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Could environmentalists learn to love this road?
By Roger Hamilton

ACRE, BRAZIL — For the people of Brazil’s Amazonian state of Acre, BR-364 is much more than an highway. It is also a central protagonist in a narrative that began in a time of violence and martyrdom, continued on through a period of legend and myth, and is now leading toward a future of new ideas that could help save the rain forest in the Amazon and beyond.

Like most Amazonian roads, BR-364 is a two-lane filament in the immensity of a vast but fast-changing region. Where it has been paved, the surface is occasionally cracked and crumbled, the victim of heavy rains and an underlying soil that was meant to support trees, not asphalt. Like most roads in this area, it is also bordered by cattle pasture. “First roads, then deforestation, then cattle,” say the environmentalists. Up until now they have been largely correct.

But this time, things might be different.

The project to pave the road between Porto Velho and Rio Branco profoundly changed Acre and the IDB.

The reasons trace back to the birth of BR-364 in the 1980s, when the World Bank helped to finance what was formerly a dirt track leading up into the state of Rondônia. The new all-weather route sparked a land rush that remains one of the darkest chapters of deforestation in the Amazon. From Rondônia’s capital of Porto Velho the paving continued into the neighboring state of Acre to its capital of Rio Branco, this time with financing from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

What happened next would reverberate throughout the Amazon and around the world. The agreement for the IDB-financed portion of the road stipulated that the Brazilian government would carry out a series of measures to reduce the project’s impact on the environment and traditional communities. But several years into the project, local and international activist groups protested that the government was failing to take these measures. Chico Mendes, former rubber tapper turned union leader, became an international spokesman for the groups protesting the highway. The situation grew tense. The government and the military had no interest in talking with Mendes and his rubber tappers, nor with Indian communities, settlers or environmentalists.

It could have ended very badly. But ultimately, in an historic meeting in May 1988, the IDB helped to broker an agreement to create an environmental protection plan. Its centerpiece would be the nearly one-million-hectare Chico Mendes Extractivist Reserve, the first time a large piece of natural forest was set aside for people to practice traditional methods of harvesting products to make their living.

But despite the breakthrough, this was still a very rough corner of the Amazon. Chico Mendes had enemies, and later in that same pivotal year, he was shot by the son of a rancher over a land conflict.

Travel in the Amazon often has the potential for turning into an adventure.

Now, 18 years later, BR-364 is entering a new chapter. From Rio Branco west to the river port town of Cruzeiro do Sul, highway crews are turning the track of red earth into black asphalt to create the state’s geographic and economic backbone. Up to now, rain has made the road largely impassable for a large part of the year. When the project is completed, the road will be usable year round.

Once more, the IDB is a key player. With a US$64.8 million loan approved in 2002, the Bank is helping to finance a set of projects to conserve and manage natural resources, develop industries to add value to these resources, and pave a 70-kilometer segment of BR-364.

And as before, the story of BR-364 is being watched throughout the Amazon and beyond. Former friends and colleagues of Chico Mendes now occupy the statehouse, and they have rallied private business, Indian leaders, extractivist communities and civil society organizations to create a new future for Acre based on managing the natural forest. Their goal is to turn on its head the long-time paradigm of the tropical forest as an obstacle to economic development. They believe that the rain forest, even with its high number of species and the complexity of their interactions, can play a central role in a modern economy.

For traditional environmentalists, as well as their timber industry opponents, this is a radical idea. Indeed, its proponents in Acre decided the concept was so new that they had to invent a word to describe it (See article “Tomorrow’s Amazon”).

Heading west. All roads in Acre lead to Rio Branco. But they begin in the forest, and that was the destination one recent morning for a delegation of state officials. Leading them was Gilberto Siqueira, planning secretary for the state government and right-hand man for its charismatic governor, Jorge Viana (Read interview ‘We are trying to make dreams happen’). On the door of Siqueira’s vehicle is the state symbol, a tree. An engineer, Siqueria goes down a checklist of Acre’s accomplishments during the seven years that Viana has been governor.

State officials are proud of Acre’s gleaming capitol and of people’s renewed self-esteem.

