Paradise regained?

At first they just said she was crazy. Then, when she persisted, everyone in Alta Floresta, a small city on the edge of the Amazon rainforest, called her selfish. That was when the death threats came. (Where else, except perhaps in Brazil, might setting up an ecological reserve have been a death-defying proposition?)

Vitória da Riva Carvalho’s eyebrows pucker into a deeper frown as she remembers the years. This was in the early 1990s, soon after the assassination of Chico Mendes, the rubber tapper and environmental activist whose death became an international emblem for the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

“Everyone in Alta Floresta thought I was mad,” recalls da Riva, 68, as she fingers the reading glasses hanging around her neck. “They asked me, what are people going to do in a forest reserve, anyway? They said, saving the forest is only a business for you. It attracts tourists. But if we want to live, we have to cut down trees.”

Da Riva went ahead anyway – but then a vein of craziness evidently runs in her family. It was the outlandish idea of her father, Ariosto da Riva, to found Alta Floresta in the first place, which led in turn to her own plan.

It was in 1976 that Ariosto abandoned his work as a diamond trader in São Paulo and sold all he had to buy 800,000 hectares of rainforest on the southern edge of the Mato Grosso state. Back then, the military dictatorship was encouraging farmers to settle the Amazon as a way of staking out the national territory and stopping unwanted foreign incursions. “Integrar para não entregar” – use it or lose it – was the somewhat paranoid refrain.

Ariosto saw the generals’ nationalist project through more utopian eyes. He envisaged Alta Floresta as a model city built on ecological practices and sustainable farming. The city’s very name means, literally, “High Forest”, a tribute not just to the cacao, dendé palm and towering Brazil nut trees he imagined being grown and harvested there, but also to the outsize nature of his dream. Ariosto distributed land to 150,000 settlers, and brought his wife and family to the new city.

Instead his dream turned to ashes. Soon after Alta Floresta was founded, food prices tumbled and gold was found nearby. Some prospectors dug out huge fortunes: Eike Batista, one of Brazil’s wealthiest men, made his first billion dollars there. But in the space of just a few years, it also turned the town into a nightmare of blasted trees and poisonous wildcat gold mines.

Vitória da Riva Carvalho: Two decades ago, da Riva was battling against the odds. Now her ecological reserve is a required port of call for tourists

“My father was a visionary,” da Riva told me one humid evening as the Amazon’s violent twilight shaded into darkness amid the rising buzz of cicadas. “Sadly, when he died, he saw his vision dissolve.”

Now, however, that dream is being reforged. Thirty-seven years after Ariosto first broke ground on a patch of red Amazonian earth, only to see his imagined agricultural paradise turned into a near-wasteland, Vitória’s ecological reserve is well established and the town itself has become a model of environmental management and recuperation.

Every family’s story describes a historical trajectory. The da Riva story also captures Brazil’s. And given that Brazil, the most biodiverse country on earth, is home to the world’s largest rainforest and river, the trajectory of this country’s changing attitudes towards nature and the health of a planet threatened by Hurricane Sandys, poisonous Beijing smogs and Australian droughts is of global interest too.

Nature and its bounty have always been central to Brazil’s sense of itself. Amerigo Vespucci, who visited the country in 1501 and 1503, was only the first person to describe Brazil as “an earthly paradise”. This Edenic view was so constantly reiterated by subsequent Brazilians and foreigners that it became an important part of the national imaginaire, a national founding myth, as José Murilo de Carvalho, one of Brazil’s leading historians, wrote in a 2000 essay, “Dreams Come Untrue”.

It is a view of nature with an important political component too. Not only is Brazil beautiful, fertile and rich, it is also huge, continental. This is exuberantly referred to in Brazil as grandeza or greatness. In the 19th century, Brazilians believed this grandeza would convince the Portuguese that the country deserved independence. Ever since, Brazil – the world’s fifth-biggest country and now sixth-biggest economy – has seen itself destined for empire. “Brazilians, it is said, suffer from a complex of grandeza,” according to Carvalho.

Brazil, of course, is not the only country to suffer from both imperial grandeza and an Edenic founding myth. The Puritan pilgrims who landed in North America were imbued with a similar vision. But there is an important difference. For the pilgrims, the North American new world was an Eden where a New Jerusalem would be constructed. In Brazil, paradise was already extant, a gift from God for all to enjoy.

Roberto Burle Marx

Roberto Burle Marx was one man who famously enjoyed that gift to the full. Born in 1909, and a distant cousin of Karl Marx (although with a greater sense of humour: he described his work as “Burlesque Marx”) this national hero was neither a historian nor a social scientist, but a polymath artist, designer, musician and gardener.

