A vision for the Amazon

Virgilio Viana is one of Brazil’s leading experts on forestry and a former environment official in Amazonas state. Here, he tells chinadialogue editor Isabel Hilton about the economic case for conservation.

Professor Virgilio Viana is one of Brazil’s leading experts on forestry, environment and sustainable development. From 2003 to 2006, as secretary of state for environment in Amazonas, he achieved a 51% reduction in deforestation, an average annual economic growth of 9% with significant poverty eradication, and a 135% increase in protected areas. Here, he tells chinadialogue editor Isabel Hilton how others can achieve the same results.

Isabel Hilton: Some people believe the Amazon rainforest is on the edge of collapse. What is your assessment?

Virgilio Viana: The Amazon is a huge area with many different realities. Deforestation is concentrated on the east and southern part of the region but overall, in the state of Amazonas — the largest state of the Brazilian Amazon at 1.5 million square kilometres — 83% of the rainforest remains. Ninety-eight percent of Amazonas is forest; its forest cover is greater than Indonesia, so in that area it doesn’t make sense to talk about forest collapse. In other parts, there’s a highly fragmented forest and the degradation is similar to the Atlantic forest of Brazil. The Amazon forests are under greater threat on the fringes, which are more seasonal, more subject to intensive land use and more subject to fires. Towards the west and the north of the Brazilian Amazon the forests are much less threatened.

IH: The Brazilian military used to regard building roads through the Amazon as a matter of national security. Has that changed?

VV: No, there is still a perception in Brazil — and I am not saying it’s correct — that there is a threat to Brazilian sovereignty in the Amazon. This is because some international leaders describe the Amazon as a world asset and part of world patrimony, and we Brazilians like to make the point that it’s a Brazilian resource that is providing services to the world rather than the reverse. Interventions, such as Iraq, have fuelled the fear of an invasion or something of that nature. So, there is a lot of resistance in Brazil when we talk about an international programme to value forest services, because of the fear that if we are not overly cautious and very restrictive, this threat may become reality.

IH: You are known for making the economic case for conservation. How does that work?

VV: When I took office in 2003 as state secretary for environment and sustainable development in Amazonas, it was the first time the state of Amazonas had had such a post. We implemented a paradigm shift in thinking: the previous government used to distribute chain saws as a development policy! That was not unique. It was a general perception that forests are not part of development, that forests should be removed for agriculture. It’s the same if you look at the history of Europe, and in the British countryside very little forest remains. That was development. You see the same in the west of North America and in countries such as Brazil.

So we created a very simple message: that forests are worth more standing than cut. We repeated it like a mantra. We argued that we should get revenues from the forests and that we can have both the forest and improved livelihoods, whereas if we deforest we may lose the opportunities of the standing forest. We kept repeating it and providing concrete cases. The price of managed piraruccu fish, for instance, went from 1.80 reais (US$0.79) to 4.30 reais (US$1.88) a kilogram for raw fish — so we set in motion a new vision for the forests and their role in development.

In addition the Bolsa Floresta (Forest Conservation Grant) programme benefitted those communities that committed to zero deforestation. As a result, deforestation went from 1,500 to 400 square kilometres a year. It does work.

IH: I am sure it wasn’t easy

VV: No! I got all my grey hair doing this. One of the reasons I decided to quit was I thought, what if reincarnation doesn’t exist and we have just one life? I might get to heaven and they say that due to climate change there are no return tickets!

IH: What gave you most of your grey hairs?

VV: Dealing with overwhelming demands and not being able to say no. In a different position you can say, “that’s interesting but I cannot do it, sorry”. But if there is an invasion of Indian land by gold miners, you just have to catch an aeroplane and go and do something. You have neither sufficient resources nor an efficient administrative structure, but you have to do it. And I was the person to go, by myself, to face the issues because I need to see for myself to make the decisions.

IH: That’s pretty dangerous.

VV: Yes, it is. But that was how I dealt with it. The gold mining case is an example. We had a case of 2000 gold miners who showed up in this place because there was gold and the state governor said, “You should go and do something about it.” So I got on a plane with some policemen and I went. We had this meeting of lots of people in the middle of the forest, and there was I, as the only state representative. I was trying to negotiate with them to have good environmental practices in their illegal gold mining in the middle of nowhere. And we did negotiate an agreement: that they would restore the cover after digging and put some forest soil on top, so the forest regenerates.

IH: What about the problem of the mercury they use poisoning the rivers?

VV: There is a very simple tool to recover mercury which was a breakthrough in this particular case. It costs about US$100. You burn the mercury and the gold inside it and you recover over 95% of the mercury, drastically reducing the pollution.

Then I made an agreement with them that to be legal they had to go through a training programme of one or two days, a crash course on the dangers of mercury and the impacts of digging in river banks. As a result they signed a commitment not to dig river banks or to extract gold without this recovery tool. A lot depends on simple education and solutions that are viable, with the resources and conditions available.

