Business

Companies fund projects to preserve Amazon rain forest

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Deep in the Amazon, in a village accessible only by boat, river dwellers for generations have survived off fish, sparse crops and nuts from the forest.

Now they have a new resource: debit cards.

"If money increases, then life gets better," said Deodato da Silva, 56, with a toothless grin as he peeled cassava under a mango tree.

Families in Boa Frente receive $29 a month to spend in a town upriver. The village also has a new brick walkway, rainwater cisterns and a new school with solar panels and Internet access. In exchange, residents agree to protect the forest surrounding their plots instead of clearing more trees for farming or fuel.

The windfall comes courtesy of Marriott International Inc., the $12-billion hotel chain. It is part of a complex -- and controversial -- plan to save the world's rain forests with the help of big business.

Rules for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation -- or REDD -- are being designed under the auspices of the United Nations as part of a global effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Around the world, dozens of REDD projects, sponsored by environmental groups and funded by firms including Merrill Lynch & Co., Walt Disney Co., American Electric Power Co., BP and United Parcel Service Inc., are underway.

So far, these REDD projects are voluntary, often funded by firms that want to burnish their green credentials. But eventually these "avoided deforestation" efforts could be included in mandatory carbon cap-and-trade systems, such as one already in place in Europe. California is designing such a trading program, and others are proposed under U.S. legislation and as part of an eventual global treaty.

If a government proved that it had saved a forest that would otherwise have been destroyed, it could sell that "saved" carbon in the form of credits to industries forced to reduce emissions. For some firms, buying credits could prove the cheapest way to meet the mandates.

REDD projects have sprouted in Bolivia, Cambodia, Congo, Indonesia, Kenya, Madagascar and Peru.

But nowhere has the idea been embraced more keenly than in Brazil, home to 27% of the world's tropical rain forests and 18 REDD projects, including the one in Boa Frente. Although 98% of the surrounding state of Amazonas remains forested, ranchers, farmers, loggers and miners are rapidly moving in. The state calculates that it could lose a third of its trees by 2050.

"We need a radical change in the development paradigm," said Virgilio Viana, former secretary of the environment for Amazonas.

Viana now runs a public-private effort known as the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation, funded in part by Coca-Cola Co. and Brazil's Bradesco Bank. It hopes to sell carbon credits from 25 million acres of protected forest in 14 reserves.

The first project is in the Juma Reserve, an area nearly twice the size of Yosemite located 125 miles south of the state capital, Manaus. It is home to 380 families in 43 villages, including Boa Frente.

In exchange for their bolsa floresta -- or forest allowance -- villagers also attend two-day workshops on global warming. Their promise not to expand their plots is enforced: The land is mapped and the forest monitored by satellite. If a family reneges, its debit card is canceled.

Forest dwellers are also trained in sustainable livelihoods, including harvesting seeds, berries, rubber and other products needed by researchers and industry.

On a recent afternoon, Helcio Honorato, a gregarious agricultural engineer, stood below an 80-foot Brazil nut tree, shouting at Francidalva Almeida, a 23-year-old mother of two, who swayed high in the branches.

"Concentrate!" he yelled. "No reason to rush! The carabiner will hold you if you fall!"

Almeida, decked out in climbing gear, was collecting seeds that would be used for reforestation. So far, 14 villagers have been trained. In coming months, 70 more will learn to gather seeds from dozens of species, including varieties used in medicines and cosmetics.

"At first I was scared," said Almeida, who's about 5 feet tall with a ponytail and pink nail polish. "But this is a way to earn money."

Downriver, in the village of Fleixal, eight families occupy thatched-roof shacks shaded by 200-foot Brazil nut trees. Villagers attended workshops on how to build wire-mesh, plastic-covered nut dryers. A distributor now pays $7 for a five-gallon can -- up from $3 -- because quality has improved.

"The forest has riches," village leader Aderbal de Oliveira said, thwacking dry leaves with his machete to uncover fallen nuts. "We must be its guardians."

By protecting the Juma Reserve, the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation hopes to sell offsets worth $29 million on the global market at today's prices of $8 a metric ton. Without that money, it cannot afford the roughly $15-million endowment needed to safeguard Juma.

Marriott's $2 million is a start, and the company may raise more from featuring the reserve on its website, offering customers a chance to offset the greenhouse gases emitted during their travel.

"We decided to be a leader in this space," Marriott Executive Vice President Arne M. Sorenson said. "It makes us a better brand and increases customer loyalty."

Some environmental groups, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, oppose the use of credits by corporations. Coal-fired power plants and other major emitters of greenhouse gases should clean up their own smokestacks, they contend, rather than be permitted to buy their way out of complying with emissions caps through forest credits that are difficult to quantify.

But others believe that governments and charities alone won't be able to finance forest preservation. Norway has pledged $1 billion to Amazon projects, but tens of billions of dollars more would have to come through corporate trading once countries place firm caps on greenhouse gases.

Meanwhile, U.S. climate legislation remains stalled in the Senate. If Congress fails to pass a bill this year, some of the first American corporate money could flow through California's cap-and-trade program, set to take effect in 2012. Delegations of California climate officials have visited Juma and other Amazon projects.

margot.roosevelt @latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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