A Reporter Travels to Brazil's Amazon: Can the Battle Against Deforestation Be Won?

ICN launches a new blog to follow his progress.

Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest in the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Credit: Neil Palmer, International Center of Tropical Agriculture

Jeff Tollefson will be reporting from the Brazilian Amazon for the next eight weeks and exploring Brazil's efforts to protect the world's largest rainforestand the earth's climate. This is the first blog post in a series.

As Portland recedes into the distance, my thoughts drift from my home in Oregon to the Amazon. There's a moment, as the urban grid gives way to rural farms and then forests, when these landscapes could be mistaken for one another; anybody who has peered out the window of an aircraft has witnessed this transition. But Oregon and the Amazon are worlds apart. Even setting aside their physical, biological and ecological characteristics, I'm leaving a land governed by laws that are more or less enforced, or at least feared. The world's largest rainforest, rivaling the contiguous United States in size and generating 20 percent of the world's freshwater, is a vast battleground where humans have yet to sign a meaningful accord with nature or each other.

But remarkable things have happened in the Brazilian Amazon over the past decade, leading many to believe that a fragile truce may at last be within reach. That is why I'm going—and why I'm writing this blog.

This is a tale about a developing country that has given its scientists a voice and taken action to protect both domestic resources and the global climate. It's also about good intentions clashing with harsh social, political and economic realities. A healthy dose of skepticism is advised, but in an era marked by tepid responses to grand challenges, Brazil has provided a glimmer of hope. I'll be digging in with a series of traditional reports later, but this is an opportunity to take readers along as I meet with people who live and work on the most dynamic frontier on earth.

Humans have inhabited and interacted with the rainforest for thousands of years, but scientists didn't worry about large-scale destruction of the Amazon until the 1970s, when government-sponsored migration began to ramp up. Their fears were confirmed in the late 1980s when Brazil began monitoring deforestation using satellite imagery. Roughly 20 percent of the Brazilian Amazon has now been cleared for agriculture. As recently as 2004, Brazilians mowed down a swath of rainforest larger than Massachusetts.

Then, much to everybody's surprise, Brazil ramped up its pledges under the United Nations climate treaty and turned things around. Between 2004 and 2012, deforestation fell by more than 83 percent, even as the country expanded agricultural production, grew its economy and lifted millions out of poverty.

These numbers are good news for everybody, everywhere, because forests help regulate the climate. Trees in particular pull huge amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere and incorporate it into their tissues through photosynthesis; the carbon accumulated in trees, plants and even soils is released back into the atmosphere when land is cleared and burned. That's why concerns about global warming have added a new dimension to longstanding efforts to protect tropical forests as reservoirs of biodiversity.

In Brazil, a recent analysis suggests that the drop in deforestation has reduced emissions more than all of the renewable energy development in Europe to date. Precisely how is debated to this day, but it includes a mixture of enforcement, public pressure and a shift in the way agricultural subsidies are doled out, all backed by a $1 billion forest carbon deal with Norway, payable only if emissions fell.

But the mood has soured of late. Fueled by anger about stricter enforcement and perhaps a sense that good behavior has gone unrewarded, rural and agricultural interests pushed the Brazilian Congress to overhaul the country's forestry law in 2012. The latest deforestation numbers, released in November, show a 28-percent spike in deforestation through July 2013.

The question facing Brazil, the world and your in-bound correspondent is what this means. Can this mighty frontier be truly tamed? And if not, what will be left after it runs its course?

Clearly the past decade's progress can't be written off; even with the spike in deforestation, 2013 still ranks as the second lowest year on record. And the Brazilian government's ranks remain full of scientists and environmentalists looking to advance sustainable development.

On the other hand, Brazilians have a long list of things to worry about at the moment. The economy has stalled. Corruption remains rampant. Violence is on the rise. Education still goes to those who can afford it. All of this helps explain why Brazilians have taken to the streets lately. It also serves as the backdrop for my journey.

I've written about the underlying science of tropical forests and global warming for several years as U.S. correspondent for the journal Nature, and I've been lucky enough to accompany scientists into the jungle on multiple occasions. Now I'm taking a one-year sabbatical to focus on the application of that science in Brazil and other tropical countries that are following similar paths. Sponsored in part by the Alicia Patterson Foundation and InsideClimate Newsmy initial eight-week journey will take me from Sao Paulo to Brasilia and then deep into the Amazon to explore whether Brazil can break with the past and pioneer a gentler, greener kind of development. It's a daunting task, but sometimes the only way to make the abstract real is to spend some serious time talking to people on the ground.

In recent years I've read numerous tales about early Amazon explorers who blazed new trails in the name of fame, science, adventure and exploitation. As an American who hails from the open spaces of Wyoming and married into the Brazilian fold, I am drawn to the Amazon not only by the forest but also by the human drama that is playing out in its midst.

The reality of that statement hit me several days ago when I opened an email and discovered a photo of a dead man draped over a chair with a gaping hole in his bared chest. Flesh clung to his jeans, and blood pooled on the floor below.

I was informed that the dead man was himself a gunman, shot by the relatives of somebody he had killed while protecting a legal forest reserve in the state of Mato Grosso. After a pause, I took a deep breath and moved on to the next email.

This is where I'm going. It's a wet version of the Wild West, on overdrive, invaded by industrial technology and fueled by globalization. It's crawling with scientists, activists and all manner of government overseers, but also more than its fair share of murderers, arsonists and corrupt officials. It is, for better and worse, a place where people are truly engaged in yet another epic clash over resources, the outcome of which will bear directly on the world we leave for future generations.

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