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Carbon credits and the green desert

As the struggle for land and water resources in Brazil intensifies, Heidi Bachram discovers that the new carbon market is an added burden for vulnerable communities.

September 1, 2006
5 min read

The dust whipped up by the trucks lies like a red fog over the road ahead, meaning we’re driving blind most of the time. Occasionally one of the trucks, transporting wood charcoal, veers dangerously close and its overburdened load leans ominously towards us.

We’re driving along a track in the middle of the Brazilian cerrado (savanna) attempting to get to a scattered farming community, Cana Brava, before nightfall. The subsistence farmers ahead are surrounded on all sides by eucalyptus plantations that provide the raw materials for the charcoal in the trucks. There is a chance we might be stopped by the armed guards that ‘protect’ the plantations. Between the encroaching twilight, the unpredictable trucks, the guards and the dust, nerves are beginning to fray.

Finally we arrive in the absolute darkness that can only be found in rural areas, far away from the orange glow of the city. The house we reach belongs to 48-year-old Maria Camargo Soares, whose grandmother worked the land here. Now she continues the family tradition of subsistence farming. She’s uncertain that her children can or will carry the traditions into the next generation.

Cana Brava dates from over a hundred years ago, which is a long time in the remembering of a young colonial nation like Brazil. The community is 22 kilometres from the nearest town along the aforementioned dirt road. There are over a thousand people living in the area; two thirds of the original inhabitants have now moved to the city as the encroaching plantations gobble up water and land around them.

‘They left because when the company came in 1975 the land become so little that people couldn’t support themselves. When my grandparents had their farm here there was enough land for everyone to live comfortably. Now the water has dried up and this year we didn’t harvest anything at all because of the drought and the drain on the water from the plantation,’ Dona Maria explains.

Juarez Teixeira, a local trade union worker, adds: ‘These people used to have freedom to use these lands, to come and go, to graze their cattle, to extract wood, to collect fruit and herbs. Today they are confined to this small area. One side it’s rock and on the other the armed guard of the company.’

The company in question is Vallourec & Mannesmann (V&M), a French-German steel company that uses the eucalyptus charcoal to fuel steel production. They have over 40,000 hectares of eucalyptus plantations in this region alone. In total there are five million hectares of eucalyptus in Brazil, a country where land issues are top of the political and social agenda. The history of eucalyptus is closely tied to that of the oppression of the military dictatorship, during which people were forcibly removed from their lands to make way for the ‘green revolution’.

V&M did not evict the people from the lands in Cana Brava, yet their more subtle tactics are just as effective. Dona Maria describes how the company flouts agreements by not terracing the land within the plantation, resulting in rains flooding through to her farm and causing silting. Her first home was destroyed when a V&M truck crashed into it after careering off the nearby road.

Juarez Teixeira catalogues many other problems caused by the company, such as health and safety violations where workers have been put in danger or poorly compensated for death and injury; outsourcing to small contractors who illegally log native forests so the company can not be held accountable; and breaking environmental laws by planting near to water sources. ‘The threat to workers and people here is great. Shots have been fired on people by the armed guards. They feel prisoners within their own lands.’

Perversely, an agreement designed to ameliorate climate change now adds to the burden local people face in the form of the new carbon market. In 2003, V&M announced a landmark deal with the Dutch government and Toyota to secure carbon credits as a result of their switching to wood charcoal instead of coal to fire their steelworks. At the time there were objections locally and internationally that support for the company meant new financial incentives to plant more eucalyptus, thereby increasing the pressure on the community’s water and land resources. According to Juarez Teixeira, ‘Carbon credits are just another way for V&M to make money and continue as before.’

The local people beg for intervention here, yet it seems the manner in which the international community has become involved seems only to increase pressure on an already fragile existence. The subsistence farmers of Cana Brava manage the land in an infinitely more climate-friendly way than companies like V&M. Unfortunately they don’t qualify for carbon credits.

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