Amazônia. Crédito: Lucas Campoi/Unsplash

How Paragominas quit deforesting and became example of green economy

The city in Pará devastated 43% of its territory and was on the black list of the environment, but signed a pact, through the Green City Program (Programa Município Verde – PMV), which reversed deforestation by 90% and boosted its economy

In 2008, the Ministry of the Environment (MMA) released a black list type of document, which named the 36 cities that had most deforested until then. Among the cities denounced for irresponsible use of natural resources, there was Paragominas, where about 43% of its 20,000 square kilometers - a territory equivalent to the Sergipe state - had been devastated. The calculation, at that time, was almost 8,400 kilometers of virgin forest completely lost. The situation has changed and, nowadays, the city is an example of environmental protection and green economy.

Paragominas is not a small city: it is located 300 km from Belém and has an estimated population of 110 thousand inhabitants. The first generation of residents came to the region in the 1960’s, during the construction of the Belém-Brasília Highway, stimulated by a national integration project that encouraged deforestation for wealth production in the Amazon. Thus, migrants from the South, Southeast, and Midwest moved there and founded the city in 1965 - a time when the city was pejoratively nicknamed Paragobala [bala = bullet], related to land disputes settled by shotguns.

In an interview with Época magazine, farmer Pérsio Barros de Lima explained how the Amazonian economy was boosted in the 1970’s. "My father used to plant the grass for the cattle, and there was no time for them to eat the grass in order to prove its quality, because the bank employee was already there for inspections. The important thing was land occupation and even new loans could be started right there in the field," said the farmer, who left his homeland, Aimorés (State of Minas Gerais), in 1972.

However, the rampant exploitation of the Amazon forest has brought severe environmental costs - deforestation is one of the causes of climate change. Environmental awareness has become an obligation, and political and economic pressures have gradually formalized laws protecting the native forest. "What is right today may not be tomorrow. Every activity changes and progresses over time. That is why I am against deforestation, because to continue deforesting is to continue doing the same thing my father did 40 years ago," said Mauro Lúcio de Castro Costa, cattle rancher, to the Green City Program’s communication channel.

When the black list was published, the punished cities could request their exclusion from it if they proved that they reduced deforestation at a rate of less than 40 square kilometers - Paragominas’ index was above 50 km² of deforestation. It wasn’t just a constraint to the city, but something that had real impact on the local economy: the cities listed were penalized with credit restrictions and barriers to market their products. It was necessary not only to immediately stop deforesting, but also to generate wealth in a sustainable way.

"We have a culture in which the government is seen as authoritarian by the producers, and the latter as enemies who only do the wrong thing by the government. This has to change. It’s necessary to have supervision and tax assessment, but we have to work together," Mauro Lúcio told the Green City Program. Thus, the government, NGOs, and local producers agreed on a pact to promote a new type of sustainable economy, that is, without resources from deforestation, and without slavery or child labor - and that would also commit to the reforestation of 10 thousand trees per year.

Paragominas. Crédito: Unsplash

The result came quickly. In two years, Paragominas left the MMA black list and started to have credit for rural production. In four years, deforestation dropped to 10%, from 0.30% of the total area per year in 2008 to 0.032% in 2012. Today, the city has 66.5% of its native forest territory and increased its productivity on responsible management of grains and cattle ranching.

Learn how Paragominas has reversed deforestation

The release of the list with the cities that had deforested the most in the country reached Paragominas shortly before another decisive episode for its green turn. Also in 2008, the Operação Arco de Fogo [Fire Arch Operation], promoted by the Federal Police, closed charcoal mines and seized dozens of properties that promoted illegal deforestation. The city went through total economic crisis and unemployment.

City hall called for a meeting with 51 entities, among them unions, residents’ associations, and NGOs. After a three-hour debate, the Green City Program was created, in partnership with the Instituto do Homem e Meio Ambiente da Amazônia [The Amazon Man and Environment Institute] (Imazon), responsible for monitoring forest deforestation in real time via satellite.

