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Many environmentalists have accused Brazil of putting development ahead of the environment. Chopping and burning the forests have made the country a major producer of greenhouse gases. But in one town, farmers are now replanting forests under a program that could become a model for the rest of the country.

NPR's Juan Forero reports from Lucas do Rio Verde.

JUAN FORERO: Darci Eichelt cleared and plowed as much land as he could when he first arrived here in Mato Grosso State more than 20 years ago. Now, a sea of soybeans covers his 6,000 acres, just like all the surrounding farms in Lucas.

Mr. DARCI EICHELT (Farmer): (Portuguese spoken)

FORERO: 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, in central Brazil, is a far different place, a place 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.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

FORERO: Eichelt walks to the edge of his farm, toward a clump of trees - trees he's now planting, where he could be growing soybeans. In fact, Eichelt is setting aside a third of his farm for native vegetation.

Mr. EICHELT: (Portuguese spoken)

FORERO: He says in 10 or 15 years, the trees he's planted will be beautiful, attracting plenty of birds from all over.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

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

The initiative here 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.

(Soundbite of rustling sound)

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

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

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

Ms. LUCIANE BERTINATTO COPETTI (Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: She said that Lucas has, instead of punishing the farmers, adopted a system to help them comply, meeting one-on-one with each of them, discussing how best to meet the so-called forest code.

Ms. BERTINATTO COPETTI: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: She says none of the farmers want to have a problem with the environment. They want to solve their problems and sleep soundly at night.

(Soundbite of crickets)

FORERO: The program in Lucas may seem like a small step in a country this big. Brazil 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. And Cleary is also watching to see what Brazil's government announces at the conference in Copenhagen.

Mr. DAVID CLEARY (The Nature Conservancy): Brazil, it seems, is likely to go to Copenhagen with some really quite impressive commitments on getting deforestation down. And indeed, over the last few years, deforestation levels have fallen in the Amazon quite dramatically.

FORERO: In the 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.

Mr. CLEARY: I think what they're moving towards is essentially a no-deforestation position by 2030, something like that. And the projections that I've seen from the Ministry of Environment do make those sorts of commitments. It's way, way beyond any commitment that Brazil has made in deforestation before.

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

(Soundbite of splashing)

FORERO: Now, immaculate public schools boast big swimming pools. The streets are paved, wide as the ones in the American Midwest.

(Soundbite of hammering)

FORERO: Booming business is attracting 400 new residents a month. Many of them move to new homes bought with cheap government loans. Big multinational agro-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 here looking to open a small business in 1989.

Mr. OSVALDO MARTINELLO: (Portuguese spoken)

FORERO: Martinello says it was deserted - no lights or telephones. And getting his appliance store going took perseverance.

Unidentified Man: (Portuguese spoken)

FORERO: Now, his stores sell big flat-screen TVs, appliances, bicycles. In all, he has 29 stores across the state.

(Soundbite of birds squawking)

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

Mr. EICHELT: (Portuguese spoken)

FORERO: Eichelt says he began to notice that the natural water supply had been affected by the clear-cutting, and he understood that he'd cleared more than he should have. So he started replanting more than six years ago.

Mr. EICHELT: (Portuguese spoken)

FORERO: Eichelt said he realized he had, quote, "destroyed nature," and he said he and other farmers now have to find a way to restore it.

Juan Forero, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And you'll find lots more on climate change, including the latest developments from the Copenhagen climate conference, at our Web site, npr.org.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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