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two people walk through a field towards a patch of trees on a farm in brazil
Forests and Communities A rural producer from São Félix do Xingu-PA, walking with his son in a restoration area using cocoa in agroforestry systems. © Kevin Arnold

Perspectives

Restore the Amazon? Small Farmers Are Key

Changes in small farming practices could reverse deforestation and raise incomes in the region—here’s how we can make that happen.

Ian Thompson
Ian Thompson Brazil Program Director

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Few ecosystems on the planet receive as much attention—both from conservationists and the broader public—as the Amazon Rainforest. That’s no surprise, given the Amazon’s importance as a biodiversity hotspot and its role in regulating the global climate. But despite all this focus, the Amazon is still disappearing at an alarming rate, and some degraded areas in the southern part of the forest have gone from being a carbon sink to emitting more greenhouse gases than they absorb. That’s bad news for nature, for the climate, and for the millions of people who depend on the Amazon, both in the region and around the world.

But conserving this crucial ecosystem is more complex than it might appear from the outside. In Brazil alone, which is home to about 65 percent of the biome, there are many interconnected reasons driving the loss of the Amazon: there’s the direct clearing of rainforest of course, but also out-of-control fires, increasing pressure from small farmers struggling to grow enough food, and the vicious feedback loop of climate change. Addressing these challenges requires a people-centered approach that accounts for the whole system: we have to move away from human and economic development at the expense of nature to a model of development where people and nature thrive side by side.

 

Scarlet Macaw
Scarlet Macaw The scarlet macaw is one of many engandered species in Pará. © Rafael Araujo
An aerial view showing forest cleared for cattle ranching at Sao Felix do Xingu, a municipality in the Brazilian Amazon that has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the country.
Aerial view of cleared forests An aerial view showing forest cleared for cattle ranching at Sao Felix do Xingu, a municipality in the Brazilian Amazon that has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the country. © Haroldo Palo, Jr.

 

This is the vision of a new partnership between The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which has been working in the Amazon for 20 years, and Amazon Inc. Working together, we will help 3,000 local farmers in the Brazilian state of Pará to grow and sell agroforestry products such as cocoa beans from newly planted trees, creating a more sustainable source of income, while also restoring native rainforest and fighting climate change by naturally trapping and storing carbon. 

Pará is twice the size of France and currently home to 9 percent of the world’s tropical forest—a pristine area of native vegetation four times the size of the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, it also holds the fastest deforestation rates in Brazil. About 33 percent of the deforestation in Pará in 2020 took place across the 360,000 small farms in the state.

The deforestation in Pará has many different causes, but two key elements are a lack of technical assistance for small farmers and lack of income alternatives. In the face of limited options, clearing more forestland for agriculture is the most rational business decision for many families. But agricultural production and deforestation don’t have to go hand in hand.

 

Selling agroforestry products from newly planted trees creates a more sustainable source of income while also restoring native rainforest and fighting climate change.

 

Agroforestry is the practice of growing food crops and native trees in the same land area. This approach is ideal for maintaining and regenerating the health of the planet’s soils, capturing carbon and providing habitat for wildlife, while also ensuring long-term agricultural production. Cocoa trees are native to the Amazon Rainforest and a popular crop in Pará, making them particularly well-suited for agroforestry in this area. Young cocoa plants need shade and can be grown in forested areas without clearing the land, or planted on previously cleared lands alongside other vegetation to restore the native rainforest.

The project in Pará will require significant financial investment and technical innovation, and that’s where carbon finance can help. The carbon that is sequestered from the atmosphere by restoring the region’s forestland will support high-quality carbon offsets that will be credited to Amazon Inc. to complement the company’s assertive decarbonization efforts. Over the next three years, this project aims to restore 20,000 hectares of land—an area about the size of the city of Seattle—and remove as much as 10 million tons of greenhouse gases over the next 30 years.

 

Farmer in Amazon
Agroforestry allows for crop trees to be grown alongside native vegetation. © Kevin Arnold
Cacau
Fresh cocoa beans grown in Brazil © Kevin Arnold
Agroforestry allows for crop trees to be grown alongside native vegetation. © Kevin Arnold
Fresh cocoa beans grown in Brazil © Kevin Arnold

 

To reach these intended goals, TNC will work locally with key partners like the state of Pará, the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), local NGOs, research centers, municipalities, private companies, cooperatives, farmers unions and other local stakeholders. In return, Amazon Inc. will work with TNC to provide farmers with the resources and technical assistance needed to implement and maintain the agroforestry projects. An ongoing monitoring and governance plan will ensure the integrity of the carbon credits and that farmers continue to benefit from their investments. This in turn means a more sustainable livelihood for those farmers, new habitat for wildlife, and more carbon stored in plants and soil where it won’t heat up the planet—truly a win-win-win.

 

We hope to demonstrate that protecting nature can be a profitable business.

These 3,000 farms are just the start though. We hope to demonstrate that agroforestry and carbon markets are viable business models for small farmer communities in the Amazon—in essence, that protecting nature can be a profitable business. We can demonstrate that nature is an asset, not a potential liability.  Because the only sustainable path for our future is one in which people and nature thrive together.

Ian Thompson

Ian Thompson is The Nature Conservancy’s Brazil Program Director.

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