Among his many celebrated achievements, Marx worked alongside Oscar Niemeyer, the architect responsible for building Brasília (where the curves of modernist buildings mirror “the mountains of my country … the sinuousness of its rivers… the waves of the ocean”, as Niemeyer once said). He also designed the black-and-white parabolic waves of Rio de Janeiro’s famous Copacabana beach mosaic pavements. But it is for his exquisite landscape gardens that Marx is better known. In 1965, the American Institute of Architects awarded him its fine arts medal, calling him “the real creator of the modern garden”.

An avid botanist, Marx travelled throughout Brazil, cataloguing plants (more than 50 species have been named after him). He then brought them back to the magnificent gardens he planted around his house outside Rio de Janeiro, replacing the imported species Brazilians had been so fond of before. (Rio’s Paris Plaza, for example, was designed in 1930 along formal French lines and planted with sea almonds, whose leaves dry to orange hues reminiscent of autumn – comforting for newly arrived European immigrants who were nostalgic for the seasons.)

Marx’s work awoke Brazilians to the beauty of their country’s flora, and so helped refine the country’s sense of itself. But it was more than an aesthetic project. It was a spiritual undertaking too. “Through the garden,” he once said, “we can reconquer time and regain the lost unity of plants and men.” In one survey in 1995, a year after Marx’s death, 60 per cent of Brazilians said they were proud of their country and fully a quarter of them said the reason for that pride was the country’s nature.

Roberto Burle Marx's gardens in Rio championed and showcased native flora

The irony is that even as Brazilians rushed to praise the richness of their environment and the international reputation of figures such as Burle Marx, they despoiled both just as fast. In the same year as the survey, Brazil also chopped down a record 30,000 sq km of forest, an area the size of Belgium (Brazilian deforestation rates have often been described in terms of “Belgiums”). Airports had to close because of the smoke from forest fires, and many of the country’s rivers and beaches were polluted. Yet few seemed to care. “If a museum had a fire, everyone would decry the loss. Yet even now millions of trees are being destroyed, some of them more than 500 years old, and in the face of total indifference,” as Marx once lamented.

To be natural is often seen as a positive: “He acts naturally,” is usually a compliment. Yet when it comes to the environment, it is as if the natural sweetness of many Brazilians – here the cliché is often true – has for much of the country’s history been divorced from actual nature. The country, after all, is named after the Pau brasil or Brazil wood trees that the first settlers found standing in massive forests along the Atlantic coast. But most of those trees were cut down long ago.

Brazil, of course, is not the only country to have had the privilege of flogging nature into a bowling green in the pursuit of national development. So it reacted with understandable indignation when François Mitterrand suggested in 1988 that the Amazon be put under United Nations supervision. (What if Brazilians had then travelled to California to denounce the clear-cutting of redwoods, or mustered outside Sellafield and reviled Margaret Thatcher for turning the Irish Sea into a nuclear waste dump?) Nonetheless, Brazil’s size means its environmental destruction has been on a commensurately grander scale. More curiously, it has also contradicted a defining national myth – or at least did so until recently.

Marina Silva is one of those occasional politicians who seem too principled to survive in the dogfight of a democracy. She was born in Acre, Amazônia, the daughter of a rubber tapper. It was a precarious childhood. Of her 11 siblings, only three survived beyond infancy. She worked as a maid to put herself through university, and campaigned alongside Chico Mendes before he was killed. She was also one of the founders of the ruling Workers Party, and when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (no relation) became president in 2003, he made her environment minister.

Marina Silva: Activist, whose Green Party won 19 per cent of the vote in 2010

It was a daunting task. The following year, 27,000 sq km of Brazilian rainforest were cut down (almost the size of a “Belgium”). But when foreign nations complained, President Lula da Silva launched a blistering counter attack. “What we cannot accept is that those who failed to take care of their own forests, who did not preserve what they had and deforested everything [are]… sticking their noses into Brazil’s business,” he said.

Marina Silva eventually resigned from government in 2008. Yet many of the policies and people she put in place while in office remain. Deforestation rates have been falling ever since. Last year, around 5,000 sq km were cut down, an impressive 80 per cent drop from the 2004 peak.

Although no longer in office, Silva is as busy as ever with her green causes. “There has been a big change over the past two decades,” she told me when I caught up with her in São Paulo, where she was en route from Brasília to a meeting with scientists from MIT. “Thanks to greater militancy and media coverage, environmental consciousness has gone up.”

