Amazon rainforest, a landscape containing one-in-ten of Earth’s known species which acts as a sink for some 90-140 billion tons of carbon, according to conservation group the World Wildlife Fund. That alone makes Salles a global player.
But with deforestation occurring at a record rate, he is also first in line for international condemnation of the government’s response to the destruction.
Bolsonaro has blasted foreign meddling in the Amazon and declared the jungle a sovereign entity of Brazil. But the global outcry caused by images of devastated jungle forced the administration into changing its tune on international donations to its Amazon Fund.
Now Salles says the doors are open for outside investment that is “sustainable,” though he hasn’t set any green standards for companies. “I don’t want charity,” he said. “I want you to come to invest in the Amazon, to have laboratories, research and production lines and effectively do business.”
An area of rainforest larger than Jamaica was destroyed in the first seven months of this year, more than was lost in all of 2019, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Agency. The damage isn’t confined to Brazil — Bolivia, Peru and Colombia are also affected — but Brazil is the worst culprit by some way. And the destruction is getting worse under Bolsonaro.
The primary cause is clear-cutting, often by fire, to make pasture areas for cattle and agriculture. The fires mean that Brazil’s carbon-dioxide emissions are trending up, even as the pandemic-induced slowdown has led to a worldwide drop in CO2 output.
Bolsonaro blames environmental nonprofits for setting the fires to draw attention to their cause. Salles argues that poverty is the biggest driver of the destruction, and says wealth creation is the answer.
Born in Sao Paulo to a family of lawyers and educated in Portugal, Salles looks the part of a member of the Brazilian elite, in designer clothes and boutique round glasses. He speaks methodically as he rebuts attacks on his office as ill-informed.
There’s a lot to rebut.
During an April cabinet meeting he was caught on a leaked tape saying the government should take advantage of the distraction provided by the pandemic to water down environmental laws. That same month, he signed a measure that would allow agricultural and ranching activities on land designated as “permanently preserved,” only for the prosecutor’s office to block it.
In September, he stripped away protections for mangroves and coastal vegetation. Again, the prosecutor’s office, and then the Supreme Court, thwarted his effort.
“Salles is a termite eating the ministry from the inside,” said former Environmental Minister Carlos Minc.
As a member of leftist former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s government, Minc is hardly impartial. But he’s also far from alone in his assessment. In June, all nine living former environment ministers sent an open letter to the federal prosecutor’s office demanding an investigation into Salles’s actions.
“When the government began, Bolsonaro thought of getting rid of the ministry of the environment,” said Minc. “Maybe that would have been better.”
Salles, who trained as a lawyer, was embroiled in controversy soon after starting his political career as environment secretary in Sao Paulo state government. In 2018, the courts found him guilty of administrative impropriety for changing the maps of Sao Paulo’s riverside forests to benefit mining companies. Salles is appealing the conviction.
His decision to order the removal of a statue of a resistance leader against Brazil’s military dictatorship caught the attention of Bolsonaro, a former army captain, and in 2019 the president tapped Salles for the federal cabinet.
Before Covid-19, Salles was a frequent traveler to make his Amazon pitch. Now, the events are digital. Typically, he gathers groups of 20 to 30 investors in meetings arranged by organizations such as the Brazil-U.S. Business Council.
In every meeting, Salles is peppered with questions about how he plans to save the Amazon. He advocates turning it into a mosaic of plots of land, with some for companies and others conserved under his flagship “Adopt1Park” program, where for 10 euros ($12) per hectare anyone can “sponsor” a chunk of rainforest.
That’s more private-sector involvement than many environmentalists would like.
Carlos Nobre, an internationally acclaimed climate scientist known for his work on the region, says he doesn’t disagree with the idea of attracting funds to develop and protect the Amazon, but that the state must have a role. “The forest will only remain sustainable with a public-private partnership,” he said.
