Death of the Amazon

In Brazil, environmental technocrats talk of saving the rainforest with satellite technology - but l

Sitting in an air-conditioned office in Brasilia, Brazil's modernist federal capital that always has an unreal feel to it, we found it difficult not to be impressed. Or maybe, after so many depressing stories about the destruction of the rainforest, we just wanted to believe what we were being told. We were both beguiled by the vision so powerfully presented to us.

"A new era is beginning for the Amazon," said Tasso Rezende de Azevedo, the youthful head of Brazil's National Forest Programme, running a hand through his thick, brown hair. Bringing up on his computer a bewildering array of maps and aerial photos, he went on: "Today, thanks to modern satellite technology, we have instant information. We know almost immediately when someone is illegally cutting down the forest and we can send in one of our teams to arrest those responsible. From now on, loggers and farmers will have to obey the law."

Tasso belongs to a young Brazilian generation of environmental technocrats who have a fervent belief in the power of technology. Under the leadership of Marina Silva, the charismatic environment minister, who herself comes from the Amazon, they have developed an ambitious strategy for ending deforestation, now running at 1.3 million hectares a year, making Brazil the fifth largest global contributor to greenhouse gases. At the centre of this strategy lies a vast mosaic of conservation units, stretching across the heart of the Amazon Basin from north to south and already covering some 20 million hectares (an area the size of England and Scotland together), with more units planned.

The idea is that these reserves will act as a buffer and stop the human predators - the land-grabbers, illegal loggers, cattle ranchers and soya farmers - moving into the western Amazon, which is still largely untouched.

Some of these are old-fashioned nature parks, where no human activity is permitted. Others are so-called "extractive reserves" for the Amazon's long-term inhabitants such as the ribeir inhos (riverside dwellers, mainly descen ded from 19th-century rubber tappers or from runaway slaves). Yet others, created under Brazil's Project for Sustainable Development (PDS), are for the Amazon's shifting population of former gold prospectors, dam workers and landless families that have invaded indigenous reserves. Key to the success of all these conservation units are Tasso's satellite images, which will allow the government to ensure that only permitted, sustainable economic activity is undertaken.

But can it work? During 30 years of visiting the region, we have witnessed the relentless advance of the agricultural frontier ever deeper into the Amazon forest. Dared we hope that the destruction might be ending? We visited Santarém, an old port built by the Portuguese, where the mighty Tapajós tributary meets the even mightier Amazon River.

This area is being ransacked for hardwoods (especially ipê, now that mahogany, once known as green gold, has been exhaustively logged and exports banned) and planted with soya, the international wonder crop, fed to cattle all over the world. The riverfront, lined by trading and passenger boats that ply the local waters, is now overlooked by an ungainly soya terminal, built by the giant US commodities trader Cargill. If the government's policies were starting to bite here, then a new era really would be dawning.

We hired a 4x4 to visit Renascer, one of the government's new sustainable projects, situated about 200 kilometres south-east of Santarém. According to figures published at the end of last year by the National Institute for Rural Settlement and Agrarian Reform (Incra), 360 families have been settled here. To reach the settlement, we travelled through dense forest, skidding and sliding along dirt roads made as slippery as soap by recent rains. High up in the jungle canopy, we caught a glimpse of a pair of arara-azuls, a species of endangered macaw almost exclusively found in Brazil. Occasionally, a tapir or an agouti ran across the track. What became clear as we travelled further into the forest and passed countless loggers' tracks leading off either side of the road is that Renascer's 44,000 hectares (109,000 acres) had already been plundered for hardwoods.

We saw no sign of human life as we drove deeper into the settlement. At the end of the road we found several abandoned huts, strewn with discarded clothing. On one hung a hand-painted sign that read, somewhat forlornly, "Agro-Extractive Reserve Renascer, PDS". But where were the settlers? The only people we met within the settlement area were two men and a woman who had moved in on their own initiative, planting cassava between tree stumps in an area cleared by the loggers and rearing ducks in a stream. Having plundered the area, the loggers had moved further into the forest. "We can still hear the whine of chainsaws in the distance," one of them said.

Corrupt officials

On our return to Santarém and after talking to government officials, researchers and settlers, it became obvious that loggers have invented a scam to continue illegal logging. Under the terms of a PDS, settlers can clear one-fifth of the area they are allocated, while the remaining four-fifths goes to a collective forest reserve to be used for renewable activities, such as collecting Brazil nuts, extracting oil from andiroba trees, and sustainable logging. As the government tightens its control over logging, demanding proper forest-management projects and legal titles to the land, bandit loggers who have neither have found the weak spot in the new strategy. They have gone into partnership with corrupt officials within Incra, which authorises and administers the settlements, and have set up fake community organisations to run PDSs. Some of these have become facades behind which the loggers carry on plundering the forest.

Many innocent people are caught up in the scam. We discovered that a few years ago one logger had enticed some 80 people, desperate for a plot of land, to join his fake community organisation. He had taken them by lorry to Renascer to have a look at the land and dumped them there. But Renascer, set up with the interests of the loggers in mind, is located in difficult, hilly terrain. Marooned in this remote area, the would-be settlers began to get hungry and grew frightened after a few days. They started to trudge back to Santarém on foot. After walking 27 kilometres, they came to the nearest house, built by a soya farmer, who gave them food and water and even drove the eldest couple, in their late sixties, in his jeep back to Santarém. All that is left of this failed experiment is abandoned huts.

None of these people wants ever again to hear talk of Renascer, but others continue to fall into the same trap. We spoke to C, too scared to give his full name. A small weather-beaten man of 47 with five children, he is hoping to get a piece of land in Renascer. Like many in Santarém, he migrated to the Amazon from the dirt-poor state of Maranhão, working as a gold miner, sawmill employee and book salesman - whatever turned up. When he heard about the new settlements, he thought it was at last a chance to get land. He eagerly began paying five reals (£1.25) a month to the association of would-be Renascer residents set up by the timber company stooge. Two years have passed; meetings are held, but "nothing happens", says C. "They keep telling us we'll get our plot in two weeks' time . . . I know they're fooling us, but I daren't complain. If I say anything, they'll kill me."

We showed him a photo of Renascer, his first glimpse of his promised land. If these settlers ever get their land, they will be able to survive only with support from the timber companies. But the loggers will leave once they have stripped out all the timber. The community will then collapse and Renascer will be seen as another failed attempt to bring sustainable development to the Amazon. The settlers will be blamed, because the loggers will have airbrushed themselves out of the story.

Near Renascer is another PDS called Santa Clara. This is on a flat plateau - unusual in the Amazon - that is devoid of rivers and streams, and is unsuitable for any kind of settlement because of the risk of forest fires. Yet soya farmers from Mato Grosso have moved in, attracted by cheap (in reality, illegal) land. Cargill has agreed to purchase the soya - no questions asked about origins. Caught unawares by the tougher strategy from Brasilia, the soya farmers have been given hefty fines for clearing virgin forest, but they are determined to stay in the area, even if it means allying themselves with land sharks and corrupt local officials.

Since 2005, almost 100 conservation units of various kinds have been created in the Santarém area. One researcher told us that nine-tenths of them were facades behind which loggers and farmers are hiding. By claiming that their timber and soya come from environmentally sustainable projects, they may even get better prices.

Over the past 30 years, the Amazon has become a byword for violence and lawlessness. As we should have remembered, listening to the head of the forest programme describe his brave new world in Brasilia, technology alone cannot change this. Many government officials have a commitment to stopping the senseless destruction of the forest but, on the ground, corruption, understaffing and inadequate resources undermine their efforts.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins