Tuesday, November 06, 2007


Photo by Pat Joseph

Pat Joseph, writing in the special South American edition of the Virginia Quarterly Review, has given us one of the most thorough, honest and challenging reports on the dynamics of deforestation in the Cerrado and Amazon that I have encountered. I'm going to draw heavily from it in this post. I really urge you to read it in full as there's no way a few excerpts can do it justice.

Pat's report is from Mato Grosso State which in recent years has been the scene of massive burning, deforestation and a center stage for global environmental concern.

He traveled the area with an "americano-brasilieiro" agricultural consultant who wrote him an email saying:

Dear Pat: I am a Brazil/Mato Grosso fanatic. I love the pioneer spirit, the wide-open spaces, and positive attitude among the dynamic farmers in the area. Lucas do Rio Verde, Mato Grosso, is the Garden of Eden in my opinion. My friends there are a pioneer success story. ... in the middle of “soybean ground zero” on the whole planet.

Photos and italicized text above and below from Virginia Quarterly Review

I know this success story. I was born in Chicago. Later, I lived for 14 years among the corn and soybean fields of central Illinois. Many of my friends were the children of the similarly enterprising pioneer families that had drained the wetlands and wiped out the native prairie. They were hard-working, ambitious, and no-nonsense Midwesterner farmers and also very friendly, generous and justifiably proud folks, mostly of German heritage. Just like in Mato Grosso, except for the fact that the average farm size in Illinois was about 600 acres, whereas here it can run 20,000 acres (and upwards) and the new success stories can put Horatio Alger to shame.

I didn't remain in Illinois, I found that I just wasn't a flatlander by nature. In 1982 I moved from the corn and bean fields to the forests and mountains of Oregon seeking the romance of wild places and wilderness solitude. I was part monk, part adventurer, part burned-out political activist and part hippie dropout. Oregon seemed like the perfect spot. I even found a place to live in the Illinois Valley, the river of which begins at a spring flowing from a mountain called Chicago Peak. But, as a midwesterner, I had no idea of the massive deforestation taking place in National Forests. When I saw it, I was shocked. My new home, where I had come to get away from it all, quickly thrust me back into politics as a tree-hugging hermit activist trying to save the remaining 10% of the US ancient forests.

Twenty-five years later, I am now in Brazil, as sort of a spiritual pilgrim following the Queen of the Forest by exploring the path of Santo Daime. And that leads me to places like Acre State where I am finding the spirit of America in Amazônia and facing the classic dilemma confronting a visitor from a rich and consuming society to a new world of economic development and rising expectations. One can not look at this most incredible forest on earth, witness the massive deforestation and not wonder, "whose forest is this anyway, does it not also belong to the world?"

That very same question confronted Pat Joseph in Mato Grosso (two states away from Acre but also in what is called the Amazon "arc of deforestation"). Here's his description of the historical context and the confrontation he faced on the ground:

Settlement of the Brazilian Amazon was sparked by the paranoia of the military government. The generals who ran the country for two decades worried that their unsettled borders and vast empty interior would tempt foreign encroachment on Brazilian soil. Occupar para não entregar. That was the slogan. One of many. “Occupy so as not to surrender.” Another was, “Land without men for men without land.” The generals built roads to encourage migration, then did little to manage how the process unfolded. ...

Even today, an undercurrent of paranoia runs through Brazilian society when it comes to the Amazon, their sense of threatened sovereignty stoked in part by the ill-considered comments of well-meaning politicians such as Al Gore, who once insisted that, “Contrary to what Brazilians think, the Amazon is not their property. It belongs to all of us.” One need only imagine how Americans would feel if foreign leaders made similar pronouncements about, say, Alaska. Not long before I arrived in Brazil, David Miliband, the British environment secretary, was touting a proposal—one enthusiastically supported by Tony Blair—to set up an international trust that would effectively buy a vast portion of the Amazon and manage it as a preserve. The Brazilian response to the idea was swift and unequivocal. President da Silva issued a resounding demurral. “The Amazon,” he said flatly, “is not for sale.”

On a long bus ride across the Cerrado, I sat next to a schoolteacher on vacation and a pastor who was returning to his flock. ... While reclined in his seat, the young pastor ... turned his head toward me and said, “Tell me, why do Americans worry so much about our forest when they cut theirs down in the name of progress?”

In one form or another, I’d had the question put to me many times in Brazil. ... the pastor had a point. What difference did it make that our frontier had closed a century ago? All that meant was that our ancestors did the dirty work for us. And dirty work it was. In conquering the continent, North American settlers had exercised every kind of depravity. We dammed and straightened and diverted our rivers and riprapped their banks. We overgrazed our prairies and drained our wetlands. We cut down our old-growth forests and introduced alien species that grew like weeds in their stead. We hunted down and poisoned predators because they ate our livestock and “our” game. We killed off most of the bison and decimated the salmon. Even now, we’re draining our aquifers, blowing the tops off mountains to get at the coal seams, sinking wells in the gas fields of the West as fast as we can. And how did it all look from Brazil? The United States exploited its resources with a vengeance, and it was rich, the most powerful country in the world. To Brazilians, our high-minded concerns about the rainforest were the rankest sort of hypocrisy—or worse, a conspiracy to keep Brazil from developing into a major economic force in the hemisphere.

Near the end of my trip, Kory and I spent a morning in Sinop being lectured to by the president of the rural syndicate (a coalition of local farmers and loggers). Antonio Galvan is an irascible man with steely eyes, the build of a wrestling coach, and a voice like a broken horn. He was clearly annoyed by the presence in his office of two meddlesome gringos, and, after one question, set off on a tirade that lasted the better part of an hour. His rant was peppered with the words absurd and ridiculous, each point punctuated by a forearm pounding the desk. If you don’t want me to farm, then pay me, Galvan cried. Bam. No one else in the world produces and preserves at the same time! We leave 80 percent of the Amazon untouched! We leave the forest along the rivers standing! Bam. Who else does this? Don’t tell me about how many football fields of Amazon are disappearing every minute. It’s absurd! Bam. Ridiculous!

If you think that Pat Joseph might be exaggerating the tensions facing an outside reporter or (worst) an environmentalist in Mato Grosso, just watch this video from Greenpeace:

What can I say about this? Yes, I (and many friends) have "been there, done that." We sat in front of the bulldozers, climbed the trees, faced the angry locals, made it all the way to the national and international media, and guess what? The big trees are still being cut in Oregon. I came to Brazil in hopes of finding a better way, one that might go beyond the first step of raising awareness (thank God for Greenpeace), to find a path along which true preservation and local sustainability might be achieved. So here in Brazil, I am doing something that I wasn't very good at back in Oregon -- I am listening to the local people.

I read the words of the local leader Antonio Galvan:

If you don’t want me to farm, then pay me.

We leave 80 percent of the Amazon untouched!

No one else in the world produces and preserves at the same time!

I believe that he is asking the right questions:

Who will pay the developing world to avoid the the easy but mistaken path that was followed by the developed world?

Brazilian law requires that 80% of the forest be preserved. But so what, when much of the present logging is done illegally? What will give local people an incentive to follow the rules and protect the forest?

It's true that no one protects and produces at the same time -- at least that's the way it has been. But there is a new world of global warming that demands that we do both and a dream of restoration and renewal that promises that we can.

These, indeed, are the three questions that must be answered. I will be discussing them in coming posts. Stay tuned, and please read Pat's full story Soy in the Amazon.


pat joseph said...

Hi Lou,
after all this time, I just stumbled upon your posting about my story in VQR. (by the way, it's Pat Joseph, not Roberts.) Thanks for the kind assessment of my efforts. It means a lot coming from someone on the ground in the Brazilian Amazon region. The gnawing concern of any reporter is that they're getting it all wrong.

You may be interested in my latest story in VQR, on a different topic this time -- the debate over ideas on geoengineering the climate.

I'd be interested to here your thoughts.

All best,

Lou Gold said...

Thanks Pat,

Better late than never, the correction has been made.

Yes, I'll check out your latest.

Thanks for writing and keep up the good work.


Lou Gold said...

Hey Pat,

I liked your geoengineering piece. I hope folks check it out at: http://www.vqronline.org/articles/2009/spring/joseph-climate-engineering/


pat joseph said...

Thanks Lou. Appreciate it.