Webstories

Jan 1, 2006

Tomorrow’s Amazon

In the far western Amazon, a group of idealists is inventing a pragmatic, hard-nosed way to protect the rainforest

By Roger Hamilton

One evening 18 years ago, Chico Mendes walked down the wooden steps of his little house in Xapuri, in the Amazonian state of Acre, and into his backyard. He didn’t see the gunman hiding behind a shrub.

Today, people from around the world visit Xapuri to honor the man who has become an icon of the struggle to protect the rain forest and the people who live and work in it. But while they mourn his death, they also celebrate his legacy. The story of this former rubber tapper has become a legend that is inspiring people to forge a new relationship with their natural environment.

The spiritual heart of Xapuri is the house where Chico Mendes lived and died. There’s not much to see—the bed where the fallen leader was laid after he was shot, the shirt he wore that night, other personal items and household effects. But visitors feel they are in a very special place, almost a shrine. Across the street the Chico Mendes Foundation displays artifacts and honors that Mendes accumulated during his life and after.

Much has changed in Xapuri since that day in 1988. Back then, the state of Acre was pretty much the end of the line, one of the most remote and lawless corners of the Brazilian Amazon. Today, visitors heading for Xapuri travel on a paved highway, the Road to the Pacific, that in a couple of years will link the heart of the continent with the ocean ports of neighboring Peru. Instead of an isolated backwater, Acre will soon be an economic and international fulcrum point, with a population of 30 million people within a radius of 750 kilometers.

Even the side road to Xapuri is paved, as will be a feeder road that goes to Chico Mendes' birthplace, the community of Cachoeira. But even before the dump trucks and steam shovels arrived, crews had planted rubber trees that will eventually create a leafy arcade for passing motorists. The new “Rubber Road” will be a tribute to Mendes and the people whose rights he had fought to protect.

From legend to legacy. What happened in this little community nearly two decades ago has changed how people throughout Acre think about their natural environment and what it means to their lives. Before, with the exception of indigenous people and rubber tappers, most people saw the forest as an obstacle to progress. But now, Acre’s governor and a committed group of state officials, business people, community leaders and activists are coalescing around a grand vision to create a state whose economy and culture are defined and sustained by the forest.

It is a new concept, and state officials invented a new word to describe it: florestania. They explain that the word “citizenship,” or cidadania, has its roots in the city. But Acre’s roots, they believe, are in the forest, the floresta, and so the ideal the state’s people aspire to is florestania. Whether Acreanos live in the city, in rural settlements, ranches, or far from the nearest road, their dominant economic and cultural reality is the forest. The state government adopted a tree as its symbol.

Acre Governor Jorge Viana credits Chico Mendes as the inspiration for florestania (see interview). The main avenue leading into the state capital of Rio Branco bears Mendes’ name. City people can get a taste of the forest at the nearby Chico Mendes Ecological Park. Facing the capitol building, in the Park of the Forest People, rural workers have their pictures taken with a life-size bronze statue of their fallen hero.

Idealism without ideology. Viana, a forester by training, makes it clear that florestania is not some mantra of misty-eyed environmentalists. Its proponents are hard-nosed politicians, successful entrepreneurs, veteran environmentalists, and ordinary people who need to put food on the table and send their children to school. They are idealists, but not ideologues. Their methods are pragmatic and based on the conviction that their state’s most precious resource is its natural forest.

In fact, traditional environmentalists would be very uncomfortable with some of the basic elements of florestania, such as cutting trees, creating forest product industries, and fostering some forms of cattle ranching.

Most of all, they would find it hard to understand how a project to pave a major highway could have anything to do with saving the forest. When state officials approached the Inter-American Development Bank for a loan to finance part of the project, the Bank initially balked. “The IDB said, ‘if you build the road, you will destroy the forest’,” recalled Gilberto Siqueira, the state government’s planning secretary.

The IDB had it mostly right. New roads bring settlers and speculators. The forest gives way to slash and burn agriculture and eventually pastures. Secondary and tertiary roads extend the destruction deeper and deeper. In the end, the only vestige of the former forest is the skeletal remains of Brazil nut trees, which are protected by law, but soon succumb to the destruction of their ecosystem and repeated burning.

The most dramatic current example of changes unleashed by new infrastructure is BR-163, a north-south highway being built from Cuiabá to the Amazon River port city of Santarém. It made the news last year with the murder of an American nun who was trying to protect the rights of small communities along the road’s path. “If [BR-163] is not planned well, it could cause social and environmental chaos,” Renato Farias, director of the Cristalino Ecological Foundation, said at last year’s meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology in Brasilia. A major focus of his group is to safeguard a state park in the northern part of the state of Mato Grosso from the impact of the new roadway. “Without good planning, the road will only benefit the powerful people and the new people that are entering the area, not present residents.” Vitória da Riva Carvalho, the foundation’s founder and an ecolodge owner, added that the lack of safeguards is turning her state into “one big soybean field.”

´Our economy is the forest.' But this will not happen in Acre, Planning Secretary Siqueira told IDB officials. “We said to them that the only way to make forest management viable is by creating reliable transportation infrastructure. We said, ‘If we build the road the forest will remain standing because our economy is the forest’.” The IDB responded by approving a US$64.8 million loan for the paving project, but also for measures to protect the surrounding forest, including the creation of new state parks and systems for monitoring their use and enforcing regulations.

In the end, Acre’s grand experiment, and the IDB’s investment in it, may have repercussions far beyond the state’s borders. Viana, Siqueira and officials from the other Acre agencies responsible for carrying out the IDB-funded program receive a steady stream of visitors from other Amazonian states and beyond. Governor Viana lobbies his political counterparts in neighboring countries to protect their forests before they build new roads.

But hearing florestania described is one thing. The best way to learn how Acre is turning its vision into reality is to take a journey across the state, from the increasingly graceful capital of Rio Branco, past cattle ranches, state forests, privately owned forests, Indian reserves, and communities of small-scale farmers and forest dwellers, and finally ending in the river port city of Cruzeiro do Sul (See article, “Could environmentalists learn to love this road?”). Along the way are many people with stories to tell. All of them are participants in florestania.

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