Companies themselves are wary. Brazil’s Suzano SA, the world’s biggest wood-pulp producer, told the government that its lax protections were contributing to rainforest destruction and forfeiting billions of dollars in carbon credits.
Some formidable international opponents are also lining up. French President Emmanuel Macron and Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio are among those to have voiced concern about Brazil’s attitude to the Amazon.
Far from threatened, Salles seems to relish the controversy: When DiCaprio called out Brazil on Twitter, Salles responded by trolling him.
Dear @LeoDiCaprio Brazil is launching “Adopt1Park” preservation project which allows you or any other company or individual to pick one of the 132 Parks in the Amazon and directly sponsor it at 10 Euros per hectare per year. Are you going to put your money where your mouth is? https://t.co/VMG817oUX8— Ricardo Salles MMA (@rsallesmma) September 10, 2020
Perhaps most challenging of all, Salles must now sell his pitch to Biden. The president-elect has proposed a carrot-and-stick approach, offering $20 billion to stop the burning while suggesting that economic sanctions could result from the forest’s continued decimation. Bolsonaro rejected the proposal; Salles laughed it off.
“Is the $20 billion per year?” he asked.
How Big Beef Is Fueling The Amazon’s Destruction
JBS is the world’s biggest meatpacker and the largest beef producer in the Amazon.
The world’s biggest beef producer says it has no tolerance for rainforest deforestation. Bloomberg’s analysis shows that’s not true—and Brazilian law isn’t helping.
São Félix do Xingu is a modern-day Wild West hacked out of Brazil’s Amazon jungle by folks with little to lose. Cattle outnumber people almost 20-to-1 and, after dusk, the cratered, dirt roads fill with big rigs hauling the mammoth trunks of stolen trees.
It’s a place outsiders don’t have much reason to visit, where motorcyclists won’t wear helmets because people want to know who is coming and going. Just about everybody knows everybody else, especially Stanisley Ferreira Sandes.
Four months a year, Ferreira Sandes, 47, crisscrosses São Félix’s almost 85,000 square kilometers (33,000 square miles) in a four-by-four Chevrolet with a cowboy hat on the dash and a revolver under the seat. He’s on the hunt for 5,000 head of cattle to feed a pipeline pumping beef through slaughterhouses owned by Brazilian meatpacking giant JBS SA and others, then into markets from Miami to Hong Kong.
The faster he hits his mark, the sooner he goes home. But the competition is fierce, the going slow. He visits three ranches a day—four, if he hustles—picking up 23 cows here, 68 there. For buyers like Ferreira Sandes, there’s no better haunt than São Félix do Xingu. At 2.4 million head, it’s home to Brazil’s largest herd. “If what you’re after is cattle,” he says, “you needn’t go anywhere else.”
But the municipality that’s as big as Ireland lays claim to a more notorious title too. It’s the deforestation capital of the world. Understanding how Brazil’s beef industry and rainforest destruction are inextricably intertwined reveals a truth that JBS doesn’t acknowledge: As the region’s biggest beef producer, its supply chain is also among the biggest drivers of Amazon deforestation the world has ever known.
While marketing itself as a friend of the environment, JBS has snapped up more cattle coming out of the Amazon than any other meatpacker in an industry that’s overwhelmingly to blame for the rainforest’s demise. It has helped push the world’s largest rainforest to a tipping point at which it’s no longer able to clean the Earth’s air, because large swaths now emit more carbon than they absorb.
Late last year, at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, governments and financial institutions—including JBS investors—made ambitious green commitments to drastically alter their business models to save the environment. With Amazon deforestation at a 15-year high, JBS is a case study illustrating how difficult it is to keep such promises.
For more than a decade, JBS has committed to ridding its supply chain of animals born or raised on deforested land. Bloomberg analyzed about 1 million delivery logs that JBS accidentally posted online to show just how far its footprint has reached into the Amazon in that period.
