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An Amazon Forest Adventure: Carbon in Cowboy Country

This entry by Rane Cortez, a forest carbon development adviser at The Nature Conservancy, highlights Rane’s recent 10-day trip into São Félix do Xingu, a large municipality in the heart of the Amazon in northern Brazil. She is working with local communities and experts on potential strategies that reduce carbon emissions from these forests while providing sustainable livelihoods for local people.

A longer version of this article was originally published in a series (see parts I, II and III) on Planet Change, a Nature Conservancy blog designed to help people see and feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives.

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Flying over the Para state of Brazil.

Photo by: Sarene Marshall/The Nature Conservancy

The Journey Begins

“I found it!” says Peter Ellis, a forest scientist at The Nature Conservancy, announcing that he has finally geo-located the first satellite point on our 10-day journey into the Amazon rainforest. Peter is standing right in the middle of a thick knot of thorny vines that are covered with biting ants. GPS has a funny sense of humor.

As we bushwhack our way to the next point, I keep thinking about the challenge of describing to people the cool stuff we’re doing here in São Félix do Xingu, a 8.4 million hectare (20.8 million acre) Brazilian municipality roughly the size of Panama.

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São Félix do Xingu, in the state of Para, Brazil.

Map courtesy of The Nature Conservancy.

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Forest cover in São Félix do Xingu, in the state of Para, Brazil.

Map by Lucyana Barros/The Nature Conservancy.

The details may sound complicated, but the basic premise behind our “forest-carbon” work is fairly simple:

• Trees are made of carbon.

• Cutting and burning trees releases a significant amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and contributes to climate change.

• If countries like Brazil can slow down their rate of forest destruction, they can receive payments from international programs that seek to reduce this carbon pollution.

• Brazil can then invest that money in programs to help conserve the forests and create a diverse set of economic opportunities and jobs for local people.

Our 10-day trip will give us an idea of what the forest cover looks like across different points in São Félix and we’ll make some rough estimates of how much carbon is stored in the trees.

These forest points are specific locations where a satellite shoots a laser beam from space and collects “remotely-sensed” information on the size and height of the trees. By looking at the same stand of trees in person, we can assess the accuracy of the satellite data. We’re using simple equipment, but this really is rocket science.

The Conservancy’s crew consists of the aforementioned forest carbon analyst Peter Ellis, senior scientist Bronson Griscom, forest carbon development specialist Angelica Toniolo, and myself. Angelica and I are based out of the Conservancy’s office in Belem, the capital city of Para, Brazil. Peter and Bronson are based out of the Conservancy’s global headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.

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The Nature Conservancy trip crew, pictured left to right: Angelica Toniolo, Bronson Griscom, Rane Cortez, Peter Ellis.

Photo by: Celso Ricardo de Araújo Souza

Our journey begins with a five-hour drive to base camp, a private cattle ranch and logging operation owned by José Wilson, president of the cattle ranchers’ union. We bump along dirt roads dotted with potholes the size of our truck, rickety bridges that make us close our eyes as we cross, and migrating bands of tarantulas. As we drive, I am struck by the landscape we are passing through – endless pastureland.

The True ‘Carbon Cowboy’

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Cattle in the road on the trip to Jose Wilson’s ranch.

Photo by: Peter Ellis/The Nature Conservancy

The drive is an obvious reminder that landowners and ranch-hands in São Félix depend on the revenue from raising cows for their livelihoods. As pastures become degraded, people are driven to cut down more forest in order to provide enough grass to maintain the size of their herds.

So, figuring out how to reduce emissions from deforestation does not mean locking up the remaining forests and telling people “sorry, you can’t earn a living anymore, we’re storing carbon here.” A successful program must work with people like Jose Wilson to build solutions that provide economic opportunities that don’t depend upon such high levels of forest destruction.

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A Brazilian cowboy.

Photo by: Angelica Toniolo/The Nature Conservancy

For example, it is common in the Amazon to find less than one cow per hectare of land (a hectare is roughly 2.5 acres). This means that there is a large opportunity to work with our strong private-sector partners in São Félix to promote practices such as pasture restoration and agro-forestry that increase yield on existing pastures and reduce the need to expand into the forest.

Together, we could create a cadre of real “carbon cowboys” who wrangle both cows and carbon through sustainable practices that promote economic opportunities and protect forest health. This is one solution that stakeholders in São Félix have already begun considering.

‘Vine Hell’

We arrive at Jose Wilson’s ranch after dark. After enjoying a delicious feast of freshly caught piranha, we string up our hammocks and mosquito nets and call it a night. In the morning, after a hearty breakfast cooked for us by our ranch-host, Ana, we head out with Roberto, one of the resident cowboys and Adalberto, a forester, to rendezvous with our first satellite point of the trip – “vine hell” (as we come to affectionately call it).

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Jose Wilson’s ranch.

Photo by: Peter Ellis/The Nature Conservancy

For each point, the process is the same. First, you bushwhack your way through the forest using a GPS as your guide until you reach your satellite point. Then you use a compass to lay out lines in the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west) from the center to view all the surrounding trees from multiple angles. Finally, your forest scientists assess the structure and species composition of the forest area.

“Vine hell” is a small section of forest located amidst extensive pastureland. It had been previously logged and is heavily degraded, presumably awaiting conversion to pasture. Unfortunately, this seems to be a fairly common state for much of the forests within the private ranch lands.

Over the next three days, we visit another point in “vine hell,” a point in a nearby protected area, and two more points in a different part of the private lands. We are struck by the varied quality of forests throughout the region.

Mercifully, our final point is surrounded by several large trees, a relatively clean forest floor and a beautifully massive strangler fig tree. In the soothing presence of the strangler fig, I start to have a vision of how the value proposition of places like “vine hell” could change with some investment.

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The Conservancy’s Bronson Griscom at the base of a giant strangler fig tree.

Photo by: Peter Ellis/The Nature Conservancy

Specifically, with some up-front capital, São Félix could potentially support a forest restoration program that would include cutting vines to support natural regeneration of tree seedlings and “enrichment planting” with high-value timber species, such as mahogany, in the degraded forests. Such a program would help restore the forests to health while providing a strong economic incentive for landowners to keep those forests standing.

‘The Trees Are for Our Grandchildren’

To further complete the picture, on the last day of our Amazon journey, we visit a small cacao plantation that is already demonstrating how once-abandoned pastureland can be restored to valuable mixed native forests over time.

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Raimundo and Manuel’s cacao trees.

Photo by: Angelica Toniolo/The Nature Conservancy

The farm is owned by Raimundo Freitas do Santos and is part of a cooperative of cacao producers in São Félix. The cacao trees on the plantation are intermixed with mahogany and other timber species.

The plantation manager, Manuel Teixeira-Silva, shows us around and explains that the cacao provides steady revenue over the long-term and produces well under a balanced mix of sun and shade provided by the trees. As the lifetimes of the cacao trees come to an end, the landowner still has a growing forest with some very high-value timber trees.

“The cacao is for us,” explains Manuel, “and the trees are for our grandchildren.”

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Rane Cortez is a forest carbon development adviser at The Nature Conservancy. She has worked for The Nature Conservancy for three and a half years on international policy frameworks for reducing tropical deforestation. She recently moved to the city of Belem, in Northern Brazil, to work on a large-scale pilot program aimed at reducing deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon and providing sustainable alternative livelihoods for local people. Prior to joining the Conservancy, Rane was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, working on environmental education and protected area management. (Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy)