Brazil: Continued destruction of forests and biodiversity in the state of Acre, considered a model of the “Green Economy” in the Brazilian Amazon
Over the last two decades, the Latin America and Caribbean region has lost 9% of its forest cover, primarily as a result of logging, the expansion of agribusiness, major infrastructure projects like highways, hydroelectric dams, mining, oil drilling and urbanization, as well as forest fires and the conversion of forests to other land uses, largely caused by these same activities.
National and foreign private agents, together with national governments, have intensified the exploitation of forests, while seeking to upgrade infrastructure through the South American Regional Infrastructure Integration (IIRSA) initiative as a way to facilitate the export of raw materials to the big centres of consumption in the Northern hemisphere and, to a growing degree, to other economies that have adopted this model, such as China.
In order to “mitigate” the effects of this destructive advance underlying the endless accumulation of capital, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in line with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), points to the “green economy” as salvation in a 2011 report.
According to the ITTO, the area of tropical forests under so-called “sustainable forest management” (SFM) has increased, and now totals 53 million hectares worldwide, while the area of timber production forests subject to at least some type of forest management now totals 131 million hectares. In other words, 184 million hectares, or 24% of the 403 million hectares of so-called “production forests”, are exploited under forest management plans. The remaining 358 million hectares are tropical forest areas subject to some type of “protection”.
In order for the exploitation of tropical forests driven by diverse capitalist interests to continue, the idea of a “green economy” is essential, in that it seeks to “offset” destruction with the “protection” of other areas, including those that are managed “sustainably”. The implementation of the sale of “environmental services” not only complements the concept of “sustainable forest management” but also serves to expand the commodification of forests through REDD and payment for environmental services (PES) projects, thus increasing the opportunities for the agents of destruction to reap greater profits.
In the case of Latin America and the Caribbean, the most ambitious initiative towards the “green economy” was carried out in the Brazilian Amazon region under the leadership of the World Bank, through the Pilot Program for the Protection of Brazilian Tropical Forests (PPG-7). The state of Acre is considered the Brazilian state that has made the most “progress” in the adoption of this model of “sustainable development”.
The architecture of this territorial reorganization is essentially based on the establishment of a legal framework instituting the creation of “conservation units”, whose control may be formally designated as communal, community-based and/or governmental, although they are subjected to rules of use to ensure the commodification of nature for the benefit of private capital.
The state of Acre
The state of Acre is located in the Brazilian Amazon region. It has a total area of 16.5 million hectares, of which approximately 88% are still covered with native forests, and roughly 50% of these are in protected natural areas.
The state of Acre became internationally known in 1988 as a result of the murder of Chico Mendes, the president of the Union of Rural Workers of Xapuri. In the resistance struggles against the destruction of the forests that were the source of their livelihoods, the peasant movement led by Chico Mendes became famous for showing that forest conservation could not be approached separately from the peoples who live in and from the forests. The extractive reserves or RESEX initiative was the most concrete reflection of this interaction between society and nature.
As “the land of Chico Mendes”, Acre sparked the interest of the international environmental movement, and the state has been publicized worldwide as the most advanced in the Amazon region in terms of the implementation of a “sustainable development model”, now relabelled by the UN as a “green economy”. The financing received by the state government for over a decade from the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES), as well as from big international conservation NGOs like the WWF, is aimed at promoting this “model”. Since 1999, the state government of Acre has been headed by a broad coalition of forces led by the Workers Party that encompasses everything from parties considered to be leftist to ultra-right wing parties. During this time, various initiatives have been adopted to adapt state legislation to the canons of the “green economy”, such as, for example, the implementation of Economic Environmental Zoning, with the aim of “sustainable management” of land use. While this zoning, if carried out in a participatory, bottom-up way, could signify an advance towards restricting destructive practices and attending to the people’s demands, it has mainly been used as just another tool to advance the commodification of the forest.
It should be stressed that the implementation of SFM plans – considered “successful” by the authorities – and of the “green economy” in general have not prevented the following situation:
-Today, Acre is one of the poorest states in Brazil, and has the greatest income inequality in Northern Brazil (Gini index=0.61) and the second greatest in the whole country; public policies are lacking for indigenous peoples, who continue to struggle for the demarcation of part of their territories.
– One of the predominant productive activities continues to be extensive beef cattle grazing, which is a notorious cause of deforestation. In the last decade, the cattle herd has grown from 800,000 head to 2.5 million.
– Another activity that continues to predominate is logging. In 2010, 756,000 cubic metres of timber were extracted, primarily by companies and large rural landholders. In the last ten years, the total area of forest cleared in Acre increased by 730,000 hectares, of which 62% were converted to other land use in the 2000-2005 period, thus surpassing the average recorded in the previous three decades of approximately 500,000 hectares, prior to the implementation of the “green economy”.
– To alleviate this hidden destruction, families are paid for “providing environmental services”, in amounts far inferior to the profits earned by those who control the forests today, whether for logging or for selling these “environmental services”. The adoption of State Law 2.308/2010 created the State System of Incentives for Environmental Services (SISA). This law is considered one of the most “advanced” in the world in terms of the establishment of the legal bases for the “green economy”. According to the Acre News Agency, the “SISA law” paves the way for Acre “to participate in the international carbon market and the markets for other environmental services, such as biodiversity and water,” and “policies for the reduction of deforestation are the greatest advertising for Acre carbon.”
It should be stressed that SFM is not backed by any scientific evidence regarding forest regeneration and the behaviour of different ecosystems in response to forest exploitation that involves the building of roads and highways for the circulation of heavy machinery and trucks, the diversion of waterways, the contamination of the soils and rivers with burnt oil and other toxic wastes, the noise of the machinery, which scares away birds and wild animals, etc. Added to this is the absence of monitoring and control of SFM plans by government bodies, whether these have been deliberately downgraded as a result of neoliberal policies, or due to the emphasis on “public-private partnership” that characterizes the national government in Brazil.
As for PES policies, their perverse effects are beginning to be felt in forest areas, as clearly illustrated in this statement by Dercy Teles, president of the Union of Rural Workers of Xapuri:
(…) “PES policies only serve to silence these people, who have no opportunities or a voice. They have no voice because they sign a contract which is for at least 30 years. And for 30 years they place the area in which they live at the disposal of the government and the multinationals to do research and use all of the knowledge of the area in exchange for a meagre, insignificant amount of money. And what is even worse is that they can’t do anything in this area, they can’t fish anymore, they can’t remove wood for their own use, they can’t hunt anymore, they can’t do anything anymore. (…)”
In 2010, the government of Acre signed a REDD agreement with the state governments of California (USA) and Chiapas (Mexico), under which polluting industries in California could continue to generate excess emissions by purchasing carbon credits from REDD activities in Acre and Chiapas. However, the increased destruction of forests and biodiversity under SFM plans, along with the increase in land grabbing and the expansion of extensive cattle grazing, all serve to expose the falsity of the “green economy” in Acre. Added to this are new destructive plans on the part of the state government for gas and oil exploitation.
Moreover, the trade in “carbon” and other environmental services represents a frontal attack on forest peoples’ autonomy, freedom and control over their territories, and threatens the diversity of nature and the communities who have always coexisted in harmony with it.
Based on an article by Elder Andrade de Paula entitled “La doble cara de la destrucción de los bosques tropicales en América Latina y el Caribe: las revelaciones de la “economía verde” en Acre”, available at http://wrm.org.uy/countries/Brazil/The_two_faces_of_tropical_forest_destruction.pdf