January 15, 2009

The Wild, Wild West Redux

On Wednesday, we had the rare and unique opportunity to spend a day with John Carter, a 42-year-old native Texan who has been in Brazil since 1996—but has essentially been living a life straight out of the 1880s in the United States. Land grabs. Squatters. Gunfights. Invasions. You name it—John Carter has lived it over the past dozen years…and continues to do so.

John has built a cattle ranching operation in what was once Amazon tropical forest. He is married to a Brazilian who inherited land from her father, who was originally an immigrant from Spain. He built everything from the ground up—from the buildings to the hydroelectric power plant, from hundreds of miles of fence to the dam on the lake that helps generate his electricity. It’s an incredible story—and an overwhelming accomplishment.

In his twelve years in the Brazilian frontier, John has witnessed firsthand the transition of land from dense forest to wide open pasture or soybean fields. He pointed out hectares and hectares of land that was once 100-foot-high forest that now serves as wide open pasture or soybean production.

As he raises his Brahma influenced cattle, John is also working diligently to restore tropical forest on his operation—while taking a strong stance on conservation and restoration.

Carter’s take on land use issues is simple: Follow the money. According to John, the growth of biofuels has nothing to do with deforestation of the Amazon. John says it’s all about corruption and profiteering…and the basic “lawlessness” of a frontier. And that’s definitely what this part of Brazil is—akin to America some 125 years ago.

One only needs to sit for a brief time with John Carter to hear stories that sound as if they came from the Wild West. Bone-chilling tales of mayhem, murder and tribal uprisings—all happening within just a few miles of his place. And sometimes right on it.

It’s this fundamental lawlessness that has led to situations in which squatters can come onto a landowner’s property, set up shacks, cut down trees, grow a few rows of crops and eventually lay claim to the property by demonstrating that they have made improvements that the landowners have not made. Keep in mind that these properties are enormous by U.S. standards—so squatters can set up shop deep in the remaining forest, start cutting down trees (sometimes with the financial support of a corrupt politician or other ringleader) and operate with virtual impunity.

The legal system is not working well (if at all) in this situation. In fact, some landowners have lost title to squatters in the courts. And while Brazilian law now requires landowners to maintain or restore 80% of the forest and 35% of the riparian zones on their land, in this part of Brazil there is little enforcement or will to enforce. And thus, more trees are harvested and more land is transformed from forest to agricultural use.

John Carter decided to go about addressing the challenge from a different angle.

Through a non-profit organization, (aliancadeterra.org.br), Carter is creating incentives and opportunities for landowners to initiate restoration on their property—from riparian buffers to reforestation. He has developed a market-driven program that rewards landowners for doing the right thing—and it’s getting some serious traction, not only with the landowners, but with foundations that are seeing actual results from their investments. John’s non-profit is gaining the attention of some major donors—and some well-known environmental groups are following his lead (essentially co-opting his idea). In October 2008, John appeared on Late Night with David Letterman to talk about what he’s doing—and he continues to gain international recognition and support for his cause.

As with most issues, the soundbites and headlines from the media shape public opinion. Worse yet, many journalists and even more consumers really don’t want to take the time to truly understand an issue this complex. If someone says that an acre of corn being used to make ethanol results in an acre of Brazilian forest being destroyed, it must be the truth, right? It makes for a nice, tidy one-to-one correlation—but life is simply not that simple. The land use issue is one that is being raised regarding the growth of biofuels—and it’s important and essential that policy makers in the U.S. and around the world understand what is really driving deforestation. John Carter is telling the story—not from some ivory tower office in Manhattan, but from the front lines of the frontier. Who would you believe?

Everyone on this fact-finding mission left the Carter ranch shaking their heads in wonder—and grateful for the unique opportunity to spend a day with an amazing and articulate pioneer who has demonstrated uncommon courage in the face of daunting odds.

PHOTO 1: A profile of John Carter, a Texas native who has been in Brazil since the mid-1990s.
PHOTO 2: Carter tells a story of how an anaconda grabbed him during some work on his ranch as Mindy Poldberg of Iowa and Paul Taylor of Illinois listen.
PHOTO 3: On the site of a squatter camp on his own ranch, Carter talks to the group about how he has worked with the squatters to minimize their effect on his operation.
PHOTO 4: John Carter points out the location of his ranch and its relationship to the Amazon forest.

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