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Nations Pledge $3.5B to Cut Carbon Emissions, Deforestation

December 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Six nations pledged $3.5 billion to cut carbon emissions and deforestation through a new program called REDD. Jonathon Miller of Independent Television News examines how the United Nations-sponsored plan will work.
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JONATHAN MILLER: We traveled 2,000 miles across the Amazon Basin, which contains more than half the world’s remaining rain forest, to ask Brazil’s Amazon pioneers what they make of this plan. Could they be enticed to treat this forest as the global resource we all like to think it is? And who among the Amazons 30 million people stands to gain?

The plan is known as REDD. Its success will hinge on wealthy countries convincing Amazonians that money really can grow on trees and that they would literally be better off leaving their forests intact. In the past, logging has simply been too profitable.

And now the idea behind REDD is that, left untouched, this will be worth more standing up than it will be in a timber yard. The REDD fund could be worth 1.5 billion pounds a year to Brazil, yet those pushing it say REDD’s still one of the cheapest and easiest ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and averting climate change.

But will REDD work? We’re on a logging road, miles from anywhere, off to our right, the unmistakable roar of a chain saw. It echoes through the forest. Some illegal loggers have just felled a cedar. Chainsaw gangs like this wreak trails of devastation. They’re aware that an evermore eco-conscious outside world now brands them environmental terrorists. But they’re not bothered.

FLAVIO MAGINATA, illegal logger: We don’t want to get paid to do nothing. We want to live here, working at what we do. Why is it that rich countries are so interested in preserving the Amazon, and they don’t preserve their own forest? Tell me that.

JONATHAN MILLER: Brazil’s modern Amazonians have a Wild West mind-set. Not that long ago, the government was handing out free land and chainsaws, productivity measured by the number of trees you felled. The more you cleared, the more land you could claim.

For Amazonians, the forest isn’t just a big nature reserve. They have to work and trade and get around. And, for that, they need roads. And this is the most controversial road in Brazil.

The BR-319 cuts through the heart of the Amazon. It’s controversial because it’s being paved, all 500 miles of it. When you put down tarmac, it makes it even easier for people and big logging trucks to get in and pillage the jungle. They build little roads off the big roads, like the 319 here.

And satellite imagery shows that, in the Brazilian Amazon alone, there are now 173,000 kilometers of these illegal clandestine roads. That’s enough to encircle the entire planet four times over.

Eighty percent of deforestation takes place within a three-mile radius of these side roads. But it’s not just loggers who blaze trails of destruction.

In an isolated jungle clearing known as New El Dorado, illegal gold miners have devastated the forest for miles around, polluted the groundwater and rivers with mercury, and caused one river to completely dry up.

The question for those designing REDD is, how on earth does the rich world get its money to illegal miners illegally occupying land in the middle of the jungle? Until it can, there will be little incentive here to do anything but keep on digging and destroying, although the miners don’t think they’re the problem.

FLAVIO NEGO, gold miner: An illegal miner destroys less forest than a rancher. In one year, a rancher can destroy millions and millions of hectares, but we stay in the same place for years. We destroy a fraction of what they destroy.

JONATHAN MILLER: Brazil’s meat industry is the biggest in the world. And Flavio the miner is right. Cattle farmers are indeed responsible for the vast majority of the deforestation. Early on, ranchers grabbed land up here, too, and, like the illegal loggers and miners, felled great swathes of rain forest. Most farmers have fake titles to the land, but possession is nine-tenths of the law.

The ranchers here are all-to-often painted as the bad guys. They chopped the forest down. They made a lot of money from the timber. Then they raised all this cattle, and they are getting money out of that. The interesting thing is, though, that they are going to be one of the chief beneficiaries of REDD.

And so they should be, says Augair Vuicik, who bought her 2,500-hectare ranch legally 25 years ago, more than half of it is still forested. If it’s to stay that way, she can’t expand her herd. And, for that, she says, she should be compensated.

AUGAIR VUICIK, New Era Ranch: It is not our fault what is happening to the world. They have to give us a financial incentive to stop cutting down the trees, because people cannot just stop working because the world thinks that saving the Amazon is going to save the planet.

To preserve the forest, you need money. You need to have people around to make sure that conservation does take place. If I wasn’t here, all this forest would have been cut down. I left part of my forest untouched.

JONATHAN MILLER: Even Brazilians who agree that the forest should be saved insist that there has to be a balance between protecting it and feeding a country of close to 200 million people.

We’re on the move again, from Amazonas state 500 miles southeast to Mato Grosso, and we’re still in the Amazon Basin. Mato Grosso means thick forest. Spot the irony.

Among the endless fields of soya, there aren’t that many trees left for REDD to save. What few remain lie mostly within native Indian reservations.

We have come to meet a Pareci Indian chief. Cacique Kazaizo Kairo turned up with her daughter riding pillion. The Pareci pose no threat to the forest, of which they have more than a million hectares. They grow only what they need to eat. They tap wild rubber, harvest forest fruits, and hunt and shoot and fish.

But the Pareci don’t stand to gain from REDD, which would pay only those posing the greatest danger to the forest. The chief says it’s a recipe for conflict and corruption. It rewards the white people, she says, by which she means anyone who isn’t Indian.

CACIQUE KAZAIZO KAIRO, Pareci chief: It is an injustice that the people who are destroying the forest will get paid. If that’s the case, we will destroy our forest to see if they pay us as well.

If the white people have land today, they want more tomorrow and even more the next day. If they are going to pay those who are destroying, we will destroy, too.

JONATHAN MILLER: The Amazon is vast, so how do you police it? The long arm of the law is already overstretched.

These are the Amazon’s airborne enforcers, whose job it is to catch illegal loggers. We’re now 700 miles northwest of the Pareci reserve, Rondonia, a small Brazilian state that’s bigger than Britain and for which the Amazon police have only got two choppers. Each of the tiny triangles on this map is a GPS fix on suspected sites of illegal logging.

The plan is for REDD to be policed using satellite intelligence just like this. We’re on an operational mission and they’re coming in fast and low. They circle their target. REDD will need enforcement. And, in Brazil, these police are the only enforcers around.

They’re constantly clamoring for more resources. But, unbelievably, they face closure because of pressure from the powerful agribusiness lobby. The raid is a total failure. The suspects have fled into the forest, their rice and beans still piping hot. Forest police would be the eyes and ears of nations which bankroll REDD.

If it’s this hard to catch the culprits, there’s a danger REDD could end up throwing good money after bad. The police admit arrests are incredibly rare in operations like this. Even if a case is eventually brought, it can take years to go through the courts. Then, fines are minuscule.

Now, the risks for the loggers are low, and the profits are very high. So, REDD will mean very little at all to illegal loggers.

A man arrives. The police are immediately suspicious, but he claims he’s an innocent banana seller — in the Amazon, guilt and innocence hard to tell apart. He starts arguing with the policewoman, lecturing her on how the cops shouldn’t be wasting their time on operations like this, but should be after the big fish, who get away with destroying the forest by paying huge bribes, he says.

Brazil is pretty pleased that only 2,700 square miles of the Amazon rain forest was chopped down in the first eight months of this year. That’s the lowest on record and half as much as last year. But Brazil still leads the world in acreage lost. Around the tropics, the felling and burning of rain forest releases more greenhouse gases than all the worlds ships, trains, planes and automobiles put together.