Brazil’s Green Municipalities: What Works? What Doesn’t? Why?

Steve Zwick and Ciro Calderon

In 2008, the Brazilian administrative district of Paragominas had one of the highest rates of deforestation in the Amazon. By 2010, it had turned itself around and become a template for “Green Municipalities” across Brazil. Since then, efforts to replicate the success have yielded mixed results and generated valuable insights into what it takes to slow deforestation in the Amazon. Second in a series.

5 March 2016 | Mayor Adnan Demachki was clearly shaken as he offered his resignation to the citizens of Paragominas, in the Brazilian state of Pará.

It was late November, 2008, just days after the loggers torched city hall in a dramatic rebuke of his “Green Municipality” program, which was designed to ween this sparsely-populated municipality off the charcoal business that was destroying its forests.

“I’d been re-elected just over a month earlier, on October 4th,” Demachki recalls. “But at that point, I felt that if the Green Municipality program wasn’t going to work, then I had nothing to offer.”

The leaders of 51 different organizations had come to the charred remains of city hall, and the majority – the farmers’ union, the workers unions, the trade guilds, and the merchants associations – still backed his plan.

Demachki implored them to sign a “Letter of Apology” to the nation, reiterating the terms of the pact they’d all made eight months earlier to end deforestation in the area, but the loggers and charcoal-makers balked. After hours of debate, Demachki pulled a second letter out of his pocket.

“I had decided that if I didn’t have unanimous support for the program, I should resign,” he says – and that’s just what he offered to do.

But after seeing his letter of resignation and sensing he was serious, even the loggers and charcoal-makers signed the apology and recommitted themselves to the municipality’s Pact Against Deforestation.

“That particular moment was a parteaguas, literally a ‘parting of the waters’ or critical crossroads,” says Paulo Amaral, Senior Researcher from Imazon (Instituto do Homem e Meio Ambiente da Amazônia, the “Institute of Man and Environment in the Amazon”), a nonprofit research organization that promotes sustainable development and had been instrumental in getting the Green Municipality program off the ground. “We needed to remain steadfast in the path Paragominas was moving towards, or we would have suffered a massive setback.”

Instead of a setback, the municipality continued to slash its deforestation rate – from 8,000 square kilometers in 2004 to less than 2,000 in 2015 – becoming in the process a template for the “Green Municipalities” initiative that was launched across the entire state of Pará in 2011, as well as similar initiatives in the neighboring states of Mato Grosso and Rondônia.

But is it replicable?

Francisco Fonseca, Coordinator of Sustainable Production at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), thinks so – but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

“The most important thing that happened at that moment was the emergence of a coalition that included an open-minded mayor with a very active role in sustainable development, a union leader who organized farmers to get registered on the CAR (the Cadastro Ambiental Rural, or “Rural Environmental Registry”) and persuaded them to accept the new environmental model called ‘Zero Deforestation’, and the organized civil society that included merchants, farmers, ranchers, soy producers, and also the timber sector,” he says.

Hanging In The Balance: The Future Of A Forest

Governance and Community

Practically everyone we spoke to gives Demachki – or at least the local government – high marks for executing the turn-around.

“Paragominas is an organized municipality with high transparency in government and no fantasy workers on the payroll,” said one local businessman, speaking on condition of anonymity. “That’s not always the case down here.”

Ian Thompson, Conservation Director of TNC’s Brazil Program, also has high praise for the Paragominas government, but concedes that good governance comes in part from a solid local tax base built on agriculture and bauxite mining.

“Paragominas has big investors from the mining companies, and their royalties made it possible for the government to run programs that improved the social situation and education,” he says. “That’s part of the package that makes these changes easier, but only because the benefits were moved to the people, and to investments that bring jobs.”

Demachki says credit lies with the local community itself.

“Basically, everybody agreed to find a path, and maybe that’s the point,” he says. “Even the loggers knew that their activities were illegal and unsustainable.”

Justiniano Netto, who’s charged with replicating Paragominas’ success across Pará, says that lesson isn’t lost on state authorities.

