Author Archives: Steve Schwartzman

Three reasons why it’s not too late to save the Amazon

Amazon Forest

Amazon Forest. Photo by Joseph King/Flickr

The latest New York Times Retro Report, “The Fight to Save the Amazon,” shows how Chico Mendes's ideas, his story, and the indigenous and local forest communities’ fight for their land rights that he gave his life for, have changed the Amazon, Brazil and the world – and how very far from over the fight is. My last post discussed what hasn't changed in the Amazon rainforest in the 28 years since Chico Mendes was assassinated. Here, I discuss three major changes to which Chico and indigenous leaders, including the Kayapô leaders Raoni and Megaron, profiled in the story, made major contributions.

What has changed since the fight to save the Amazon began in the 1980s?

1. The whole idea of development has changed.

Part of what gave the ranchers and land-grabbers who killed Chico such confidence that no one would be held to account for the crime was they thought they were on the right side of history. “The gringos cut down all their forests and got rich – why shouldn’t we?” was the received wisdom. When Chico said “We realized that in order to guarantee the future of the Amazon we had to find a way to preserve the forest while developing the region’s economy,” he was way ahead of the curve.

Now no one says that deforestation is the price of progress anymore – and deforestation was down about 80% between 2004 – 2014, while cattle and soy production increased. Brazil’s Agriculture Minister, mega-soybean producer Blairo Maggi, says that nobody is more conscious of the need to stop deforestation than farmers, because they know that standing forest is critical for the rain they need. Maggi – as well as agribusiness, state governments, indigenous groups, grassroots social movements like the rubber tappers’ movement, and many in the federal government – now agree with Chico that the Amazon needs real economic incentives to make forest protection a viable environmental asset.

2. Environmentalists recognize that indigenous and other forest peoples’ land rights are central to forest protection – and Amazon social movements see environmentalists as allies.

When Chico was alive, mostly environmentalists thought that people in the forests were the problem and that real conservation was about finding the highest-biodiversity and most remote, inaccessible pieces of forest possible and setting up parks with guards. While defending remote high-biodiversity forest is a good thing, leaders like Chico, Raoni and Megaron , showed the world that their people were holding the line against the advance of the lawless, entirely unsustainable frontier. Environmentalists – and increasingly, Brazilian public opinion –came to support indigenous and forest peoples’ rights and recognize that protecting the forest is a valuable service. This has greatly helped swing numerous local struggles to the Indians’ and forest peoples’ side.

Today, nearly half of the Amazon (think of half the land in the continental US west of the Mississippi) is officially recognized indigenous territories and environmentally protected areas (almost all of which are occupied by forest communities like Chico’s) and these territories are a big part of the reason Brazil is the world leader in reducing greenhouse gas pollution because of its success in reducing Amazon deforestation.

3. Companies are getting on board with deforestation-free commodity supply chains.

In Chico’s day, a lot of economic activity in the Amazon wasn’t very efficient and was heavily subsidized. Global markets, with the partial exception of timber, didn’t really connect with the Amazon.

Since then Brazil has become an export agriculture powerhouse, and major multinationals like Cargill and Walmart source a lot of soy and beef in the Amazon. But, as Fight for the Forest explains so well, Amazon deforestation became a global issue after Chico’s assassination and the Kayapo convergence against the Belo Monte dam, and it has remained on international public opinion and decision makers’ agendas. Big consumer goods companies like Walmart, Unilever and Marks and Spencer found out that having their brands stained with the ashes of dead forests was bad business, so many of them have committed to zero-deforestation supply chains, and are telling their suppliers they’ll need to comply to do business. That’s a message farmers and ranchers get – even though the last three years’ increases in deforestation show that the gap between taking the pledge and making it happen is large, and governments need to stop backsliding on law enforcement.

The people who killed Chico were fundamentally wrong. Chico died, but he didn't lose.

It’s worth remembering, as we head into what could be a time of great trial and trouble for the environment, that when Chico started out, the odds were seriously stacked against him. Dirt poor, illiterate, and under the thumb of an unenlightened  oligarchy at the end of world isn’t a great resume for most-likely-in-class-to succeed.

Chico started from a position far more disadvantaged, and had to overcome greater challenges than just about anyone who will read this. But he changed the world. Let him be an example to us.

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28 years after Chico Mendes’s death, four environmental challenges still facing the Amazon

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Chico Mendes in the window of his home with Sandino, his son, in Xapuri, state of Acre, Brazil. Author: Miranda Smith, Miranda Productions, Inc. November 1988. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I was at home on the evening of December 22nd, 1988 when I got the call from Brazil telling me that Chico Mendes had been murdered a few hours earlier.

Chico Mendes's ideas, his story, and indigenous and forest communities’ fight for land rights that he gave his life for have changed the Amazon, Brazil and the world. But the fight is far from over.

I, and Chico’s other friends, had thought that drawing media attention to his struggle to protect the forest and forest communities against the depredations of land-grabbing cattle ranchers would protect him. We were tragically mistaken.

But the cabal of land grabbers and their hired guns who killed Chico were wrong on a deeper level. They thought that his murder would go unnoticed, and that even if it didn’t everyone would know that cutting down the forest and driving a few poor rubber tappers off the land was the price of progress – inevitable.

The latest New York Times RetroReport, “The Fight to Save the Amazon,” does a very good job of showing both how very much Chico’s ideas, his story, and the indigenous and local forest communities’ fight for their land rights that he gave his life for, have changed the Amazon, Brazil and the world – and how very far from over the fight is. My next post will address what’s changed over the past 28 years, but here I’ll address four things that haven’t.

What hasn’t changed since the fight to save the Amazon began in the 1980s?

1. The frontier is still lawless.

Even though government and state agencies have stepped up enforcement, particularly since the 2004 Plan to Prevent and Control Amazon Deforestation, about 30% of the Amazon is still at risk for illegal logging, deforestation, gold mining and land grabbing.

Deforestation went down from about 27,000 km² in 2004 to a little over 4,000 km² in 2012 – but since then has oscillated around 5,000 km² and now has increased two years in a row, to an alarming near-8,000 km² this year.

It seems that a big part of the residual deforestation is linked to illegal activities, if not organized crime. Environmental/land rights activists like Chico don’t get killed in his home state of Acre, where ten years after he died, his people came to power and have made the state a sustainable development leader. But Brazil is still the world leader in killings of environmental activists, such as Luiz Alberto Araújo, municipal secretary of environment, murdered in Altamira, Pará on October 13th. Dismantling land grabbing and illegal deforestation gangs (as the Federal Police have clearly shown they can do in the last few years) and aggressively prosecuting their leaders need to be high priorities, and gathering the intelligence to do it needs dependable support.

2. The forest is still worth more dead than alive.

Chico’s prescient ideas on the need for forest protection while developing the Amazon economy have won the rhetorical war – but the actual incentives needed to create robust economic alternatives for indigenous peoples and forest communities, compensate good-actor landowners willing to forgo legal rights to clear forest, and fund the shift to high-value, zero-deforestation agriculture for family farmers and agribusiness alike have yet to materialize, and Brazil’s climate negotiators are not helping. Brazil should open up to emerging carbon markets to fund the elimination of deforestation in the Amazon and other biomes, while also pursing public donor funding.

3. Technology and capital to build 21st century supply chains and develop markets for sustainable forest products are still lacking.

After Chico was killed and his story went viral a wave of newly minted MBAs washed over the Amazon, full of passionate conviction that commercially viable sustainable alternatives based on non-timber tropical forest products were there for the taking (Full disclosure: I thought so too, at the time.) Then they figured out that bringing products of highly variable supply and quality to market over continental distances and no infrastructure wasn’t all that good a recipe for business success.

In some places, though, governments and NGOs kept at it, and developed alternatives that yield real benefits for local people. In Acre, for example, the government has invested heavily in things like fish farming on already cleared land, a high-tech condom factory using native rubber latex, and scaled-up Brazil nut processing technology.

In the Xingu indigenous territories and protected areas, NGO Instituto Socioambiental has brought in state-of-the-art technology to add value through local processing of fruits, nuts and oils, while training local people to collect native tree species seeds for sale to famers obliged by law to restore degraded lands. Alternatives like these raise incomes and help the communities get access to the market, and with investment, could help landowners derive sustainable value from the 80% of their holdings they’re required to keep under forest cover. But with over 2 million km² (equal to the size of four Californias) of indigenous territories and protected areas, these innovative pilots will need major investment and a world of new technology to come to scale.

