Twenty years ago, the fate of the Amazonian rainforest was a cause celèbre – and many environmentalists believed it to be a lost one. After decades of rapid deforestation, peaking in the 1990s, prophets of doom were beginning to draft obituaries for the world's largest tropical forest.
Now it is being celebrated in a different way. Over the intervening period, the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has fallen by more than two thirds. And though the battle for the forest's future is far from over, it has begun to become a symbol of hope, not despair.
At the heart of the transformation lie determined government policies and an extraordinary programme, pioneered with the Global Environment Facility (GEF) following the vision provided by the government of Brazil, that has created more than 100 reserves. The Amazon Region Protected Areas (ARPA) programme, begun in 2002, has exceeded all its targets.
And it has recently been joined by two other key GEF-financed programmes. One will maintain tens of millions of hectares of forest land in Brazil, Colombia and Peru. The other is a revolutionary, integrated project to promote sustainable agriculture which will reduce pressure on the dry forests adjoining the Amazon.
Everything about the Amazon forest is superlative. It is the largest in the world; it's biome stretches to over 6 million sq. kilometres, twice the size of India, with more kinds of animals and plants than anywhere else on earth – home to one in every ten of all known species. It contains 70 billion tonnes of carbon, and has a profound influence both on local weather and the world's climate.
Yet about a fifth of this vast forest – which contains 2,344 indigenous territories – has been cut down. For decades, governments saw it as a frontier that should be opened up to economic development. Roads were carved through it and settlers flocked in to clear land; cattle ranches were established and later turned into soy bean plantations.
That attitude changed dramatically in 1998, when the Government of Brazil pledged to triple the area of the Amazon under legal protection. The rescue effort has had to be on the same huge scale as the forest, and the challenges it faced. ARPA is, quite simply, the world's biggest-ever bid to conserve tropical rainforests – and it is succeeding.
It set out in 2002 to extend protection to 50 million hectares, a target that was later raised to 60 million hectares. That amounts to 15 per cent of the Brazilian Amazon, an area twice the size of Germany. It reached its goal last year, supporting no fewer than 117 protected areas: in some years ARPA was creating ten times as many such areas, as were being established in the rest of the world put together.
At first it concentrated on creating ecological reserves that excluded people but, as it progressed, it also established several dozen “extractive reserves”, devoted to protecting the livelihood and culture of forest people and ensuring sustainable use of natural resources, such as rubber, Brazil nuts and açaí palm fruit. Subsistence agriculture is encouraged and the reserve's inhabitants are empowered to become its guardians and stewards.
Nivaldo Sarmento da Silva, a representative of the people of the Tapajós-Arapiuns Extractive Reserve, speaks of how they organised themselves in co-operatives and associations for trade, adding “the community develops itself”. Another, Ingrid Godhino, describes how they established fish farming – a very important project for us because it helped in producing our own food and generating income”.
The reserves safeguard the climate as well as biodiversity and indigenous people. Between 2005 and 2015, ARPA-supported protected areas avoided carbon emissions equivalent to all those generated each year by motorized transport worldwide.
In 2012, the initiative received the inaugural Development Impact Honors award from the US Department of the Treasury and last year it was selected as one of eight key transformational change projects supported by the GEF.
José Sarney Filho, Brazil's Minister of the Environment, hails the country's “highly positive partnership” with the GEF adding; “What makes the ARPA project effective is its funding”.
Rosa Lemos de Sá, CEO of the Brazilian Biodiversity Fund-FUNBIO, ARPA's financial executor, says that “a programme of such proportions was unheard of – even inconceivable – until the GEF pledged financial support”. And Fabio Leite, its Agency Coordinator, adds: “the GEF was the first funder to assess the risk and to implement the project. It was a pioneer in the finance of the project, which was very important in bringing other donors to our side”.
The project is implemented by the World Bank, which also helps to fund it. The other main funders are: the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, through the German Development Bank; the Amazon Fund, through the Brazilian National Development Bank; the WWF Network; the Inter-American Development Bank; the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; Anglo-American; Natura and O Boticario.
Stefan Schwager, of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, says: “This is a model that could be, and should be, replicated in places that have similar ecosystems”.
In October 2015, the GEF’s Council committed to a new Amazon Sustainable Landscapes Programme, spanning Brazil, Colombia and Peru – which together cover 83 per cent of the Amazon basin – to maintain 73million hectares of forest land, promote sustainable land management in 52,700 hectares and support actions that will help reduce C02 emissions by 300 million tons by 2030.
Implemented by the World Bank, with the World Wildlife Fund and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), it will be the first programme to take an integrated approach to safeguarding the Amazon ecosystem – protecting globally significant biodiversity and mitigating climate change by implementing policies to foster sustainable land use, and protected areas management, and to restore vegetation.
Another integrated GEF programme, the Good Growth Partnership, aims to take deforestation out of the supply chain for soy in Brazil, and is focusing on the vulnerable Matopiba area of the country's Cerrado savannah. It is expected to result in at least 40% of the area being covered in native vegetation.
Led by UNDP's Green Commodities Programme, the initiative was designed and is being implemented in partnership with Conservation International, the International Finance Corporation, UN Environment, the World Wildlife Fund and their respective partners.
It promotes a dialogue between conservationists and producers to attain sustainable soy production and stands to benefit farmers as well as the environment because they can get higher prices from concerned consumers for soy grown in an environmentally-friendly way.
Gustavo Fonseca, the GEF's Director of Programs, says: “ARPA and the Good Growth Partnership are different sides of the same equation. What we are trying to do is to preserve the patrimony that has been created with ARPA over the last 15 years or so, but complement it with an approach that deals with the larger landscape, market forces and supply chains across commodities that have a huge footprint on deforestation.
“Hopefully we have a more integrated, comprehensive approach. You can't only work with market forces without addressing conservation of representative samples of biodiversity. Conversely, you can't hope that every single hectare of forest in the Amazon will be protected under a reserve or a national park. You need to have enough space for economic activities to expand, but in a sustainable way, away from standing forests”.