Amazon forest schemes await strong climate pact

BOA FRENTE, Brazil Tue Nov 24, 2009 8:24am EST

1 of 7. A child smiles at his house in the Sao Felix community at the Juma ecological reserve, northern Brazil November 3, 2009. Given a forecast that Juma will generate 3.6 million tonnes of credit in its first 10 years, it could expect a windfall of more than $7 million a year at current carbon prices. In Juma, though, the community's own deforestation -- slash-and-burn clearing to grow traditional crops -- continues. The nutrient-thin Amazon soil is a farmer's nightmare, forcing communities to cut down trees for fresh land. Picture taken November 3, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Sergio Moraes

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BOA FRENTE, Brazil (Reuters) - The boat plows on through the brackish green river, taking Jose de Oliveira Quadro on a journey that may have been futile a few years ago.

Strangers have been fishing in his village's lake and Quadro is on a two-hour ride to recruit help from the nearest police post in Brazil's vast Amazon forest. He admits he probably wouldn't have bothered before his river-side community was made part of a pioneering scheme that pays each family about $30 a month to act as forest guardians.

"I can't let them take the food off our plates," said the nearly toothless 35-year-old.

"Thank God we have more help these days."

Quadro's journey is part of a new chapter in the long struggle to save the world's greatest forest that will be central to efforts in Copenhagen next month to frame a new global effort to curb the planet's warming.

His tiny settlement is one of 36 communities and 320 families receiving the payment in the Juma reserve, an area the size of U.S. state Delaware in Brazil's Amazonas state that is the first official emissions-reducing project in the Amazon.

Working schemes for REDD, which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation and allows the sale of credits to offset carbon pollution elsewhere, are few and far between now. But a climate deal including REDD could be a potent tool to cut deforestation, which globally accounts for up to 20 percent of carbon emissions -- more than all the world's cars, ships and planes combined.

"What the world needs to understand is that we have done our housecleaning, valued the forest as much as we can, tested good practice and now we need a response or the people will end up pressuring the forest for survival," Amazonas state Governor Eduardo Braga told Reuters.

Versed in the minutiae of global climate talks, Braga is the modern face of a state nearly the size of Alaska whose previous government handed out free chainsaws to loggers.

The fresh-faced 48-year-old set up the "Bolsa Floresta" program that hands out the monthly stipend to about 7,000 forest families, including in Juma. He said a strong accord on REDD could boost the program to 60,000 families by 2014 or about half the population living in the state's vast forest.

CONCERNS

Accounting for more than half of the world's standing forest and 55 percent of Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions through its destruction, the Amazon is both a villain and a victim of climate change.

REDD offers a possible way both to cut the destruction that has razed nearly a fifth of the forest and combat poverty that remains at African levels despite Brazil's economic rise.

Yet hope is mixed with concern over the role of the private sector and whether forest dwellers have enough say in decisions about them sometimes being made thousands of miles away.

Banks, carbon-trading firms, and companies seeking to boost their green credentials are ramping up their interest ahead of Copenhagen, with estimates that REDD could bring in $16 billion a year for Brazil alone. Coca Cola Co, Brazilian bank Bradesco, and the Marriott Hotels chain are helping to fund the Bolsa Floresta project.

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace worry that too much reliance on carbon markets for funds could result in speculation or a flood of cheap credits, allowing rich countries to continue polluting at little cost.

Brazilian critics of REDD say it risks making high levels of Amazon deforestation acceptable. Brazil's government this month trumpeted the lowest deforestation rate in two decades, but the 2,700 square miles (7,000 square km) cleared in the year to August was still equivalent to nine New York cities.

Brazil's government, after an initially luke-warm response to REDD, is expected to back it in Copenhagen.

In Amazonas, however, not everyone sees Juma and the private Sustainable Amazon Foundation that manages it in partnership with the state government as a desirable model.

"If this is REDD, we need to fight it," said Rubens Gomes, coordinator of the Amazon Working Group, an umbrella group for Amazon social and environmental organizations.

Some 49 social groups published an open letter in October rejecting market-based REDD schemes.

Gomes complains civil society groups such as his were excluded from the creation of the foundation, which is headed by Braga's former environment secretary Virgilio Viana. He worries social handouts will create a culture of dependency.

"Without another source of income, we won't create opportunities and they will continue to exchange trees for food and for clothes," Gomes said.

The foundation head Viana told Reuters that many critics of the project were simply ideologically opposed to markets.

SUSTAINABILITY

The $30 monthly stipend is a useful rather than a transformational boost to family incomes in Juma, which can be between $2,000 and $5,000 a year.

But for Quadro and the other inhabitants of Juma, which lies in an area threatened by intrusions from a major highway, the payment funded by contributions by guests of the Marriott appears to be changing the way they see the forest.

"If we take trees from the river banks, the river will dry up and it will hurt our fish," he said, standing in front of trees that resounded to the squawks of parrots.

"If we take the trees from the land, it will hurt our hunting and we'll be without food for our children."

Families that receive the Bolsa Floresta pledge to stop destructive practices and act as the eyes and ears of the forest by reporting illegal deforestation -- a role that is often beyond Brazil's thinly-resourced environmental agency.

The idea is for carbon emissions saved in the reserve compared to a "business as usual" scenario to be sold as credits, with the funds used to improve education and stimulate sustainable industries such as nut gathering.

Given a forecast that Juma will generate 3.6 million tonnes of credit in its first 10 years, it could expect a windfall of more than $7 million a year at current carbon prices.

A study by McKinsey & Company found that Brazil could cut its emissions by about 40 percent compared to "business as usual" by 2030 with annual investments of 5.7 billion euros ($8.4 billion) in forest preservation and social programs, half the average global cost of emissions reduction.

In Juma, though, the community's own deforestation -- slash-and-burn clearing to grow traditional crops -- continues. The nutrient-thin Amazon soil is a farmer's nightmare, forcing communities to cut down trees for fresh land.

Environmentalists say that for projects like Juma to be sustainable over the long term and avoid dependency, they need to shift to permaculture farming that can co-exist with the forest and to strengthen the weak market for forest products.

FINDING MARKETS

REDD projects will one day end, leaving Amazon forest communities to stand on their own feet again.

"I think that's the big challenge of REDD -- to use this income ... in a way that's going to generate sustainable long-term income," said Monique Vanni, a London-based environment consultant who visited Juma this month.

"That's all about finding new markets and getting them to organize production."

Sustainable practices such as rubber, managed logging, and nuts are potentially many more times lucrative than destructive industries. A chronic lack of education and market access in the Amazon has long hampered their growth.

In the main Juma community of Boa Frente, such efforts are in their infancy. Only nut collection provides a significant alternative income, although there are plans to sell seeds from trees to replant degraded forest in other parts of Brazil and to begin a managed logging program.

While debate goes on over the best way to save it, time continues to tick away for the Amazon. Extremes such as a severe drought in 2005 and heavy floods this year underline concerns about the effect of climate change on the forest.

About 100,000 families are now on the move in Amazonas state, searching for new land after their crops were wiped out by this year's floods, Braga said. REDD may not a panacea, he said, but done with professional monitoring and safeguards against corruption, it is a vital part of the solution.

"The pressure on the forests is the most worrying in four years," he said. "Because of this, the world can't wait any more.

(Editing by Claudia Parsons)

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