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Jungle democracy

Possibility of reconciling exploitation and conservation of the forest brings government and entrepreneurs together, but faces resistance

CARLOS FIORAVANTIThe Trans-Amazonian Highway, the region’s main road: a dirt track in the midst of the forest CARLOS FIORAVANTI

Dialog among groups relatively hostile to one another in the past is now flourishing in inner-state Pará. At the end of the afternoon of May 10, in one of the rooms in the city council building in Itaituba,  southwestern Pará, seven senior members of the Brazilian Forestry Service (Serviço Florestal Brasileiro) from the Ministry of the Environment met with eight   timber industry entrepreneurs to reconcile their interests in the pursuit of a new system for exploiting the Amazon Region economically:  forest concessions, whereby the federal government selects companies that can exploit areas previously defined as public forests for a 40-year period,  so as to have the lowest possible environmental impact, contrary to the current approach of the total elimination of the native vegetation. The conversation was friendly, although the words sounded cautious and the looks expressed mutual mistrust.

Listening to the interested parties or to those who may be affected by the decisions is part of the new approach to using public land. Based on the Public Forests Stewardship Law, passed in 2006, the Forestry Service selected three companies in 2008 to exploit the 96 thousand hectares of the National Forest of Jamari, in Rondônia, by means of the first public notice of tender concerning the concession of public forests. The Forestry Service team is currently analyzing the proposals presented as a result of the second public notice, for the exploitation of 140,000 hectares in the National Forest of Saracá-Taquera, in Pará, and is also working on the final version of the third public notice, which concerns the concession of 210,000 hectares, equal to 1.4 times the area of the city of São Paulo, of the National Forest of Amana, in the municipalities of Itaituba and Jacareacanga, in Pará.

“They say it’s only a little, but it’s just the start”, stated Antonio Carlos Hummel, director-general of the Forestry Service. This form of exploitation, called sustainable forest stewardship, might be adopted in 20 million of the 239 million hectares of public forests – Brazil’s total forest areas, 524 million hectares, equals 61% of the country’s area. In July, the exploitation of timber is due to start in the areas covered by the first public notice; additionally, the  winners of the second public notice are to be announced and the third public notice, concerning Itaituba, plus a further public notice, also concerning an area in Pará, are to be publicly presented.

As a result of the proposals approved under each public notice, the companies will be able to cut five to six trees per hectare every 30 years, four times less than the loss occurring for natural reasons and far less than happens with deforestation, which suppresses all the vegetation. The companies will also be allowed to harvest latex, lianas, oils, fruit and seeds and to create tourist activities in the concession areas, according to pre-approved plans. “We cannot harvest more than the forest can produce”, states Roberto Waack, president of Amata, one of the three enterprises selected to exploit the tendered areas in Rondônia.

The companies that win the bids will be required to hire at least 80% of their workforce in the locality itself, besides paying the Forestry Service a minimum price per cubic meter of timber, proportional to the commercial value of each species; the ipê (Brazilian walnut), cedro-rosa (Spanish cedar), jatobá (Brazilian cherry) and maçaranduba (bulletwood) are among the most valuable hardwoods.

During the conversation held on the tenth, the lumbermen complained about the minimum price, which they felt was too high. The next day, alongside representatives of the workers, social movements and local communities, the lumbermen presented these claims with more detailed arguments, at the public hearing that brought together some 250 people in the town’s sports gymnasium. “The concession of public forests is one way out”, acknowledged Osvaldo Romanholi,   president of the union of timber companies in the southeast of Pará, “but not in the short term”.

The struggle against illegality
One year after the directors and managers of the Forestry Service landed in Itaituba and presented the new approach to timber exploitation, at that time facing far stronger resistance, the forest concessions now seem inevitable, as there is rather less room for companies to act illegally at present than two or three decades ago.

“We want to reduce the illegality of timber exploitation and deforestation”, argued Hummel. During the prior meetings and the public hearing, he said that he would do whatever was possible to meet the claims. “We have legal restraints that do not allow us to do everything we would like to do”, warned Marcelo Arguelles, the Forestry Service concessions manager, during one of the meetings with the lumbermen. “We’re still going to argue a lot; we too have lawyers”, forecast one entrepreneur from Jacareacanga, one of Pará’s poorest towns, where another public hearing was held three days later.