Voting patterns bear her out. In 2010, she ran in the presidential elections as head of the Brazilian Green Party. Her campaign theme was that Brazil has a moral responsibility to become a high-tech, low-carbon country as an example to other developing countries. Perhaps precisely because 80 per cent of Brazilians now live in cities – harsh urban environments, with few parks; Rio is the exception, São Paulo, a monster city with 20 million inhabitants, more the norm – it was clearly a message that resonated. Silva won 19 per cent of the vote.

Ecology and the environment are now hot issues in Brazil, perhaps hotter than anywhere else. A 2010 Pew Global Attitudes survey of 22 countries found that Brazilians were the most likely to call the environment and climate change “very serious” issues. Furthermore, eight out of 10 Brazilians believed protecting the environment should be a priority, even if it meant slower economic growth.

Chico Mendes: The rubber tapper turned eco-pioneer, assassinated in 1988

Generalised fears about global warming have added extra urgency. According to Nasa, drought-hit areas of the Amazon rainforest may now show the first signs of large-scale degradation due to global climate change. Such findings challenge the Brazilian dream that its scale and natural bounty guarantee it an imperial role. They have also driven some hard-headed geopolitical calculations.

Over the past 30 years, Brazil has transformed itself from a food importer into a major food exporter. It is already the world’s largest producer of sugar and orange juice and second-largest beef producer (with pork and chicken close behind.) Next year, it is also forecast to become the world’s largest soya producer, overtaking the traditional “big five” grain producers – the US, Australia, Canada, Argentina and the European Union. By 2020, agricultural exports are forecast to reach $200bn a year. By 2025, Brazil aims to be the largest food producer in the world.

But if Brazil is to attain that beneficent vision, sustainability has to be central to its plans. One important point of political support for this tenet in a country that is actively lobbying for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council: the military firmly agrees.

“Everyone recognises today that you have to control strategic resources, such as water, land and food,” says José Augusto Pádua, an environmental historian at the Federal University of Rio. “The environment might be part of Brazil’s ‘soft power’, but the military also see clearly that soft power hardens over time.”

Technology is playing a central role in safeguarding that soft power, just as it plays a central role in projecting the military hard power of the other Bric countries.

Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research now monitors deforestation daily, beaming real-time satellite data to federal environmental agents on the ground. Currently, satellite tracking can detect fresh clearings of 60m or bigger. New satellites due to begin operations this year will resolve distances as small as 5m. The old military refrain of integrar para não entregar has been updated to the 21st century.

To see that technology in action, I went to Sinop, a small city in Mato Grosso (sometimes known as the “soya capital of the world”) where I met with Evandro Selva, who works for Brazil’s environmental agency. Sinop lies on the western edge of the cerrado – the vast tropical savannah of central Brazil whose name literally means “closed”, but which has since opened up. Half of the cerrado has been cleared, an area equivalent to Germany and France, much of that over the past 20 years. In recognition of this feat, Greenpeace gave Blairo Maggi, a former state governor, its “Golden Chainsaw” award in 2006. Maggi now heads the agro-industrial Amaggi Group, with more than 200,000 hectares under cultivation.

Today, it is Selva’s job to stop more logging. No self-aggrandising eco-warrior, but rather a work-a-day policeman, his tools are those of any well-funded cop: a laptop computer, some pick-up trucks plus a helicopter and a small team of agents. The punishments he can levy on chainsaw-wielders include fines, confiscation of equipment and, most effective of all, blacklisting farmers, which bars them from state or private bank credit. It is not always pleasant work.

“I sometimes receive threats,” Selva told me when we met last November. Yet as the government puts more agents on the ground and more satellites in the sky, Selva also admitted that his work was becoming “more technical, and less about enforcement”. Selva, whose name means jungle, even said he felt confident that with continued monitoring, the problem of chainsaws buzzing down the forest could be licked.

Environmentalists agree. “Within 10 years, it is quite possible that there will be no deforestation in Brazil at all,” said Laurent Micol, head of the Centre of Life Institute, a respected environmental non-governmental organisation in Mato Grosso.

Of course, the economic imperatives and constraints, common to all developing countries, remain. Pádua remembers a conversation with a small farmer in Mato Grosso as he contemplated an area of virgin forest that he was about to chop down. It is all very interesting this biodiversity, the farmer said, but biodiversity never paid me a dime. “The farmer was not a criminal,” said Pádua. “He simply had to survive.”

Yet here too, technical solutions have emerged and, more importantly, the money to fund them. Under a new programme in Minas Gerais, which lies on the cerrado’s eastern edge, small farmers in particularly fragile areas are paid R$200 annually (US$100) for each hectare they leave uncleared. The programme, called Bolsa Verde, is essentially a royalty for the environmental services they provide. Keeping the trees preserves valuable watersheds, with the money partly raised by taxing hydroelectric firms. Adriano Magalhães Chaves, the state’s environment secretary, said the programme had attracted federal attention and was being piloted in Amazônia as well.

