Brazilian state’s success in reducing deforestation a lesson in vision, persistence for Cancún talks

The sun and sea in Cancún can almost make you forget how difficult it is to get around the U.N. climate conference here.  Hotels, conference center and meeting venues are far from one another, conference bus routes change unexpectedly, traffic ebbs and flows.

The traffic was certainly a challenge last night as we headed to a resort hotel strangely reminiscent of resort hotels in Bali in the 2007 U.N. climate conference, and it was hard to get to our off-site venue.  So it was surprising to see the room slowly fill up for a conference “side-event” hosted by the government of the State of Acre, one of the poorest and most isolated — but also environmentally progressive — states in the Brazilian Amazon.

Signaling the strong interest in Acre’s state sustainable development program and new state System of Incentives for Ecosystem Services (SISA) law, in the audience were climate heavyweights including the Climate Change Director for Brazil’s Environment Ministry; the head of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s national program to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD); the Environment Secretary for Campeche, Mexico; and France’s Special Ambassador for Climate Change.

What’s particularly impressive about Acre is the political stability it has achieved in the past dozen years, after a tumultuous past.  This is primarily due to the Workers’ Party (PT) winning the governor’s office in 1998, bringing to power the group of people who formed the social movement and stood off ranchers and their gunmen to protect the forest with legendary rubber tapper, union leader and environmentalist Chico Mendes.

Environment Secretary Eufran Amaral gave a detailed breakdown of what the state has achieved through the Workers’ Party’s three terms in government (and about to start a fourth).  The state has increased its GDP while decreasing deforestation, and has built the basis for a sustainable forest-based economy that includes:

  • environmental certification programs and incentives for family farmers
  • participatory land-use zoning
  • subsidies and tax incentives for forest protection
  • an ambitious state incentive program for ecosystem services (SISA), which was passed by the state legislature in October and creates the regulatory infrastructure to certify reductions in deforestation and issue marketable carbon credits

State consultant Dr. Gylvan Meira Filho (former head of Brazil’s Space Agency and vice-chair of the IPCC) explained in rigorous detail the state-of-the-art remote sensing analysis Acre is using to establish a baseline and control for leakage and permanence, with seamless, cross-scale coverage from individual properties to the whole state.

Virgilio Gibbon, economist with the prestigious Getúlio Vargas Foundation, addressed financial mechanisms for the state’s REDD and reforestation programs.

But it was Senator Marina Silva, former environment minister and green party candidate for president, who kept everyone in their seats until the end.  Listening to Marina talk, it’s not hard to understand how she got more than 19% of the vote – from nearly 20 million Brazilians – in the last presidential election, despite her being allotted one minute of TV time per day to campaign, compared to the half-hour allotted to her principal opponent.

I won’t try and capture the extensive landscape she covered, but in one of the more moving parts of her speech she recalled that back when Chico Mendes was alive, she thought nobody else in the world (except perhaps me) cared about what was happening in Acre or the social movement’s issues.  But with time she came to see that there were other people outside of Acre who shared their vision – that they were part of a planetary community of thought that is seeking the same ends, a sustainable and equitable future for the planet.

Like most all here in Cancún, Marina thinks industrialized countries need to take more responsibility for climate change.  It’s not, she said, only a question of emissions, but also of omissions (in particular, omissions in making real commitments to deal with the climate change crisis.)  If we reduce omissions, reducing emissions will follow.

Acre is a good example of what’s most needed here in Cancún, and in the world: vision, pragmatism and the conviction and persistence to make change even when it seems impossibly difficult and distant.

When Chico Mendes was murdered in 1988, almost no one thought the social movement would ever amount to much.  But ten years after he was killed, Chico Mendes came to power in Acre. Last night we heard a lot about how far the state got in the following ten years, and where it’s going now.

Last month, Acre and the Mexican state of Chiapas signed an agreement with California through which those states can define the criteria for allowing reduced deforestation to enter California’s carbon market.  This is a major step towards transforming living forests from a problem — and obstacle to development — into a solution for the peoples of the forest and for climate change, as Chico thought they needed to become.

But what’s needed above all in Cancún is to put good ideas into action – as Acre has done, and as Marina did in making Brazil a world leader in emissions reductions.  And while Chico’s home of Xapuri, Acre is a long way from California, I’m sure Chico was there on the stage with Governor Schwarzenegger at the signing of the agreement between their states, and here in Cancún, too.

This is part of a series from EDF’s experts, who are blogging regularly from the U.N. climate conference in Cancún on EDF’s Climate Talks blog.

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