Two Months in the Amazon Frontier: Getting to São Felix – Planes, Taxis, Motorcycles, and Buses

Written by Rane Cortez on . Posted in Learn

Editor’s Note: Rane Cortez, a forest carbon program director for The Nature Conservancy based in Belem, Brazil, has just moved for two months to the highly deforested northern frontier town of São Felix do Xingu (roughly pronounced sow felix do shingoo) to work together with farmers, ranchers, landowners, indigenous groups, and city officials to promote forest-friendly sustainable growth for the area. This post, which appeared on NatGeo NewsWatch on March 27, is the first in a Planet Change series over the next eight weeks that will share her perspective from the frontlines of Amazon deforestation.

My husband and I just moved to the municipality of São Felix do Xingu, in northern Brazil, right on the frontier of where ranching meets the Amazon rainforest. The journey to São Felix was an adventure, and as I boarded small planes, hopped on motorcycle taxis, and waited for buses along dusty roads, most people looked at me – a Minnesotan with reddish-blond hair, a rollerboard, and a husband from Guatemala – like I was from another planet.

The last leg of our journey was a 2.5-hour standing-room-only bus ride travelling over an unending dirt road with rain-soaked potholes. I was hoping to see some of the beautiful forest we’d flown over up close, but it was all pasture. I know that most of the forests along roadways in the Amazon are converted to agricultural land, but it is always a shock to see the destruction up close.

The “Wild West” History of São Felix

São Felix is a picturesque and tranquil town, nestled on the banks of the Xingu and Fresco rivers. The pace is “tropical-slow” and the people are invariably hospitable. The pastimes seem to revolve around soccer, fishing, church, and enjoying a cold beverage on the hot nights. But the tranquility is deceptive. São Felix is an active frontier town, with a history as dynamic and volatile as any in the Amazon.

People began to move to São Felix 30-40 years ago during a time when the Brazilian government’s strategy for Amazon was known as “integrar para não entregar,” meaning “occupy it in order not to hand it over.” It reminds me a little of the old American mantra, “Go west, young man.” This policy was based on the fear that, if Brazil did not develop the Amazon, someone else would move in and do it for them.

The result was an uncontrolled land rush as people began to move north in search of a new future for their families. In this “wild west” atmosphere, settlers sought to cut down the forests as fast as possible in order to mark their territory and set up extensive cattle ranching. There was little that stood in their way, as barriers were often met with violence. In the years since, São Felix has risen to the top of Brazil’s list of places that cut down the most forest and it is home to the largest herd of cattle in the Amazon.

Into the Rainforest

The impact of São Felix’s history was glaringly evident as I joined my colleague Dr. Bronson Griscom on another scoping mission through the forest during my first week here (learn about our previous mission here). We were in search of “secondary forest” – forest that had been cleared at one time, but has since grown back. Our mission was to scope out forests of different ages to try to answer questions about how fast the trees grow back, what types of species are present, and what strategies might work best to help landowners plant trees in some of their least productive pastureland.

Feeling the Squeeze

The forests we visited make up part of the landowners’ “forest reserve.” According to Brazil’s “Forest Code,” landowners in the Amazon have to keep 80% of their land under native forest cover and can only convert the remaining 20% to other land uses. While this law has been on the books for years, it had been largely ignored until recently.

In 2007, the Brazilian government started seriously cracking down on Forest Code offenders, creating a “blacklist” of the areas with the highest deforestation, fining landowners in non-compliance, and cutting off access to credit lines. These efforts have landowners thinking twice about further deforestation, and ranchers in São Felix are feeling the squeeze. While these efforts have dramatically reduced deforestation over the last two years they can leave ranchers, especially smallholders, with few options for making a living. One farmer says the government has left him with two choices: deforest and risk steep fines, or let his family go hungry.

Forest-Friendly Solutions

Finding solutions to that farmer’s challenge is what I have come here for – to do my small part in working with the state and local governments, ranchers, family farmers, cacao cooperatives, local organizations, and others to develop better options that are good for business, for community well-being and for nature. There is a lot of momentum behind this goal. In fact, local groups recently signed a pact to achieve zero illegal deforestation.

Some of the options we are exploring together include mapping landholders’ properties to define the best use of the land, restoring damaged lands by planting a valuable mix of cacao and native trees, and improving ranching practices so ranchers can double their productivity while reducing their need to expand into new areas.

On this week’s scoping mission, we saw a lot of heavily degraded forest. But we also found some native cacao trees mixed in with Açai palms not far from towering Brazil nut trees. These spots showed that the forest could provide valuable products while helping absorb carbon from the atmosphere and providing other benefits for people. I hope to find more bright spots like those during my two months here.

Stay tuned for my next posts in the series, featuring interviews with local players – like family farmers, cacao plantation owners and ranchers – and more in-depth looks at some of the strategies for reducing deforestation and promoting forest-friendly growth here in the Amazon.

Rane Cortez is a forest carbon program director for The Nature Conservancy in Belem, Brazil. This post is the first in a series that will share her perspective from the front lines of Amazon deforestation. Catch up on Rane’s later posts Beyond Cattle: Family Farms Provide a Good Life for People and Nature in the Amazon and Chocolate: A Sweet Solution to Tropical Deforestation?

Photo: TNC (Rane Cortez (second from left) and other members of the Amazon team on a recent field research trip in Brazil’s forests).

Photo 2: Leandro Ramos/TNC (A view of São Felix do Xingu).

Photo 3: TNC (São Felix is home to the largest cattle herd in the Amazon).

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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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