3 Dec 2009

Stopping the Great Amazonian Chainsaw Massacre

On a patch of grass outside the Rondonia State headquarters for Brazil’s airborne Amazon police stands a post-modern totem pole. A metal tree, 20 feet high, whose branches are recycled chainsaws on stalks. The whole thing is painted forest green.

The chainsaws are real. All of them, confiscated by police officers from illegal loggers. Weapons, put beyond use, as they say. Turning the tools of the illegal timber trade into sculptures is the ecowarriors’ equivalent, I suppose, of turning swords into ploughshares.

These environmental enforcers have been tasked with a mission by the Brazilian government on behalf of the planet: to end the chainsaw massacre of the Amazon.


If they succeed, global warming could be dramatically slowed. A fifth of all greenhouse gases are result from the felling and burning of tropical forest – and the Amazon claims more than half of what’s left. It makes sense to save it.

But Superintendent Cesar Luis Guimaraes admits they’re up against it and can’t do it on their own. In Rondonia, he’s got 45 men and women, a parking lot full of pickup trucks and two helicopters to cover this small Brazilian state that’s bigger than Britain.


I asked him whether throwing money at the problem might work, because for the first time, the rich world is putting its money where its mouth is and is proposing to actually pay Amazonians not to chop down trees.

The plan, called REDD (which stands for “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degraded Forest“), is up for discussion at the Copenhagen climate change talks next week.

“Money won’t solve the problem on its own,” Superintendent Guimaraes said. “You can’t just apply a market value to the forest. You’ve got to change the culture, the mentality of the people.”

Until fairly recently in the Amazon, the government encouraged the pioneer spirit, handing out free land and free chainsaws to those who wished to blaize new trails. There are many who still measure productivity by how many trees they chop down.

I spent two weeks travelling through three Amazonian states, driving more than a thousand miles on jungle roads and flying into remote grass airstrips, to talk to Amazonians about what they made of REDD.

To be honest, none had ever heard of it (apart from the lady Indian chief I interviewed, who knew all about the international carbon credit market).

But I told them about REDD – and anyway, they might all know all about it soon, as within a couple of weeks, the world might be hailing it as a global triumph in the war against climate change.

REDD might actually transform a few Brazilian lives: the country could be paid around £1.5bn a year under the save-the-rainforest scheme.

But those I talked to weren’t impressed. The illegal loggers, who I found carving up a pungently scented cedar they’d just felled, said they didn’t want a bunch of gringos to tell them what not to do in their forest.


Unsurprisingly, illegal loggers aren’t too keen on those in the rich world who like to think the Amazon belongs to them. And they didn’t want their money anyway – they liked chopping down trees and that, they said, is what they’d do.

The illegal gold miners weren’t much more encouraging on the conservation stakes. They’d completely obliterated several square miles of forest.


The scale of their destruction was breath-taking. Land that had been tropical jungle was now naked bedrock and deep mineshafts even penetrated that. Flavio, a miner who emerged on a hoist from the bowels of a mountain, told me he was aware of global warming but didn’t think it would affect him very much.

And anyway, he said, if deforestation was to blame for climate change, you couldn’t pin that on illegal miners… it was the ranchers who were most to blame!

He was kind of right, because when you get into ranching country, there is nothing but grassland where the forest used to be, for mile after endless mile, horizon to horizon.

Driving through it, on fragile, rutted laterite roads that turn to red butter the minute it rains, all you see are charred stumps protruding from the rough pastureland, punctuated occasionally by stark, bleached still-upright trunks of dead trees on which vultures perch to dry their outspread, rain-soaked wings. The landscape as monotonous as it was depressing.

The Amazon supports 30m head of cattle; Brazil has the biggest beef industry in the world.

And when I met a rancher called Augair Vuicik (the grand-daughter of a Polish immigrant) she told me it was right and just that the rich world was proposing to pay her lots of money to protect the 1,200ha of virgin forest on her farm which she hadn’t already felled.


She could see a little windfall coming her way… because under REDD those posing the greatest threat to the forest will be its beneficiaries.

Which is why the Indian Chieftainess, Cacique Kazaizo Kairo, (the one who knew all about carbon credit trading) was more than a little indignant. A Parecis Indian woman she’d known had been shot dead by a farmer earlier this year because she’d been fishing on what he claimed was his land.


The Amazon’s indigenous tribes are surrounded. Their way of life, and the forest they inhabit and look after, are under threat, and yet the plan is to give those doing the threatening the money! Reward the “white man”? Mad, she said.

“If that’s what they’re going to do, we’re going to start chopping down our forest too, to see if they pay us!” she told me, very emphatically, as she swung gently in her hammock… it will be a source of conflict and corruption.

Oh dear. Suddenly REDD wasn’t looking quite as clever a plan as first it sounded. And that was before I joined the Superintendent’s heli-bourne anti-logging enforcement police in a low-level dawn raid – which, to their embarrassment, failed to nab a single logger.

The scary thing is that those pushing REDD at Copenhagen actually say it would be the easiest route to achieving the greenhouse gas emissions cuts required if we’re to stop the planet frying. Implementing and enforcing REDD will not be easy.

Brazil’s President Lula said last week: “Let no gringo ask us to let an Amazonian starve to death under a tree.” In other words, the 30m Brazilians who live in the Amazon must be factored in to any eco-conscious western plan to save the forest.

And most of them, as it turns out, like the rest of us, aren’t yet prepared to make the lifestyle changes required to save the planet – even if the rich world tries bribing them to do so.