A 10-day trip into the heart of Brazil’s cattle country put on full display how easily and openly cows from illegally cleared land flood supply chains. JBS says it sets the highest standards for its suppliers, but it’s using a greenwashed version of an animal’s origin and working within a legal system so full of loopholes that prosecutors, environmentalists and even ranchers themselves consider it a farce.
Asked to respond to this article, JBS said “it has no tolerance for illegal deforestation.” The São Paulo-based company added that it “has maintained, for over 10 years, a geospatial monitoring system that uses satellite imagery to monitor its suppliers in every biome” in Brazil.
In a 2009 settlement with federal prosecutors, JBS and other slaughterhouses agreed not to buy animals from newly deforested land. While JBS did ramp up its monitoring, it also aggressively expanded in the Amazon and still doesn’t know where its cattle originate.
To determine the size of JBS’s footprint, Bloomberg analyzed the coordinates on about 1 million cattle shipments. JBS has since restricted most of the data, which cover an estimated 18 million cows sent to slaughterhouses in the states of Rondônia, Pará, Acre, Mato Grosso and Tocantins between 2009 and 2021. Bloomberg checked the data against more than 50,000 land registries and about 520,000 deforestation alerts.
JBS’s base of direct suppliers in the Amazon doubled to 16,900 in 2020 from about 7,700 in 2009. Cumulatively, it bought cattle from some 60,500 ranchers in the period.
The number of JBS slaughterhouses operating in the Amazon rose to 21 now from 10 in 2009. JBS says it “created no new slaughterhouses,” instead expanding through acquisitions and bringing along higher standards.
JBS’s suppliers are entrenched in a part of the Amazon that’s been heavily razed to accommodate a growing herd. Alerts from Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research, known as INPE, show 8.2 million hectares of clear-cutting since 2009.
Residents of São Félix do Xingu mark the passage of time the same way city dwellers do—by all that has changed. But instead of talking about what’s gone up—a high rise or a shopping mall—it’s what’s been felled. A few decades ago, it was all rainforest; now, most of what you see driving in is pasture.
Hardly any cattle grazed the land; today, more than a million hectares of São Félix jungle have been replaced by the animals. Back then, the world didn’t know of the catastrophic link between beef and deforestation. And then a reluctant rookie prosecutor named Daniel Azeredo landed in the state of Pará, where São Félix is located.
The posting was far from Azeredo’s first choice, but none of his senior colleagues in the federal public prosecutors’ office wanted it. In a nation wracked by violence and corruption, Pará state is particularly lawless.
“Put it this way,” the now 40-year-old lawyer says, “When I arrived in 2007, there were some 30,000 to 40,000 individual fires burning across the Amazon each year, and regulators and police had no idea who was responsible.”
Once he got his boots dirty, he saw that this was the work of the cattle industry. More than 70% of deforested land in the Amazon turns into pasture, the first step in a supply chain that’s among the most complex in the world.
Cattle flows from deforestation hotspots, through slaughterhouses and into end markets, 2017.
On one end of the Brazilian beef supply chain are 2.5 million ranchers, many in far-flung corners of the Amazon without government offices, schools or even phones. On the other are corporate buyers in 80 countries, including fast-food chains, supermarkets and makers of leather shoes and handbags. “In the middle, you have the slaughterhouses,” Azeredo says. “So I thought: ‘Well, that’s it. That’s who we have to go after.’”
In June 2009, he did. A two-year investigation culminated with federal prosecutors flagging slaughterhouses buying cattle from illegally cleared land. Greenpeace picked up on Azeredo’s work, and issued a landmark report that shifted the world’s understanding of deforestation.
The activist group called out global brands for buying beef and leather from a trio of what it said were the Amazon’s worst offenders: JBS, Marfrig Global Foods SA, and Bertin. Corporate clients threatened to boycott if they didn’t clean up their supply chains, and Azeredo’s team drafted a settlement and timeline to get it done.
