São Francisco das Chagas do Caribi, Brazil
Jackeane dos Santos Leite leans over a thin wooden table, her forehead wrinkled over her plastic glasses. Carefully trace the shape of a putty knife before turning on a small electric saw.
“I’ve only used this a couple of times,” he says through the cloud of sawdust, his hands unsteady as he cuts through tauari, or Brazilian oak wood. “The shape has to be right.”
On a hot afternoon, deep in the Brazilian Amazon, Ms. Leite is learning the art of woodworking from a trio of Rio de Janeiro designers, visiting the riverside village of São Francisco das Chagas do Caribi for the occasion. . Wearing helmets and earmuffs, eight trainees busily cut, carved, sanded and polished the wood under the guidance of experts.
Why did we write this?
Commitments made at global conferences like COP26 to stop deforestation are fine. But they’re useless unless they translate into ground-level actions like this venture.
The village is an unlikely environment for a laboratory like this. Once a center of illegal logging, the region lost some of its most prized varieties of trees a few decades ago, before authorities turned it into a protected reserve that spanned hundreds of thousands of acres.
Now, residents are hoping the training will help kickstart a new woodworking business. By making dishes such as plates and spoons from legally harvested lumber, they hope to make money from the forest without destroying it.
“This makes me think of my grandfather,” says Ms. Leite over the jingle of the generator that powers the instruments. A longtime settler, “built canoes; he did everything. But now things are really different. We are doing things legally. “
A glimmer of hope
This small victory, at the forefront of the battle to save the Amazon, offers a glimmer of hope as the world scrambles to reduce carbon emissions and defuse the climate emergency.
World leaders gathered in Glasgow, Scotland, at the COP26 UN climate summit, also took up the challenge. Monday them has pledged to stop deforestation by 2030 and spend $ 19 billion on the effort, including on projects, just like the woodworking firm here, that “improve rural livelihoods … through … recognition of the multiple values of forests. “.
Commitments are just commitments, however, and a similar international agreement in 2014 had little impact. And despite all the hard-fought efforts of Ms. Leite and her neighbors, areas of the Brazilian Amazon are still being cleaned up and burned at a breakneck pace. Deforestation has reached its highest level in a decade, pushing Brazil’s emissions increased by 9.6% in 2020, although the pandemic froze economies and triggered a short-lived drop in emissions in other parts of the world, a new report shows.
Often the “lung of the planet”, the Amazon is one of the most important carbon sinks in the world, absorbing around 2 billion tons of CO2 per year. But parts of it now emit more carbon than they capture, and scientists warn that the rainforest is dangerously approaching a tipping point where it will morph into a savannah, with devastating results for the climate, locally and globally.
Many blame President Jair Bolsonaro, who has so far defied all global calls to curb deforestation while disembowel Brazilian environmental agencies. Under his control, fines for environmental crimes it has dropped to a minimum in over two decades. Mr. Bolsonaro also promised to open protected forests and indigenous lands to exploitation, which its critics say encouraged cattle ranchers, wildcat miners, and land grabbers.
“There is a total lack of environmental control,” says Rômulo Batista, a Greenpeace Brazil activist. “And the government has done little to stop it. It has in fact embarked on a project to dismantle Brazil’s environmental policies ”.
Against this backdrop, many observers remain skeptical of Bolsonaro’s promises and Brazil’s signature on yesterday’s COP26 deal. “He’s giving speeches, trying to make the world believe he’s taking action,” adds Batista. “But there is nothing to back up these promises.”
Better days coming?
However, it’s not too late for Brazil to curb deforestation, which accounts for nearly half of the country’s carbon emissions. Most experts agree that a return to rigorous environmental surveillance will be needed, including clear signals from above that illegal invasions into the forest will not be tolerated.
Livestock farming and agriculture – major drivers of deforestation – also need to be transformed, increasing productivity and exploiting degraded land. And, to achieve long-term change, it is crucial to promote more sustainable local economies, so that those living in the Amazon have ways to make a living without razing the forest.
“Communities in the Amazon play a key role … in mitigating the climate crisis, “ says André Vianna, head of technologies and forest management at Idesam, a non-profit organization that develops projects in the Brazilian Amazon. “But they need to have sustainable sources of income to stay in their territories and preserve them.”
And small successes like that of São Francisco das Chagas do Caribi suggest a way forward. With the support of Idesam and other non-profit groups, residents opened an eco-lodge in 2019, hoping to earn sustainable income through tourism. They also recently built a refinery of essential oils extracted from the forest, to be sold in shops hundreds of kilometers away.
“Today we know that by taking care of the forest we can earn much more than by cutting down the trees,” says Dona Elisângela Conceição Cavalcante, who manages the eco-lodge. “So today, knowing what is right, nobody wants to hurt.”
When COVID-19 hit tourism, things got complicated for the local population. Earlier this year, non-governmental organizations helped residents set up the woodworking workshop they hope to turn into another significant source of income. The villagers hope that the designers will introduce their tableware to customers in cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, increasing their sales.
“We are trying to capitalize on the community’s traditional knowledge of timber and forest,” says Mr. Vianna. “And we’re helping them with the know-how they need to market their products, so they can get a better price.”
Gracilázaro Rodrigues Miranda, a local resident who is one of the project leaders, has spent over two decades clearing forests in the Amazon, sometimes logging trees illegally. Now, he says the community is working hard to exploit forest resources sustainably, using only timber sourced from an authorized area of the reserve where limited quarrying is allowed.
“Before we didn’t know how to preserve the forest,” says Mr. Miranda. “We now know that legal timber is much better; is the way forward for us “.
Back at the laboratory, Mrs. Cavalcante, the lodge keeper, cuts a jungle vine into long, thin fibers that will become bristles on a wooden brush for cleaning. She knows saving the Amazon is an uphill battle, with the odds against her. But he believes his small village – and others like it – can make a difference.
“I believe we have tremendous power to change our reality,” he says. “So I still hope for better days, for us and for the world”.