From Manaus, the capital city of Amazonas state in Brazil, it takes six hours by tourist boat along the Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon, to reach the village of Tumbira, the main outpost for Fundacion Amazonas Sustentovel (FAS).
Manaus is located at the confluence of the Negro and the Amazon. It is 1,600 km up the Amazon from the Atlantic Ocean, but the river here is no less than EIGHT kilometres wide. A veritable sea of freshwater. At Tumbira, a small village six hours upstream, with a school, a football field and a brand-new church (the three institutions of rural Brazil) the Negro river is still two kilometres wide. One could easily mistake it from anywhere along the journey as a rather large lake of freshwater.
All along the journey, dense rainforests tower on both sides, and in the distance, vast grey curtains of rain float gracefully down, creeping slowly along the horizon, fading away. Freshwater is everywhere, absolutely everywhere.
This is the greatest river system on Earth, and by far its most impressive and majestic manifestation. This single system empties one-fifth of all the freshwater that flows into the world’s oceans. But that’s not all.
Evapo-transpiration from the Amazon rainforest is estimated at 20 billion tonnes per day. Animated satellite pictures (Prof. Virgilio Viana, head of Fundacion Amazonas Sustentovel (FAS), or Amazonas Sustainable Foundation, has them on his laptop) show us another, invisible, “river” system: a global flow of airborne water vapour, which some scientists say is a source of rainfall not just for South America, but around the world. It is impossible not to be filled with a sense of awe by a journey along the Amazon. If the Earth had lungs, they would be the Amazon rainforest. And if it had pulmonary arteries, they would be the Amazon river system and its many branches and tributaries.
But the Amazon system is at risk, deforestation rates have ticked up again, and a forest code amendment just enacted by the parliament is cause for concern. At Tumbira is the FAS education and convention centre, where Prof. Viana and his dedicated colleagues are busy implementing and monitoring a scheme called “Bolsa Floresta” (or ‘forest market’ loosely translated). The idea is elegant. It signs up and rewards forest dwelling communities for responsible, sustainable use of the rainforest. It is actually a large, privately funded “Payments for Ecosystem Services” (PES) scheme, which provides the average participating family with BRL 1,360 (about US$ 850) of value every year. About BRL 600 of that is a monthly cash payment to housewives, which is the most visible and appreciated component, but the other elements are more interesting from a medium-term perspective. On average about BRL 350 goes to promote sustainable harvesting for forest products – Brazil Nut being the best known. Another BRL 350 per family on average is spent on health and education for local communities. And a final BRL 60 is spent on building rudimentary business infrastructures so that forest communities may begin to think in terms of organized and sustainable business, a great way to give them income and profit opportunity.
So far, over 8,000 families have benefited from ‘Bolsa Floresta’. It can and should be scaled for several reasons. Firstly, it is ‘eco-development’ in its best sense – providing forest dependent communities a well-rounded package of business capacity building, financial support, employment, health and education benefits in order to make sustainable use of the Amazon rainforests. Secondly, it provides a good base for a future landscape-based and multi-benefit model for REDD+, as it already has most of the elements involved. If and when it adds biodiversity measurement and management to its income streams (an addition being explored right now by Prof Viana and Victor Salviati at FAS) it would truly become a societal model and anchor for a bottom-up, beneficiary-tiered, multi-service, successful REDD+ scheme for the future, which reaches the poor and is effective in carbon sequestration.
However, there is more to the threats facing Amazonas rainforest than the speed at which schemes such as ‘Bolsa Floresta’ can be replicated and scaled. The city economy of Manaus, dependent for long on its Free Trade Zone, may loose steam as its benefits gradually reduce or are matched by other states. The declining market share of IT goods (Amazonas had over 22% market share in 2004, but in 2010 it was down to 9%) is a case in point. Declining opportunities and competing subsidies may move money and entrepreneurship back to ‘old’ ways, seeking resource-extracting profits and jobs, which may well be unsustainable. Keeping the city economy of Manaus as diverse as possible, and building pools of human capital there to create competitive critical mass in different areas has to be a priority for the governments of both Amazonas and of Brazil. Employment follows investment, and investing in ‘new’ avenues is therefore essential. These should include areas such as bio-technology, REDD+ development, freshwater PES development, forestry management technology, and harvesting, processing and packaging sustainable forest produce to capture more of the value-chain of foods. These are all avenues in which public investment, incentives and tax breaks should be targeted – to solve tomorrow’s problems.
A sustainable future for the Amazonas state and conservation of its remarkable rainforest and river system is not only desirable and possible, it is essential. And it needs multiple efforts on multiple fronts. Not looking after Earth’s lungs and pulmonary arteries cannot be a good economic strategy for anyone – businesses, the state, the nation, or the world.