With no law on Brazil’s books specifically prohibiting the purchase of goods from deforested land, the deal with prosecutors lays out the only guidelines that meatpackers follow in the Amazon—but they’re voluntary and, by Azeredo’s own account, too weak. Growing pressure from investors and customers prompted the big exporters to sign on, but a number of others simply refused and openly buy their animals from wherever they want.
JBS was among the first to sign, in July 2009. But it also aggressively expanded in the Amazon in the years that followed. It bought up rivals, including Bertin to become the world’s biggest leather producer, and drew the scrutiny of prosecutors and environmentalists.
The company has felt unfairly singled out. Four senior executives of the beef behemoth said in interviews over the past year, granted on the condition of anonymity, that laundered cattle shuffled between deforested land and “clean” farms are an industry-wide problem.
Given that lots of slaughterhouses didn’t sign the prosecutors’ deal, JBS’s standards are far higher than many, they say. JBS says it checks tens of thousands of ranches daily, and has blocked more than 14,000 supplier farms for not complying with its policies.
“We have been doing this now for over 10 years,” Wesley Batista Filho, the global president of operations in Latin America and Oceania, said in a video press conference in late 2020 about the company’s monitoring. “One hundred percent of our suppliers in the biome abide by those criteria, which is to say, zero deforestation,” said Batista, 30, who is the grandson of the founder.
JBS has repeatedly made such statements, but they come with a caveat. The supply chain is broken into two groups: direct suppliers and indirect, and JBS checks only the legality of the former, while knowing next to nothing about the latter, in violation of their agreements.
It’s like saying laundered money is clean because the bank that oversees the checking account didn’t commit the crime. Financial institutions aren’t let off the hook so easily; Amazon meatpackers are.
Even some of JBS’s biggest investors seem not to realize the distinction. “We don’t understand the controversy,” said João Carlos Mansur, general director at REAG Investimentos, which is the company’s fourth-biggest investor, with a stake worth 5.66 billion reais ($1 billion). “They already have their whole supply chain mapped, from the origin of the calf to slaughter.”
But cattle in Brazil move on average two or three times and as many as six before they are slaughtered, according to the Gibbs Land Use and Environment Lab at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. JBS systematically monitors only the final ranch or feedlot in a cow’s life.
The Life Cycle of Cattle
1. BreedingRanchers in São Félix do Xingu, like other heavily deforested areas, often focus on the earlier stages of a bovine’s life, including breeding.It requires little investment and even less documentation, a plus for anyone who’s run afoul of environmental regulators or is squatting on public or protected Amazon land.
Calves stay with their mothers about eight months and, once weaned, are often sold at auction or to other ranchers.
2. Backgrounding Brazil’s beef industry is more land intensive than in the U.S. or Australia, largely because cattle spend more of their lives in the field.
It’s in this phase that cows are moved from farm to farm in search of greener pastures. Each time they move, the documented origin farm for that animal changes.
Poor Brazilian farmers tend to hang onto cattle until they’re in the phase known as “gado magro” in Portuguese—skinny cow. At that point, bigger ranchers snap them up.
The animals continue gaining weight in pasture, aided by supplemental feed, including vitamins and minerals.
3. Fattening The goal of this phase is to turn the animals into “gados gordos,” or fat cattle.
Unlike the U.S., where almost all of the herd is finished on feedlots, only 1 in 10 Brazilian cows are fattened on lots, where they spend about 100 days.
4. Slaughter Brazil is the world’s biggest beef producer and exporter, slaughtering 22.2 million cattle a year. In Amazon states, the figure rose to 10.2 million in 2020 from 8.7 million in 2009. JBS doesn’t release specific production figures, but numbers included in a congressional probe in Mato Grosso, Brazil’s biggest cattle-producing Amazon state, shows that JBS’s demand alone drove slaughtering growth between 2009 and 2015.
