Locally-controlled sustainable forestry in Brazil faces uphill struggle

History shows the Brazilian state can protect the country's forests. So, can it do more to support locally-managed forestry in the country?

Guest blog by
13 June 2012

Aerial view of the Amazon rainforest - lush green landscape with river running through it.

Brazil has a long history of State command and control over its forested land. In 1861, Dom Pedro II, the Brazilian Emperor, issued a decree expropriating degraded coffee plantations from their owners near Rio de Janeiro. The decree encouraged reforestation of the mountainous area, and was aimed at restoring watershed services to the city. These actions led to the restoration of the Tijuca Forest, ultimately inaugurated as the Tijuca National Park. It’s now the largest urban forest in the world (14.7 square miles) and successfully protects Rio's water supply.

This early example shows that the Brazilian state can be a force for good in protecting the country’s forests. But history shows that this support is inconsistent. While many innovative locally-controlled forestry projects are being carried out in the country, the state needs to support locally-controlled forestry schemes if it wants to seriously support sustainable forestry and to reduce deforestation levels in the country.

History of state command and control in Brazil

Fifty years after setting up the Tijuca National Park, the Brazilian State granted land rights to the Southern Brazil Lumber and Colonization Company, giving the company concessionary rights to 15km of land on either side of the railroad they were building between Sao Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul (an area that was 6,696 square km). By harvesting timber and selling land to foreigners (land that was already occupied by Brazilian Indigenous and traditional peoples), the company ignited hostilities that led to the four-year “Contestado War” that claimed 20,000 lives. The Brazilian army defended the interests of the Lumber Company.

The 1934 Forest Code institutionalized direct state intervention in forest protection, and determined how much a landowner could deforest his or her land and how much had to be kept as a "legal reserve," conserved for future use, with the exception of plots under 20 hectares. The percentage set aside varies from region to region, ranging from 20% in the Atlantic Rainforest to 80% in the Amazon. Various revisions were made to the Forest Code over the years, but it now faces its greatest threat yet.

During the first few months of 2012, the Brazilian Congress approved the “Agribusiness Forest Code,” which removed the Legal Reserve requirement for plots under 400 hectares in the Amazonian biome, meaning that the total proportion of forest that must be legally preserved on Amazonian land could be drastically reduced from 80% to 50% and previously forested areas at the edges of rivers and hillsides could be cut down. The changes in the forest code were fueled by economic interests and backed by powerful commercial farmers: Brazil’s agribusiness exports totaled USD 6.011 billion in March 2010, a 25.5% increase over the same period in just one year.

The changes in the forest code only relieves farmers (especially large farmers) of fines and restrictions, without including concrete measures (such as the removing of perverse incentives, funding and technical support for agroforestry) for strengthening alternatives to business as usual (cattle ranching and deforestation) for smallholders.

In late May of 2012, however, President Dilma Rousseff vetoed 12 articles in the new bill, along with additional changes which will occur after Rio+20.

Pilot projects offering greater local control over forests

Inadequate technology, a difficult environmental licensing process, and a lack of education and funding together have inhibited the growth of locally-controlled forestry in Brazil. Following substantial land settler migrations to the Amazon, in 1986 the first national agroecology networks started to form. By 2006, five million hectares of farms in Brazil were identified as organic (IBGE, 2006), however only 127 thousand hectares of farms were managing native forests for timber or for non-timber forest products.

During the Rio-92 conference, the Pilot Program for the Protection of Brazilian Rainforests  (PPG7) was defined. By 2010 the PPG7 had helped to demarcate 40 million hectares of indigenous lands, supported 327 proposals for sustainable activities in these lands, and financed 162 projects (focused on conservation, sustainable production, and the restoration of forests) for small farmers and extractivists.

Legal reserves can act as carbon sinks and make smallholders money

People weigh and sell Brazil nuts in Mayrobi, an Apiaká indigenous people’s village, Brazil.

One project in north-west Mato Grosso serves as a shining example of how legal forest reserves can protect forests, and make farmers money. It wasn’t an obvious place to start, as Mato Grosso state led Brazil’s deforestation rates during the decade, due primarily to massive public investments in slaughterhouses and cattle ranching (see endnote). The project ran from 2001-2010, financed through the PPG7 scheme and the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

The successful 'Poço de Carbono Juruena' project (which translates as Carbon well project) focuses on extracting oil from Brazil nuts (Bertholetia excelsa). It attracted follow-up funding from the Petrobrás Ambiental Program in the city of Juruena and helped to protect at least 2,500 trees and their surrounding habitat, inside a 7.000 hectare community forest reserve.

Brazil nuts are processed through a small oil extraction plant, creating added value (increasing the value from US $ 1.60/kg for nuts, to approximately $ 15/kg of oil). The oil is sold to Natura™ company, which markets the product internationally. The local cooperative, called Coopavam, is made up of smallholder extractivist-colonists. However, the Cinta Larga indigenous community, along with their legally-protected forest land (2.5 million hectares), has been integrated into the cooperative. Four other indigenous communities will also join the cooperative in 2012.

The oil extraction process generates flour as a by-product; this flour is sold to a national school lunch program, thus further increasing the cooperative’s revenues. The extraction plant has created 300 jobs with an average salary of up to US$ 350/person/month. The initiative also processes dead and fallen trees in pastures for domestic use, removing potentially flammable material from pastures. Finally, a portable sawmill is able to mill 3 cubic meters of lumber. Including all costs, the processed lumber is 400% cheaper than boards sold at city markets (U$ 250 per cubic meter), thus providing affordable timber to the local community.

"I’m very sorry for what we did to the native nut trees in the past when we tore down all the trees," said Irenaeus Bach, president of Coopavam. "Currently we earn more money by selling the nuts to any other activity that requires [forest] clearing."

As farmers do not have land titles and environmental licensing, most of the logging going on in agrarian reform settlements is still illegal, and the same happens on indigenous lands. Shaping a new future for Brazilian forests depends on more than just economic incentives, command and control: it demands a review of the Brazilian government’s development choices, and their consequences.

Locally-controlled forestry is still in its infancy in Brazil, as most of the farmers inhabiting forest frontiers are outsiders lacking local knowledge (even if they are learning fast), and has depended heavily on the role of pilot projects. But the Brazil nut project shows that small, locally-controlled forests can make a profit using an approach that integrates scientific and local knowledge, local and national, and public and private sector groups. Support for such projects could strengthen the number of alternatives available to smallholders.

What is needed is a commitment from the State and society to fund adaptive, evolving and innovative approaches to conservation and sustainable forest use that offer a real alternative to cutting down the forest to grow crops. 

Jorge Vivan is a Post-doctoral researcher at the Center for Development, Environment and Society, Universidade Federal Rural do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He will be speaking at IIED’s Fair Ideas conference in this session: Locally controlled farm-forestry: A firm foundation for fair green economies?  

Background paper for the Fair Ideas session (English)
Resumo da sessão (português)

Read about the Poço de Carbono Juruena project

Endnote: Until 2010, The National Bank for Development had disbursed (US) $ 9.09 billion ($3.5 billion in loans and $ 5.68 billion in equity). Another U.S. $ 1.42 billion was pledged to Marfrig (a Brazilian company) to fund one more purchase: the American Keystone Foods.


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