4. The weather in the Amazon is still changing for the worse.

Chico saw before almost anyone else that the weather in the Amazon was changing. The combined effects of climate change and deforestation on regional and global rainfall regimes are provoking more frequent and intense droughts, and causing runaway forest fires in places that were always too moist to burn, even in the dry season. About half the rain that falls in the Amazon is from moisture cycled into the atmosphere by the forest itself – about 20 billion tons of water a day.

If climate change, deforestation and fires continue feeding off of each other, the Amazon ecosystem could unravel, and large parts of the forest could change into savanna. This could affect rainfall patterns as far away as California, and seriously reduce agricultural production in Brazil and other countries.

In one of the last interviews Chico gave before he was killed, he talked about the death threats he was getting and said he wanted to live to save the Amazon. In my next post, I’ll talk about some of the things that have distinctly changed for the better in the last 28 years – in no small measure because of Chico’s life and story – that make saving the Amazon a real possibility.

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True crime is jeopardizing the future of the Amazon, but indigenous groups and Brazil’s police are fighting back – together

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Indigenous groups and law enforcement in Brazil are working together to reduce illegal mining and logging in the Amazon. About 80% of Amazon timber is produced through illegal extraction, which degrades biodiversity and carbon stocks. Photo: © Brasil2 / istockphoto.com

A new operation against land grabbers and illegal loggers in Brazil’s state of Pará is showing how collaboration between indigenous and forest communities and law enforcement can take on the biggest ongoing threats to the Amazon forest: illegal logging and illegal deforestation for land grabbing.

Launched June 30th, the operation started with an investigation two years ago after leaders from the Kayapô indigenous group reported clandestine deforestation on the western border of their territory to the Brazilian federal environmental enforcement agency, IBAMA. 

Guided by the Indians, IBAMA agents discovered encampments of workers who were clearing the forest in the indigenous territory and on adjacent public land, while leaving the tallest trees; this hid the illegal deforestation from satellite monitoring. The workers, who according to police labored under semi-slave conditions, would then burn the understory and plant pasture grass. Meanwhile, another part of the gang surveyed and forged land registry documents to sell the land. IBAMA agents shut down the camps, detained personnel and issued fines – and brought in the Prosecutor's Office and Federal Police to investigate.

We can protect the Amazon from degradation and deforestation. Both problems have the same solution.

That investigation led to an impressive 24 arrest warrants, nine subpoenas, and 18 orders for search and seizure, in five states, in what Federal Police, Prosecutor’s Office, Internal Revenue Service and IBAMA call the biggest illegal deforestation and landgrabbing mafia in the Amazon. Several of the gang’s leaders have already been imprisoned and face tens of millions of dollars in fines – as well as, potentially, stiff jail sentences.

The gang’s operation shows how the illegal value chains work.

First, the operators deploy semi-slave labor to invade reserves or occupy public land not designated for any particular use. They extract the highest-value hardwoods, then slash and burn the forest, and plant pasture. Meanwhile higher-up gang members draw up fraudulent documentation and sell the land to investors. The bosses of this high-tech organized crime enterprise run the “ranches,” coordinate a marketing group, hire surveyors and remote sensing specialists, and use family networks to launder illegal revenue. Prosecutors estimate that the group had revenues of almost $600 million between 2012—2015.

Organized criminal enterprises like this one are behind most if not all of the high-value illegal activities in the Amazon frontier zone – illegal logging, use of semi-slave labor, illegal deforestation for land grabbing and fraudulent sales, and tax evasion in the approximately 30% of the region under near-term threat of destruction or degradation.

Taking down a gang like the western Pará outfit is better than a two-for-one deal.

Operation Flying Rivers

The now-formalized program that just launched – a joint effort of Brazil’s Federal Police and the Federal Prosecutor’s Office – is called “Operation Flying Rivers,” after the huge quantities of water vapor the Amazon forest releases into the air, responsible for rainfall regimes as far away as California, which by some estimates approximates the volume of water flowing in the Amazon river.

The program is a good example of how effective collaboration between local forest communities and government authorities can be. And “Flying Rivers” goes way beyond stopping a particular invasion here, or apprehending some timber there; it aims to take apart the command structure of an entire criminal enterprise with multiple illegal value chains extending over much of western Pará.

This kind of persistent, integrated, multi-agency, enforcement campaign is central to addressing the real causes of continuing illegal deforestation and forest degradation, as well as land fraud – and critical to establishing the forest governance needed for long-term sustainable use of forests, including at-scale economic incentives for stopping legal deforestation and finance for eliminating illegal forest clearing through carbon markets and other sources.

