All In a Day’s Work: Ending Illegal Deforestation in the Amazon

Written by Rane Cortez on . Posted in Learn

Editor’s Note: Rane Cortez works for The Nature Conservancy, based in Belem, Brazil. She has just moved for two months to the highly-deforested frontier town of São Felix do Xingu in northern Brazil to work with local farmers, ranchers, landowners, indigenous groups and city officials to together promote forest-friendly sustainable growth for the area. This post, which appeared April 23 on National Geographic News Watch, features her interview with the local environmental official, and is the fourth in a series that will share her perspective from the frontlines of Amazon deforestation.

Luis Araujo is a busy man. As the Environmental Secretary of São Felix do Xingu, he’s got a lot on his plate. Yet despite the enormity of his work, he’s seeing progress, and he took the time to sit down with me and tell me about it.

“I’ve been here since ’94 and it used to be that in the months of June, July and August, you couldn’t even be in the city during the afternoons because of the smoke [due to burning the forest to clear the land],” Araujo told me.  “The sun was a ball of red fire, the conditions were extremely difficult. People had the idea that the law didn’t exist, that there was no oversight, that you could do things however you wanted to.”

Araujo added, “People would extract everything they could, like timber, from the indigenous lands. It was cheaper to deforest than to recover degraded pastureland, so people were always opening new areas in the forest. And no one was doing well in that situation. Nature was being degraded, and neither the municipality nor the people who lived in the municipality gained anything.”

This situation led the municipality to be included in the federal government’s “black list” of areas that deforest the most in the Amazon.

“Because of the black list, everything here stopped,” Araujo said. “Ranchers couldn’t get any more credit from the banks because the municipality was under embargo. One of the biggest problems here was financing – the banks were financing deforestation. But…now the mentality has changed. Now people need a license, they need to have their land registered in the Rural Environmental Registry and they need to think about their legal reserve before they can get financing.”

The Nature Conservancy has been working with the municipality to map and register private lands in the São Felix area for over a year, and now more than 80% of the lands are registered. This Rural Environmental Registry (or CAR, as it is referred to, based on its acronym in Portuguese) includes information about who owns which properties and the size of the properties, and it clarifies borders between neighbors. It’s one of the requirements for the municipality to be removed from the “black list.”

“You can’t do anything now without CAR – whatever authorization you need, it is the first document that is required. This is important because CAR helps us know who is on the land, and monitoring efforts help us know what is happening on that land. Now, people think twice before committing an environmental crime.”

In addition to registering the land, the municipality needs to reduce its deforestation rates substantially in order to leave the black list. One of the first steps toward achieving that goal in São Felix was to create a pact among stakeholders in the municipality to work together to achieve zero illegal deforestation.

“The creation of the Pact for Zero Illegal Deforestation has been one of the biggest advances we’ve made,” said Araujo. “It took four months of meetings, four months of conversations, but through that process, people began to understand that they have to work within environmental regulations because if not, we will always be in the media as criminals, as people that devastate the forest, as people that are not aware.”

Araujo described the process to create the Pact as one involving government, civil society and Sao Felix communities, including representatives for small landholders as well as larger ranching operations.

“The biggest priority was land tenure,” said Araujo. “People want title to their land in order to have more security. This was true all over São Felix.”

During the process, 52 groups signed the Pact and Araujo said he’s still getting requests from additional groups who want to sign.

“These trips to the communities really helped the Commission unite…through the travel, and the time spent together, now everyone can sit at the same table and talk – not about what’s best for them, but about what’s best for the municipality.”

The Pact was a huge step forward.  Last year, the deforestation rate decreased more in São Felix than in any other municipality in the Amazon.

“Things are going well here now because the federal, state, and municipal governments united to work on one thing only: ending illegal deforestation. And we had important partnerships – with The Nature Conservancy and with the Ministry of Environment supported by the European Union. If we hadn’t had the support of TNC from the beginning we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

“But it’s not about leaving the list, it’s about staying off the list,” says Araujo. “If there aren’t faster responses to the demands, primarily regarding land tenure, you can’t guarantee that in 3-4 years you will be able to maintain the reductions in deforestation.”

For Luis Araujo, it seems, work is never finished.

Thumbnail photo by: Leandro Ramos/TNC (Farmers and ranchers attended numerous community meetings in recent years to learn about the process of mapping and registering private lands through Brazil’s Rural Environmental Registry).

Photo by: Leandro Ramos/TNC (Luis Araujo is the Environmental Secretary of São Felix do Xingu in northern Brazil, a large ranching municipality on the Amazon frontier.)

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