Brazil tries to preserve the Amazon through financial incentives

NOVO ARIPUANA, Amazonas, Brazil — Lining the top of a steep slope down to the water is a row of solid but rustic wooden homes. A short walk into the brush behind, manioc root crops, and maybe some bean or corn or watermelon fields; beyond that, the primary forest that plays such a key role in the fight against climate change. Fish from the river and manioc flour toasted over communal ovens are the dietary staples.

At least to an outsider, the communities of subsistence farmers in the Juma Sustainable Development Reserve are remarkably similar. There’s no electricity, unless you count the generators that power up some evenings for a few hours, and no running water, unless you count what happens when kids rush up the slope with jugs they filled up in the river.

Since 2007, families in Juma have had one more thing in common: they are being paid monthly stipends of 50 reais — about $30 — by the Amazonas state government for agreeing not to destroy another square inch of primary forest for planting or pasture. Across the 2,277 square mile reserve, 321 families — that is, virtually all of them — have signed on. In other reserves acrosss the state, there are almost 6,000 more.

The Amazon, of course, is the world’s largest rainforest — or forest in general, for that matter. Its rapid deforestation has long been a focal point in efforts to control global warming and to balance development and conservation, but often through enforcement tactics rather than financial incentives. Amazonas state is the largest and best preserved of the several states that made up what is referred to as "the Amazon." But scientific models show that if nothing is done, it too will suffer the fate of its neighboring states in coming decades.

The Boa Frente community has already received a brick walkway and many shiny metal roofs. 
(Seth Kugel/GlobalPost)

“The environmental question is, above all, an economic one,” said Eduardo Braga, the governor of Amazonas and the leading proponent of the state’s “Bolsa Floresta,” or “Rainforest Stipend.” “If a tree is worth more standing than cut down, nobody will cut it down.”

Antonia Batista de Fonseca, a farmer in the Boa Frente community who also harvests Brazil nuts, said the 50 reais a month is most welcome. “I can buy a lot for that,” she said. “I just bought a pot for 45 reais. The other day I spent 100 on a set of pots and pans.”

Batista de Fonseca also stands to benefit from another element of the Bolsa Floresta: funds for training and equipment to increase income. Residents are learning how to dry the Brazil nuts they harvest from tall trees on their land, and will be connected with a regional cooperative that buys the dry nuts at higher prices than they got for the raw nuts.

Juma and the other Sustainable Development Reserves are administered by the Sustainable Amazonas Foundation, an NGO with close ties to Braga and the state government and funding from major corporations like Marriott and Bradesco, a major Brazilian bank.

The foundation conducted a two-day training, including lessons on climate change, that was a prerequisite for receiving the stipends, as well as the other benefits of Bolsa Floresta. Those include payments to communities for local projects, funding for a council representing the reserve as a whole and a budget for projects to boost income — currently focusing on Brazil nuts.

For Jose Marcos Aguiar, the elected president of Boa Frente, the restrictions on clearing primary forest do not present much of a burden, at least for now. “The danger comes from people from the outside,” he said.

Aguiar said that a few years ago, a soybean farmer from the state of Mato Grosso — a part of the Amazon that has been deforested at a vastly greater rate than Amazonas — attempted to buy up 30 square miles of land that included Boa Frente and planned to clear it for soybean production. He was stopped.

Still, some in Boa Frente feel that the system was more or less forced upon them, and not necessarily worth the small payment. “The only option we had was to settle for the small amount that came,” said Josivalda Barbosa dos Santos.

Elio Sebastiao Fermino Costa, a manioc farmer in Boa Frente, appreciates the money, noting it comes in handy to buy gas for boats, or snacks for the family when he goes into town. But he wonders what will happen when the families in the community expand and there are more people to work the now-limited fields. (The answer is actually in his Bolsa Family pamphlet: children of current residents can open up new land when they become adults and form new families.)

Local critics may yet be won over by more benefits to come. The “social” aspect of the Bolsa Floresta, which grants additional money to each community for local improvement projects, has not started up yet.

Plus, Boa Frente has received special attention for being located next to the Juma base, gaining projects that should eventually arrive at other communities. The snazzy brick walkway along the riverbank, the gleaming new metal roofs on the houses, and the blue rainwater-collecting basins and filter systems were part of the effort by the foundation and the government to create a model community for the reserve.

That also makes it the primary stop for outsiders. The stream of dignitaries — Governor Braga himself, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ambassador of Indonesia, Swedish officials and others — is such that Aguiar, the Boa Frente president, recently took a step likely unprecedented in the history of Juma’s riverfront communities: He has begun asking visitors to his home to sign a guest log.