New Internationalist

Forest fever

Issue 391

The year is 2010. Marcelo Calazans and Renata Valentim explore what it might look like for two very different Brazilians in the new carbon economy.

Tamra Gilbertson
Catch a fire: a Quilombola worker takes a break from making charcoal out of eucalyptus. Tamra Gilbertson

Monday, 22 April 2010. City of London, England. 6.30am. Hotel Room.

The bowl flushes. Water and toilet paper disappear through the sewer. Having a slight cold and perhaps even a temperature, Dr A tucks the weekly market report he was reading under his arm. Two days of strategic planning meetings have now passed. The session with Proctor & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark would be decisive – 45 per cent of Company A’s exports are at stake. That’s 2.7 million tonnes of bleached short-fibre eucalyptus pulp.

Dr A pauses in front of the mirror and catches a glimpse of the future – a series of dominoes falling one after the other. In the North, a steady supply of Kleenex tissues coated with aloe vera for sensitive noses. In the South, an additional three polluting pulp mills to service the noses: in the Brazilian provinces of Espírito Santo and Rio Grande do Sul, in Uruguay and perhaps elsewhere. Low costs, high profits – the eternal bottom line.

It was fundamental that the host country guaranteed, no matter how, further expansion of their genetically modified eucalyptus ‘products’. ‘Better than cash in the bank,’ said the World Bank consultant when advising Dr A to tap into the multi-billion dollar carbon offsets market to expand his company’s plantations. The carbon credits from these alone would be sufficient to make the whole circuit rotate. A momentous profit opportunity. Green really was ‘green’, he thought dreamily.

During the past two nights, Dr A had learned how to dream. Projects, indicators, accounting and controls. An enormous globe-spanning engineering project was in the making. The European Investment Bank (EIB), the Norwegian Petroleum Fund, the Export Credit Agencies, and the oil and timber companies. For years now, the World Bank’s carbon funds had boosted the tree planting business in the South, guaranteeing ample carbon supplies for Britain, Holland, Norway and others literally to ‘sink’ their teeth into.

His mobile phone rang. The cab was waiting. Dr A briefly noticed the newspaper headline that read: ‘Brazil and Costa Rica to open World Cup’.

Conceição da Barra, Espírito Santo, Brazil. 6.30am. Quilombo territory of Angelim. In the middle of a small cassava farm.

Benedito Meia-Légua kept watch the whole night. He slept outside the house, just in case. If they came this time, he would flee. Others like him, descendants of slaves, Quilombolas, were facing the same threat. The law of encounter, he thought. Africa, Brazil, Espírito Santo. A whole ocean already separated them from an improbable past. A week earlier, Benedito and two friends, Rugerio and Nega, had been imprisoned. A few dozen residents banded together, marched to the police station, and liberated them. The police put up some resistance. There have been many arrests of late. We are already in a prison of sorts, thought Benedito… with eucalyptus for walls. The plantations sprawl all around hemming his small community in. It was only a few stumps they had wanted, he thought angrily. Company A had left them there, considered to be genetically ‘degenerate’ compared to their new super-carbon absorbing varieties. But even rotting stumps were off-limits for his community.

In nearby Roda de Agua, Company A’s ‘security’ men caught Dealdina and Maria’s two young daughters attempting to fish in the mud of the dried-out river. They took everything, even the fishing net. The fish and fishing had already gone. Now they were taking the fisherfolk. Just like Benedito and the others, they stood accused of ‘encroachment’ by the state. The World Bank disapproved of ‘tampering’ with ‘carbon stocks’. Even some environmental groups disapproved as did the others agencies involved in Brazil’s carbon offset boom. Benedito cursed. They were not allowed to collect the wood for fuel or to build their traditional houses. They were prohibited from entering Company A’s ‘private property’ – land that had always been theirs by right. They could neither fish nor hunt in the reservoirs for fish, paca and armadillo. Even old Seu Antonio, with his tousled white hair, was detained for 12 days. He had picked up some palm heart in an area of protected rainforest. He’d been doing that since he was a boy. Now he was prosecuted like a criminal! Benedito fumed, sleep escaped him. Who will they take next?

Back in 2006 the Agrarian Reform Institute (INCRA) had concluded their investigations into the demarcation of the Quilombola lands. In the 1970s, before the arrival of Company A, there were 12,000 families and 256 hectares of Quilombola lands. After the arrival of Company A only 1,300 families in 32 minuscule communities remained – surrounded by eucalyptus plantations. The state knew the numbers. The law guaranteed the people’s ownership. Even the investigations assured their legitimacy. But nothing. Four years had gone by and the re-elected Lula administration could not make up its mind. That’s when the Quilombola people lost their patience. Thousands of black men and women marched in the streets, sent public letters, issued self-demarcations of their lands, held assemblies, public debates, and mobilizations, some of which turned violent. Anger welling up in him, Benedito recalled the spirit that still motivates him and his community today. They would not ask any longer for authorization in order to access what was theirs. Company A’s armed militia and the military police would not stop them.

