An American Cowboy Fights for the Amazon and Its People

John Carter has built what he calls 'an insurgency' of 712 landowners to improve production and preserve the Brazilian frontier he grew to love.

John Carter speaks to the Xavante Marãiwatsédé indigenous tribe in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil. The group Carter founded, the Earth Alliance, has helped the tribe drill a well, put up fences and start a cattle herd. Now it is working with them to fight increasingly severe fires. Credit: Jeff Tollefson/InsideClimate News

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.

I entered the Amazon on the wings of a military-trained cowboy from San Antonio, Texas. Below, the Araguaia River flowed reddish-brown along a meandering path that extends some 1,600 miles before flushing into the Atlantic Ocean alongside the Amazon. Peering down from the cockpit, John Carter reminisced about life before bulldozers, fires and guns forced a tactical retreat.

"When we lived here, this was all my backyard," he says. "During the dry season, this water is crystal clear. I used to go spear-fishing."

The forest was so vast when Carter and his Brazilian wife Kika moved here in 1996 that he recorded clear cuts whenever he flew, in case the engine on his plane ever gave out. But soon enough the land rush was on, and the forests went up in flames set by people clearing land. When the carnage arrived at their doorstep, Carter consulted with his wife and they chose to fight, for their cattle ranch, their forest and the frontier he grew to love. Outspoken and seemingly fearless, he became something of a legend.

Below us, flat plains extended beyond the river, dark pools of water gleaming in the morning sun. Individual trees popped out of the barren earth at oddly regular intervals, each perched atop its own termite mound where it would remain safe during the annual floods. We continued north into the state of Mato Grosso—"thick forest"—and the flood plains gave way to a patchwork of ever-larger agricultural fields.

Although Carter eventually moved his family back to the United States due to a steady stream of death threats—and one attempt at sabotage on his plane—he has been quietly building what he calls an "insurgency" in the Amazon through the grassroots operation he founded, dubbed the Aliança da Terra, or Earth Alliance. Set up in 2004, the Alliance consists of more than 700 landowners large and small who have committed to a core set of principles, including legal and sustainable agricultural methods as well as fair labor practices. Currently funded in large part by the Norwegian government, its territory covers an area that is more than twice the size of Connecticut. Carter has been slowly selling off his own assets—cattle included—to make it all work.  

In an airplane with John Carter, flying over the Amazon/Credit: Jeff Tollefson, InsideClimate News

On this particular day, Carter is flying a plane he co-owns with Jim Cable, an American businessman who heads Thrush Aircraft in Brazil, and our first stop was the Xavante Marãiwatsédé indigenous community. I watched tribal members wave from below as Carter set the single-engine propeller plane down on a dirt runway. Inside a concrete building on an open plaza, he paid his respects and then got down to business.

The Alliance has helped the tribe drill a well, put up fences and start a cattle herd. Now it is working with them to expand a joint program to fight increasingly severe fires. Most are agricultural fires that have jumped the line, although Carter suspects fire is also being used as a tool and a weapon now that the authorities are keeping a closer eye on deforestation.

Carter told the tribe that the Alliance was ready to continue training its members in firefighting and work with them to expand operations so long as the tribe adopted a plan to support the program in the long run with sales from its cattle herd.

"I just need to see if you are in agreement," he said. "Who is going to coordinate this is you, not us."

The Xavante chief, Damião Paridzané, listened at a school desk in the middle of the room. Dressed in black pants with a black button-up shirt, complete with a feathered headdress and classic Brazilian Havaiana flip-flops, he spoke of the government's decision to relocate the tribe in the 1960s and its subsequent struggle to regain its land. After praising Carter for his help, he raised his voice and asked the question: "Should we close the deal?" The room erupted in cheers.

Although the land was formally returned to the tribe in 1998, the government struggled to clear out existing settlers as well as prevent new invasions, apparently at the behest of local politicians. In 2012, the government razed an entire town, and federal officials who were on site during our visit said they cleared out new invaders in 2013 and again earlier this year. Carter estimates that just 10 percent of the tribe's forests are now intact.

I had a brief moment with Paridzané, and he told me that life on the reserve remains precarious. In particular, he lamented the loss of the forests, which once provided a livelihood and shade. The notion of living entirely off of the forest seems quite foreign to me, but having spent even a few minutes walking across the sunbaked earth I could already appreciate the longing for shade.

We hopped back in the plane for a short ride to his former ranch, which still goes by the name of Esperança, or "Hope."