Sitting in the back seat of a Cessna twin-engine plane, flying over the forest with journalists, Luiz Cesar Cunha Lima, the Forestry Service’s public notices coordinator, looked at the areas to be tendered and commented: “See, it’s an excellent area for sustainable forest stewardship. It is solid forest, with neither rivers nor hills”. Six hundred meters below, the forest extended all the way to the horizon. During the public hearing, however, one lumberman recalled that yes, there were hills in the area, and that there are no roads to get to the areas that are to be exploited, which lie some 200 km outside the town – seen from high up, the region’s main road, the Trans-Amazonian highway, is a  dirt track cutting through the forest. It may be unable to withstand the weight of  trucks  loaded with timber.

The possibility of reconciling interests is new in western Pará, which has been well known for its illegal economic activities and land conflicts. “Up to four years ago, nobody even knew what complying with the law meant”, says Romanholi, who migrated from the state of Mato Grosso 11 years ago. Things started changing in 2003, with the resumption of the construction of the BR-163 highway, which runs from Cuiabá, in Mato Grosso, to Santarém, in Pará. To date, the road has only been partially asphalted. Three years later, the establishment of the BR-163 Sustainable Forestry District started the challenge of exploiting 19 million hectares of native forest without destroying it, across 10 municipalities bordering the highway.

The executioner of the lumbermen
Hummel, who was then the director of Ibama, the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources ( Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis), blocked the action of the timber companies that had presented fraudulent plans for the extraction of timber – the so-called stewardship plan – in unauthorized public areas. Out of 254 companies previously active in the Sustainable Forestry District, only 39 remained. “Hummel was called the executioner of lumbermen”, recalls Romanholi. “Access to public lands used to be too easy”, Hummel counterargues.

EDUARDO CESARTropical wood vase, for refined EuropeansEDUARDO CESAR

Little by little, order took over, but resentment persists. “The government created a reserve on my property”, accuses Walmir Climaco, mayor of Itaituba. He had assumed his town council position two weeks earlier (the preceding mayor was impeached for distributing 5,000 food hampers to people not entitled to them), arrived at the public hearing 45 minutes late and did not disguise his mistrust: “In the past, public opinion wasn’t valued much. The federal government has already been here other times, listened to a lot of people and then done whatever it pleased”.

The mayor himself has felt the effects of the legalization of the exploitation of timber in the region. Of the 250 employees he previously had to work a 3,000-hectare tract of forest, he now has only three guards. “Everything has come to a halt, because it was fraudulent”, he says. Climaco also owns 5,000 hectares of mining prospecting areas, plus 17 ranches with 100,000 head of cattle. “Until 1988, deforestation was authorized”, he recalled, in one of the conversations held during the course of the public hearing. Aged 49 and born in the state of Ceará, he arrived in Itaituba 23 years ago, “at the time of minister Mário Andreazza”, he said, referring to the time of the dictatorship.

“The State is beginning to penetrate the inner areas of the Amazon region, in all senses”, notes Fernando Ludke, regional director of the Forestry Service. Established as a municipality in 1856, Itaituba has 130 thousand inhabitants who are, by now, indifferent to its hot, humid climate. In the late afternoons, young people sit on the benches along the waterfront, open their laptops and connect to the public web access network. Meanwhile, untreated sewage flows into the Tapajós River. In the evenings, it is easy to spot rats and dogs rummaging in the litter that is scattered through the streets.

A lot of gold has flowed through this area – far more than the current 100 kg a month, according to José Antunes, president of the Tapajós Gold Mining Association, or 300 kg, according to the mayor. In one corner of the Itaituba airport, a drawing made from a photo depicts the golden age: a plane that upon landing partially hid another, during a time of heavy traffic in the place that has a reputation for having been the busiest airport for small planes in Brazil.