“Before this city was one big favela,” said Siqueira. He showed a picture of the state capitol as it was, its paint grey and peeling, its windows bristling with dilapidated air conditioning units. Now this same building stands gleaming white in a serene setting of trees and well-tended gardens. Its doors are open to the public, and a ground floor museum tells the story of Acre’s brief period of independence from Bolivia in 1899–1900, before the Acreanos decided to become a part of Brazil. (The state flag, like that of Texas, which shares a similar history, displays a lone star.) The building’s stately rooms display locally produced furniture crafted of lustrous native wood.

But the improvements are more than cosmetic. The current administration is credited with balancing the state’s accounts, imposing rigorous financial management, and subsequently attracting a flood of investment and credit, including the IDB loan. Public security and education have also improved, thanks largely to significant increases in public spending for these sectors.

Acre’s economy is growing at an annual rate of nearly 7 percent. Its annual 5 percent population increase includes an influx of engineers, lawyers and other professionals. Acre’s potable water coverage now stands at 95 percent, up from 31 percent seven years ago. Lest any of these achievements go unnoticed, the state’s sophisticated communications operation includes a satellite TV system that beams news to even the most isolated communities.

Forest pilgrimage. Siqueira was not heading to just any forest. The 66,168-hectare Antimary State Forest has become a model for how to sustainably harvest timber and other natural products in an intact tropical forest ecosystem that includes people. In 2004 the forest’s management received the Public Management and Citizenship Award from the Getúlio Vargas and Ford Foundations. The state provides 10 scholarships for graduate and undergraduate students doing research at Antimary on forest management and processing of forest products.

Aguiar: the forest generates profits, wealth and jobs.

“Our grand aim is to show that the standing forest, managed sustainably, generates profits, wealth and jobs, in the forest itself as well as in the cities,” said Marcus Alexandre Médici Aguiar, 28-year-old executive secretary in the state’s Planning Secretariat and coordinator of the IDB-financed sustainable development project. Forestry is already Acre’s number one industry, he said. He and the other state officials insist that over the long term, one hectare of forest will produce four times more than one hectare of agricultural land or livestock pasture. They are determined to prove it.

Like the other proponents of forest management—including Chico Mendes himself—Aguiar advocates a people-centered approach. They would agree with Gifford Pinchot, the early 20th century founder of the United States Forest Service, who maintained that forests should provide the “most good for the most people.” In their view, the only realistic way to save the Amazon rain forest is summed up in a T-shirt slogan: “A managed forest is a protected forest.”

But at the same time they recognize the need for total protection in the case of biologically critical or highly sensitive areas. More than 45 percent of Acre’s total area consists of protected natural areas, of which 32 percent are conservation units—either under total protection or designated for sustainable use—and 13 percent are Indian lands.

Tee shirt slogan: ‘A managed forest is a protected forest.’

Managing the forest is only the first step to long-term protection. The forest cannot produce the economic returns needed to justify its survival if logs are merely cut and floated down the river to be processed elsewhere. Value must be added to them in Acre, using local technology and local labor. In fact, the Acre government forbids shipping wood out of the state without at least primary processing. This is the other half of the strategy promoted by Acre’s state government in collaboration with private businesses. The goal is to ensure local processing and manufacturing of products ranging from the familiar furniture and flooring to the exotic, such as essential oils and all-natural condoms (See article “Contraception goes organic”).

While Acre officials preach forest management with evangelical fervor, their actions are grounded in pragmatism. For example, Aguiar was unapologetic about the cattle ranches that flank BR-364. To begin with, he said, only 10 percent of the state is presently deforested, and the deforestation rate is dropping. It just looks worse than it is, because nearly all of the cleared land lies close to the road. Beyond lies an unbroken tree line. In fact, he added, cattle raising has a place in Acre, but not the way it is done now. Instead of running low numbers of animals on large expanses of degraded, unproductive pasture, the goal must be to raise more cattle on less land, said Aguiar.

The forest begins. Turning off BR-364, a feeder road wound through a landscape of pastures and cultivated land, interspersed with patches of forest. Clouds of butterflies lifted off the packed earth as the vehicle approached. Then the forest closed around the road, and signs announced the Antimary State Forest.

Antimary was Brazil’s first public forest—twice, in fact. The same tract was declared a reserve in 1911, and then was promptly forgotten. When the decree creating Antimary was signed 80 years later, researchers discovered that history in fact does repeat itself.

Engineer Dotto works to link forest products with local processing industries.

