Struggling to Balance Business and Conservation in the Amazon Basin

AP Photo/Andre Penner, File

Many nations have turned their natural resources into riches. Canada and the US liquidated their old-growth forests and plowed their prairies to build themselves into global economic powers. Brazil wants to do the same. Its massive Amazon basin is the world’s last terrestrial frontier. Its tropical rainforests contain 15% of the earth’s species, filter one-fifth of the planet’s rainfall and so much carbon that they play a key role in regulating the earth’s climate. They also offer enormous opportunities for logging, ranching and agricultural development, so how can Brazil serve these contradictory ambitions to develop and protect the Amazon?

For The Globe & Mail, journalist Stephanie Nolen and photographer Aaron Vincent Elkaim drove 1,200 miles on a single road, BR-163, to talk to the people who live in the Amazon, the police who chase its illegal loggers and miners, a politician fined for cattle grazing, and the villagers caught in the crossfire. Deep reporting and crisp photography show what this complicated green land looks like not from above the green forest canopy like so many familiar aerial shots, but on the ground. What Nolen finds is the complicated ways Brazil’s global ecological responsibility falls to not just of politicians and law enforcement, but to the farmers, ranchers, and illegal land speculators who cut the rainforest to capitalize on it. In a very real way, climate change has forced many Brazilians to recognize that they are not only citizens of Brazil, but citizens of the world who can no longer simply act according to their own economic ambitions. So some Brazilian leaders say they want to control illegal deforestation, and they discuss how to incentivize forest conservation while allowing development. As one soy farmer put it: “It’s not just me who needs to breathe fresh air – it’s the whole world. But the world can’t overload us, producers, with this responsibility. We need to share some of this responsibility with society as a whole.” That’s a challenge as big as the Amazon, and not everyone feels hopeful about the prospects. How could you when certain districts have a single agent to patrol 2.5 million acres of forest?

Ms. Ferreira spoke simply and gently as she explained the charges to Mr. Lima, the head of the small group of miners; Mr. de Jesus helped him ink his thumb to sign the charge sheet he couldn’t read.

“Did you know this was Jamanxim Forest and you can’t mine here?” she asked Mr. Lima.

“No,” he replied, “I never heard that.” He was standing with one foot on an old wooden sign that identified the area as protected; he couldn’t read that, either.

“The government speaks pretty words about protecting the forest – but we will lose 50 per cent of our budget next year,” said Mr. Fucks. “We need [more] employees and three times as many vehicles. We only have what we do because foreign governments donate them … We’re losing. But if we had three times as many people, we could win.”

Ms. Ferreira, peeling off her bullet-proof vest at the end of the day, questioned whether beefing up their ranks would really make a difference. The most powerful politicians in Novo Progresso, she pointed out, own the farms inside the forest. “If the punishment was serious – if the law applied here … Even if we had 100 vehicles and all these people, it wouldn’t fix it. Because it’s politics.”

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