Just three years ago, the manmade fires in Paragominas were so fierce smoke would blot out the Amazon sky, turning the days dark. Towering rain forest trees exploded in flames, their canopies cleared to let pasture grow for cattle.
The ash that snowed down onto this jungle town was shin-deep. Dirty layers hid red-hot timber chunks, glowing coals that burned the bare feet of children walking through the cinder drifts.
Paragominas was losing forest faster than nearly any other place in the Amazon.
Today, the town has risen from those ashes to become a pioneering "Green City," a model of sustainability with a new economic approach that has seen illegal deforestation virtually halted. Experts say the metamorphosis is the best hope for showing the 25 million people who live in the Amazon that the forest is worth more alive than dead.
Our city was on the government's black list
- Mayor Adnan Demachki
The transformation came after Brazil cracked down on 36 counties responsible for the worst deforestation in the Amazon. A resulting economic embargo left the town with two options. It could fight against change, or it could embrace a new path and promote development with minimal harm to the environment.
Mayor Adnan Demachki is the unlikely environmental warrior driving the change, a plump 46-year-old bespectacled lawyer who grew up here, and was mayor when his town was one of the worst deforesters.
"Our city was on the government's black list," Demachki said. "There was no way out other than the new path we had chosen."
His "Green City" plan aims to halt all illegal deforestation through a mix of enforcement, the creation of the Amazon's only local environmental police force, and promotion of an economy that doesn't rely on clearing jungle. Instead, the focus is on sustainable development — using managed forestry for a wood industry, and introducing modern farming techniques to increase production while using less land.
In the past year Demachki's success has earned him high praise from environmental authorities that once harshly criticized his town. He's been featured on Brazil's biggest TV news programs and traveled around the country to spread the gospel of his Green City.
"Paragominas is an example of how to successfully overcome deforestation and begin the transition to an economy that conserves the forest," said Mauro Pires, head of the Environment Ministry's department that fights Amazon destruction. "They changed their stance and followed their leaders down an alternative path, one that coexists with the forest."
The Amazon rain forest is arguably the biggest natural defense against global warming, acting as a giant absorber of carbon dioxide.
As it's cut, the world not only loses this defense, but the destruction itself adds to the problem. About 75 percent of Brazil's emissions come from rain forest clearing, as vegetation burns and felled trees rot. That releases an estimated 400 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, making Brazil at least the sixth-biggest emitter of the gas.
Nearly 20 percent of Brazil's Amazon has been cleared.
The destruction began in force five decades ago, when Brazil's government gave away free land to those who agreed to clear 50 percent of their plot, and incentives didn't end until the 1990s. Endless waves of migrants followed, carving a livelihood out of the jungle. Wood cutters, ranchers and grain farmers chewed up virgin jungle along the Amazon's southern border, a yawning 2,600-mile 2,600 (4.185-kilometer) upside-down arc stretching between Brazil's western and eastern borders, the distance between New York and San Francisco.
The global economy's growing demand for hardwood timber, soy and beef pushed deforestation into overdrive, hitting a peak in 1995 when 11,220 square miles (nearly 30,000 square kilometers) were razed. The vast majority of the deforestation was against the law. But less than 5 percent of the land is deeded, and enforcing environmental laws is difficult when authorities cannot prove who owns it.
The Amazon is the size of the U.S. west of the Mississippi River, and much of it is wild, ruled by the gun in the absence of governmental and legal institutions. More than 1,150 rural activists have been slain in the past 20 years by gunmen hired by loggers to silence voices decrying illegal cutting. Only a handful of those responsible are in jail.
Its massive expanses and wild nature make it impossible to uniformly enforce environmental laws. Under pressure from the nation's agricultural lobby, Brazil's Senate passed a bill last week that would loosen those laws. The bill is expected to pass both houses within weeks.
The Paragominas experiment is significant, experts say, because it shows it's possible to convince people at the local level that saving the forest is in their best interest.
In 2008, the Brazilian government for the first time set a concrete goal to decelerate rain forest destruction, aiming to reduce it to 1,900 square miles (5,000 square kilometers) by 2017. Armed field agents targeted Paragominas and others on a blacklist of 36 counties, handing out massive fines, confiscating cattle herds and shutting sawmills.
In Paragominas, home to about 100,000 people, federal agents closed nearly 300 illegal sawmills. The town lost 2,300 jobs within a year and the federal government cut off agricultural credits.
Paragominas leaders knew they had to change. So they took an unheard-of leap of faith in the Amazon: They asked the very environmental groups that had been castigating them to help them go green.
The strategy was both revolutionary and simple.
In a reversal of the slash-and-burn mentality that had long ruled the Amazon, landowners would turn to basic conservation and agricultural methods that had been used in the U.S. since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. They would rotate crops to keep land fertile, avoid overgrazing pasture, stop cutting native jungle and instead plant trees to use for wood products.
In short, people were forced to follow environmental laws to produce beef, grains and wood products instead of relying on illegal deforestation.
By doing so, the economic model shifts — from illegal to legal. The fate of the Amazon rests on the difference between the two.