“The mayor (Demachki) got his people to make a ‘Local Pact Against Deforestation’, and that’s a cornerstone of our state-level program as well,” he says. “Our role at the state level is to standardize the criteria and coordinate the incentives.”

Demachki says he supports the state’s effort – as long as it’s more carrot than stick.

“You cannot transform a society with determination that comes from the outside – from Brasilia, or from Belem (the state capital),” he says. “If you want to break a paradigm, it has to be broken by the local people.”

And that means tailoring the program to local communities, says Vasco van Roosmalen, who heads Brazilian NGO Equipe de Conservacao da Amazonia (ECAM).

“Every municipality is different,” he says. “Not everything that worked in Paragominas will work everywhere, but most of it will.”

His organization is helping indigenous people access carbon finance to slow climate change by saving endangered forests and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), and he sees the Green Municipalities concept as a tool for reducing the external pressures on indigenous territories.

“One of the key lessons is that this level of change is possible,” he adds. “Now we need to focus on making it happen throughout the Amazon.”

To do that, you first look at how the program evolved in Paragominas.

2009: A Year of Carrots…

The first full year of Demachki’s program was a bountiful one for Amazon conservation, in part because foundations and international aid agencies were beginning to seed REDD programs ahead of the Copenhagen climate talks. The Amazon Fund, for example, had just launched with $20 million from the Norwegian government, and money was flowing directly into regional programs through USAID, the Norwegian International Climate and Forest Initiative, the British Embassy, the Anne Ray Charitable Trust, the Moore Foundation, and others.

It’s also the year that mining giant Vale created the non-profit Fundo Vale to “connect institutions and initiatives for sustainable development,” and one of the fund’s first actions was to help Imazon and TNC support the Paragominas initiative and replicate it in other blacklisted areas like São Félix do Xingu – a frontier territory with completely different dynamics from those in Paragominas.

It was, as we will see, to have different results as well.

…and Sticks

2009 is also the year Greenpeace unleashed its “Slaughtering the Amazon” campaign, which aggregated research from hundreds of NGOs into a massive indictment of US and European companies that purchased beef from the Amazon.

The pressure group also turned its attention to the soy sector, resulting in moratoriums on both beef and soy from high-deforestation areas and the imposition of “TACs”, or Termos de Ajuste de Conduta e Ações Civis (Conduct Adjustment Agreements), which are akin to out-of-court settlements between the government and companies that damage communities.

As a result, food processors and retailers who’d never shown an interest in sustainable farming suddenly wanted to at least know whether trees had been chopped to supply their beef and soy. For tens of thousands of ranchers and farmers, the CAR was now both advantageous and frightening.

For a introduction to the CAR and its role in the Green Municipality program, see Part One of this Series: “The Difficult Birth Of Brazil’s First ‘Green Municipality‘”

The Calculus of Farmer Fears

Brazil’s Forest Code is one of the most environmentally progressive on the planet, but until President Inácio “Lula” da Silva took office in 2003 and appointed Marina Silva as his minister of environment, the code had been poorly enforced.

It requires farmers in the Amazon to keep at least 80% of their forest intact, meaning they can only farm on 20% of their land – unless they are in a “consolidated development area” that had been aggressively settled before much of the laws kicked in. In that case, under the new law, landowners could have chopped up to 50% of their forestland by 2008 and not face a penalty. If they had gone above 50%, farmers would have to restore part of the land or arrange an offset with another landowner who had preserved more than his 80%.

The problem is that, because of previous lax enforcement, farmers and ranchers had no idea if they were in compliance or not, and they feared that getting on the CAR would expose them to massive fines.

Understanding Among Friends

To get farmers registered, Demachki brought in experts from across Brazil – including the former governor of Pará, an environmental economist named Simao Jatene. As governor, Jatene had simultaneously reduced rural conflicts in Pará and put 7.8 million hectares of forest under protection. In 2009, he was building a platform for the 2010 gubernatorial election; and, not surprisingly, it would focus on sustainable development.