“There was lots of gold, lots of women, lots of cachaça [sugarcane spirits]. Today it’s civilized. It’s no longer fun”, says a former goldwasher who observes the hearing at a distance and who, instead of saying his name, grins roguishly, like someone who is recalling the good old times. Afterwards, now with an earnest expression, he adds: “This region is a chronic wound in the jungle”. One or two inhabitants also tell us that there are still a few of the formerly frequent gunmen around, who used to kill for gold, land or women.

The number of jobs to actually be created and the profitability of the forest are subject to adjustment, as the trees start to be taken from the woods to the sawmills. Only time will tell whether one of the inhabitants’ fears – that powerful multinationals may win the tenders and muscle the local firms out – will come true or not and whether the forest concessions will really work as a strategy for imposing territorial order in the Amazon Region. At least the transparency of the tenders, with each step explained on the Internet, is impressive. Likewise, the risks to forest integrity seem minimal, according to studies initiated some 60 years ago in the Amazon Region.

In an experiment conducted in the National Forest of Tapajós, in Santarém, state of Pará, stock was taken of trees with a diameter greater than 45 cm in a total area of 64 hectares in 1975; then in 1979, some were felled, at a volume per hectare that was double what is currently allowed. The same forest segment was reassessed in 2009 – so, 30 years later, the same time  between harvests  has been established by the current legislation. “The forest showed recovery capabilities to the point of making another harvest possible, within the limits of the current concentration of tree felling”, says José Natalino Macedo Silva, director of the Forestry Service.

Long-term contract
“After the removal of the trees, the diversity of species diminishes momentarily, but subsequently it recovers”, he says. According to him, after 30 years, wood extraction in the National Forest of Tapajós has increased the diversity of species rather than diminishing it, as many biologists had feared, because it has generated light and space for other species to germinate and grow.

“New species move in and out constantly, because the forest is a dynamic environment, subject to disturbances of several kinds and strengths, such as hurricanes, landslides or clearings that come into being when trees die and keel over”, comments Natalino. “Through forest stewardship, man can control the intensity of the interventions, so as to minimize them and enable sustainable harvesting indefinitely”.

According to him, the concession contracts limit the impact of the construction of infrastructure (roads, lumberyards and the so-called dragging trails) to 8% of the forest’s area. “The current legislation is cautious regarding the environmental impact of stewardship because it requires  the forestry companies  to leave at least three trees of each species standing in every 100 hectares and 10% of the trees of cutting size, to ensure the continuity of the species”.

The current rules for exploiting native forests mean dividing the area to be exploited into 30 parts. Every year, the firm can only use one thirtieth of the area and the company must maintain a reservation of 5% of each forest type in each area. “Today, Ibama has 140 inspectors of good stewardship practices”, says Natalino. The work plan, to be approved by the federal government, is based on an inventory with botanical identification – authenticated by an official herbarium – of the trees in each of the areas that are to be exploited.

At the Amata headquarters in São Paulo, on the seventeenth floor of a building near the Pinheiros River, Roberto Waack told us that his team identified the species, height and diameter of some 27 thousand trees in the first lot that should start being exploited as soon as Ibama approves his plan for which trees to fell. According to him, even with all this prior work, the operation pays off in financial terms, because the cost of exploiting a forest that is already formed is far lower than that of a eucalyptus or pine forest that has to be planted and only produces timber after at least seven years. Furthermore, as room for wood of illegal origin is shrinking, “the demand for wood of certified origin has been exceeding supply”, says Waack.

His plan is to produce so-called dry planed wood – timber treated to be used for flooring and for door and window frames – this year, at a sawmill that he is setting up in Rondônia. In 2011, he wants to start using the waste from the exploitation of timber to produce blocks that are reminiscent of dog food and that can be used as fuel in ovens. “Stewardship must go hand-in-hand with adding value to forest products”, says Waack. “We aren’t going into the forest with the idea of extracting everything fast and then leaving. We are protected by a 40-year agreement”.

The long-term view makes a difference. One of the partners in Amata is the designer Etel Carmona, who began working 20 years ago with tropical woods and who now sells, in Brazil and in Europe,  furniture and objects such as an exclusive wooden vase for a sum equal to almost R$5 thousand.

* The journalist traveled at the invitation of the Brazilian Forestry Service