That was a good strategy, but it was almost over within six months. By the end of 2008, a joint action by Ibama and FUNAI reprimanded illegal deforestation on indigenous lands and seized wood trucks and equipment. As a reaction, the criminals set fire to Ibama's headquarters and the vehicles of the Environment Bureau of the City, and also threatened to lynch their employees. Fortunately, however, instead of weakening the program, the aggression strengthened the pact it created.

The Sindicato dos Produtores Rurais de Paragominas [Rural Producers' Union of Paragominas] joined forces with the NGO The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to register the entire municipal territory. At the same time, an action plan was made for environmental campaigns, projects of environmental education for children and adults, and more effective action with rural producers.

Within one year of the project, deforestation dropped by 90% and the number of registered rural properties reached 80% - today, it is above 90%. Aside from being the first city to leave the deforestation list, Paragominas attracted the first MDF (wood-derived material) plant in the North and Northeast regions and several grain producers, such as soy, corn, and rice, as well as cattle ranchers, who leased underused land to promote two techniques established by the city: green livestock and low carbon agriculture.

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Green Cities Program: a model for the whole state

It didn’t take long for the example set by Paragominas to be reproduced throughout the state. In Pará, 96 of the 144 cities are part of the Green City Program, now under the custody of the state government - participation is voluntary.

"The development model of the 1970’s, especially in the Amazon, brought to Pará the worst of the scenarios. It brought environmental degradation, social inequality and violence in the countryside. This makes Pará a rich state with poor people," said Justiniano Queiroz Netto, extraordinary secretary of the PMV for five years, to the Green City Program.

When the PMV began, Pará and Mato Grosso were the deforestation leaders of the Amazon. In 2012, 1.25 million square kilometers of Pará’s territory had been deforested, equivalent to 21% of the state's total. Stopping deforestation was a double-motivating challenge: in addition to the obvious environmental gain (each tree not taken down guarantees the balance of another 27 specimens), the economic cost-benefit is also an advantage, since on average BRL 500 are spent for each deforested hectare, but to promote its recovery the investment is four times higher: BRL 2 thousand.

Therefore, the PMV also set out economically viable alternatives to convince producers to join the project. "The agenda to fight deforestation was an agenda of repression, which did not consider local actors as part of the solution," said Justino Queiroz.

PMV: methodology and challenges

In order to include the entire productive chain in the program, the PMV methodology advanced in three strategic axes: environmental land-use planning, shared environmental management, and sustainable production support.

At the top of environmental and management strategies, there are some restrictive measures, such as updating the list of cities that deforest the most in the Amazon and imposing administrative restrictions on them. Among the actions, we can see the restriction of rural credit and producer responsibility throughout the meat chain, in addition to strengthening inspection operations.

On the other hand, the PMV encourages sustainable production models by supporting the multiple management of native forests (such as production of non-timber forest products and payments for environmental services), green livestock (by increasing agricultural productivity), and forestry silviculture (reforestation for economic purposes).

Gado e pasto. Crédito: Marcio Motta/Unsplash

This set of actions results in more investments, since these cities offer more legal security to investors, and the federal government offers more credit and technical assistance in better-valued products in the market - Walmart, Carrefour, and Pão de Açúcar, for example, stated they would no longer buy products from illegal deforestation and from work in slavery conditions.

Pará aims to reduce deforestation by 80% in the state by 2020 and to obtain, by this date, zero net deforestation. The commitment is in line with the one voluntarily assumed by Brazil at COP-15, in 2009, of reducing carbon emissions at least 36% by the same period. By 2015, the year of the last report released by the PMV, deforestation in Pará had dropped by 39%, almost four times higher than the 10% reduction recorded by the entire Amazon territory during the same period.

It is now up to us to monitor whether the results of the Green City Program are capable of responding to the two major challenges facing the Amazonian territory: to promote environmental services to the world and to improve the development and quality of life standard of its population.