How Brazil nuts are helping protect the Amazon rainforest

September 17, 2019 posted by


JUDY WOODRUFF: This Sunday, Brazilians go
to the polls to elect a new president. Hanging in the balance is not only the political
future of Latin America’s biggest country, but also the future of one of the planet’s
most vital tools for fighting climate change, the Amazon rainforest, often called the lungs
of the planet. Tonight, with the support of the Pulitzer
Center, and in collaboration with “The Nation” magazine and PRI’s “The World,” special correspondent
Sam Eaton brings us the second part of his look at what that future might hold. SAM EATON: Brazilian soy farmers Jaime Farinon
knows who he is voting on Sunday. JAIME FARINON, Brazilian Soy Farmer (through
translator): Maybe we will manage to get a Trump here to set this country straight. SAM EATON: He’s referring to presidential
candidate Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist leading in the polls who’s often referred
to as Brazil’s Donald Trump. Bolsonaro, known for his divisive attacks
on women, blacks, homosexuals, and indigenous communities, became the victim of the same
violence he promises to be tough on when he was stabbed at a campaign rally on September
6. The event was captured on cell phones. His popularity has since soared. JAIME FARINON (through translator): In these
parts, you have to have a little blood in your veins. SAM EATON: But it’s Bolsonaro’s promise to
withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and his political alignment with the powerful
congressional agribusiness lobby called the ruralistas that has farmers like Farinon and
Ilson Redivo excited about their candidate. Their soybean farms are close to 10,000 acres
each, located on the southern edge of the Amazon rain forest in Brazil’s third largest
state, Mato Grosso. America’s trade war with China has caused
global demand and prices for Brazilian soy to surge. The temptation to clear more Amazon rain forest
to meet that demand is huge. And soy farmers like Farinon and Redivo want
a government that’s not going to stand in the way. ILSON REDIVO, Brazilian Soy Farmer (through
translator): I think this environmentalist movement wants to break the development in
Brazil. Where we have soil, like here, highly productive,
it has to be exploited. SAM EATON: Not far from the soy fields, Raimundo
Maniwari and other members of the Munduruku tribe take motorbikes deep into their 400-square
mile forest reserve to harvest Brazil nuts. RAIMUNDO MANIWARI, Munduruku Tribe (through
translator): Since I was a child, my father harvest the Brazil nuts, and we would tag
along. Back then, we learned how to work with the
Brazil nuts. We would gather more selectively just to eat. We would pick only the big ones for ourselves. SAM EATON: Maniwari says since then farms
have surrounded the Mundurukus’ forest on all sides, clearing the trees right up to
the edge. Things haven’t been the same since. RAIMUNDO MANIWARI (through translator): The
river, the wind, the weather, it’s all different now. In the past, what we called summer used to
come earlier. And, today, the wind is hot and dry. It doesn’t bring the calmness that it used
to. SAM EATON: He says, a few years ago, the Brazil
nut trees didn’t produce any nuts at all for the first time. These changes are worrying scientists who
say deforestation combined with rising temperatures and the droughts and fires they encourage
is taking a heavy toll on the forest. Carlos Nobre is Brazil’s leading climatologist. CARLOS NOBRE, Climatologist: The Amazon, until
recently, was a very potent carbon sink. It was actually extracting from the atmosphere
over something between two and three billion pounds of carbon dioxide. That sink is declining over time. SAM EATON: Nobre says total deforestation
in the Amazon is only a few percentage points shy of triggering an ecological tipping point
that could cause more than half of the Amazon forest to die off, an event, he says, that
would release so much carbon into the atmosphere, that it would send global warming into hyperdrive. But as the world’s demand for meat and the
soybeans used in animal feed only grows, Nobre says, if nothing changes, reaching that tipping
point is just a matter of time. The Amazon Basin has been locked in this fierce
battle between conservation and indigenous rights on one side and the extraction-based
economy on the other. It’s basically a losing game, which is why
many are asking, is there a third way for the Amazon, one that values a forest left
standing like this one as a global public good? And how do you create economic potential,
so that the people living within the forest see this as much more valuable than clearing
the land? At the Mundurukus’ village, the chief rings
a bell to announce a meeting. The occasion is the arrival of agronomist
Paulo Nunes. His donor funded program called Sentinels
of the Forest has enabled indigenous groups like the Munduruku to turn the Brazil nuts
that grow wild in the forest into a badly needed cash crop. PAULO NUNES, Sentinels of the Forest (through
translator): If we want to save the Amazon forest, we need to invest in this kind of
value chain, to add value to the products, to value the work of the traditional communities,
of the people that have been helping to keep this forest standing for millennia. SAM EATON: Brazil’s banking system still prefers
to invest its money in cattle ranches and soy farms, but Nunes says making even some
of that capital available to enterprises like this that leave the forest standing would
pay much greater dividends over the long term, helping the Munduruku like Maniwari protect
their forest and the global climate for millennia to come. RAIMUNDO MANIWARI (through translator): So
this little bit of forest we are preserving, it’s our insurance for the future. SAM EATON: But Nunes says that’s only half
the battle. To really protect the forest against the enormous
economic pressures aimed at tearing it down, he says you have to create an entirely new
value chain from scratch. That’s why Nunes partnered with a small farmer
cooperative called COOPAVAM to build this state-of-the-art Brazil nut factory near the
Munduruku forest. It’s like a proof concept. He says, by processing the Brazil nuts in
the factory, the value increases by a factor of 20, money that stays right here in the
Amazon. Luzirene Lustosa is the cooperative’s president. LUZIRENE LUSTOSA, President, COOPAVAM (through
translator): In the beginning, we didn’t realize that the Brazil nuts would work out. The price was really low. It had no value, and we didn’t have a market. But a small group believed that it could work. SAM EATON: The cooperative, now run almost
entirely by women, processes and sells refined Brazil nut oil to the eco-friendly cosmetic
giant Natura. It also supplies nuts to more than 42,000
children for school meals, among other contracts. And for local women like, Ana Maria Medina,
it’s providing valuable employment. COOPAVAM not only buys Brazil nuts from indigenous
lands like the Mundurukus’. They also buy from the cooperative’s own 20,000-acre
forest reserve. Agrarian settlements in the Amazon like this
one come with the mandate that only 20 percent of the forest can be cleared for farming,
a law that’s more often broken than followed. And Lustosa says it would have been the same
here. LUZIRENE LUSTOSA (through translator): In
the beginning, people didn’t accept that. They would say, why would we want a reserve? We need that land for farming. There was even talk about digging up the reserve
so people could deforest, because our individual plots were so small. We didn’t know that if we kept it standing,
we would have what we have today. SAM EATON: Now Lustosa says everyone’s talking
about planting more trees. Paulo Nunes says, through this project, farmers
and indigenous people in the Amazon are now working together to save the rain forest and
to create sustainable livelihoods. The potential, he says, is enormous. They just need everyone else to get on board. PAULO NUNES (through translator): What we’re
doing is to prove that this is viable, so that the government and the financial institutions
can see that it works, that it’s worth investing in, because the economics are sound. We believe that, over time, it will be possible
to bring about this transformation, this change. SAM EATON: Nunes says Brazil’s future, and
the world’s, hangs in the balance. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Sam Eaton, Mato
Grosso, Brazil.

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