João César Dotto, a 42-year-old civil engineer and São Paulo native, welcomed the visitors with a lunch and lectures. Dotto heads the Technology Foundation of Acre State, or FUNTAC, after its name in Portuguese. His quasi-state organization is charged with developing and testing local products. The fact that it also manages a natural forest is significant. Normally, forest management is the job of an environmental or agricultural agency. But in Acre, the goal is to derive the maximum economic good from the forest's resources. A tree is not merely a piece of wood, but a resource that technology must transform into an economically valuable product.

Dotto explained the special problems in managing a tropical rain forest that contains hundreds of tree species per hectare. The traditional forester would throw up his hands in frustration, unable or unwilling to deal with such a variety of species, each with different physical characteristics, industrial uses and markets. Like agriculturalists down through the ages, they would much prefer to eliminate troublesomely complex and inscrutable ecosystems and replace them with a small number of familiar tree species. 

Antimary is being managed on a sustainable plan that involves selectively cutting just two or three trees per hectare on a rotating schedule that roughly mimics the number of trees that would die under natural conditions. In Antimary, 4,000 hectares of forest have been exploited and certified since 2003. An additional 2,000 hectares will be exploited in 2006 and some 4,000 hectares more will be inventoried.

Under proper management, forests retain their diversity of plants and animals.

Altogether, some 6 million hectares of Acre’s forests have management potential. This includes 1.5 million hectares of state forest, 2.7 million hectares of community-owned forest, and 1.8 million hectares owned by private individuals or companies. State forests will be expanded in 2007 with the creation of an additional 600,000 hectares. Investment in the state forest system in 2008 is projected to total US$4.8 million, which includes management, infrastructure and certification activities. Not all timber presently being cut in Acre is certified. In addition to Antimary, the bulk of certified wood comes from one private landholding and five community-owned forests.

Some 12,000 hectares of community land is currently under management, of which 1,088 hectares in 10 separate projects were included in 2005 as part of the Community Forest Management Program, another state government initiative. The total community forest area under management is expected to increase sharply in 2006 to 250,000 hectares, of which 25,000 hectares will be exploited.

The state is also starting to reforest low productivity pastureland that has been degraded through misuse and erosion. A new tree nursery on the outskirts of Rio Branco will produce 4 million seedlings annually, enough to reforest 2,000 hectares. It sounds impressive, but Dotto insists that this is just a pilot project. “We need 10 nurseries of this size,” he said. The nursery is being financed in part by the National Environmental Fund, a recipient of IDB financing. It will be managed by a private firm, which will sell the seedlings to large landowners and distribute them without charge to small farmers. Beyond the benefits of reforestation and the creation of new jobs in Rio Branco, the nurseries will help people living in the forest by buying seeds from them.

In addition to reestablishing natural forests, Dotto is hopeful that Acre will eventually have 200,000 hectares of tree plantations, the minimum needed to support a cellulose and paper plant.

“So you can see that Acre has a very strong forestry vocation,” said Dotto. “The agricultural frontier will stop at Acre’s borders.”

Cattle ranching poses one of the greatest threats to Amazonian forests. But halting further conversion to pastures and better management of existing herds can minimize conflicts with conservation goals.

But a forest-based economy cannot be created overnight. The forest itself grows and regenerates at its own pace. Industries must be established and markets must be found. Businesses are not used to investment horizons of 30 or 40 years, particularly in a region with a history of considerable economic and political instability. In the meantime, people need jobs and incomes, making cattle an economic reality. Dotto maintains that livestock are perfectly compatible with his state’s forest future so long as the animals are confined to areas that are already deforested and are raised intensively. “Increasing cattle production in a smaller area relieves pressure on the forest,” he said.

But in the last analysis, the choice between managed forestry and cattle—or soybeans or any other crop, for that matter—will be made by the marketplace. “This is a free economy,” said Dotto. Cattle are already an economic reality in the Amazon, and they produce predictable profits over the short term. “People have to eat,” he said. Then there are soybeans, that second archenemy of forest conservationists. Brazil is vying with the United States as the world’s top producer of soybeans, which are in high demand on the international market as a component of cattle feed. Soybean fields already blanket enormous areas elsewhere in Brazil, turning handsome profits for growers and bringing in the foreign exchange the country needs to pay its debts and strengthen its trade balance. Dotto admitted “there’s a very big risk” that soy could get a foothold in Acre. But that would be a big mistake, he said, because  soybean cultivation would undermine efforts to make the best use of the state’s most valuable resource, which is its forests. 

