As farms close in on the Amazon, families get paid to save trees

A new Brazilian program, run by a private foundation, illustrates a new way of thinking about saving forests – that the economy drives conservation.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Mr. Green: Bernhard Smid, an international liaison for Amazonas's economic development agency, explains the new green incentive program.

Deep in the Amazonian rainforest, communities like this one, where 300 families spread out along the banks of the river in wooden huts on stilts, have been at the center of the world's greatest environmental debate: how to save the Amazon. But these communities, and their local officials, have long been left out of negotiations.

Now, leaders in Brazil's state of Amazonas are starting an incentive program that pays residents not to cut down trees. The program, run by a private foundation, illustrates a new way of thinking about saving forests – that the economy drives conservation – but is also a fresh attempt by the state government to carve a role for itself.

"We are trying to insert Amazonas into the debate. It's always been a subject, but not a participant," says Denis Minev, the state secretary of planning and economic development.

While Brazil's agricultural industry booms to the delight of investors and a hungry world, the downside was just made apparent in a report showing that deforestation rates in the Amazon are up considerably for the first time in three years. The Amazon has lost 20 percent of its original forest. And new pressures lie ahead as agriculture encroaches.

Now the state is experimenting with a REDD program – which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation and is based on the type of international carbon-trading model in which rich countries compensate developing countries for not destroying their forests.

The Amazonas Sustainable Foundation – a private initiative with state support – is paying families 50 reais ($23) per month as long as they participate in sustainable activities. Currently, 2,000 families participate in the "Bolsa Floresta" program and the goal is to expand it to the 10,000 families estimated to live in the state's protected areas. But as the global economy slows, the funding of such programs could be at risk.

"When people talk about the Amazon they always talk about trees but not the people living there," says Bernhard Smid, the deputy secretary for international relations in the state's Planning and Economic Development Department. That's changing. Bolsa Floresta is part of a larger mind shift in Brazil, where even big ranchers and farmers are signing onto environmental movements as a way to secure loans and stay competitive.

"We are really at the cusp of moving to a whole different scale of tropical conservation," say Daniel Nepstad, a scientist who studies Amazonian conservation at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. "And if anywhere is going to be an early mover on this, it's going to be Brazil."

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