Deforestation in Brazil

Brazil has made huge progress in reducing deforestation – but momentum has stalled. Since 2011, deforestation has been hovering around 5,000 km²/yr – not heading for zero, as an increasingly solid scientific consensus advises. This is way less than the 19,500 km²/yr average from 1996—2005, but still much too much. And, in lawless frontier regions, like southwestern Pará, illegal logging is degrading biodiversity and carbon stocks over vast areas.

It is generally held that about 80% of Amazon timber is illegally extracted, with the lion’s share sold in Brazil. That is about the same proportion of the Amazon’s current deforestation estimated to be illegal.

But you only have to look at the satellite photos to see why indigenous territories and other kinds of protected forest areas have been so important to Brazil’s success in reducing Amazon deforestation over 70% in the last decade, making it the world leader in reducing greenhouse gas pollution.

Kayapô, Panará indigenous territories and Xingu Indigenous Park (dark green), with fires and smoke plumes on their borders. Indigenous territories and protected areas are effective barriers to deforestation and fires.

Kayapô, Panará indigenous territories and Xingu Indigenous Park (dark green), with fires and smoke plumes on their borders. Indigenous territories and protected areas are effective barriers to deforestation and fires. Photo: NOAA satellite.

EDF’s partners in the Xingu River basin – indigenous and traditional forest communities, including the Kayapô and 17 other indigenous peoples – monitor and defend a continuous area of protected forest more than twice the size of New York state. They have mobilized a lot of successful enforcement operations to stop illegal logging and land grabbing, including the “Flying Rivers” program.

This is why the law enforcement operation launched in Pará is so important and promising.

We can look at it as a version of “bad money drives out good” – no legitimate forestry or agricultural enterprise can compete with unrestrained organized crime. “Flying Rivers” is an excellent example of what’s needed to level the playing field. We can protect the Amazon both from degradation and from deforestation. Both problems have the same solution.

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Brazil’s impeachment crisis puts its climate commitments at risk, threatening a major blow to global climate progress

The corruption and political crisis in Brazil could threaten global progress on climate change — but there are reasons for optimism. Above: Demonstration in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro. Image Source: Tânia Rêgo/Agência Brasil

This post originally appeared on Grist.org. By André Guimarães, executive director of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), and Stephan Schwartzman, senior director of tropical forest policy at the Environmental Defense Fund.

It may be hard to recall amid all the bad news coming from Brazil these days — the country’s worst recession in 30 years, its unprecedented corruption crisis, and above all the May 12 Senate vote to suspend President Dilma Rousseff and begin an impeachment trial against her — but this country has in recent years occupied a position of critical global leadership on climate change. Brazil is the world’s biggest reducer of greenhouse gas emissions, having slashed Amazon deforestation about 80 percent over the last decade. Brazil also contributed to the success of the Paris climate agreement last December by adopting an absolute, economy-wide emission-reduction commitment — one far more ambitious than those put forward by most developing countries.

The current crisis puts these commitments at risk, threatening a major blow to global climate progress.

Cutting and burning down trees accounts for about 15 percent of the world’s global greenhouse gas emissions, and deforestation in the Amazon has ripple effects on weather patterns around the world, including rainfall as far away as California. While Brazil deserves credit for large-scale reductions in Amazon deforestation, progress has stalled in recent years. Since 2011, deforestation has been oscillating around 1,900 square miles a year rather than continuing toward zero — the goal an increasingly solid scientific consensus says is needed to guard against the risk of forest dieback. Inadequate government investment and a lack of positive incentives for forest protection are largely to blame.

The government is unlikely to allocate these needed resources during the circus of impeachment, which could last up to six months. Furthermore, for Brazil’s international climate commitments to come into force, Congress needs to make them into law — also unlikely to happen soon.

Yet we also see reasons for optimism amid the chaos and corruption.

Continue reading on Grist.org: Brazil’s impeachment crisis is bad news for climate change.

In Portuguese:  Impeachment, o ponto da virada

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California’s Climate Leadership Can Help Save Tropical Forests

Source: Environmental Defense Fund, Steve Schwartzman

Source: Environmental Defense Fund, Steve Schwartzman

Back in 2006, when California was passing the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32), some in industry pushed back hard, claiming that California couldn’t stop climate change by itself and that all AB32 would do was compromise the competitiveness of the state’s economy. California has proved the naysayers wrong – its economy is booming, and emissions are falling. Far from going at it alone, the Golden State is increasingly leading a global trend.

