Jobs, economics complicate Brazil's Amazon fight

NOVO PROGRESSO, Brazil – Drawing his .40-caliber pistol, Severiano Pontes dashes across the steaming, muddy jungle floor, a hunch telling him what he would find around a bend.

The thick Amazon rain-forest canopy suddenly opens to a clearing where massive Jatobas and other hardwood trees have been reduced to 40 waist-high trunks lying on the ground. Fires set to help clear the underbrush still smolder nearby, sending sinewy gray smoke columns into the sea-blue sky.

Pontes and his environmental agents patrol the Amazon to prevent illegal clearing, part of Brazil's new, aggressive effort to preserve a jungle the size of the U.S. west of the Mississippi River. The government says such teams are the main reason that deforestation has slowed this year to its lowest level in two decades.

But more often Pontes' agents arrive too late.

Instead, they find graveyards of felled trees resembling twisted, blackened fossils and earth covered in a gray layer of ash. They leave with their hands and faces coated with charcoal dust and a barbecue smell that lingers even after showering hours later.

Pontes holsters his pistol, confident armed ranch hands who often defend the illegal clearings are not around, and pulls out a tape measure.

"This one, let's start with this one here!" Pontes yells, pointing to a huge chunk of a Jatoba, trees that grow higher than 35 meters 120 feet and are popular for flooring in the U.S. and Europe. "We've got to measure all this up."

The evidence will help their agency, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, or Ibama, impose fines and other penalties.

"These trees have been cut, you cannot reverse that," Pontes says. "What must be done at this point is swift punishment to stop more from being knocked down."


World leaders set to gather in Copenhagen next month to draft a new accord on fighting climate change already admit the much-anticipated summit won't produce a global treaty. There are too many disagreements among countries on how to reduce heat-trapping carbon emissions blamed for warming the planet.

So far, the Brazilian government has focused mostly on enforcement.

The Brazilian Amazon is arguably the world's biggest natural defense against global warming, acting as a "sink," or absorber, of carbon dioxide. But it is also a great contributor to warming. About 75 percent of Brazil's emissions come from rainforest clearing, as vegetation burns and felled trees rot.

Advocates have long pressed to defend the world's rain forests, to save animal and plant species, safeguard watersheds and protect indigenous people's homelands. For Brazil, water vapor from the forest is also vital to its rainy climate. But the government now has another reason to protect the Amazon: A new global climate agreement is expected to reward countries for "avoided deforestation," with cash or credits tradable on the global carbon market.

In the last year, the government says its stepped-up patrols have confiscated about 230,000 cubic meters 8 million cubic feet of wood, have frozen development on more than a million acres of land and have resulted in $1.6 billion in fines.

But policing a giant region that is mostly impassable because of thick vegetation is daunting for any country, rich or poor.

So the Ibama strategy has been limited to selective shock and awe, targeting states such as Para — home to Novo Progresso — where deforestation rates from August 2008 through this July, the period Brazil uses to calculate its annual deforestation, were three times that of other Amazon states.

He turns and walks up a muddied hill to his white, four-wheel-drive pickup truck, bright yellow tape measure in his right hand and a foot-long chunk of a destroyed tree in the other.