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BOB MOON: How about this idea: Save a tree in Brazil, keep polluting here at home. A plan pending in Congress would allow some of America’s biggest polluters to cancel out their emissions here, if they buy up endangered forests around the globe. Some U.S. firms have already been doing that by sinking millions of dollars into a forest reserve in southern Brazil. And how has that gone over with the locals down there?
Michael Montgomery has that story, in collaboration with Mark Schapiro of the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Michael Montgomery: If you want to save a forest in Brazil, you might call on the services of the state’s Force Verde, or Green Police.
Recently, five Green Police troopers set out on a patrol of a nature reserve in the vast Atlantic Forest. Three big U.S. companies — American Electric Power, Chevron and GM — invested millions of dollars to protect 50,000 acres of land here. It’s a very 21st century idea: these companies don’t own the land or the trees. They own credit for the carbon stored in the trees, and someday, they hope to use it to cancel out some of their greenhouse gas pollution back home.
Sound of Green Police commander speaking
The team’s commander leads us through tall grasses and into the forest, where orchids grow wild and jaguars prowl. The Green Police are here to make sure that no one is cutting down trees. They’ve chased off land developers and poachers. But locals complain the green police are also targeting them.
Jonas da Silva: If I go there, I’ll be humiliated in front of my family, because I’ll be arrested. I’ll be called a thief.
That’s Jonas da Silva. He grew up on the reserve’s border. The subsistence farmer says now he can’t hunt or fish or even use the forest paths that the community has relied on for generations. Da Silva lives among some 10,000 farmers, fishermen and Indians who eke out a living from the land.
Sound of children singing
On a small island near the reserve, we meet up with Leonardo Wera Tupa. The Guarani tribal leader has watched with apprehension as American companies cordon off the land here, in the name of fighting climate change.
Leonardo Wera Tupa: When those lands end up in the hands of environmentalists who say they want to preserve them, it ends up limiting many things for the people around and the local population suffers.
Jutta Kill: It is denying them access to land that they have used for many generations and which they have maintained and preserved.
Jutta Kill of the British environmental group FERN has compiled extensive testimony from dozens of locals who complain about abuses by police and park rangers.
Kill: We heard of people being arrested, we heard of people having their produce confiscated and we heard of the increasing difficulty of sustaining families. And therefore, a number of families have also had to leave the area.
Kill says some people fled to Antonina. That’s a small town a few miles outside the reserve. Carlos Machado is Antonina’s mayor.
Carlos Machado: Directly or indirectly, it was through these conservation projects that the population came here and created a ring of poverty around our city. It’s caused a big social problem here.
Machado calls these displaced people “carbon refugees.” But environmental groups managing the reserve see it differently.
U.S. Nature Conservancy promotional video: Forests are the lungs of our planet.
In a promotional video, the U.S. Nature Conservancy, which brokered this deal, says its forest projects in Brazil are:
U.S. Nature Conservancy promotional video: Offering local communities economic alternatives that are compatible with forest protection.
Duncan Marsh directs international climate policy for the conservancy. He says the group’s work in the reserve has given the community dozens of new jobs with health benefits, where before there were virtually none.
Duncan Marsh: Most of those jobs are jobs with the full range of benefits, whereas a lot of these people were not necessarily employed in a full and fully compensated way prior to the existence of the project.
Marsh described retraining locals to sell things like organic bananas and honey. But the Nature Conservancy’s own manager in Brazil told us that most money for job programs ran out a couple years ago. Now, even some of the project’s own corporate backers concede that mistakes were made.
Mike Morris: I wasn’t there in the early go, but I would imagine that we came in as American companies frequently do, “Everybody get out of the way, we’re going to do this.”
That’s Mike Morris, CEO of American Electric Power, one of the country’s biggest utilities. Morris says he’s still excited about the idea of preserving forests to cancel out some of AEP’s greenhouse gas emissions, but he says moving forward the company will do things differently.
Morris: Our effort will be never to repeat those endeavors but to go in as a willing partner and participant, after conversations with the local folks and the governmental folks involved, to make certain there’s agreement with what we’re doing.
Climate legislation making its way fitfully through Congress now includes a provision to respect the rights of people who live off forest land. But it remains to be seen whether companies only pay lip service, or find a way to protect the forest’s people as fiercely as they do the trees.
With Mark Schapiro, I’m Michael Montgomery for Marketplace.
Moon: Our story was produced in collaboration with the PBS program Frontline/WORLD.
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