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Farmers in the Amazon: 'We Are the Real Stewards of the Land'

Farmers in the Amazon: 'We Are the Real Stewards of the Land'

Brazil's deforestation blacklist and market forces have helped spur many communities to think about deforestation differently.

May 29, 2014

Jeff Tollefson is reporting from the Brazilian Amazon for eight weeks and exploring Brazil's efforts to protect the world's largest rainforestand the earth's climate.

QUERENCIA, Brazil—I can see the corn and the cows in the distance, but Gilmar Burnier motions me to follow him into a shaded courtyard behind the ranch house. "Vem ca," he says with a smile, delivering his words in a nasal tone that is difficult for English speakers. I follow him under a huge shade tree, and he points up. "Do you know what this is?" I look up and shake my head. "Mango!" he says, flashing that same gleeful smile. "Vem ca."

Burnier darts from one fruiting plant to another. Acai. Cupuacu. Graviola. Pitanga. He crouches beneath a small tree and points to what look like large purple berries growing off of the trunk. "Pick one you like," he says. "It's like choosing a lover." I pop a jabuticaba fruit in my mouth and it bursts with sweetness that I can only liken to something between a cherry and a strawberry. I'm left with a pit covered in gooey cotton.

"Vem ca!"

This was not the introduction I was expecting in an agricultural boomtown that in 2007 found itself on the Brazilian government's inaugural blacklist of municipalities with the highest deforestation rates. I was braced for continuing anger, confusion, confrontation. Instead I found people who are still focused wholeheartedly on agricultural production—fruits and vegetables along with soybeans and corn—but seem to have more or less made their peace with the law, or at least with the idea of the law, which limits how much of their land they can use. Whether the heart follows the mind remains to be seen, but the public debate has fundamentally shifted in places like Querencia, which today is on a much more favorable list—the federal government's list of municipalities where deforestation is under control.

Like many of his friends and neighbors, Burnier is a "gaucho" from the south, home to Brazilian barbeque and cowboys, often of German or Italian descent. They moved north into the Amazon in pursuit of plentiful land, water and sun, and Burnier was among the founding residents of Querencia in 1991. He was also my initial guide to the city, and he wanted to show me the full bounty of Brazil.

I arrived in Querencia after the dry season had begun, and the air was filled with dust kicked up by one truckload of soybeans after another, clearing out the silos to make room for the coming corn harvest. Intimate knowledge of tropical fruits aside, the people I met here were a lot like many ranchers and farmers at home in the United States. They like big trucks, go to church and are suspicious of government regulation. As a Wyomingite, I felt right at home in Burnier's Ford F-250 when he gave me a tour of the rest of his nearly 12,000-acre property.

We drove past expansive fields under a sun so hot that I secretly dreaded getting out of his truck. Like many in the region, Burnier is beginning to plant a second crop of corn immediately following the soybean harvest in March. At this point, the corn is already taller than I am, but has yet to flower into the form we know so well. The tour continued through Burnier's legally required forest reserve, which covers around 27 percent of his property. There the air cooled a bit and moistened.

Burnier stopped the truck to show me a wetland that was thick with brush on either side. Before he joined the Aiança da Terra, an organization dedicated to better agricultural practices discussed in my previous post, this was a watering hole for his cattle. Little grew there due to the constant trampling and poor water quality. From where we were standing, I could see the cattle on a hill in an enclosed pasture with their own water supply. Alongside the water in the wetland, a few small trees were already making for the sky.

I asked about the federal government's decision to put Querencia on the blacklist in 2007. Among other things, this declaration increased enforcement and restricted producers' access to low-interest credit. "We don't have deforestation here anymore," Burnier told me, stating it almost as if government policies had nothing to do with it. He blames deforestation on cattle ranchers to the north. "They are bandits."

