Brazil nut tree

Edimilson Da Silva Almeida uses ropes and climbing gear to ascend a Brazil nut tree in Boa Frente, where the nonprofit Amazonas Sustainable Foundation manages Brazil's Juma Reserve. The foundation is helping to train residents to safely harvest and grade the Brazil nuts for sale and export. (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times / November 10, 2009)

An hour outside Manaus, the Amazon's biggest city, the blackened remains of a virgin forest smolder. Chain saws whine. And Jonas Mendes tosses logs, one after another, into his kiln.

"I know it's wrong to cut down the trees," said Mendes, 48, sweat streaming down his neck and torso. "But I have no other way to make a living."

Under a lean-to, his teenage son hacks charcoal into pieces with a machete. His wife fills 110-pound plastic bags that sell for $4 each.

If the Obama administration succeeds in its pledge to curb climate change, billions could flow from the U.S. to help forest dwellers such as Mendes change their ways.

Governors of the Brazilian Amazon's nine states are pushing the U.S. and other industrial nations to invest in projects under rules known as REDD -- or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation -- that are being designed through the auspices of the United Nations.

Under pending legislation to cap greenhouse gases, the U.S. government would auction emission allowances, funneling as much as $3 billion from the annual proceeds into rain forest protection. U.S. companies facing carbon controls could meet part of their obligations by investing as much as $13 billion a year by 2020 to preserve forests.

And several Amazon governors have signed agreements with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to measure the carbon in their forests with the goal of selling carbon credits in California’s cap-and-trade market, set to begin in 2012. The program would allow California businesses to use the credits to meet their emission caps, and thus funnel several hundred million dollars a year into tropical forest protection.

The reason? Slash-and-burn deforestation accounts for about 15% of humanity's carbon dioxide emissions. Despite activists' efforts, forests have been disappearing at the rate of about 34 million acres a year for the last two decades. Globally, Indonesia and Brazil are the third- and fourth-largest emitters respectively of greenhouse gases, after China and the U.S., because of their breakneck pace of forest destruction.

Saving the Amazon, Earth's largest tropical jungle, can be a cheaper and faster way to avoid greenhouse gas emissions than replacing coal-fired power plants with renewable energy or switching to electric cars -- although all such measures are considered necessary by climate experts.

President Obama acknowledged as much last fall.

"It is probably the most cost-effective way for us to address the issue of climate change, having . . . mechanisms in place to avoid further deforestation," he said.

Despite the failure to adopt a long-term climate treaty in Copenhagen last year, the U.S., along with Australia, Britain, France, Japan and Norway, promised $3.5 billion in fast-start funds to help preserve tropical forests.

Forest livelihood

But if nations across Latin America, Africa and Asia are to guard their trees, they must first alleviate the poverty of 1.2 billion people who depend on forests for their livelihoods. Many of these developing nations, struggling economically, bristle at preaching from wealthier countries.

"Let no gringo ask an Amazonian to die of hunger under a tree," Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva warned recently.

"We want to preserve," he added. "But they should pay."

Beginning in the 1960s, politicians in Brazil pushed to populate the rain forest and to clear tracts for cattle, soybeans and timber. Across the Amazon, homesteaders were promised title to their plots if they cut down trees to make the land "productive."

But the policy known as Land Without People for People Without Land has backfired. Rain forest soil is unsuited to small-scale agriculture. Malaria is rampant. Jaguars devour livestock. Many settlers never got title because of bureaucratic snafus and thus have little incentive to protect the forest. Many, like Mendes, survive mainly by felling their trees for charcoal.

Taruma Mirim, where he ekes out a living, is one of 2,500 Amazon settlements created by Brazil's Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform. Behind the tin-roofed shack where Mendes lives with his wife and four children, he drags logs to his kilns with the help of a half-starved cow.