Today the autumn sun is dry, just like on every other day this year. ‘A single spark and goodbye homogeny,’ thought Benedito. He tried to imagine the scale: 66 per cent of Conceição da Barra would be ablaze if the eucalyptus plantations burned. Another 15 per cent would go if the sugar cane went with it.

At the same time, throughout the region people were preparing coffee, beiju, cassava cake, coconut pudding, bean stew and watercress. It wasn’t the day to plant or pick cassava, or to collect the tree resins or make charcoal. They would not even fish or hunt. Neither would there be any confrontations. Benedito remembered that he would have to arrange a TV set for the evening. The Brazilian national team was playing at the World Cup. Time for a brief truce and some celebration.

City of London, England. 10.15 am. Conference room.

Agenda:

• Opening remarks from the Director

• A new era is already announcing itself through advertising

• Our process guarantees whiteness

• The uniformity of the fibre, the texture

(Coffee break)

• The scale has never been a problem

• Neither has the state

• Nor the environmental certification

• Social responsibility means not having any neighbours

(Swap business cards)

Conceição da Barra, Espírito Santo, Brazil. 11am. Linharinho Quilombola community.

Ronaldinho Gaucho – the new Pele? On the pitch, there was no white man. This was the black man’s moment. On top of the TV: a small statue of Saint George the Warrior, the tamer of Dragons. A Costa Rican had come to the last meeting of the Green Desert Network in Brazil. Benedito remembered it well. Costa Rica was the land of the Garófalos, black like Quilombolas, sons and daughters of the same colonized America. Playing against Costa Rica was like playing against brothers. Who he really wanted to play was Norway, or Germany, or even the English. The game was drawn 11-11. Game over, for now. Back to war.

Dominguinhas, Rosa, Edu, Antonio, Zeca de Neuza, Pinto, Careca, Mara, Silvio, Nem, Dona Grande, Seu Antonio, Zed a Baiana, Severino, Osvaldo, Dona Maria, all of Sao Mateus was there. During a meal of farofa, an assembly evolved. Game day proved a great alibi. The rumour was spreading throughout the region: the lands would be reclaimed on Saint George’s Day! Everything will be shared equally.

City of London, England. 2pm. Hotel room.

After three aspirins Dr A’s fever had finally dissipated. The deal was nearing closure. Just a few formalities left. Dr A was happy, satisfied. He had devoured two hamburgers and soft drinks. He was resting on the sofa, during another ‘strategic planning’ session. More than 3million tonnes of wood pulp per year were on his mind: A new mission, a new industrial plant, a new revenue stream. Trees need to be ‘managed’ to qualify as offsets, and Dr A knew a thing or two about that. How straight and neat our forests, he thought. So easy to manage. On the Powerpoint screen, a long list of suppliers and meetings. The AKZ turbines, the Beloit filters and pylons, the Kamyr digesters, Mannesmann’s rolling bridges, Vaith Papers’ drying technology and BBC Brow generators. There were also Siemens, Kvaerner, Metso, ABB, Andritz-Ahlstrom and Jaakko Poyry. An authentic horizon of meaning for his life visible from this juncture. City of London, carbon capital of the world. Who knows, perhaps he could even win the Environmental Business Award? He remembered the days of the inauguration of the second pulp mill in Espírito Santo in 1991. Even Prince Charles was there. It was not his fault that global warming was increasing and that the rivers that used to run clean were now polluted. How could he be blamed for cutting down the rainforest? For the water bills that had never been paid? For the pesticides that contaminated everything? Everything that he did was legal! The company had constructed the court houses for the judiciary, financed the parliamentary campaigns for the legislature and always supported the executive, including in matters of security by setting up their very own riot police for heaven’s sake! In Brazil, in Rio Grande do Sul and Espírito Santo, Company A plants the trees so this beautiful City of London can thrive.

Dr A must have dozed. His favourite breakfast show was on. He liked to monitor the wax and wane of shares on the stock exchange and eruptions of the Emerging Markets Bond Index. All doing well today. It was a good morning.

There was poetry to it all, he thought. No, more like an elegant calculus, perhaps. A few ‘enlightened’ green groups guaranteed the Kyoto equation. Carbon was now one of the world’s most closely watched commodities. Here in the City, traders hedged and swapped carbon futures. Company A was part of those futures. Dr A hated thinking about the past or even sometimes the present. He could forget about the social and environmental problems – strictly matters for the state. Company A’s carbon harvest was financed by the World Bank and guaranteed. The North will have its offsets. He will have his profits. Eucalyptus will expand. Progress. His only real problem was getting to the airport.

Dr A checks to make sure he has his flight tickets, passport, mobile phone, laptop, watch, digital diary, battery chargers, batteries, spreadsheets, reports, and papers. He had developed a strange neurosis, always thinking that he had forgotten something in the hotel room. An eternal back and forth – ‘did I?’ or ‘didn’t I?’ His thoughts stuck in a vicious circle: time/factory/eucalyptus/land/water. The taxi arrives. Early evening rush hour seems endless. Why are the roads always so jammed? Soon he’ll be far away from this London spring. His allergies playing up again, he pulls out a fresh Kleenex and blows his nose.

