You probably won’t find Sao Felix do Xingu in any Lonely Planet guides. It is pretty far from anywhere. At the end of the road, on the Amazonian frontier, it feels like the Wild West, except with motor bikes and cell phones.
Not long ago, Sao Felix gained infamy as a lawless hotspot of deforestation in Brazil’s “arc of fire.” Today, this frontier town is the front line for an ambitious effort to save the Amazon, fight climate change and strengthen the local economy all at once.
I traveled to Sao Felix to see firsthand the breathtaking scale of the deforestation problem and to meet the local and state leaders — and the innovative farmers and ranchers — who are working with The Nature Conservancy to find solutions that value standing forests, and that work for people and nature.
In addition to the conservation benefits of saving the Amazonian rainforest and the economic benefits of improving agricultural productivity and forest management, stopping deforestation will reduce Brazil’s largest source of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions. I traveled to Sao Felix with agriculture and forestry leaders from the United States so that they could see how international efforts to address deforestation in the tropics matter to the climate policy debate in the United States and vice versa.
Flying into Sao Felix in a small plane, the view said it all. As far as the eye could see, the landscape was chopped into odd shaped blocks of light-green pastures, flecked with sparse herds of white nelore cattle that can take the tropical heat and sun. Here and there, patches of forest still stood along streams, on steeper slopes, and on parcels farther from the road. The spawl of deforestation only stopped at the border of indigenous people’s land, where the dark verdant green of their rainforest home marked a bright line not to be crossed.
About 1.5 million hectares of tropical rainforest around Sao Felix have already been destroyed — almost 20% of the total land area. Deforestation was encouraged by government policy that promised free land if people cleared the jungle. Once cleared, cattle could graze for a few years before scrubby brush overgrew the pasture.
Rather than trying to manage the land sustainably, people would move on to the next patch of forest, leaving behind degraded pastures that were of little value for cattle or biodiversity. This happened despite Brazil’s Forest Code that mandates that landowners preserve 50-80% of their land as native forest.
On the frontier, there were no real incentives to comply with the law and little law enforcement if you didn’t. It was a land-clearing free-for-all that earned Sao Felix a spot on Brazil’s black list of municipalities with the highest rates of deforestation.
Turning things around in Sao Felix is a monumental task. But I am optimistic that it could happen because of several powerful forces that are lining up for change.
First is a 180-degree change in Brazilian policy to stop encouraging people to wantonly raze forests and to start enforcing the Forest Code. To get off the black list of top deforesting municipalities, Sao Felix needs to reduce deforestation and bring properties into compliance with the law. Until then, local ranchers and farmers can’t get access to credit.
Another lever is being exerted by the international marketplace. Consumers don’t want to buy beef, soybeans, timber or other products from illegally cleared land or that contribute to the destruction of the Amazon. If farmers and ranchers want to sell their products, they need to show that they are in compliance with the law and producing sustainably.
These legal and economic incentives are powerful motivators for farmers and ranchers to do the right thing. But there are two big hurdles:
First, cleared land is currently worth more than forested land. Supply chain pressures in the marketplace are helping to change that, but much more needs to be done to establish value in standing forests. The Nature Conservancy has been working on policies that would allow payments for securing forest carbon, and on improving forest management for timber and non-timber products like cacao.
Second, property boundaries and land title aren’t registered. Unlike homesteaders in the American West who staked their claims to already surveyed land, Brazilian pioneers followed roads into the wilderness and cleared whatever uncleared land they came to. Without title and surveyed boundaries, the government can’t know who to hold accountable for compliance with the Forest Code. More importantly, landowners don’t have a reason to invest in the long-term stewardship of their fields and forests.
This is where The Nature Conservancy comes in. We are working in Sao Felix to help the local government and rural producer associations to map and register their properties under a rural land registry (abbreviated “CAR” in Portuguese). While not the same as formal title, it is a significant first step.
Once registered, landowners can show how they are coming into compliance with the Forest Code, and apply for title. Once 80% of the rural land area (exclusive of indigenous lands and protected areas) is registered under the CAR, Sao Felix can be considered for removal from the black list — reopening the credit market for ranchers and farmers, and putting the municipality on an economic pathway that does not depend on destroying the rainforest.
To see what success can look like, I also visited the municipality of Paragominas. Just weeks ago, Paragominas became the first municipality in Brazil to be taken off of Brazil’s black list. Working in partnership with the Rural Producers Union and the mayor, the Conservancy helped register almost 500 properties under the CAR — bringing coverage to 1.45 million hectares or 83% of the municipality.
At the same time, progressive farmers and ranchers in Paragominas have led the way in terms of improving compliance with the Forest Code and dramatically reducing deforestation while demonstrating responsible and sustainable agricultural practices.
Realizing that same sort of success in Sao Felix is going to require a lot of hard work. It is a huge municipality, roughly the size of the country of Panama. There are thousands of unregistered landowners. Landowners will also need technical assistance to implement more responsible and sustainable agricultural practices; that’s where the agricultural leaders I traveled with could help.
Fortunately, as in Paragominas, local leaders in government and among small and large landowners see the benefit and are committed to doing the right thing with the Conservancy’s help.
(Image: Forest burning in Sao Felix do Xingu. Image credit: leoffreitas/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)