Demachki turned to the president of the local rural producers union to help sell the switch. Mauro Lucio Costa holds a post that across the Amazon is almost uniformly filled by people who view environmentalists as the sworn enemy, with the federal government not much better.
It didn't take much persuading.
Costa is a big man with a big presence, in his signature sand-colored cowboy hat and oversized belt buckle. He has a booming voice and the rough hands of a man who has run cattle his whole life, like his father and grandfather before him.
Costa knew that ranching was responsible for more rain forest destruction than any other activity. As pasture degrades, ranchers create new grazing land by clearing forest and throwing out grass seed. He also knew the most important way to change the game was to stop demonizing ranchers and make them part of the solution.
"To talk of the Amazon without remembering those of us living here is to speak of utopia. It's fantasy," Costa said. "You want sustainability, you speak of untouched forest, but if you do so without giving people a livelihood, you have no chance at succeeding."
Together, the men reassured the farmers and ranchers in the vast county that the Green City project would allow them to thrive without cutting down more forest.
The first step was the signing of their Green City pact with leaders from all segments of society, formally agreeing to support the goal of eradicating illegal deforestation.
The leaders then sought a partnership with the U.S.-based environmental group, The Nature Conservancy, which had the expertise and know-how to execute the plan.
The Conservancy staff used satellite imagery to delineate the county's farms and get landowners legally deeded. They told landowners what percent of their land still had standing forest and how much they needed to replant. They taught ranchers and farmers best practices to draw more from the land.
It was the enforcement piece that nearly derailed the Green City plan.
On a Sunday morning in 2008, just four months into the new experiment, a mob gathered outside the environmental agents' office, where 15 trucks holding massive towers of illegally cut trees were lined outside, confiscated hours before. Fueled by rage and sugarcane liquor, the crowd torched the office and broke into the trucks to hot-wire and reclaim them.
The mob then moved toward Hotel Indiana, bent on lynching the federal agents behind the crackdown and its aftermath: the lost sawmills, the lost timber, the lost jobs.
"It was our lowest moment," Demachki said. "It seemed as if citizens wanted to go backward, to retreat from our project."
Police eventually broke up the mob and the mayor spent hours on the phone, calling the city leaders who had signed the Green City pledge, demanding they meet him at City Hall the next morning.
There, he held up two sheets of paper.
One was an apology addressed to the Brazilian nation that he would personally deliver to the Environment Ministry in the capital of Brasilia if all those gathered signed it, redoubling the promise to push ahead as the only Amazon city to meet its goal of zero rain forest destruction by 2014.
If they wouldn't sign it, he offered another option: his resignation, which would end the project and any chance that it might spread.
They voted for the Amazon.
Four days later, Brazil's environment minister flew to the town at Demachki's invitation and personally shut down two illegal sawmills whose owners were spotted at the arson. After that, getting buy-in from Paragominas residents was easier.
Costa, Demachki's partner in the Green City plan, is philosophical about the rebellion.
"The Amazon is a paradise for those who live in New York, Paris, Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo. But it's a hell for those who live within it," he said. "It's hard to say to a poor man living in the Amazon, 'That tree is beautiful, it's a wonder of nature' and then have him go home to children crying because they're hungry."
Desperation leaves people susceptible to illegal woodcutters who will pay for a poor man's tree. Knowing that, Demachki added yet another enforcement arm to his arsenal of tools: the Amazon's first environmental police.
These days, Imazon, an environmental watchdog agency, uses satellite images to spot any new deforestation and passes the information over to the town's new environmental cops, headed by Felipe Zagalo. He investigates the claim, hands out fines and reports it to federal officials. The fact he's a longtime resident of Paragominas and knows the people he is confronting makes his job easier.
"More often than not, when I confront a landowner about an infraction, I'm met with an apology," Zagalo said. "They know what they've done is wrong. They also know there is no place to hide anymore."
Paulo Amaral, a senior researcher at Imazon who has studied the Amazon for 20 years, is convinced the tide is turning. This week, the Brazilian government announced that the latest annual deforestation statistics were the lowest since they began tracking them in 1988.
"This is the best model we've found yet, making the fight against deforestation a local issue," he said. "It's the lasting answer for stopping the destruction."
Paragominas was the first city to be removed from the federal government's blacklist of deforesting counties. In March, Paragominas became the model for a statewide Green City program, with about 90 counties signed up so far.
Jungle destruction in Paragominas hit 64 square miles (165 square kilometers)in 2008, according to Imazon. That fell to 1.2 square miles (3 square kilometers) last year, an unprecedented drop that helped the city win the Chico Mendes prize, Brazil's most prestigious environmental award.
The town has recouped all the jobs it lost and added new ones, in large part by promoting a wood industry that relies on managed forestry.
The question these days is whether the project can be replicated. Some think Paragominas is an anomaly, a place that saw the perfect combination of extreme pressure from the federal government and local leaders willing to make a radical change.
Amaral hopes the results in Paragominas can convince others that working with environmental groups is the best way forward.
"We can now show people that this model works in the real world. Before, it was just theoretical," he said. "Other cities in Para are seeing that Paragominas is benefiting from battling deforestation, that they are thriving by working within the law."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.