In One Brazilian Farm Town, Reviving The Forest

Brazilian farmer Darci Eichelt is replacing some of his cash crops with native plants i i

Until recently, Darci Eichelt planted soybeans across his entire 6,000-acre farm outside Lucas do Rio Verde in central Brazil. Now, Eichelt is planting native vegetation that will eventually cover about one-third of his property. He says he began to notice that the natural water supply had been affected by clear-cutting — and he understood that he had cleared more than he should have. Peter Breslow/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Breslow/NPR
Brazilian farmer Darci Eichelt is replacing some of his cash crops with native plants

Until recently, Darci Eichelt planted soybeans across his entire 6,000-acre farm outside Lucas do Rio Verde in central Brazil. Now, Eichelt is planting native vegetation that will eventually cover about one-third of his property. He says he began to notice that the natural water supply had been affected by clear-cutting — and he understood that he had cleared more than he should have.

Peter Breslow/NPR

For years, environmentalists have accused Brazil of putting development ahead of the environment. Unrestrained deforestation, they say, made Brazil a major producer of greenhouse gases.

But in one town, farmers are now replanting native vegetation in a new initiative that could become a model for the rest of the country.

Darci Eichelt cleared and plowed as much land as he could when he first arrived in Lucas do Rio Verde in central Mato Grosso state more than 20 years ago.

Now, a sea of soybeans covers his 6,000 acres, as in all the surrounding farms in Lucas.

Eichelt says people like him are proud of being pioneers who built a tiny outpost in the middle of an oven-hot mosaic of savannas and forests.

Today, Lucas is a far different place, one that's a lot like Iowa. The town is filled with mom-and-pop stores, grain silos and a dealership selling John Deere and Casey tractors. The fields beyond are plowed with cash crops as far as the eye can see.

It's one of the most prosperous farm towns in a big, booming country. It's also the epicenter of what could be an environmental revolution.

Reviving The 'Forest Code'

On a recent day, Eichelt walks to the edge of his farm, toward a clump of trees. They are trees he is now planting, where he could be growing soybeans. In fact, Eichelt is setting aside one-third of his farm for native vegetation.

"Can you imagine all this in 10 years? It's going to be beautiful. All these trees growing, and fruits and seeds will turn into a very attractive place for birds," he says.

'Lucasinho' welcomes visitors to Lucas do Rio Verde i i

"Lucasinho," or Little Lucas, greets visitors at the entrance to Lucas do Rio Verde. In towns like Lucas do Rio Verde, the Brazilian government has stepped up enforcement of a decades-old law requiring farmers to dedicate 35 percent of their land to the preservation of natural vegetation as part of an effort to reduce the country's greenhouse gas emissions. Peter Breslow/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Breslow/NPR
'Lucasinho' welcomes visitors to Lucas do Rio Verde

"Lucasinho," or Little Lucas, greets visitors at the entrance to Lucas do Rio Verde. In towns like Lucas do Rio Verde, the Brazilian government has stepped up enforcement of a decades-old law requiring farmers to dedicate 35 percent of their land to the preservation of natural vegetation as part of an effort to reduce the country's greenhouse gas emissions.

Peter Breslow/NPR

Eichelt is one of 670 farmers in Lucas who are starting to observe a decades-old environmental law as part of new government efforts to stem deforestation. It calls on farmers in regions like this to set aside up to 35 percent of their farms for native plant species.

The initiative in Lucas has an innovative component, since much of the land was cleared for farming years ago. Farmers can compensate for deforestation by paying to protect pockets of wilderness located miles from their farms.

Lucas' environmental secretary unfurls a satellite map showing farms and forests around the town. Luciane Bertinatto Copetti says that unless they comply, farmers could face economic sanctions.

Those farmers know all too well that Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland Co. now require that the products they buy from local farmers be certified as environmentally friendly. Those American exporters — and other big agricultural companies that are heavily invested in Brazil — had been pressured themselves to enact such a policy.

Bertinatto Copetti says the Brazilian state is also more aggressively enforcing the law.

"I know each one of the owners, and we've adopted a system. Instead of punishing them, we help them to get on the legal side and comply," she says.

That entails meeting one on one with each farmer and discussing how best to meet the so-called forest code.

"Nobody wants to have problems with the environment. And we have a cast of farmers who want to solve their problems and sleep soundly at night," Bertinatto Copetti says.

More Signs Of Progress Against Deforestation

The program in Lucas may seem like a small step in a country as big as Brazil, which remains one of the world's biggest producers of greenhouse gases.

Deforestation releases carbon emissions through the fires used to clear forests. The loss of habitat also means fewer trees to absorb carbon dioxide. New highways continue to go through the Amazon, and Brazil is building dams in pristine rainforests.

But some environmentalists see hope. David Cleary of The Nature Conservancy is working with farmers in Lucas on the environmental initiative. He is also watching to see what Brazil's government announces at the global warming conference in Copenhagen.

"Brazil, it seems, is likely to go to Copenhagen with really quite impressive commitments in getting deforestation down. Indeed in the last few years, deforestation levels have fallen in the Amazon quite dramatically," Cleary says.

In the late 1990s, a swath of forest the size of Maryland was deforested annually in Brazil. Now, it's a little more than half as much, according to the government. Brazil is also pledging to reduce gas emissions by up to 39 percent from the levels projected for 2020.

"I think what they are moving towards is essentially a no-deforestation position by 2030," says Cleary. "The projections that I have seen by the Ministry of Environment do those sorts of commitments. It's way, way beyond any commitment that Brazil has made in deforestation before."

Duty To Restore Nature

Less than 30 years ago, though, Brazil wanted to develop the area around Lucas fast. Settlers came for cheap land, and families scraped by, some of them living in tents.

Now, immaculate public schools boast big swimming pools. The streets are paved, as wide as the ones in the American Midwest. Booming business is attracting 400 new residents a month. Many of them move into new homes, bought with cheap government loans. Big multinational agricultural companies have come to buy what Lucas produces. Restaurants and bars are opening. Main Street even has a fancy new chocolate shop.

Osvaldo Martinello arrived in Lucas looking to open a small business in 1989.

"It was just deserted. When I arrived here, there was no energy, light, telephones," Martinello says.

Getting his appliance store going took perseverance.

Now, Martinello's stores sell big flat-screen TVs, appliances, bicycles. In all, he has 29 stores across the state.

At dusk, thousands of parakeets settle into the trees around Darci Eichelt's farmhouse, and the farmer settles into his chair on his porch to discuss his replanting of native trees.

Eichelt says he began to notice that the natural water supply had been affected by the clear-cutting — and he understood that he had cleared more than he should have.

So he started replanting more than six years ago.

"I thought that was the minimum that I could do," says Eichelt, "because we have destroyed nature, and we had to restore it somehow."

Radio story produced by Senior Producer Peter Breslow

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