You don’t need to be a renowned ecologist to save the Amazon rainforest. You don’t need to be a wealthy philanthropist or in a position of power.
You don’t even need to be local.
Rick Paid, a woodworker from Traverse City, Michigan, and Karim Abu Bakr, from Moscow, are managing a 2,000-acre patch of Amazonian old growth located between the BR-163 highway and the Tapajos National Forest. This patch is filled with Amapá trees, Preciosa, Piquiá, and Brazil nut. Like the rest of the Amazon, it’s also threatened by agricultural interests that perpetuate a divisive wage gap in the country.
Abu Bakr was taking a swim when those threats first became clear.
“Late afternoons are specially pretty in that place: the heat goes down, fresh wind, smell of the forest, jungle noises all around you,” he said. “Except this time all we could hear was the noise of a truck.”
So, they went out to take a look. Abu Bakr and the group walked out to the road that runs between their forest and the neighboring farmland.
“Between the farm and the preserve there used to be a green corridor which was always very nice to walk in – fresh, full of huge trees on the way,” he says.
The walk down the corridor typically ends with a breathtaking view of a hidden lake where tropical birds, fish and insects have flourished for millennia. But not anymore.
Now, it’s gone.
“The green corridor is gone,” Abu Bakr says. “The farmers razed over 500 acres of forest right up to our border, piled up the trees and bushes and set them ready to burn. ”
A forest in peril
Farmers around Santarém clearcut the forest and bulldoze the trees into rows that are set ablaze. Then the rows are remade of what is left of the burnt trees and burned again, “and again, and again, until it’s all gone.” Abu Bakr says. Then they spray poison to kill everything in the soil that can threaten their crops.
“It obviously affects the adjacent forests,” he says. “Bees, hummingbirds, animals, fungi, vines – they all leave or die. The forest starts drying out, primary rainforest species disappear and a thick, low and, honestly, pretty ugly secondary forest takes place of what used to be home to Amazon Rain forest Giants.”
An island of forest in the ocean of soy
It takes hundreds of years for those giants to grow, and a scant second to end their lives forever. Paid, owner of Rare Earth Hardwoods, once made his living off creating timber frames from the leftover or otherwise burnt hardwoods neighboring operations left behind the forest while protecting those on his land. This was the basis for the 3D project, which stands for “Dying, Dead and Down,” based on the practice of harvesting only fallen and dead trees to work with. But the Brazilian government’s environmental policies make this difficult, especially for foreigners. It takes months more to secure the permits needed to remove even naturally fallen trees from the Amazon.
In contrast, it’s far easier, and far more lucrative in the short-term, to raze the forest and convert it to farmland. Large corporations like Cargill, a large producer of soybeans, and Alcoa, which operated bauxite mines in the region used in aluminum production, are responsible for leveling much of the former forestland surrounding Paid’s acreage.
The trees that grow after the old growth has been clearcut will not be as strong, or sometimes even the same species, as those which came before. With each tree removed, thousands of years of organic progress is erased from the earth. Indeed, the world is forever changed as the Amazon erodes, as in 1979 when a once completely-isolated tribe that was discovered living among 1500-year-old Brazil nut trees.
in 2010, New York Times journalist Andrew Blackwell published the book “Visit Sunny Chernobyl,” described as “A travel guide for the eco-apocalypse.” Blackwell’s narrative takes readers on a trip to disaster sites around the world, from the nuclear fallout of northern Ukraine to millions of acres of former rain forest in the Amazon, clear cut for farm land. Blackwell makes special mention of Paid’s patch of land, calling it “An island of forest in the ocean of soy.”
Brazil’s interior is dotted with towns like Santarém, each growing in population and in increasing need of food and other resources. Abu Bakr doesn’t blame them for wanting to support their families, but the long-term loss of old growth forests is a debt that future generations will have to pay back.
“Farmers are not superhero movie villains,” he says. “They are regular people that want to make their money and they keep our cities fed. The point is, I believe the Amazon is not a place for that.”
It’s harder for foreigners to fight for that idea in the heart of Brazil. Paid and Abu Bakr understand that point, and are yet undeterred.