Guilherme Pinezzi and his wife Beatriz had a table full of beef, beans, rice and vegetables waiting for us when we arrived, and the stories flowed. Carter recalled the body that turned up in his neighbor's woods, and another local who scoffed at the danger and then got shot at the gates of Esperança. He and a friend once tallied up more than 30 people who were killed in the area as the frontier settled out.

Carter says everybody in the area suffered invasions and fires, often instigated by powerful people who wanted more real estate. Many gave up and either sold out or cleared their land entirely, reasoning that open land is easier to defend, but Carter tried to keep a tract of forest standing as part of an ecotourism operation that he wanted to run in parallel with his ranch.

Repeated appeals to authority went nowhere, so he capitalized on his experience serving the U.S. Army in Iraq. In addition to outright confrontations with the invaders, he would sneak into their camp to leave them cryptic messages in the middle of the night. Once he set up an Ipod to play eerie ghost sounds in the forest. Invariably standing straight and sturdy, Carter says he never physically harmed anybody, but anger often shines in his eyes.

"I got the bastards out, but we lost the forest," he says.

John Carter (right) sold his ranch, called Esperanca, or hope, to Guilherme Pinezzi (left) in 2011, after a long series of death threats and harassment. Credit: Jeff Tollefson/InsideClimate News

In 2011, Carter sold the ranch to Pinezzi at a fraction of the price that it would have been worth if he had simply cleared the land. Assuming that open land is worth 10 times more than forest, the two of them did a quick calculation and figured that Carter left nearly $5 million on the table.

But times have changed. The violent phase has passed, and the infrastructure has improved. Soybeans and corn have arrived, along with fertilizers and lime for treating acidic soils. Pinezzi took us on a quick tour of Esperança, and we saw crop fields as well as the ongoing construction of a concentrated cattle operation. But both Carter and Pinezzi were pleased to note that the forest that Carter left to regenerate is still standing. Pinezzi is a member of the Alliance.

We flew back to Carter's new place, a smaller patch of land on the nearby Rio dos Mortes, where he runs a small herd of cattle and expects to retire one day. Carter has laid low and concentrated on operational details for the Alliance for the past couple of years, and as darkness fell he went over his master plan.

The first phase is bringing landowners on board and providing the basic tools and information to improve production and preserve forests. The Alliance has various efforts on that front, including an artificial insemination program that is providing smallholders with better cattle breeds.

Its core 10-member fire brigade has trained with the U.S. Forest Service's elite firefighting squads and is now working with a force of 500 volunteers as well as a retrofitted crop-duster the Alliance purchased from Cable's company to carry water. Carter's goal is to build a private firefighting force for the entire Amazon.

The second phase is improving access to markets, and the Alliance is working to secure preferential access to banks, supermarkets and food companies. The showcase initiative on that front, scheduled to be launched in the coming months, is a supply-chain tool that would allow somebody eating a steak in Rio de Janeiro to scan a code and see precisely where that cut of beef came from, including all of the environmental and social standards as well as relevant field data. Carter is skeptical of environmental certification schemes, but this one, he says, will be rock solid and transparent.

Ultimately, Carter hopes that landowners in the Alliance can set a standard so high that others will be forced to follow. "We've created a movement, and we're trying to corner the market," he says. "It's more like an insurgency."

This singular vision sustains a man who has lost faith in the plans and visions of politicians, bureaucrats and environmentalists. Corruption runs deep in Brazil, Carter says, and criminals quickly develop profitable loopholes around well-intentioned government schemes. Listening to Carter, environmental policy starts to feel like a twisted exercise designed to keep everybody occupied while the forest crashes and burns to the ground.

It's a dark view from a man with a positive agenda for the Amazon and its people. His friends and colleagues in the activist community usually pause when confronted with it, and then point out that Carter has been through a lot.

My journey with Carter ended the next day in Querencia, a town full of Brazilian cowboys who hark from the south. My plan was to stay on and talk to the folks in a community that found itself on the government's blacklist for deforestation just a few short years ago.

As Carter was preparing to leave, I asked whether he considers himself an optimist or a pessimist, and he didn't even pause.

"I'm a fighter," he said.

I waited in the grass behind the plane while Carter and Cable ran through their routine— not realizing my error until they started the engine and I found myself blinded by a miniature sand storm. After retreating, I watched Carter's plane take off and bank left into one of the white cumulus clouds billowing in the blue sky.

Coming: From Mato Grosso to Para, Brazilian cowboys, blacklists and a new model for tackling deforestation.

Correction: Jim Cable, who heads Thrush Aircraft in Brazil was misidentified in the early version of this column.

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