An Amazon Forest Adventure, Part II: the True ‘Carbon Cowboy’

Written by Rane Cortez on . Posted in Learn

This blog entry is the second 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. See also Part I, “The Journey Begins,” and Part III, “The Trees are for Our Grandchildren.”

We continue on our way to the home of private cattle ranch and logging operation owner Jose Wilson (he’s also the president of the local cattle ranchers’ union) who has graciously let us set up base camp at his place. The drive is an obvious reminder that the economy of the Brazilian municipality of São Félix do Xingu is dominated by cattle ranching. The landscape is endless pastureland.

Landowners and ranch-hands depend upon the revenue produced by raising cows for their livelihoods. As pastures become degraded, people are driven to cut down more forest in order to provide enough grass to maintain the size of their herds. This is exacerbated by the low cost of land in the Amazon and lack of enforcement to limit expansion. This means that, for now, the economy of this municipality is dependent upon increasing rates of deforestation.

The Nature Conservancy and our partners in São Félix are focused on ensuring that a program that reduces the carbon emissions that result from the destruction and degradation of forests makes for a better future for the local communities.

To that point, reducing emissions from deforestation does not mean locking up the remaining forests and telling people “sorry, you can’t earn a living anymore, we’re storing carbon here.” Rather, a good program will work with people on the ground – people like Jose Wilson – to build solutions that provide economic opportunities that don’t depend upon forest destruction.

As we drive, we see a lot of pastures, but not that many cows. As it turns out, it is common in the Amazon to find less than one cow per hectare (a hectare is roughly 2.5 acres). This means that there is a large opportunity to work with ranchers on practices such as pasture restoration and integrated agro-forestry systems that increase yield on existing pastures and reduce the need to expand into the forest.

This type of partnership could give new meaning to the term “carbon cowboy.” The term is currently used to describe fly-by-night developers who take advantage of current regulatory and market uncertainty to establish less-than-rigorous forest-carbon projects.

Working with our strong private-sector partners in São Félix, we could turn this term around and create a cadre of real carbon cowboys in São Félix who wrangle both cows and carbon through sustainable practices that promote economic opportunities while protecting the forests. This is one possible solution that several stakeholders in São Félix have already been considering as part of a comprehensive program for the municipality.

We arrive at the ranch after dark. The ranch hands are not expecting us, but they immediately make us feel right at home. We dig into a delicious feast of freshly caught piranha and then string up our hammocks and mosquito nets and call it a night. Tomorrow our real work begins.

In the morning light we get a better look at the ranch. It primarily consists of a couple wooden boarding rooms, a kitchen, and a corral. But it’s clean and very well maintained. There is a garden with pineapples, bananas, mangos, lettuce, and countless Amazon fruits I cannot name. There is a hen house and fresh eggs in the morning. The people who live here are as friendly and hard working as they come.

After a hearty breakfast cooked for us by Ana, our gracious host at the ranch, we head out with Roberto, one of the resident cowboys and Adalberto, a forester, to rendezvous with our first satellite data point of the trip – “vine hell” (as we come to affectionately call it) – the same thorny, biting-ant-ridden patch of vines I mentioned in the beginning of my first post.

Now, a rendezvous with a random patch of forest deep in the Amazon may sound kind of exciting – a bit like an “Indiana Jones” movie or something. Well, it is! But, it’s also a lot of work.

First, you bushwhack your way through the forest using a GPS as your guide until you reach your hidden treasure: the randomly located satellite point (but, alas, there’s no pot of gold or ancient artifact here). Then you use a compass to lay out lines in the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west) from the center to view all the trees surrounding the point from multiple angles. Finally, your forest scientists assess the structure and species composition of the forest area, and you’re on to your next point. Our goal on this trip is to visit a few randomly located points in different forest types to get an idea of what the forest cover looks like across the São Félix municipality.

“Vine hell” is a small section of forest located amidst extensive pastureland. It had been previously logged and is heavily degraded. Unfortunately, this seems to be a fairly common state for much of the forests within the private ranch lands. The fragments that remain have mostly been logged out and now stand abandoned, presumably awaiting conversion to pasture. As I stand in “vine hell,” it’s obvious that this land was degraded with economic reasons in mind. But do these practices yield the best possible economic outcomes for the landowners and local communities? Looking out from plot center, I ask myself how might this land be managed so that the degraded forests could be valued more highly than pastureland and how might the needed forest restoration work be seen as a value-proposition for landowners?…

Over the next three days, we visit another point in “vine hell,” a point in a nearby protected area, and two more points in a different part of the private lands. We also cover a lot of ground driving around and checking out various areas on the map that show different types of landscapes.

All of this work provides us with a better understanding of the types of forests in São Félix and the pressures they are facing. We are struck by the varied quality of forests throughout the region. While we may have started out in highly degraded areas, our final point was surrounded by several large trees, a relatively clean forest floor, and a beautifully massive strangler fig tree. It was a good place to end our adventures and it gave me a vision – a possible answer to the questions I asked myself – of how the value proposition of “vine hell” could change with some investment.

Specifically, if a REDD+ program in São Félix could provide some up-front capital, perhaps it could support a forest restoration program that includes cutting vines to support natural regeneration of tree seedlings and “enrichment planting” with high-value timber species, such as mahogany, in the degraded forests. This type of program would help restore the forests to health while providing a strong economic incentive for landowners to keep those forests standing. This is another possible solution that São Félix is considering to help make its economy more sustainable.

However, there was still one more stop on our trip, and it would offer us additional insight and valuable wisdom.

Stay tuned for the final entry of Rane’s three-part series.

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

Photo by: Angelica Toniolo/The Nature Conservancy (a Brazilian cowboy)

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