Now, California has an opportunity to build on its international leadership. By setting the gold standard for carbon market credit for international sectoral offsets – the subject of the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) upcoming workshops – it can send a powerful signal to communities and governments that are fighting to stop tropical deforestation: carbon markets will help support their struggle.

California’s climate change program has prompted a plethora of bottom up climate action programs around the world, some of which are already achieving large-scale emissions reductions. Last December in Paris, California hosted a meeting of the “Under 2 MOU”, a group of 127 sub-national jurisdictions started by California and Baden-Wurttenburg in Germany, accounting for over a quarter of the global economy that have committed to reducing emissions below 2Mt per capita or 80% – 95% by 2050. Since the national commitments made at the Paris UN climate conference represent about half of what the science tells us is needed to keep warming below the critical threshold of 2°C, the Under 2 MOU could contribute significantly to closing the gap.

California has an opportunity to build on its international leadership by setting the gold standard for carbon market credit for international sectoral offsets.

California was also a founder of the Governor’s Climate and Forest Task Force (GCF), with Amazonian states and Indonesian provinces, in 2008. The GCF now includes 29 states and provinces from four continents, covering over a quarter of the world’s remaining tropical forests and collaborates on low-carbon rural development and creating incentives for reducing emissions from tropical deforestation and forest degradation – and GCF members have become global leaders in reducing CO₂ emissions.

Between 2006 and 2013, the states of the Brazilian Amazon, supported by national policy, reduced Amazon deforestation about 75% below the 1996 – 2005 annual average, reducing emissions by about 4.2 billion tons of CO₂ — far more than any other country or region in the world — while simultaneously increasing agricultural output and improving social indicators. Regional leader, Acre, is developing a market-based system to reward landowners and forest communities financially for conserving forest, and dedicated 70% of the proceeds of the first international transaction for forest carbon credits to indigenous and forest communities.  Overall,  reduced deforestation resulted from both state and federal policy, law enforcement, and signals from major consumer goods companies that deforestation-based soy and beef would be denied market access. California and the GCF’s work on carbon market credit for reducing deforestation gave communities and producers the prospect of economic incentives – for the first time – for protecting rather than destroying forests.

Around the world, some 50 states and countries are moving ahead with either cap-and-trade emissions reductions regime or carbon taxes – most of which began well before the Paris Agreement and President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Meanwhile, 188 nations have made reduction commitments  covering about 90% of global emissions through the UN Paris Agreement. Increasingly countries and states are recognizing – as California and the Amazon have demonstrated – that they can stop Greenhouse Gas pollution and grow their economies at the same time, and that learning how will make them more competitive and prosperous in a carbon-constrained global economy. California, Acre, and other GCF members’ innovative development of international sector-based credits will ultimately give all of these  carbon pricing  initiatives more options and make them stronger.

Moving ahead with allowing international sector-based offsets into California’s carbon market will take the process to the next level, signaling to tropical jurisdictions globally currently responsible for more Greenhouse Gas pollution than all the cars and trucks in the world that living forests can become worth as much as dead ones.

Posted in Deforestation, Emissions trading & markets, Forestry, REDD+| Leave a comment

Amazon states, global leaders in emissions reductions

Two states in the Brazilian Amazon — Mato Grosso and Pará emitted more greenhouse gases in 2004 than all but six nations in the world. More climate pollution than Japan. By 2012 they had cut emissions so dramatically, they dropped beneath 37 other countries.

This progress, achieved through reduced deforestation, is a major reason for the 80%  decline in Amazon deforestation between 2005 and 2014.

At the Paris climate conference, these two states rolled out plans for even more ambitious action.

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(source: Observatório de Clima SEEG)

Ambitious forest policy is key to climate progress

Slowing Amazon deforestation has kept over 4 billion tons of CO₂ out of the atmosphere since 2005, several times more than the EU’s emissions reductions from 2005 – 2011. Major causes of the decline include better remote sensing monitoring, ramped-up law enforcement, credit limitations, company commitments to zero-deforestation commodity supply chains, large-scale creation of protected areas and recognition of indigenous territories.

The bad news is that plans positive incentives – payments from polluters to preserve forests — have not materialized.  Consequently, while deforestation dropped to a historic low of 4,500 km² in 2012 (from a peak of 27,000 km² in 2004), it has crept back up to around 5,000 km² in recent years.

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