- Brazil has launched an ambitious “Adopt-a-Park” program, inviting local and transnational companies to provide goods and services and help manage 132 conservation units of all types in the Brazilian Amazon. Should the program be successful, it would be extended to preserves across Brazil.
- Private response has been weak so far, with only eight companies, five Brazilian and three transnationals, signing up. That includes French-owned supermarket chain Carrefour, U.S. beverage maker Coca-Cola, and Dutch brewer Heineken. Details as to how the initiative will function have been scant.
- The Jair Bolsonaro government says it hopes that during a time of deep federal budget cuts to environmental programs, Adopt-a-Park will add the equivalent of $600 million in goods and services to conservation coffers. But the initiative has unleashed a firestorm of criticism from socioenvironmental NGOs and traditional communities.
- They say Adopt-a-Park is a way of greenwashing Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental agenda, that the program is failing to carry out required consultations with traditional peoples — such as rubber tappers and Brazil nut gatherers, who live inside extractive reserves — and that it could further the dismantling of federal agencies.
In February 2021, the administration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro announced the first stage of its “Adopt-a-Park” program, in which 132 of the federal government’s protected areas, all in the Amazon, are being offered up for private companies to “adopt.” The plan is to eventually extend the program to all federally protected areas across the country.
The total area currently up for adoption covers 644,000 square kilometers (250,000 square miles), an eighth of the Amazon Basin (a region known officially as Amazônia Legal). The largest preserve offered up for adoption is Montanhas Tumucumaque in Amapá state, encompassing 38,000 km2 (14,670 mi2), but to date no company has shown interest in that park.
So far, the program is off to a lackluster start, with only eight protected areas attracting interest from private companies, including five from Brazil and three transnationals — French grocery chain Carrefour, and beverage companies Coca-Cola of the U.S. and Heineken of the Netherlands — with their predicted outlay totaling just over $1million.
If all the protected areas in the Amazon are adopted, the program could result in the private sector providing goods and services equivalent to 3.2 billion reais ($600 million) annually to conservation coffers. That’s a sizeable contribution, but the success of the program depends on how the resources are used and where, say environmentalists who have little trust in the Bolsonaro administration due to its record of extreme anti-environmental policies.
Conservationists say they fear the program will lead to the further dismantling of environmental safeguards because it will exchange a management system, which, though far from ideal, can be monitored and allows some local participation, for another that, so far, has been cloaked in secrecy, and which could undermine the hard-earned rights of traditional communities. Others say they are concerned that transnational corporations lack the knowhow and background needed to get involved in Brazil’s complex conservation bureaucracy, which has been embroiled in controversy for decades.
Extractivist reserves present an Adopt-a-Park problem
One fundamental aspect of Adopt-a-Park, in particular, is provoking fierce debate in Brazil. The government isn’t only offering national parks up for adoption — large areas where human occupation is banned — but also all the other types of protected areas in Brazil, many of which have very complex management plans.
Most controversially, these include extractive reserves, or RESEX, which were created to allow traditional communities of rubber tappers, Brazil nut collectors, and many other “extractivist” groups to carry on with their traditional ways of life and livelihoods.
The government’s decision in 1990 to create the country’s first extractive reserve was the result of a long struggle by rubber tappers, led by their internationally renowned leader, Chico Mendes, murdered by a cattle rancher in December 1988.
Most subsequent extractive reserves were established after years of campaigning by RESEX area inhabitants, defending their right to carry on traditional ways of life on lands they’d long occupied. Today, environmentalists recognize that these communities, often inhabited by Indigenous descendants, are keepers of profound and ancient forest knowledge that could be vital to Brazil’s future, and the planet’s survival as well.
The rationale behind RESEX is very different from the thinking behind Brazil’s national parks (modeled on Yellowstone National Park, created by the U.S. in 1872), which severely limit human activity. RESEX is designed to not only protect rainforests, but the traditional peoples living within them, along with their livelihoods.
Nurit Bensusan, a biologist and researcher at the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), an NGO, says the government is making a serious mistake including RESEX within the Adopt-a-Park program. “Putting parks and extractive reserves in the same bag is a violent distortion and will have very serious consequences,” she told Mongabay.
Dione Torquato, the general secretary of the National Council of Extractive Populations (CNS), an NGO, has called on the government to remove extractive reserves from the program. So far, the government has not responded.
CNS vice president Edel Moraes told Mongabay that the Bolsonaro administration has ignored RESEX socioenvironmental complexities, and is only driven by its ideological commitment to slashing state sector funding. “The government is destroying the idea of state responsibility and is transferring everything to private companies,” he warned. “The companies should be paying tax which would fund public policies. Instead, the companies are using pitiful sums of money to ‘adopt’ the reserves and we don’t know what the consequences will be for our [traditional] communities.”
Bensusan continued: “The old [government-funded management] model wasn’t ideal, but much of it worked. It could be monitored and it permitted a minimum of social control, which we could use to improve the situation.” She adds that it is unclear how the new program will work: “The company can’t transfer money directly to the [traditional] community so it’s unclear how the funding will lead to the community receiving beneficial goods and services.”
A large group of NGOs and social movements shared these concerns in a letter published in March, writing: “It seems clear to us that this program is a way of officially announcing that Brazil is for sale. The program reflects the intention of the Brazilian government to dismantle environmental policies and to promote the privatization and financialization of nature.”
The internationally respected Brazilian NGO coalition, Observatório do Clima, issued a press release in which it denounced Adopt-a-Park in unusually vehement language, calling it “ecocide.” Observatório do Clima warns that one of the first casualties will be the federal government’s Chico Mendes Biodiversity and Conservation Institute (ICMBio), which currently administers the nation’s protected areas. It contends that ICMBio, long targeted by the Bolsonaro government with huge budget cuts, will be shut down.
However, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles has expressed confidence the program will bring huge rewards, and defended it, saying: “We will create a form of [public/private] partnership [with national and transnational companies] in which Brazilian sovereignty will be maintained, but the alliance will mean that when people approach us, offering help, we can say: ‘Here is an opportunity.’” The minister dismissed the concerns expressed by the representatives of the extractive reserves: “The CNS’s position is pure political militancy,” Salles concluded.
Carrefour adopts a RESEX
The underlying conflict between these two visions is just starting to become evident in the deal signed with French-owned Carrefour, the largest supermarket chain in Brazil. The first company to express interest in the program, Carrefour agreed to adopt the Lago do Cuniã Extractive Reserve. Located in Rondônia state in the Amazon Basin’s southwest, it covers 75,877 hectares (187,500 acres). Stéphane Engelhard, head of sustainability for Carrefour Brasil, told Mongabay that the adoption will bring great benefits to the area and the people living there. “At the moment, it receives 200,000 reais ($37,700) a year in funding. We will invest 20 times more — almost 4 million reais ($753,400),” he said.
The initiative fits into Carrefour’s wider plan to reduce its environmental footprint. “In 2010, we set ourselves the goal of eliminating deforestation in the supply chain for beef going to our supermarkets,” Engelhard said. “It was seen at the time as a wildly ambitious goal, but we’ve achieved it.”
Now the company plans to zero out its greenhouse gas emissions. “Our trucks produce a lot of emissions,” Engelhard said. “First, we will make [our vehicles] more efficient and then we’ll see if we can shorten our supply chains. But there will be emissions we can’t eliminate, and here we’ll use carbon credits to offset them.” The company is already claiming carbon credits obtained from land in Brazil’s Paraná state, and now wants to extend that effort to “more sensitive areas.”
The traditional population within the reserve doesn’t so far seem to figure highly in Carrefour’s plans. When questioned, Engelhard said he hadn’t yet visited the reserve and seemed to know little about it.
Like other extractive reserves, Lago do Cuniã came about as the result of a history of dogged struggle. Its 400 inhabitants are largely descended from the Mura Indigenous group and migrants from Brazil’s northeast, who in the late 19th century undertook an epic 4,000-km (2,500-mi) migration to tap rubber in the Amazon forest.
The inhabitants fought long and hard to remain on their land and gain autonomy. In the 1980s the Brazilian government designated the whole area as an Ecological Station (Estação Ecológica), a rigid type of protected area from which residents are banned. After years of resistance, the local population finally in 1999 got part of the area named as an extractive reserve, where they could live. COVID-19 and the region’s remoteness prevented Mongabay from contacting the traditional community by phone, but their history will likely make them suspicious of any company agenda imposed from outside.
