Roger Milliken, Jr. is the Chairman of the Board of The Nature Conservancy.

After dinner we passed the feather of a hyacinth macaw and shared reflections on our Board trip to Brazil. A theme emerged as the feather made its way around the table: how our preconceptions—and even our “knowledge”—about the Amazon Basin had been proved wrong by our experience.

Mark Tercek, six Board members and key Latin America staff had met in Belem, near the mouth of the Amazon River. From there we flew to Paragominas, a city in Para state, formerly in the heart of the Amazonian frontier. Ian Thompson, acting director of conservation for the Latin America region, and for the last seven years the Conservancy’s Amazon program director, told us that when he first came to the settlement twenty years ago, the air was thick with sawdust, as 350 sawmills devoured trees from the surrounding forest. Today there is only one sawmill left, and the town is now dominated by agricultural supply businesses.

Over two days we visited three ranching/farming families, who had moved there as part of a land rush 30 years ago. Back then, with incentives similar to those of the Oklahoma homesteading act in the U.S., clearing 50 percent of the land gave one title to it. The new ranchers cleared huge swaths of forest, planted the land with African grasses and imported cattle. One farmer we met had grown up in southern Brazil with eight siblings on 20 hectares of land. Today he owns more than 5,000 hectares near Paragominas.

In recent years, Brazil has gotten serious about enforcing its Forest Code, which restricts new clearing in the Amazon forest to 20 percent, and holds the line at 50 percent in former frontier states like Para. Under pressure from companies like Cargill, that wants to assure that the soybeans it buys are produced legally, Brazil created a “black list” of municipalities (think: counties) that were not in compliance with the code. Paragominas was one, and being blacklisted dried up overnight the bank credit on which the local ranchers depend.

Since then, the Conservancy has worked with both ranchers and local governments to use GIS to document boundary lines and the amount of forest cover both on individual properties and for the state as a whole. We heard gratitude from both ranchers and local political leaders for the Conservancy’s help assisting the municipality to come into compliance with the code. In addition to the 50 percent set-aside, the law also requires a 100 meter buffer in all riparian areas. Ranchers must either reforest their own lands or buy set-asides from others who have a surplus.

And here was the other surprise. We all “knew” that, once cut down, the rainforest will never grow back. We learned instead that a forest will reestablish itself on former agricultural land and that 80 percent of the species return within 20 years. The ranchers are talking about enrichment planting in those forests to bring back valuable species like ipe and cumaru. We also learned how they are building the productivity of their fields, pastures and forests. It’s a myth that land in the Amazon is suitable to be farmed only once and then must be abandoned.

Flying back to Belem I looked out the windows of the Cessna to see a vast agricultural landscape, as flat as Iowa, and with the addition of lime and fertilizer, almost as productive. Unlike the U.S. Midwest however, the quilt of fields in Para is interrupted with the dark, branching patterns of forested riparian areas. While half the land is in agricultural use, half remains in forest. I alternated thinking, ‘this was all forest, look how altered the landscape has become!’ with seeing that the Brazilians are paying far more attention than Americans ever have to maintaining the health of watercourses, and a matrix of forests.

In Brazil we saw how the Conservancy works across all levels. This is true in the U.S. as well, but exposure to our work in the U.S. is generally focused through the lens of a landscape within an individual state. You are less likely to be exposed to the full breadth of connections among our work on the Farm Bill in Washington, that with the leaders of resource-based corporations, and our efforts with people on the ground.

In Brazil, we touched it all: our work with Cargill to bring their purchasing policies into compliance with the law, our assistance to ranchers to both solve their problems and protect large functioning landscapes in the Amazon, and how both these initiatives nest within our overall effort to prove that agricultural interests can work within the constraints of the 50 percent set aside, and thus help thwart ongoing efforts in Brazil’s parliament to weaken the Forest Code.

Once again I was reminded how, everywhere we work, Conservancy practitioners move beyond conventional understanding and immerse themselves in the facts on the ground. We learn from and with local people, and then work together to develop ways of living in and with nature that supports both humans and nature to thrive. Increasingly, we leverage this hard-won knowledge at sites to shift the policies and practices of corporations and governments so that they better protect the health and resilience of the natural communities on which all life depends.

Our trip ended with three days in the Pantanal in Mato Grosso state, the world’s largest wetland system and home to a vast variety of beautiful birds like the endangered, bright blue hyacinth macaw, whose feather focused our reflections. Our time there was a reminder of the beauty, richness and diversity of nature that provides the inspiration for our work globally.

I left Brazil with deep appreciation of those working for The Nature Conservancy all around the world and grateful to be working together with you to save life on earth.

(Image: Hyacinth macaws. Image credit: Laurie Black.)

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