As his helicopter descends through the smoke towards an Amazonian inferno, Evandro Carlos Selva checks the coordinates via a global positioning satellite and radios back to base a witness testimony to deforestation.
Flames lick up from below the canopy, smoke billows across the horizon, while down below, the carbon that has been stored in the forest for hundreds of years is released into the atmosphere.
Skeletal trees are charred gray, others burnt black. Nearby, what was once forest is reduced to an expanse of ash, dust and embers. Trudging through the debris, Carlos Selva points to a nearby soy farm: “They’ve been paid to do this. Forty percent of next year’s harvest on this land has already been bought.”
The clearance is illegal and Carlos Selva — a ranger with Brazil’s environmental protection agency, Ibama — sets in motion the process of levying fines, business embargoes and other penalties that have helped to slow the pace of deforestation by almost 80 percent in the past eight years. This represents impressive progress, but it is at risk. The pressure to convert more Amazonian forest is growing stronger due to drought in the US, rising world food prices and a weakening of Brazilian laws.
Carlos Selva works in Mato Grosso, the front line of efforts to find a balance between protecting the climate and feeding a growing world population. Next year, Brazil is expected to overtake the US as the world’s biggest soy producer. Most of that crop will be grown in Mato Grosso — where the Amazon forest meets the Cerrado savannah — and both are being engulfed by farm fields.
Global priorities are etched on to the land here with geometric precision. Far from most people’s image of a vast, unbroken Amazon, the forest has been sliced and diced into polygons that divide the world’s most productive soy fields from the world’s greatest land carbon sinks.
The borders between the two ought to be determined by whether humanity places more value on our lungs or our bellies. In reality, it has become a contest between economics and the law.
Carlos Selva is responsible for patrolling and maintaining this restless boundary. It may well be the ultimate 21st-century job: analyst, accountant, climate regulator and eco-police officer rolled into one dangerous and important role that is constantly being transformed by satellite data, global warming, world hunger and international commodity prices.
He gets deforestation warnings from space and death threats from his neighbors — all the high-tech support available in the 21st century, with the same risks faced by a Wild West sheriff 200 years ago. He is equipped with a GPS device, camera, tablet and a gun.
Monitoring ownership and land change is no easy task. In the state of Mato Grosso alone, there are 110,000 properties. Most are extremely remote. Many owners have invested their lives here and do not take kindly to being told they cannot use the land as they want.
Carlos Selva received death threats in June, while the world was debating the pros and cons of sustainability at the Rio+20 Earth summit. He has been held hostage by landowners. They have punctured the tires on his four-wheel drive. Corrupt local politicians are not on his side. After his most successful operation — a sting that exposed widespread forgery of forest documentation — he and the police chief he worked with were transferred to out-of-the way districts. It could be worse. Other rangers have had their homes shot at. Many environmental campaigners have been killed trying to protect the Amazon.