The cash cows on Carlos Marques’ farm used to be nothing but that: herds of dairy cattle that grazed the grassy, rolling hills of his property, where most of the dense tropical forest was cut down long ago for pastures and cropland.
However, the trees are starting to put money in his pocket as well.
The 68-year-old farmer is part of a pilot project that aims to reverse the economics of environmental destruction by paying farmers to preserve the forests that protect a crucial watershed, using money from some of the millions of people who use that water.
It is the sort of initiative that is at the heart of the UN’s Rio+20 Earth Summit, the three-day mega-conference that ended yesterday and aimed to push sustainable development to the top of the world’s agenda.
“It used to be that the forest was worth nothing,” said Fernando Veiga, water funds manager at the Nature Conservancy, the environmental organization that helped spearhead the Rio Claro-area project along with a Brazilian NGO and the state and municipal governments. “But we know how crucial living trees are to the planet and now they have a monetary value.”
Proponents insist that sustainable development — which allows economic growth to meet people’s current needs while preserving natural resources for the future — is the only way to prevent an environmental meltdown that could prove catastrophic for the planet and humanity.
However, critics contend that the idea often serves as a front that permits governments and companies to make noise about protecting the environment while permitting business to continue as usual.
Looking out onto the rounded hills that surround Marques’ farm near the tiny town of Rio Claro, 130km south of Rio de Janeiro, it is hard to believe this entire region was once swathed in dense vegetation. Devastated by centuries of deforestation — first for coffee plantations, then for charcoal and now for cattle raising and urban sprawl — Brazil’s Atlantic Forest has been whittled down to just 12 percent of its original size and scientists say it ranks as one of the world’s most threatened ecosystems.
The hills around Rio Claro are now almost bald, with just a sparse covering of grass that is often chewed down to the root by the rangy cattle that graze here. With little to anchor the earth into place, erosion has cut vivid gashes of rusty red soil.
This desolate landscape holds the source for the Guandu River, which provides 80 percent of Rio’s water. Because of deforestation and erosion, water is less abundant than locals say it once was and silt from the erosion and other pollutants seep into the tributaries of the Guandu, as well as the river itself. That forces water officials to heavily treat the water to make it usable, which costs the city US$500 million a year, according to environmentalists. Despite that, most Rio residents who can afford it drink bottled water.
On Marques’ property, for example, the brook that once babbled its way across his land had dried up, like many other streams in the area, the farmer said.
The Nature Conservancy and partner organization Instituto Terra developed the Guandu Water Fund to protect Rio’s water supply by investing in the forests that help generate the water itself.
Under the pilot project, inaugurated in 2009, US$500,000 in fees paid by big water consumers are being doled out to small farmers around Rio Claro who pledge to conserve their forests or allow swathes of their land to be reforested. Farmers sign a contract promising to keep their animals out of protected plots and organizers send out teams of locally hired employees to fence in the areas and plant thousands of saplings from a potpourri of about 80 native plant species.