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Machines in the garden

By Roger Hamilton

ACRE, BRAZIL — A tree has just been felled in a rain forest. Will its loss be just one more step in the relentless process of deforestation? Or will its value as a product of a natural ecosystem help to ensure the forest’s long-term survival?

If the log is merely sent down the river to be processed elsewhere it will do practically nothing for the local economy. “If we export tree trunks, we are exporting our wealth and creating jobs elsewhere,” said one state official in Brazil’s western Amazonian state of Acre. And if that happens, the state’s plan to base Acre’s economy on a sustainably managed natural forest will come to naught.

Acre’s state government has decided that the campaign to prove the forest’s long-term economic value must be won in the industrial parks as well as in the forest itself. So on the outskirts of Acre’s capital of Rio Branco, the government has created an industrial park that is complementing forest management projects underway in state and community forests and privately owned land.

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A new chair combines the beauty of Acre’s woods with the talent of the designer.

The park consists of 12 large factory shells, which private firms are equipping to produce furniture, flooring and other wood products. The state give each firm US$68,000 to help them start up operations in addition to tax breaks and other incentives.

The firms are also receiving strategic support from Acre’s Technology Foundation, or FUNTAC after its initials in Portuguese. In FUNTAC’s design center, guests can try out sleek furniture with European-inspired designs crafted from certified wood produced by Acre’s managed forests. The foundation also provides the firms with facilities for drying wood and sharpening tools as well as classes for workers and marketing services.

The goal is quality. For example, wood for flooring must have exactly 8 percent moisture content. If it doesn’t the floor will buckle after it is installed and the company—and Acre’s certified wood—will get a bad reputation.

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A master furniture maker guides a student in a school for artisans near Rio Branco.

Technology pioneer. FUNTAC was founded by Acre’s current Planning Secretary, Gilberto Siqueira. When he moved to Acre 20 years ago, Siqueira saw that the technological implication of policies coming out of the capital of Brasilia had little relevance for Acre. So he got together a group of fellow engineers, and with support from the University of São Paulo, they created a technology center. At the time, Siqueira wasn’t interested in forest management and conservation. But soon this changed. “When we engineers work with a wooden bridge or a wooden house, we work with the forest,” he said. His group started to get to know the local rubber tappers. “We became good friends with Chico Mendes and we began to see what we could do together,” he recalled.

Acre was a very different place then. “We had some hard times,” he recalled. “The government considered us a bunch of crazy people, even a bunch of communists.” But by marrying the forest with technology, they laid the groundwork for what would become the current state government’s push to create an economy based on Acre’s forest ecosystem.

“These were the basic ingredients: our innovation and its integration with the forest, technology and traditional communities,” said Siqueira.

FUNTAC’s research campus, in another part of Rio Branco, consists of a sprawling collection of buildings, new ones under construction, others under renovation. Each building is dedicated to a specific product: concrete, wood, soil, asphalt, ceramics, and biodiesel fuel using oil extracted from palm fruits harvested in the forest. Another building houses a satellite-imaging center. The object throughout is to provide services to the state’s private sector.

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