Among the NGO partners, Imazon and TNC fit together like yin and yang: Imazon knew how to deliver remote sensing information to government, and TNC knew how to apply this to land management and help nervous farmers join the CAR.

“Our forte is working with the private sector, and in Brazil, that usually means soy farmers,” says TNC’s Thompson. “When we began work in Paragominas, we didn’t have a strong private drive, but we had a very strong governmental drive.”

Fortunately, Mauro Lucio, the president of the Paragominas Rural Farmers Union (SPRP), understood the risk calculus and invited TNC to set up shop in their offices.

“From the start, they introduced us as people who were expert in the code, so they knew we weren’t environmental police, but rather people who can answer your questions about the CAR, and who will maintain confidentiality, because we’re here to help you get into compliance,” says Thompson – who also recalls the moment it almost all went off the rails.

“We were sitting in the farmers union office, and there was a farmer waiting there with some documents,” he says. “Then someone from the local government came in and said something to the effect of, ‘Now, with CAR, we can levy fines on the right people and hold them responsible for their actions.’”

The farmer folded his documents and left.

“He started telling people it was a trap, and everything stopped right then,” says Thompson.

In what Thompson describes as an “all hands on deck” response, all the partner organizations – from the NGOs to the municipality to the farmers’ union – hit the phones, and soon prosecutors from the state and municipal level were brought in to state clearly and on-the-record, in front of rolling cameras and smart phones, that the CAR registration drive wasn’t a trap to fine people, but a way to help everyone get into compliance.

“The basic idea was that, prior to 2008, the rules weren’t clear, so if you’re found to have exceeded the allowance in that period, the government would work with you – maybe arrange someone with excess forest to lease you some – but if you cleared the land after 2008, you’d be in trouble,” says Thompson. “We wanted them to understand the obligations they had under the new law, but also to make sure they didn’t have unwarranted fears.”

While TNC engaged the large landowners, Imazon targeted the smaller ones and also provided the technical analysis underlying the whole project.

“We started producing monthly deforestation reports, and the Municipal Environmental Secretary team went to the properties to make sure that what the satellite images were showing was accurate on the ground,” says Amaral. “It was a very effective monitoring process, and it supported discussions with the local society about the challenges and the benefits of Paragominas getting off the [Black] List.”

From Soy to Beef

Despite its extensive work with soy farmers, TNC didn’t have experience with cattle ranchers – and Thompson feared that could become a problem.

“Soy production is, quite frankly, easier to track than cattle are,” he says. “After all, soy doesn’t have legs.”

Anticipating that some ranchers would end up with a “forest deficit”, meaning they’d have to restore a portion of their land, the NGOs asked the University of Sao Paulo to pilot a restoration project. Farmers’ union boss Lucio, meanwhile, secured funding for intensification programs to help ranchers get more meat from the same amount of land.

“Up to then, ranchers had expanded their herds by chopping their forests,” says Demachki. “With intensification, they could expand their herds by managing them better – by growing vertically instead of horizontally – and it was important to demonstrate that.”

Imazon and TNC learned just how important that was when they started testing the program in other blacklisted municipalities.

São Félix do Xingu: Same Approach, Different Outcome

With Paragominas now going better than anyone expected, Fundo Vale offered to help the NGOs expand their efforts into four other municipalities – among them São Félix do Xingu.

“São Félix is an active frontier, while Paragominas got on the black list because it was created with a five-year horizon,” says Thompson. “We took the same approach in São Felix as we had in Paragominas – looking for alliances with locals, mainly in the private sector, offering to help them get off the Black List, to get on the CAR – but the unions weren’t interested, and Ibama was cracking down hard on the region.”

The first meeting, he recalls, drew a few dozen curiosity-seekers, but the next one drew hundreds of angry protesters.

“It was an ugly, near-riot situation,” says Thompson. “They didn’t know us, didn’t trust us, didn’t want to hear us.”

Meanwhile, Simao Jatene announced that he would once again run for governor of Pará – on an environmental platform that included the creation of a statewide “Green Municipalities” program designed to replicate the Paragominas success across the state.

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