Darcy Ferrarin: Now runs his successful soya farm sustainably

The biggest advances, though, have been made at the largest farms, such as Darcy Ferrarin Jr’s. His soya operations outside Sinop run on customised computer software. As a matter of course, he plants his ocean-sized fields using no-till farming, whereby the stalks of harvested soya crops are left to rot into a mat of organic material, rather than being ploughed into the ground, thus helping to retain nutrients for the next crop, which is planted directly into the mulch. He also rotates his crops, which keeps pests at bay, and uses a locally developed bacterial slurry to reduce the need for synthetic fertilisers.

Ferrarin’s business is doing well. Yet, like all farmers, he complains a lot – about the weather, the price of seeds, bank credit, almost everything – although worst of all in his eyes are environmentalists, “who just don’t understand”.

“See that?” he protested as we drove around his farm, pointing at a flank of greenery on the horizon. “It’s set-aside forest. Half my farm is natural reserve. And you see that?” he added, pointing at a nearby copse between two freshly planted fields. “That’s a protected watershed – we have many, and you can drink the water from them the quality is so good.”

Ferrarin said he and other local farmers like him were not interested in chopping down more forest, but in extracting better yields from the land he had. “I live here with my family,” he said. “You think I want to see the area go to ruin?”

A side view of the deactivated iron ore mine in Minas Gerais, stark against the landscape

It is a remarkable transformation. In one generation, the Brazilian government has gone from encouraging settlement of its virgin interior, to protection of the environment in most areas, and in some places reforestation.

A similar progression happened in the US, the world’s other great agricultural power. Since 1950, US forest cover has stabilised, even as the country has emerged as the world’s food and timber basket. Similar transitions have taken place in France and New Zealand, where new and more efficient agricultural methods have spared forests, while regulation has locked those gains in place.

This is hopeful progress, although for ardent environmentalists it is not enough. In the worst cases, activists are still sometimes murdered – as happened two years ago to José Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife, María, in the small town of Nova Ipixuna in northern Pará state. Such areas remain like the Wild West. Roads are also still being built through the Amazon, with federal support, even though it was the inauguration of the Trans-Amazonian Highway in 1970 that triggered Brazil’s modern era of deforestation.

“Sustainability is more than something you do, it is a way of being,” says Marina Silva. “You can’t just solve environmental problems technically, it requires an ethical approach, and not just from one country, but all.”

I walked for two days through the forest reserve that Vitória da Riva Carvalho created two decades ago. Back then, she was battling against the odds. Now her 12,000-hectare reserve is a required port of call for scientists, birdwatchers and ecotourists. And in Alta Floresta, once one of Brazil’s most environmentally problematic cities and now praised as one of its most “improved”, the same people who once threatened Vitória’s life call her Doña as a mark of respect.

The reserve lies next to a 200,000-hectare state park, and an even larger 5-million-hectare military reserve, about an hour’s drive and then a half-hour boat ride from Alta Floresta. I have visited the Amazon several times – my first trip was in 1988 – and this was the most pristine forest I have yet seen; the Amazon as “first page of Genesis”, as the great Brazilian geographer Euclides da Cunha once wrote. It is also the only time I’ve swum in a river a few hundred metres from an anaconda.

With me was Francisco, a wiry man with a complexion the texture of a raisin. Francisco, 45, had once worked as a wildcat gold miner, or garimpeiro, in the forest around Alta Floresta until, like so many garimpeiros he caught malaria and had to change his ways. Now he works as a naturalist and guide, with a peculiar whistling talent that could summon birds – including the uirapuru, or musician wren, whose call is so beautiful that the forest quietens when it sings.

I noticed the special care that Francisco took when he turned aside the leaves of spiky plants, and the way he gently pushed down on vegetation that threatened to invade the trail. A gentle soul, he turned to me at one point and said: “Nature is the most beautiful thing… All else is artifice.” Having spent much of his work life destroying vegetation, everything about his demeanour now suggested thanks.

It was the reciprocal of a story I’d heard about Roberto Burle Marx and his gardens in Rio. He planted a Talipot palm, which flowers only once every 60 years, but with such generosity that it disgorges almost a tonne of nuts and dies soon after. Marx never saw the palm flower – it did so the week after he died – but his legion of friends and colleagues said it was a vote of thanks from all the plants that he had helped. And this surely is the quality required for that change in attitudes toward the environment by everyone, everywhere if modernity is to be more than an elemental battle for survival: gratitude.

John Paul Rathbone is the FT’s Latin America editor

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