It really hasn’t been a good few weeks for The Nature Conservancy. First Greenpeace slammed TNC’s Noel Kempff project in Bolivia. Now investigative journalist Mark Schapiro reports from Brazil’s Atlantic Coast about TNC’s Guaraqueçaba project. Schapiro’s article in Mother Jones and a series of films on Frontline/World, document the impacts of the project.
“You’ll see Guaraqueçaba promoted on the Nature Conservancy’s website as an example of corporate partnerships that make ‘an invaluable contribution to the preservation of the planet’s biodiversity,'” Schapiro writes. “What you won’t see is what the companies get out of the deal: the potentially lucrative rights to the carbon sequestered in the trees.” Neither will you see any mention of the impacts on local communities on TNC’s website.
Between 2000 and 2002, The Nature Conservancy set up a deal with three of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas polluters: General Motors, Chevron and American Electric Power. (TNC seems to be particularly chummy with AEP, the biggest coal burner in the USA. AEP is also involved in TNC’s Noel Kempff project.) The companies handed over a total of US$18 million to TNC, to invest in forests and to offset their emissions. Schapiro explains that three reserves were created covering a total area of 20,235 hectares: “Serra do Itaqui, financed with $5 million from AEP; Morro da Mina, paid for with $3 million from Chevron; and Cachoeira, underwritten by $10 million from GM.” TNC recruited Society for Wildlife Research and Environmental Education (SPVS), a Brazilian environmental organisation to buy the land and to manage the project. The companies “don’t actually own the trees, or even the carbon in the trees,” Schapiro explains. “What they own, is the right to trade the carbon.”
Schapiro takes several trips into the forests. He goes with Ricardo Miranda de Britez of SPVS into GM’s Cachoeira reserve. They visit one of 190 “carbon measuring stations” in SPVS’ Guaraqueçaba project area. In each area, the trees are numbered with small plaques. “So tell me what you’re actually measuring when you come out here? How do you measure carbon, in a tree?” Schapiro asks. “To measure carbon in a tree,” de Britez replies, “I need to measure the weight of the tree. By measuring the diameter, I can enter it into an equation that will give me the weight.”
But this simple answer is deceptive. Trees grow and die. They burn and are attacked by disease. Deforestation may move somewhere else. The carbon that de Britez measures is traded, meaning that fossil fuel emissions continue. The trees must remain standing for as long as the CO2 emitted remains in the atmosphere. And even if they do, there will have been no reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon trading guarantees that pollution continues. Carbon markets don’t encourage polluting industry to change, they encourage business as usual.
There are many people living in and around the reserves in Guaraqueçaba. TNC’s position on these people is clear. “The carbon idea is not really tangible to people in the community,” Miguel Calmon, the Nature Conservancy’s director of forests and climate in Latin America told Schapiro. “You can’t go into these private reserves. That land is not their land anyway. If you used to go [into the forest] from your house across the road, now you can’t. That land is already owned.”
Schapiro goes into the forest with a farmer who lives in a valley near GM’s Cachoeira reserve. The farmer cuts a heart of palm to provide food for his family. “We’re workers who live from the forest,” he says. “We’ve always taken care of the earth, of the richness of our biodiversity. Human beings are part of the ecosystem. All this richness that you see was preserved because people have been here.”
While there is a thriving black market in illegally harvested heart of palm in Brazil, the villagers that Schapiro spoke to collected the food to eat, not to sell. Yet they are still targeted by the park rangers.
The villager told Schapiro that,
“One day a group went out, looking for vines in an area belonging to our community. In our territory. So we were chopping down vines and some SPVS employees passed by. In their area they have some police that are called park rangers and they shot over us – they didn’t get anybody. SPVS doesn’t want us here. They don’t want human beings in the forest. The land isn’t even theirs, it’s ours.”
Schapiro took a motorised canoe to Quaro Quaro village, which villagers had almost abandoned because of pressure from SPVS to stop using the forest and to stop planting crops. On the way he met two fishermen who were finding life increasingly difficult since their village, forest and river became part of a carbon trading project. Schapiro asked one of the fishermen what he thought about the idea of selling the carbon from the trees. “They should sell it and leave some money for us here, don’t you think?” he replied. “That would be good. Then we wouldn’t have to go out fishing.”
In Quaro Quaro, Schapiro met Antonio Alves, who had been arrested at gun point and thrown in jail for 11 days for cutting down trees to repair his Mother’s house.
Schapiro spoke to Raquel, one of the few people still living in Quaro Quaro. “Everyone is gone. We are the only ones left,” she said with sadness in her voice. “If we sold our land, where would we go?”
Many people have left their homes and moved to Antonina, the nearest town. “Antonina is a small town,” the Mayor of Antonina, Carlos Machado, told Schapiro,
“that has few resources for generating income, few possibilities for people who come from the rural zone without skills and without the defenses to live in the urban environment. They stay in the outskirts of town, in the mangrove swamps, in irregular, inhospitable situations. It creates a lot of social problems for us. . . . Families have been torn apart by prostitution, drugs and alcoholism. Directly or indirectly it was through these conservation projects that the population came here and created a ring of poverty around our city causing a really big social problem here.”
In one of the videos on Frontline World, Schapiro explains why the story of Guaraqueçaba is important:
“This is actually a small story. It’s small story about, let’s face it, kind of a small part of the world. It’s also a huge story because if forests become central to the global warming strategies of the United States and perhaps even to the international community, then we’re going to have stories like this reproduced multiple times all over the world.”
Villagers in Guaraqueçaba are losing their livelihoods and being forced to move away from the forest. And for what? So that GM, Chevron and AEP can continue polluting. The villagers speak quietly to Schapiro, but the injustice screams out from every word they say. Perhaps it will be loud enough for even The Nature Conservancy to hear.