The state-managed Antimary forest produces not only timber but also some of the state’s most skilled chain saw operators.

Forest partnership. The moment of truth in forest management is the felling of a tree. Dotto led the way down a forest path to show how it is done. He introduced a burly man with a big chain saw casually dangling from his hand. The man yanked on the cord, and the saw jumped to life. He set the bar against the trunk, and carefully sculpted the base of the tree to direct its fall where it would do the least damage to the surrounding forest. Amid a spray of wood chips and lubricating oil, the tree finally groaned and crashed downhill, taking vines and saplings along with it.

The man wielding the chain saw was one of the 380 people who live in the forest. Here again, Acre was trying something new. Normally, a forest manager’s first job is to remove anyone living in the forest, much as a farmer eliminates weeds from his field. But FUNTAC considers people as much a part of Antimary as the trees themselves. They are partners in a common enterprise. FUNTAC shows its sincerity by providing each family with a modest but sturdy new house.

In addition to showcasing sustainable forestry, Antimary demonstrates how forest management can directly benefit local people. Each of the 109 families in the forest has received a document granting them rights over some 300–400 hectares of forestland, roughly the area that corresponds to the trails they had established to tap rubber trees. The document is not a title, and therefore they do not have the right to sell the land.

The families decide how to exploit “their” land. Some refuse to cut trees at all, but most allow cutting and get paid for the logs removed. They help to decide which trees will be cut, and in many cases will leave a tree standing because it produces fruit that attracts animals  they hunt for food. In all, some 42 tree species are harvested, an equal opportunity approach that helps to maintain the forest’s natural composition. This contrasts with traditional tropical forestry in which the land is “creamed” of the three or four most valuable species.

All of the local people participate in forest operations in one way or another. Some get training in tree identification and management techniques. Others are trained to operate chain saws (Dotto proudly claims that some of the best chain saw operators in Acre live in Antimary) They learn how to harvest other forest products, such as oils, seeds for sale to nurseries, and the fruit of the Açaí palm, which is made into a drink reputedly high in iron. “Better technology and quality will help the people increase the value of their products,” said Dotto. FUNTAC has helped to start a cooperative where the people can sell their products. Before they used a barter system to get supplies, usually on disadvantageous terms.

Although FUNTAC wants to reduce dependence on rubber tapping, because of its uncertain economic future, it does not discourage extractive activities. In fact, FUNTAC consultants teach the people how to improve the quality of their latex and better ways to store Brazil nuts. “Our aim is multiple use,” said Dotto, “not just wood production.” He says that families are much better off now than they were before. Today they earn on average US$7,500 annually, which he claims is 10 times more than they would get from raising cattle or crops.

Taking the long view. But creating a forest-based economy requires more than vision, good technology, and an able work force. It even takes more than political will, which Acre now has in abundance. It also demands institutional and political stability with a time horizon that corresponds to the long-term rhythms of the forest itself. What can the proponents of a forest-based economy do to ensure that pro-forest policies don’t fall victim to shifts in the political winds?

Ultimately, the most compelling case for maintaining the current policies will be their unequivocal success: Acre must clearly demonstrate that managed forests can produce healthy profits. In the meantime, a series of independent, pro-forest institutions will help to insulate the forest from short-sighted politicals meddling. An example is Acre’s Forest Councils, which are made up of state and municipal officials, community members and representatives of civil society. Other institutions with a long-term stake in forest management include research organizations such as Brazil’s environmental protection agency and the universities. At Antimary itself, a Center for Management Training will host university students undertaking research projects, in this way further strengthening the forest’s ability to buffer future changes.

Another of these institutions is the Amazon Work Group (Grupo de Trabalho Amazônico), which brings together more than 600 nongovernmental organizations in Brazil’s nine Amazonian states. Joci Aguiar, the group’s regional coordinator, says that such organizations can help provide continuity to programs that might not necessarily be a priority for the next administration. “The civil society remains, the unions remain, the associations keep working, the cooperatives remain,” she said. “They will insist on preserving the gains made. No citizen of Acre wants to return to the past.”

The people of Acre will see their state change profoundly in the coming years. Some of these changes will be caused by completion of the Road to the Pacific and BR-364. Dotto echoes the prevailing view in Acre that the new infrastructure should not be seen as a threat, but as an opportunity. “The roads frighten some people,” he said. “But if they are well planned, and with measures to protect the environment and local communities, they can be a great benefit.”