Burnier said some producers were affected more than others, due in part to a parallel decision by the government to create a list of embargoed properties that were banned from selling their products due to labor and environmental practices. He also said the earlier deforestation was concentrated in rural settlements that the government itself had established and then failed to support or manage. "Everybody blames the producers," he says, "but it is the government that caused it."

We headed back to Burnier's office in town, where a manicured lawn serves as a gathering point from dawn to dusk. People come and go, sitting on short wooden stools, shooting the breeze and passing a decorated gourd full of "chimarrao," or yerba mate, a caffeine-rich tea popular in southern Brazil. It struck me that if I waited long enough, I would see the entire town sucking on the hot metal straw that extended out of that mound of green tea.

Elias Schmitte holds a squash from the field he illegally deforested several years ago. His case is still moving through the courts, but he says he will never pay the fine.Elias Schmitte holds a squash from the field he illegally deforested several years ago. His case is still moving through the courts, but he says he will never pay the fine.Sitting next to me was Elias Schmitte, who lives in one of the government's rural settlements and has been elected to the municipal council. His family eked out a living on the land in Rio Grande do Sul, but land there was too expensive when it came time for the children to make their own way. His older brother moved north, and the other two followed.

The next day Schmitte picked me up in his yellow Volkswagen Beetle and we drove half an hour outside of the main town. Here he and his two brothers run several lots that are around 170 acres each. Transferring to a motorcycle, he took me on a long tour of their main production area, where he was growing squash, melons and cucumbers, mostly for sale as far south as Sao Paulo.

When Schmitte and his brothers arrived more than 10 years ago this was all forest, and he admits he was among those who were clearing the trees when Querencia was on the blacklist. He believes small settlements, like his, should be allowed to clear most of their land and keep the minimal necessary for ecological purposes around waterways. Focus the conservation in other areas, maintained by larger producers and in public reserves, he says.

Schmitte and his neighbors told me about the police entering the settlement and confiscating their equipment and agricultural produce. They arrived at Schmitte’s property 15 days after he cleared it, and he wound up with a fine of several hundred thousand dollars. The legal case is still winding its way through the court several years later, and the main question is whether the government will tell him he needs to reforest part of his land. He doesn’t worry about the fine.

"I'm never going to pay that fine," Schmitte says.

Schmitte is satisfied with how much land his family has opened for agriculture. Pointing out that most of Mato Grosso’s forests are still standing, however, he said he would clear the rest if the government would let him.

Before Querencia got off the blacklist in April 2011, it had to reduce its deforestation rate and enter more than 80 percent of its properties into Brazil's rural land registry. Deforestation had dropped from 184 square miles in 2000 to eight in 2010, the state of Mato Grosso announced when Querencia came off the list.

One explanation for the drop in deforestation is that producers are running out of private land in places like Querencia, thanks to a significant expansion of protected areas. A view from above shows agricultural conversion in this area running straight up to the border of indigenous lands. Protected areas in general put the breaks on deforestation, although not necessarily on illegal logging.

The blacklist, working in concert with government embargoes and market forces that have spooked large food distributers handling illegally procured products, has helped spur many communities to think about deforestation differently. One of the primary requirements for getting off the list—the rural land registration system—has become a surprising success in many areas. For the government, it's a management tool, but landowners see it as a de-facto certificate of ownership in a region where land titles are a complete mess.

Before leaving Querencia, I joined Burnier for lunch at a Mother's Day festival, where the Catholic church was serving up 3,500 pounds of beef and 4,000 litres of beer for several thousand people. As has often happened on my travels in agricultural communities here, I was peppered with questions about how much forest U.S. farmers and ranchers are required to maintain on their land. And again I heard a familiar refrain: Regardless of the law, or what environmentalists say, we are the real stewards of the land, for we are protecting water and forests where others have not.

Coming soon: After Burnier dropped me off at my hotel, I began making my way north to the state of Para, where Brazil’s revolution in local environmental policy took off—and where one of the largest battles over deforestation is under way today.

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