An Amazon Forest Adventure, Part I: The Journey Begins

Written by Rane Cortez on . Posted in Learn

This blog entry is the first in a three-part series by Rane Cortez, a forest carbon development adviser at The Nature Conservancy. The series highlights Rane’s recent 10-day trip into São Félix do Xingu, a large municipality in the heart of the Amazon in northern Brazil. She is working with local communities and experts on potential strategies to reduce carbon emissions from these forests. She and her crew will need to unlock the potential of the real honest-to-goodness “carbon cowboy” to help them succeed. See also Part II, “The True Carbon Cowboy” and Part III, “The Trees are for our Grandchildren

“Here it is!” says Peter Ellis, a forest scientist at The Nature Conservancy, who’s announcing that he has geo-located the first point on our 10-day journey into the Amazon rainforest. Peter is standing in an area thick with thorny vines that are covered with biting ants. GPS has a funny sense of humor.

As we bushwhack our way to the next point, I keep thinking about the challenge of describing to people the cool stuff we’re doing here in São Félix do Xingu, a 8.4 million hectare (20.8 million acre) Brazilian municipality roughly the size of Panama.


It may sound complicated when we delve into the details, but the basic premise behind our “forest-carbon” work is fairly simple:

•  Trees are made of carbon.
•  Cutting and burning trees releases a significant amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and contributes to climate change.
•  If countries like Brazil can slow down their rate of forest destruction, they can receive payments from international programs that seek to reduce or eliminate this carbon pollution.
•  Brazil can then invest that money in programs to help conserve the forests and create a diverse set of economic opportunities and jobs for local people.
•  São Félix is looking to be a leader in demonstrating how such a program could work on the ground.
•  Being able to accurately measure the reductions in carbon emissions that are achieved in São Félix is a first step toward finding funding that can build a successful program.

That’s where we come in!

On this 10-day trip we want to get an idea of what the forest cover looks like across the municipality and make some rough estimates of how much carbon is stored in the trees. By visiting points in different forests within the municipality, we can assess the accuracy of existing forest-carbon maps for this region. The points are specific locations on the ground where a satellite shoots a laser beam from space and collects “remotely-sensed” information on the size and height of the trees. By going to that exact point and looking at the same stand of trees in person, we can assess the accuracy of the satellite data. We’re using simple equipment, but this really is rocket science.

When we return next summer, we will carefully measure tree dimensions at about 30 of these points. The carbon density information we gather will help us determine how many tons of carbon are emitted each year as the forests of São Félix are cut down for cattle ranching or degraded through logging. This information will then allow us to estimate how much international money São Félix may be eligible to receive for reducing carbon emissions.

Ultimately, we will be able to measure and monitor how much carbon São Félix saves through the emission-reducing strategies it chooses to employ. It’s part of an international program called reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and increasing sequestration through forest restoration, or REDD+, for short. Not the sexiest name and acronym, I admit. But, did I mention cowboys are involved?

The trip crew consists of the aforementioned Forest Carbon Analyst Peter Ellis, Senior Scientist Bronson Griscom, REDD+ Specialist Angelica Toniolo, and myself. Angelica is based out of the Conservancy’s office in Belem, the capital city of Para, Brazil. Peter and Bronson are based out of the Conservancy’s global headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. For the past three years, I too have been based out of Arlington working on international forest carbon policy, but I am joining the Belem office full-time beginning this February, so I can be involved in developing our on-the-ground work in São Félix.

We begin our journey at the environmental secretariat’s office (SEMATUR) in São Félix. There we meet with the mayor, secretary of environment, and several SEMATUR staff members to help plan our route. The Nature Conservancy has been working with the municipality for years and has built up strong relationships with various partners who are critical to the success of our trip and the forest carbon-reducing initiative more broadly.

After talking the options over with the São Félix officials, we decide to base ourselves in central-western São Félix at a private cattle ranch and logging operation owned by José Wilson, the president of the cattle ranchers’ union, who has offered to let us stay at his place. A protected area is also accessible from this base camp, and we have been granted permission to enter it by ICMbio, the institute in charge of managing federally protected areas in Brazil. This will allow us to examine forests in two distinct land-use types (cattle ranches and protected areas). With the plan set, we make a supply run (hammocks, mosquito nets, machetes, and food) and hit the road.

It’s a five-hour drive to the ranch over dirt roads dotted with potholes the size of our truck, rickety bridges that make us close our eyes as we cross, and migrating bands of tarantulas. We are following a hand-drawn map made by someone in town who assured us he knew the route, and we stop frequently to ask people if we are still on the right track. As we drive, I am struck by the landscape we are passing through – endless pastureland. With each herd of cows we pass, I try to imagine that this denuded landscape used to be the Amazon rainforest. I had heard about its beauty, biodiversity, and rate of destruction since elementary school and had wanted to do something to help protect it ever since. Now I’m here, and what that “something” might be is more complicated and challenging – but also more inspiring and exciting – than I once imagined.

Stay tuned for part two of Rane’s three-part series.

Rane Cortez is a REDD+ development adviser at The Nature Conservancy.

Photo by: Celso Ricardo de Araújo Souza (pictured left to right: Angelica Toniolo, Bronson Griscom, Rane Cortez, Peter Ellis)

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Comments (2)

  • LLeni Pach


    Wonderful Project, makes me feel somewhat better about all the
    disastrous, careless events produced by us human beings tha
    make my heart ache.


  • Ana


    This is phenomenal, I can’t wait to hear more in part 2 and 3. Although we have made some poor choices about environmental sustainability in our past, it is wonderful to see things going in the right direction. It is especially encouraging to see coutries so rich in biodiversity and life giving incentives to keep it that way. Thank you for what you’re doing!


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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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