Ferreira Sandes, the cattle buyer, starts his morning in São Félix do Xingu with a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich and a phone full of messages. Local ranchers have sent him a dozen videos of cows on offer. He watches the animals trot across his screen, jots down the lots that interest him, then flies across town to a tiny farmstead at the end of a dirt road.
In a small fenced-in lot, 20 cattle await. They’re what’s known in Portuguese as “gados magros,” skinny cows, their ribs visible through flesh so loose that it swings when they walk. Ferreira Sandes closed the deal on the group yesterday for about 70,000 reais. All that’s left now is to brand them.
Grunting gutturally—“Oooooy! Hooz-ah! Vaaaai!”—a cattle broker herds the cows single file through a narrow holding pen. Ferreira Sandes plunges a glowing branding iron through the wooden slats. A split second on the hindquarter, a puff of smoke, and a blackened letter T for transport is seared above the animal’s left leg next to half a dozen other markings. Each one represents a different step on its journey so far.
The cows have been at their current home for only a couple of days. The owner of the farm, an ambling man who says his name is Tonico Nogueira, makes a living selling cattle for others. “Every day, there are cows coming and going,” he says. “They arrive, stay for a day or two, and then leave again on a truck.”
Way stations and middlemen like Nogueira are key points of contention for environmentalists and researchers who say they are the core of the charade that ensures a steady supply of animals from deforested land. To prove it, activist groups like Greenpeace and researchers from Wisconsin to Belgium pore over hundreds of thousands of so-called GTAs—animal sanitation documents that authorize the transport of cattle—to piece together a cow’s journey as clearly as it’s marked on its hide.
The Brazilian government keeps the documents hidden, citing privacy concerns. A few activist groups have amassed databases through web scrapes that have been running for years using a technique known as brute force to randomly guess alphanumeric identifiers many characters long. Armed with the databases, activists can sometimes connect the dots from a deforested farm where an animal is born to the slaughterhouse where it dies.
Ferreira Sandes doesn’t ask where the cattle have been before he buys them, and says his paperwork is always in order. All he needs is a GTA listing Nogueira’s tiny plot as the origin and Fazenda Lageado, the farm 10 hours to the southeast that Ferreira Sandes works for, as the destination.
In a year or two, once the cows have gained half again their bodyweight and their skin has grown taut over the extra meat and fat, another GTA will be issued so they can be shipped to slaughter, and a new origin ranch documented. When Batista Filho said 100% of JBS’s suppliers are deforestation free, he was talking only of this edited version of their voyage.
It has been brought to our attention that JBS is using (its annual audit) as proof that its total cattle sourcing practices are deforestation free,” says DNV GL, JBS’s former supply chain auditor, in a July 2020 letter to JBS. “Given the fact that there was no tracking of indirect suppliers, JBS cannot use the assessment report as evidence of good practices throughout their total supply chain.
The company said it makes clear in its communications to investors and in public statements that it’s not talking about the full supply chain. “JBS acknowledges that the supply chain checks still do not include indirect suppliers,” it told Bloomberg. In the same press conference where Batista Filho spoke, ‘supplier’s suppliers,’ are mentioned on several occasions, the company said.
At Nogueira’s lot, the branding is over within half an hour and Ferreira Sandes is back in his truck, crossing a vast river by ferry, driving so fast down dirt roads that the red dust makes it impossible to see too far ahead. By the time his day ends 12 hours later, he will have visited three other ranches, none of which lives up to Brazil’s rules and regulations, according to interviews and a cross check of the properties’ GPS coordinates and public records.
One owner has been embargoed by Brazil’s environmental regulator; the second was flagged by the National Institute of Space Research for deforestation. Its manager talked freely about moving cattle to a plot next door to make a sale. The owner of the final ranch, a self-possessed matriarch named Divina, openly doctors vaccination records with the help of a local government official and an animal-supply store clerk before she can get her GTA issued. Side deals, workarounds, hustles—that’s how it’s always been in cattle country, Divina says.
