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Brazil offers up land for logging

Brazil's rain forest gamble: A model for sustainable development or a path to deforestation?

Logging, Amazon rainforest
Confiscated logs are taken across the Amazon rain forest to a port on the outskirts of Tailandia, Feb. 27, 2008. (Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images)

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Chainsaws roared in the deep northern Amazon, chewing into the massive red trunk of a tropical hardwood called roxinho. The tree fell with little fanfare but the moment marked the beginning of an unprecedented logging experiment.

The Brazilian government has begun granting private companies permission to manage a vast swath of the Brazilian Amazon. The first tree was cut last month and by the end of the year, the part of the Amazon available for logging is slated to swell to more than six times its current size.

And in the next five years, Brazil plans to sell logging rights to more than 27 million acres of jungle, the country’s top forest official said last week. Critics call it a dangerous gamble but Brazil’s government says managed logging is an essential alternative to the illegal clear-cutting that has besieged the world’s largest rainforest.

"Everything in this country is an incentive for deforestation,” said Antonio Carlos Hummel, head of Brazil’s forest service, at a summit hosted last week by the Reuters news agency. “So we're having to change the paradigm: finance standing forests.”

The new paradigm, Hummel added, will involve selling logging concessions on 2.5 million more acres of forest by the end of this year and 27.5 million acres by 2015. The move would mean expanding the current 370,000 acres of legal logging concessions — an area about half the size of Rhode Island — to include a swath of forest bigger than Massachusetts, Maryland and Vermont put together.

The plan is simple in theory: Brazilian companies bid for 40-year leases on patches of forest. They submit plans for sustainable logging, employ locals, invest some of their profits in the region and leave the forest healthy when they’re done. Supporters say the system will be a model for sustainable development that improves upon the failed strategy of simply trying to keep loggers out.

“We need to offer alternatives that increase the value of the forest and that turn the forest into a source of benefits, especially of social benefits,” said Marcus Vinicius Alves, a director at the forest service. “It’s not going to be possible to get these types of social gains simply by surrounding the forest with the armed forces.”

The law creating the forest service and authorizing concessions was passed in 2006, but it's taken four years to reach the point where companies can start cutting trees. In the years leading up to the legislation, a significant amount of legal logging happened on private land, often as farms and cattle ranches expanded. But one study suggests nearly half the logs produced in Brazil were cut illegally, at a time when millions of acres of forest were disappearing every year.

Critics, however, say the concessions are unlikely to stop illegal logging or spur local development. They warn the country is implementing a system that has already failed in threatened tropical forests in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

“I certainly couldn’t point to a country where I’d say it works,” said Rick Jacobsen, a policy adviser with the NGO Global Witness. His organization has served as an independent monitor for forest concessions in Africa, Asia and Central America. “What’s happened is that this has fueled a lot of corruption at all different levels of government, so that very little of this money actually trickles back down and actually contributes to development projects in the communities.”

Global Witness recently surveyed members of 15 different communities living around logging concessions in Cameroon, where international donors invested hundreds of millions of dollars since the 1990s in the hope of developing a sustainable logging program that would help the region develop.

A study they plan to release in November concludes the strategy failed. Only a handful of locals found work in the concession, and it was usually part-time and low-paid. The infrastructure built by the companies turned out to be substandard.

“Schools we saw were falling apart and unusable after less than 10 years, and they had no money for teachers. There were water pumps that never worked, health posts with no staff or medicine, and millions of dollars unaccounted for,” said Peter Wood, a forest policy adviser for Global Witness.

“The benefits local communities had received were negligible and short-lived,” he said. “The impacts of the forest degradation caused by logging were severe and long-term, with locals effectively excluded from the forest they depend on for food and medicine.”

Still, Brazil is more developed and better-policed than Cameroon. And some veteran foresters here say Brazil has a better chance of avoiding these pitfalls.