Stars in the Amazon

Sunset, Xingu and Fresco Rivers
Sunset where the Xingu and Fresco Rivers meet. Image credit: Rane Cortez.

Editor’s Note: Rane Cortez works for The Nature Conservancy and is based in Belem, Brazil. She moved for two months to the highly-deforested frontier town of São Felix do Xingu in northern Brazil to work with local farmers, ranchers, landowners, indigenous groups and city officials to together promote forest-friendly sustainable growth for the area.

This post is the eighth and final in a series over the past eight weeks that shared her perspective from the frontlines of Amazon deforestation.

By Rane Cortez

It had been a long time since I had seen the stars. Living in cities largely takes away that privilege as the bright lights wash out everything else. On the first night of my two-month stay in São Felix do Xingu, a remote Amazon frontier town in northern Brazil, the sheer number and brilliance of the stars in the night sky overwhelmed me. But, that was only the first of many surprises.

During my two months in São Felix, despite ferocious mosquitos, sleepless nights in squelching heat, and mold and dust so heavy in places that it was hard to breathe, I fell in love with this place – its two pristine rivers, its embattled forests, and its night sky.

But more than anything else, the people of São Felix captured my heart. Nowhere in all my travels had I encountered people so open, friendly, eager to help and so hopeful for a better future. This surprised me, given the town’s history of conflict and the fact that many people in São Felix had only recently arrived and were still putting down roots.

People in São Felix are beginning to feel a sense of community and are working to make their home a place they can stay.

Fresco River
Fresco River. Image credit: Rane Cortez.

When I spoke with Father Danilo and Domingo from an association of family farmers, they talked about helping small farmers find alternatives to cattle ranching by working with them to diversify their farms to produce fruit, vegetables, cacao, milk, and other lucrative crops. “I think we are seeing results here in São Felix,” said Father Danilo. “Various people are seeing that you can live well on 100 hectares. You don’t have to keep deforesting … There is a viable alternative – gardens, cacao; cattle, yes, but just a small number for milk production – this has a big influence. It helps us lose this idea that to have a good life you have to be a big rancher. Having a well-structured, diversified farm also provides a good life.”

And, speaking of the “big ranchers,” they too have been finding solutions for how to make a living without deforesting. When I spoke with Wilton Batista, the President of the São Felix Rancher’s Union, he told me, “Ranchers here know that deforestation is not legal and that the market doesn’t want to buy products produced illegally. There are several examples in the region of ranchers implementing improved practices – restoring their pastures, mapping out the best uses of their land, establishing integrated crop-livestock systems, and improving the genetics of their herd to improve production. But, all these people are doing this on their own account. It doesn’t help push things forward if three or four ranchers are doing this – it has to be everybody.”

That’s where the government comes in. I spoke with Luis Araujo, the hard-working Secretary of Environment for São Felix, who shared with me his story of creating a Municipal Pact for Ending Illegal Deforestation. “The creation of the Pact … has been one of the biggest advances we’ve made,” said Araujo. “Through that process, people began to understand that they have to work within environmental regulations because if not, we will always be in the media as criminals, as people that devastate the forest, as people that are not aware. Things are going well here now because the federal, state, and municipal governments united to work on one thing only: ending illegal deforestation.”

All of these conversations gave me a renewed hope that here in São Felix – historically, one of the biggest deforesting places in Brazil, and owner of the most cattle in the Amazon – we may actually be getting closer to the elusive goal of “sustainability.”

And, on my last day in São Felix, I witnessed an exchange that convinced me that we will indeed be successful at ending deforestation in the municipality.

In a meeting of the Commission for the Pact to End Illegal Deforestation, The Nature Conservancy and the Secretary of Environment had invited FUNAI, the federal indigenous agency, and several indigenous representatives to sign the pact and join the Commission. We felt that the participation of indigenous groups was critical to ensure that deforestation did not move from the private lands into indigenous territories. But, historically, ranchers and indigenous peoples in São Felix have experienced tense relationships and have not been able to work together.

Then, the first indigenous leader stood up and spoke before the Commission. In both Portuguese and his native Kayapo, he explained that he was there to work in partnership with the members of the Commission to achieve the goal of zero illegal deforestation.

I held my breath as we waited for a response. A representative from the Rancher’s Union stood and spoke. He gave a hearty welcome to FUNAI and the indigenous representatives and said that their participation in the Commission was crucial. All others agreed.

From my perspective, all these groups in one room, agreeing for the first time to participate toward a unified goal, was a landmark moment for São Felix.

As Batista told me, “It doesn’t depend only on the ranchers, or only on the government. If we can work together to do all of this, then we can be a model, not just for Brazil, but for the world.”

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Nicole Levins is an online media manager at The Nature Conservancy.