“We don’t have government, education or infrastructure here,” she says. “All we have is each other and our ranches, and so we do whatever we need to do to get by.” It’s a sentiment shared by more than a dozen ranchers interviewed during Bloomberg’s journey through the region. But it’s a trip JBS’s supply-chain auditors have never made. “No protocol requires ‘on-site visits to direct suppliers,’” JBS said about its monitoring commitments.
Whether or not any of the cows Ferreira Sandes buys will end up at JBS slaughterhouses is impossible to know. The Lageado farm, like thousands of other direct suppliers in the company’s ecosystem, is a mixing pot. A 2020 study published in Science magazine found that such intermingling means more than half of all beef exports from the region to the European Union may be tainted by deforestation.
To illustrate how legal ranching occurs deep inside deforestation hotspots, Bloomberg zoomed in on 10,700 square miles to the northeast of São Félix do Xingu where JBS has directly purchased from more than 600 ranchers since August 2009. There are many examples like this throughout the region.
JBS checks the boundaries of every supplier against current embargoes issued by the environmental regulator known as Ibama. But with Ibama’s budget and staffing gutted in recent years, only a fraction of the bad actors ever make it onto the blacklist.
But the scope of the actual deforestation in the area since 2009 is staggering. The space institute issued 20,000 alerts in the period highlighting where the rainforest has been clear-cut. As long as no alert overlaps a direct supplier’s ranch at the time of purchase, JBS is free to buy from them.
Anti-deforestation laws and regulations in Brazil are full of nuance, and JBS is a company that lives in the fine print. Amazon ranch owners are legally allowed to deforest a portion of their properties, and those who go too far in felling old-growth trees can restart cattle sales by appealing or promising to replant.
For decades, the government has also turned a blind eye as Amazon land is raided and razed, establishing mechanisms so squatters can legally sell cattle and also pardoning the land-grabbers by granting them property titles. “The big meatpackers are always complaining about having to lead these initiatives, when really the government should lead,” said Azeredo, the federal prosecutor.
He said cattle tagging at birth would be the closest thing to a silver bullet and wouldn’t cost much, but both companies and the government have resisted such a plan. “I would love to force it,” Azeredo said, “but, since there’s no law, I can’t.”
JBS said it follows the rules for direct suppliers scrupulously and is quick to argue that many headline-making claims against it aren’t actually illegal. But when every case can be so easily defended by Brazilian law, the broader question arises whether a meatpacker as big as JBS, operating in a region as lawless as Brazil’s North, can ever claim in good faith that its supply chain is anywhere close to free from deforestation.
Vemund Olsen, senior sustainability analyst at Storebrand Asset Management, which has more than $100 billion under management and held JBS shares until the company was embroiled in a corruption scandal in 2018, said no. “Every year, reports come out that document cattle from deforested land making their way into JBS’s supply chain,” he said. “They shouldn’t need the media or the NGOs to do that work for them.”
Customers and investors are increasingly signaling they’re not comfortable with the Amazon footprint of Brazil’s biggest meatpackers, even if it does fall mostly within the law. In December, European retail chains Sainsbury’s and Carrefour said they would restrict beef purchases from Brazil because of links to deforestation.
Late in 2020, JBS again vowed to track the full chain of indirect suppliers, this time using an app built on blockchain technology to log the GTA transport documents. Financial analysts and some investors praised the move. “When they elect something as a top priority, they deliver,” Pedro Leduc, head of research at BLP Asset, said at the time. But to longtime Amazon watchers like Azeredo and environmentalists, it sounded an awful lot like the promises the beef giant made a decade prior.
On a muggy afternoon in early October, some of Pará state’s biggest ranchers gather at an expo park for a four-day fair of industry panels, music, and a cattle auction. In a small booth sandwiched between sellers of farm equipment, Lorena Geyer, a JBS sustainability analyst, prepares a presentation about JBS’s monitoring initiatives. Geyer, 27, runs a JBS Green Office. Like the company’s auditors, she’s never made the trek for the meatpacker across cattle country to talk to ranchers on their farms.