Engelhard was emphatic in saying that Carrefour doesn’t want ICMBio to handle the goods and services the company is donating. Rather, Carrefour says it wishes to contract with a private company, which will administer the funding and its use. He explained: “A private sector body is far more efficient than a state body.” This statement appears to support activists’ suspicions that Adopt-a-Park will marginalize the role of ICMBio and traditional communities in the management of the reserve.
Despite Engelhard’s current lack of knowledge of the community and the reserve (he incorrectly called the area a “park” rather than an “extractive reserve”), the Carrefour executive expressed confidence that its adoption will improve life for inhabitants.
“We will make sure the park isn’t invaded by outsiders, above all ensuring there is no illegal logging. We will try to prevent illegal fires and, if they happen, we will control them. We will help the local populations have a sustainable income,” he stated. “The highly experienced NGO, Fundação Amazônia Sustentável [FAS], has offered to help us work with the populations to make their livelihoods more sustainable.” FAS is an NGO that until now has largely received public funding.
Heineken comes to Maranhão
Dutch brewer Heineken intends to adopt another RESEX, this one inhabited by descendants of runaway slaves. Called the Quilombo do Frechal Extractive Reserve and covering 9,300 hectares (23,000 acres), it is located in Maranhão state, in the eastern Amazon Basin. The company has committed to an investment of 500,000 reais ($94,000) in its first year of adoption, double of last year’s government funding.
At the signing of the agreement in April, Salles said: “Maranhão, especially, is a region that suffers greatly from the need for investment, with degraded areas, burned areas, and this investment will allow for the recovery of areas, inspection, more efficiency, more technology.”
Mongabay talked to Janiléia Gomes, president of the Quilombo de Frexal Association, who says she is angry about the way she learned about the government’s plans: “We only found out that our territory had been adopted by Heineken when it was reported in the press.” Gomes said she has no doubt about her community’s opposition: “Nobody is happy about it. Nobody wants to be adopted. What is built without us will not be good for us. We are going to fight against it.”
The quilombolas in this RESEX are fierce defenders of their land, livelihood and cultural rights, and have frequently been in conflict with government authorities over the running of the reserve. They say that they fought for 400 years to free themselves of bosses and landowners and want autonomy to run their territory as they wish. They can be a combative group and Heineken may well find them difficult to deal with, analysts say.
Coca-Cola is adopting the Javari-Buriti Area of Relevant Ecological Interest (ARIE) in the Solimões River Basin in the Amazon Basin’s northwest. Covering 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) in Amazonas state, it includes one of the densest formations of buriti palm in the world.
An ARIE-designated reserve is a relatively small, preserved area, with little or no occupation by traditional peoples. The area being adopted by Coca-Cola is remote, and Mongabay was unable to find out whether it was occupied. If traditional peoples do live there, they have likely not been consulted about the adoption.
Coca-Cola declined to respond to detailed questions submitted by Mongabay, sending instead a press release, in which the beverage maker stated that it has been “working to protect the biome in Amazonas state for 30 years” and this is “one more initiative” to achieve this goal.
Potential trouble ahead
The privatization of conservation units happening under Bolsonaro now may be a taste of future battles — not only in Brazil, but globally. In October 2021, at the Convention on Biological Diversity meeting to be held in Kunming, China, governments are expected to commit to protecting 30% of the planet’s land and water by 2030.
Engelhard said Carrefour will be backing that goal: “We hope [the Adopt-a-Park program] can contribute to this global plan for the planet’s land protection.”
But in Brazil, as in other developing countries, social movements are increasingly concerned that environmental protection will be privatized, reducing government oversight, protections and enforcement, and that socioenvironmental NGOs and traditional and Indigenous peoples will be excluded.
“Our communities will be made invisible once again,” Edel Moraes said. “We aren’t nature parks, but people with homes and lives, and they want to disempower us.”
Banner image: A rubber tapper taps a tree for sap. Photo credit: CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture on Visualhunt.com.
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