Whither the World's Last Forest?
Brazil bets that it can save the Amazon wilderness while tapping its riches
"You have to understand that deforestation is not just about the environment," says Everton Vargas, the top environmental strategist for the Brazilian Foreign Ministry. "Deforestation is an economic issue. It will not be avoided simply by saying, 'Don't cut the trees.' You have to say, 'Here's why you don't have to cut the trees.'"
Finding those incentives and making them work is a job that keeps Eduardo Braga up at night. The governor of the state of Amazonas is one of the most important decision makers when it comes to the future of the Amazon. After a long day at his office in Manaus, he slumps from the stress of trying to administer a territory as vast as the land between Chicago and Juneau, Alaska. His outer office is filled with small-town mayors who have traveled days just to meet with him. "I am constantly tired," he confides. "There is so much to do. So much space to cover."
His optimism comes from two serendipities that he inherited on taking office six years ago. The first can be found in the Zona Franca, an incongruous sprawl of modern manufacturing plants that rings the outskirts of Manaus, which was the capital of the turn-of-the-century rubber boom and now has turned into a mix of glassy high-rise condos, suburban housing tracts, and fetid Latin American slums set amid majestic but peeling colonial buildings. The tax-free Zona Franca takes in parts from international brands like Honda and Nokia and ships out finished motorcycles and cellphones. The other windfall is the natural gas discovery.
"Gas changes everything for us. It will give us the energy to allow industry to grow in Manaus. It will give us the energy in the small towns to improve their quality of life. Gas will give us the money to do other things, to improve social services here and to have programs to develop the rest of the state in a way that protects the environment."
He plans to create a network of family farms and supporting towns to provide a bulwark against uncontrolled development. "It's inevitable that people are going to invade these areas," he says. Braga sees two choices for Amazonas on its southern flank: spillover development and the resulting anarchy and violence endemic elsewhere in the Amazon, or some semblance of civil society. "If we have roads, we can put ibama [the environmental protection agency] there. We can put government agencies there. We can put schools there. We can put health centers there. We can create conditions for family farms that are clearly demarcated and where people can make a living. You think that no controls means no people? No controls means that people just invade the land and do what they want. The people already are there, and we can't leave them behind like a bag of trash. We need to connect them."
But Braga also knows that the cycle of development, once started, cannot be stopped. It is based on an economic, not ecological, choice. "I understand that the small farms eventually will sell out to the big farms, and then you end up with major agricultural interests and small people in search of land. As long as using the land brings more material benefits to people than not using the land, we don't really have much chance. I hope to break the cycle."