London, England. 7pm. Heathrow Airport. Check In. Flight BA 721.

Dr A asks about his frequent flyer miles. The last time he looked, he had enough miles to do seven trips around the world. Almost enough for one of those new low-orbit space flights. Next week he would travel the Nordic axis. He liked to travel by plane. A little Lexotan after take-off and off he went. He dreamed over the Atlantic, from North to South, from South to North. He had stopped distinguishing between dream and wakefulness. Lexotan, you see. He was Cabral and Columbus. Pirate and captain. He was at times a Viking, the northern wind blowing warm and humid. There were no more summers and winters. The old Atlantic widened and distanced the continents from each other. From up here though, from the ozone layer and the upper atmosphere, the earth seemed much bluer. In Conceição da Barra, the ocean invaded the city and devoured the houses on the shore. A new flood threatened the great Capixaba plains. The eucalyptus was in jeopardy!

A flight attendant smiles reassuringly. Dinner. What time is it? A long night beyond the sunset. The seat is starting to become uncomfortable. Allergies acting up again. Another Kleenex. Another Lexotan. Dr A now slept in the ark. In the middle of the flood. Water, universal solvent. What would become of his monoculture? His eucalyptus fields were turning into water. An uncontrollable wave composed of Quilimbolas and indigenous groups from the Guarani, and Tupinikim, members of the landless movement, peasants and fisherfolk swept away his carbon deposits. The fever came back. He forgot the aspirin. He no longer slept in the ark. He was in the middle of the ocean. Kyoto, the state, the forests and lawyers, the monoculture. Where had they all gone? Would they fit into the ark?

Tuesday, 23 April 2010. Conceição da Barra, Espírito Santo, Brazil. 5am.

Four thousand Quilombolas march on the BR 101 road in the North of Espírito Santo. The state, the company and not even president Lula have a police contingent strong enough to ensure the perpetuation of this environmental racism, Benedito thinks to himself. There are thousands. Their group snowballs with every community they pass. No longer do they demand the remnants of the eucalyptus in order to make charcoal. They were never interested in charcoal to begin with. They are seeking to reclaim their traditional lands, those that were declared ‘uninhabited’ by the state. According to the jargon they were federal lands, belonging to everyone and no-one at the same time. For the black men and women who had always lived there, they were their lands, Quilombo. Brazil qualifies for the quarter-finals – against Norway! Benedito joins the chorus of soccer chants. The self-demarcation was just the beginning. We want more, thought Benedito to himself. He wanted to replant the rainforest, its fruits and roots, plants and seeds. He dreamed about the recovery of rivers, streams and springs so that all can enjoy nature’s bounty. He listened and danced as his friends remarked upon the colour of the night with the barehanded hammering of their drums, a connection.

The next day, a collective effort to pull out the eucalyptus and plant cassava would begin. Benedito was not in a hurry. He saw a whole future ahead to rewrite history.

Plantation lullabies

Brazil is one of the most active ‘hotspots’ for the carbon market, hosting nearly 20 per cent of all offset projects. In Brazil there are nearly 4 million hectares (an area the size of Belgium) of monoculture eucalyptus plantations, some of which are being earmarked for carbon trading by the Government, the World Bank, and private companies. Much of this land was appropriated by the former dictatorship and ceded to private plantation companies without regard for the communities that have been living there for generations. Numerous people have been evicted from their lands, lost access to shared water and land resources, and have had their livelihoods and ecosystems destroyed. One local farmer, Antonio, remarked: ‘Eucalyptus has been grown with blood.’

‘Company A’ in this story is a reference to current struggles by Quilombola communities and indigenous Guarani and Tupinikim groups against the eucalyptus plantations of Aracruz-Cellulose, though other companies are also involved. According to the World Rainforest Movement, Aracruz is ‘the world’s largest producer of bleached eucalyptus pulp’. Nearly half of this pulp is purchased by Johnson & Johnson and Kimberley-Clark for their consumer tissue products. Aracruz is also experimenting with genetically engineered trees. Plantar SA is another company that is currently receiving support from the World Bank to generate carbon credits from its eucalyptus plantations, prompting outrage by local community members and environmentalists. Other companies and agencies mentioned in this story are also currently involved in supporting these industries.

In recent years dozens of land occupations from the Landless Peoples Movement (MST) and the Quilombola, Guarani and Tupinikim communities have taken place, with the police and company security forces’ response often brutal.

Marcelo Calazans and Renata Valentim work with environmental group FASE Espírito Santo and the Alert Against the Green Desert Network, supporting Quilombola and other communities in Brazil affected by monoculture tree plantations and the carbon market.
Translated from Portuguese by Hjalmar-Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn.

Tamra Gilbertson
Where the trees are a desert: the Quilombola community of Angelina surrounded by eucalyptus plantations in Espírito Santo. Tamra Gilbertson

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