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Paying respects to the queen

By Roger Hamilton

Adelaide de Fátima G. de Oliveira has the firm grip and loquacity of an urban entrepreneur, which she is. But she was also clearly at home in the forest, leading the way along a path in the gathering darkness. Her visitors, some in city shoes, stumbled along behind.

She owns this forest, she explained, all 7,700 hectares of it, and a sawmill besides. She is also the president of a group of entrepreneurs called Assimanejo whose members believe that they can both earn a living and protect the environment by managing the natural forest and producing wood products. They are protagonists in a new vision being pioneered here in Brazil’s Amazonian state of Acre. Called florestania (see article “New Amazonians”), the idea is to use the intact rainforest as the foundation for the state’s economy.

Image removed.Many species—not just the most valuable ones—are harvested from a properly managed forest.

The 20 Assimanejo members and other private businesses are crucial to making the vision work. No matter the dreams of state officials and their civil society allies, a forest-based economy can only become a reality if it succeeds in the rough and tumble world of the marketplace. It will be up to entrepreneurs such as Oliveira to prove the oft-repeated contention by florestania proponents that the natural forest can out produce any other agricultural use by a factor of four to one.

Assimanejo receives support from the state government, the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Wildlife Fund and other groups. Just the week before the Forestry Services Council had granted certification for the wood harvested from Oliveira's land, affirming that her management methods will ensure the forest’s long-term survival.

Hers is the first privately owned forest in Acre that produces certified wood. She brings people here for training and to see for themselves how logging operations can be carried out with minimal disturbance to the forest. “People have to see to believe,” she said.

In particular, Oliveira was proud that the 16 species of trees that are being harvested on her land include mahogany, an icon of the neotropical plant world. Throughout the Americas, mahogany has been the target of loggers, some operating within the law, but many more exemplifying the predatory practices that have helped to inflict nearly 500 years of forest destruction on this continent.

Mahogany queen. Oliveira’s destination that evening turned out to be a spectacularly big mahogany tree, a true queen of the forest. Oliveira looked admiringly up into its darkened crown. Lumber cut from this particular tree could fetch US$70,000, she estimated. But she would never cut it down, both because it was a special tree and because its massive trunk was probably hollow or rotten inside. The ideal commercial trunk diameter for a mahogany tree is 80–100 centimeters. Her forest has an average of 1.6 such mahogany trees per hectare.

Image removed.Oliveira and Acre state officials reenact an ancient ritual to honor a majestic tree.

This majestic tree will live on many more years, to eventually die a natural death. In the meantime it will produce seeds that will ensure new generations of mahogany trees. It will also anchor the 100 hectares Oliveira has set aside as a special reserve where university students can do research projects.

With good management, Oliveira believes that Acre will not repeat the mistakes made in neighboring states, where mahogany trees have been practically wiped out. “We have to be very careful,” she said.

Oliveira readily acknowledges the responsibility that private landowners must bear for a great deal of the destruction that has taken place in the Amazon. “Landowners want their money now,” she said. But she maintains that this shortsighted mentality is starting to change, at least in Acre. “People are seeing that we will have no place to go if our forests disappear,” she said. They are also starting to understand the importance of the forest as a source of crucial services, such as water supply. “Landowners are seeing that if they continue to do things the old way,” she said, “they are going to leave a poor future for their children and grandchildren.”

Image removed.Each log bears a tag that affirms it was cut according to sound management principles.

Tough love. But in the end, she is a businesswoman, and her forest is part of her business. “If the forest produces profits, it will remain standing,” Oliveira said. “If it doesn’t, it will be cut.”

Well, not exactly, Oliveira amended herself. According to Brazilian law, landowners in the Amazon are required to leave 80 percent of their holdings in natural forest. “But if they don’t manage their forest for wood production,” she said, “they are losing money.”

Oliveira’s group insists on a close link between forest and industry, even requiring that Assimanejo members must own both forestland and some kind of industrial facility. Oliveira owns a sawmill that supplies wood to a São Paulo furniture manufacturer. “Without the forest there is no industry,” she said, “and without an industry, there is no entrepreneur.”

According to Oliveira, local people also stand to benefit from forest management. She estimates that her logging operations will eventually provide jobs to some 200 local people. Many of them have received training in a center she established. Families also participate in vaccination and literacy campaigns paid by her firm. She regards the local people as partners in forest management, but she sees them in human terms as well. For example, she believes that the rule requiring Amazonian landowners to leave 80 percent of the land in forest should not apply to them. “A family that owns 10 hectares cannot support a family with four or five children by growing crops on only two hectares,” she said.

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