Neither have JBS’s nine other Green Office analysts in the Amazon, who are scattered about a region bigger than continental Europe. Instead, they sit next to cattle buyers at a desk inside a JBS slaughterhouse. Every time a rancher walks into a slaughterhouse to sell cattle, JBS buyers check their property against deforestation records issued by government agencies.
When a rancher doesn’t make the cut, Geyer steps in to help them figure out how to get off government blacklists so they can start selling legally. “JBS’s approach is to include suppliers and not exclude them,” she tells ranchers at the expo park, adding that JBS can give them support to get their documentation in order. “It’s also in our best interest to have you in our supply chain—we need that raw material.”
Legalizing suppliers by helping them file paperwork is at the crux of JBS’s strategy to clean up its supply chain. That’s not the same as eliminating deforestation. “Consumers and governments coming together don’t want zero illegality—they want zero deforestation,” said Holly Gibbs, who runs the land-use lab at the University of Wisconsin. “There’s a big difference.”
Brazilian President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva Says He Will End Illegal Amazon Deforestation
Rainforest destruction surged under predecessor Jair Bolsonaro.
MARAÃ, Brazil—Dismayed by illegal logging and fishing near his Amazon River village, Alzanir de Souza organized a flotilla of small boats so 200 relatives and neighbors could make the 18-hour voyage in October to the nearest town to vote in Brazil’s presidential election.
Their support helped Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a left-wing former president who has said he would work to better protect the Amazon, defeat incumbent Jair Bolsonaro.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s right-wing government had slashed funding and staffing at environmental agencies, environmentalists and employees of those agencies said, fueling a significant increase in deforestation. “We have put our faith in this new government,” said Mr. de Souza, who manages a fishing cooperative.
So have many others who want to see stronger protection for the Amazon. Mr. da Silva, who will take the oath of office Sunday, received thunderous applause last month at the U.N. climate summit in Egypt, where presidents and environmentalists lauded him as the rainforest ‘s potential savior.
“We will do whatever it takes to have zero deforestation,” he said in his first big overseas speech since the election.
Still, Mr. da Silva will face budget constraints, stemming in part from his commitments to expand social spending. Meanwhile, allies of Mr. Bolsonaro, who control most state governments in the Amazon region as well as 40% of Brazil’s congress, want the new president to focus on job creation rather than forest protection.
Electoral data show that many of these politicians received campaign funding from business interests connected to farming, mining and logging companies that environmentalists say have benefited from the outgoing president’s drive to roll back protections in the forest.
“It’s an economic equation,” said Virgilio Viana, a former government environmental official who is close to Mr. da Silva, and is now the director of the Amazonas Sustainability Foundation, an Amazonian-based group that works with rainforest communities. “There are a lot of electoral strongholds in the Amazon where politicians benefit from deforestation, land invasions, and illegal logging.”
He said Mr. Bolsonaro and his allies argued that environmental regulations held back the Amazon as other regions progressed, a message that had resonance among farmers, loggers and miners. While Mr. Bolsonaro narrowly lost his bid for reelection, he easily outpolled Mr. da Silva in the Amazon region.
Eduardo Taveira, the top environmental official in the state of Amazonas where the governor is aligned with Mr. Bolsonaro, points out that more than half the people in the region live below the poverty line.
To secure cooperation from state and local officials, Mr. da Silva must focus on bolstering the economy and creating jobs.
“You can’t just think about environmental protection,” said Mr. Taveira, who noted that 30 million people live in the Brazilian Amazon. “Agribusiness is now a key part of the economy in this region, and you need to be thinking about that for the future.”
Some political analysts see Mr. da Silva, widely known as Lula, as open to this message. He is a skilled negotiator who often tries to please everyone, they say, though not always successfully.