IH: This is a tough group of people who are notoriously outside the law. How did you turn them into environmentally responsible citizens?

VV: They were not doing environmental damage because they were intrinsically bad people. They had never been informed that mercury was bad. In one meeting of 200 people in a church hall, I asked if anybody knew the health impacts of mercury. There was silence. Then an old man stood up and said: “There are no threats. Mercury is good for your health. When I am burning I breathe the gas that comes out because you get stronger.” He had no idea.

What we are doing with the deforestation is similar: we ask women why they deforest and we create a new rationale that favours forest protection. In the Bolsa Floresta programme, we focus on a two-day workshop for women, so the men come because they don’t want the women to go alone, and so the children also come. We use circus, theatre and dance to explain the Stern Review or the IPCC. At the end of these meetings they get a certificate on climate change and they commit to zero deforestation, in return for which they get regular cash payments of about US$25 a month. It’s significant for them, since most of the economy is subsistence. It is paid by the Amazonas Sustainability Foundation, mostly using funds from the private sector. Marriott Hotels, for instance, use it as a carbon offset programme for the guests who stay in their 500,000 rooms around the world. We also give the participants about US$2,000 per community to support income generation and another US$2,000 for social investment.

IH: I can see that this would work with small indigenous communities, but much of the damage to the Amazon is done by migrants, and the state policy of using the Amazon as a safety valve for social problems elsewhere.

VV: You are correct in pointing out there are different realities. There are basically two types of deforestation: large scale deforestation linked to agribusiness like cattle and soy beans, and the shifting cultivation plots of about one hectare each. Our strategy is to engage the people in sustainable land-use systems based on forest and fisheries and have them become the guardians of the forest, defending it against illegal logging. Once the area is a reserve, they feel a sense of ownership. We create a resistance barrier with these people fighting against those who would destroy the forest.

IH: You are pitting quite humble people against powerful economic interests. Is that a fair fight?

VV: If they were alone it would be unfair, but we are supporting them through improved governance. We are improving the establishment of government monitoring posts and implementing a radio network, so people can communicate and ask for help. It’s not just saying, you go fight.

IH: Are you worried that REDD [“Reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation”] is not committed to the rights of indigenous people?

VV: I think the REDD discussion is still developing. I am very positive about the prospects of having a new financing mechanism. The funds currently available are not enough to combine forest protection with poverty eradication. There is an issue with indigenous peoples that needs to be addressed, especially in terms of benefit-sharing. If we make the connection between improving livelihoods and reducing emissions it would be very positive.

IH: It is often said that poor people can’t afford conservation. They have urgent needs to meet and they can’t afford to think long-term and sustainably.

VV: The challenge is to combine long-term vision with short-term gains. People can’t be asked to make huge sacrifices but they don’t necessarily need to. We can choose better development pathways. For example, it is in China’s interests to prevent climate change because of the impacts on the Yellow River and other rivers. Improved efficiencies and green technologies will generate jobs. We have to come up with win/win situations. If it was easy it would already have been done, but it is doable.

IH: Much of it depends on carbon markets and right now the price of carbon is too low for this to work properly. Do you think we have bet the farm on a system that is too fragile.

VV: I see no better alternative. The idea that governments will deal with market failures doesn’t make sense. Governments are less efficient, have problems of delivery, are corrupt. I come from a very socialist background, but having been in office five years, I now feel we should have small governments — tough and clever, but not too big. I see more efficiency where there are good, strong, transparent and democratic regulations, then individuals and institutions are left to be creative and efficient. Governments won’t deliver the results with the speed and consistency that is needed.

IH: What lessons can be drawn from your experience for Africa and Asia?

VV: The change in perception for politicians and local businessmen is to look at sustainable forestry as something positive for job generation. I learned to work with politicians and understand their currency. They are driven by votes and votes are associated with jobs. If we can prove that standing forests generate low-cost jobs for voters then we create a political rationale for politicians to protect forests. People are not advocating deforestation because they are stupid or irrational.

Where there are no elections every few years, it’s more difficult. You have to create incentives for forest protection. You have problems of corruption and illegal gains in the Democratic Republic of Congo for instance. It requires phase-one investment in governance, which could be an interesting co-benefit of REDD. It’s hard to do anything in Myanmar or Congo, but the positive is that REDD will offer a financial incentive to improve governance: when REDD becomes effective, you can say that in order to get the money then you have to be transparent and improve governance. Maybe the carrot will be attractive enough, maybe not. It’s not going to be a panacea. I see that where democracy is in transition, the REDD mechanism can be a pressure to more transparency and benefit-sharing. Where there are dictatorial regimes it might not be relevant.

IH: Are you an optimist?

VV: Very much so. I think if you believe in things, they are more likely to happen.

Virgilio Viana is professor of tropical forestry at the University of Sao Paulo and the former secretary of state for environment in Amazonas, Brazil.

Isabel Hilton is editor of chinadialogue

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