São Félix do Xingu is a large municipality in the state of Pará, Brazil. Since 2001, it has had one of the highest rates of deforestation in the Amazon. Covering an area of 8.4 million hectares, with more than two million head of cattle and a little over 106,000 people, it easy to see what the main driver of deforestation is.
Other drivers of deforestation include fires (set to manage pastures combined with the strong dry season), land speculation, illegal logging, illegal roads, and mining.
The Central Xingu REDD+ Pilot Program is a project set up by The Nature Conservancy in an attempt to reduce deforestation in São Félix do Xingu.
TNC’s work in São Félix do Xingu is one of a series of case studies included in CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+. CIFOR’s report about São Félix do Xingu is available here, and was written by Maria Fernanda Gebara.
REDD or “sustainable landscapes”?
TNC decided that it would only sell carbon credits from the project in a regulated market under the UNFCCC, “Because of the perceived risks of relying on voluntary carbon markets for financing,” Gebara writes.
In the absence of a REDD agreement at UN level, that meant no project income from carbon credits.
The project has received funding from the Vale Fund, Bank of America, the Amazon Fund, USAID, the Norwegian International Climate and Forest Initiative, the British Embassy, the Anne Ray Charitable Trust and the Moore Foundation.
But TNC no longer describes this as a REDD project. In a footnote, Gebara explains that,
The Sustainable Landscapes Pilot Program was formerly called the Central Xingu REDD+ Pilot Program. Due to local actors’ difficulties in understanding REDD+ and uncertainties regarding REDD+ at the international level, TNC decided to change the name.
Gebara explains why the letters “REDD” were dropped from TNC’s project:
According to TNC, the REDD+ nomenclature was misunderstood at the local level. For small farmers, the market-based connotation of REDD+ was of little interest; for large producers it seemed like an opportunity for profit; and for indigenous groups it tapped into anti-REDD+ sentiments. Because of these misunderstandings, TNC eliminated the term ‘REDD+’ from the name of the initiative even though actions to reduce deforestation remain at its core.
The law of unintended consequences
In 2008, the Brazilian government added São Félix do Xingu to its blacklist of municipalities with the highest rates of deforestation. That meant that farmers in São Félix do Xingu were blocked from accessing credit for cattle ranching and related activities.
To be removed from the blacklist, municipalities have to reduce deforestation and register 80% of private land under the government land registration, CAR (Cadastro Ambiental Rural).
Starting in 2009, TNC provided technical and financial support for CAR registration, with a US$19 million grant from the Amazon Fund and more funding from USAID and the Vale Fund. In terms of land registration, the project was successful, with more than 80% of private land holders gaining CAR registration.
But while deforestation in São Félix do Xingu as a whole has fallen, it has actually increased in the areas that have been registered.
With hindsight, the explanation is obvious. When São Félix do Xingu was removed from the blacklist, farmers could once again access government subsidies for agriculture and cattle ranching. They used the subsidies to clear more forest.
While many small farmers reduced deforestation because of the blacklisting, many told Gebara in 2013 they were getting nothing in return. In a post on CIFOR’s Forests News Blog, Gebara comments that,
“They were worried about what would happen. Some were already complaining they were at risk of starving because they didn’t grow enough food for that season, and others were already leaving for other municipalities where they could cut enough forest to graze their cattle or plant crops.”
[ . . . ]
“It is increasing social inequality. Because they are stopping cutting down trees — which is good, as smallholders are an important driver of deforestation in this municipality — but it’s bad in terms of social impact.”
TNC hasn’t given up. It is promoting improved pasture management and alternatives to cattle ranching, aimed at getting farmers to grow cocoa, for example. In June 2014, TNC and the Brazilian Biodiversity Fund (Funbio) launched the Terra Verde Fund. This is supposed to provide performance-based funding and up-front funding for measures aimed at reducing deforestation.
Reading TNC’s website about the project gives little evidence that TNC has learned much from its experience in São Félix do Xingu. “It’s possible for economic development and environmental protection to work hand-in-hand,” is typical of TNC’s rose-tinted reporting of its project in the municipality.
In January 2015, TNC and the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility produced a report looking at the lessons learned from jurisdictional REDD. One of the projects included in the report is TNC’s São Félix do Xingu project.
The report highlights some of the serious problems that REDD is facing. Not least of these is the idea that handing over money to governments that keep their forests standing is a non-starter:
Early conceptions of REDD+ as a means to compensate countries and pay actors their “opportunity costs” do not address the need to transform the development paradigm and may perpetuate dependencies on external financing.
But the section of the report looking at São Félix do Xingu makes no mention of local actors’ problems understanding REDD, or of the lack of interest from small farmers, or of Indigenous Peoples’ anti-REDD sentiments.