During Mr. da Silva’s two terms as president, farmers, ranchers, and entrepreneurs said they chafed at new rules that protected the rainforest but created red tape for doing business.
However, they applauded Mr. da Silva’s approval of the construction of Belo Monte, one of the world’s largest hydroelectric dam complexes, which flooded about 200 square miles of jungle and outraged environmentalists.
“Lula is an incredibly pragmatic guy,” said Dan Nepstad, president of the California-based Earth Innovation Institute, which has worked on rural development projects in the Amazon for more than 30 years. During Mr. da Silva’s eight years as president “he was way more business and private-sector oriented than anyone predicted.”
Nevertheless, by the time he left office on Jan. 1, 2011, Mr. da Silva had also reduced deforestation by about 76%, according to Brazil’s space agency that monitors forest cover.
He employed a “command-and-control” strategy involving 13 government ministries that strengthened law enforcement and designated huge patches of jungle as protected areas, said Marina Silva, who was environment minister then, and has no relation to Mr. da Silva. Illegal loggers and miners were jailed, and squatters were cut off from government loans and services.
“The system had to be created practically from scratch,” Ms. Silva, whom Mr. da Silva on Thursday named as his environment minister, told The Wall Street Journal in a recent interview.
She predicted the president-elect would adopt a similar approach this time around though he must first rebuild environmental and Indigenous-rights agencies that absorbed budget cuts under Mr. Bolsonaro.
Technology has also improved since Mr. da Silva’s prior two terms, with drones and satellite imagery providing a better picture of where people are cutting down the rainforest.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s four years in office produced the highest deforestation rates in a presidential term since 1988, according to the Climate Observatory, a network of Brazilian civil society organizations. This year, according to Brazil’s space agency, 4,466 square miles of rainforest were cut down—an area nearly the size of Connecticut.
One measure that encouraged illegal forest cutting was Mr. Bolsonaro’s abolishment of environmental fines. Over the past four years, 3% of the environmental fines in Amazonas state have been collected, Mr. Taveira said.
Brazil’s Justice Ministry said the government’s efforts to fight forest fires and illegal logging alongside state authorities have led to a decline in deforestation in recent months.
Destruction of the forest is visible on one of the main highways running from the Amazonian capital of Manaus southwest through the jungle. Called BR-319, the road has been upgraded by the Bolsonaro government, making it easier for settlers to move in.
Among them is Dorival Costa, a 70-year-old farmer, who on a recent day was burning several acres of jungle just off the highway. Parts of his plot looked like a blackened wasteland, but cutting down the trees to open space for farming and cattle ranching can drive up property values.
“This is how Brazil was developed,” Mr. Costa said as he tended the fire. “This is the way things work.”
Philip Fearnside, a biologist at Brazil’s National Institute for Amazonian Research in Manaus, pointed out that under Mr. Bolsonaro settlers have cut many miles of illegal jungle roads and that the damage could be irreversible.
“Thousands of people have moved in,” he says. The new government “can ramp up environmental protection but some things can’t go back to the way they were.”
Some are skeptical about how much Mr. da Silva’s government will accomplish. His support for the Belo Monte dam as well as for soybean farming in the Amazon that required the clearing of tracts of forest prompted Ms. Silva to quit as environment minister in 2008.
More recently Mr. da Silva has talked of paving BR-319 and of expanding oil and gas production in Brazil. And many poor people in the Amazon are demanding jobs.
To free up cash amid Brazil’s budget crunch, Congress lifted a constitutionally mandated cap on government spending
More financing could come via the World Bank, foreign governments and private philanthropists. Days after the election, Norway reactivated the Amazon Fund, now worth $542 million, which is dedicated to rainforest protection in Brazil but had been suspended during the Bolsonaro government.
Your Questions And Comments Are Greatly Appreciated.
Monty H. & Carolyn A