Fighting for the forest
Paid first purchased the 766 hectares of virgin Amazon rainforest in 2003 when the family of a slain farmer sold it for about $250,000. It was left untouched for years, with only the naturally fallen trees being cut up for commissioned pieces. That approach brought enough wood to employ as many as 50 at the mill in 2005. Then, when the economic downturn of 2008 dried up much of Paid’s business, he was forced to lay off everyone except the shop manager and began looking for a new source of income.
Two years later, Abu Bakr arrived in Santarém. He helped Paid start the first tree tours in 2013, taking a few Brazilian real for a guided hike through the old growth, almost always highlighting a 700-year-old Cumaru tree. It towered 140 feet above the heads of tourists, and was featured heavily in Abu Bakr’s build up early on in the tour. It may have been one of the biggest trees visitors would see in their lives.
Until one day, it was horizontal.
“I spent an hour of the hike talking about that tree with a group from New York,” Abu Bakr says.
When he saw the fallen Cumaru, excitement turned to sorrow.
“It was one of the biggest trees of our tourism so we were sad for a while,” he says.
It took another 3 months to secure the permits to remove the tree from the forest. During the wait, Paid and Abu Bakr conceived a new business model based on low impact sourcing. There were trees to be harvested, Paid only had one condition on the approach, he refused to cut a road into the forest.
Planting seeds of sustainability
For 50 days, Paid hired local workers to cut up the tree to his blueprints using his mobile sawmill and haul it out of the forest with cows. From turning that tree into a timber frame, the team brought in $90,000 which paid the workers enough to buy new tools and support their families for several weeks.
It cost nearly four times as much to extricate the Cumaru this way than a more heavily industrialized operation could accomplish the same with, but the positive impact to the surrounding community is far greater.
“The reality here is, folks either work with us and we find a way to pay them well or they plant corn,” Abu Bakr says. “Even in the national park across the highway villagers are taking down forest to plant manioc”
Re-growing the forest, anyone can do it
Today, Paid and Abu Bakr are looking outside their own means to conserve the rain forest. They support private initiatives, no matter how small, to purchase land in the Amazon and protect it from the threat of clear cutting.
“We can’t rely on the government here,” Abu Bakr says. “Their main focus is expansion of mining, farmlands and infrastructure.”
On his own, Abu Bakr has been learning how to shoot and edit videos on an iPhone he was given.
“I don’t even need a professional camera,” he says. “it is more about the content. I don’t make super complicated professional videos with a Canon 5D and Adobe. We just need to deliver the message to the right people.
His videos have been posted on Facebook and an Indiegogo campaign. The idea is to buy up surrounding farmland and plant new trees to create a secondary forest that can act as a buffer for the old growth. As that buffer expands, perhaps some day centuries from now it will be considered old growth, too. For now, Paid and Abu Bakr are purchasing new land as quickly as donations allow.
But time is not exactly on their side.
The Amazon needs help now
Brazil has not been immune to the COVID-19 pandemic. The country’s agricultural industry is largely reliant on exports and the subsequent economic instability has switched many farmers into panic mode. Farmers have been expanding their farms at the expense of large swathes of rain forest in response to flagging demand. Moreover, the pandemic has completely displaced international attention from the massive Amazonian forest fires that dominated headlines and satellite imagery over the winter.
“There is no turning-back point anymore,” Abu Bakr says. “We have nowhere else to go.”
Agriculture has displaced so much of the Amazon that the only remaining forests occupy largely accessible areas. Where agriculture doesn’t reach, however, mining and oil drilling operations may finish the job.
Since Abu Bakr arrived in Santarém, forest land has been converted to these aims at record pace. He recalls the first time he saw just how far industry was allowed to go in claiming the natural environment for its own.
“It was 2012, and I remember it like it was today. I got my first big job as a translator here and just came back from the jungle marathon where I had met all the firefighters in town,” he says. “I was standing on the balcony at my apartment right in front of the river, and looking at an island.”
Santarém is located at a fork in the Amazon, where the Tapajos splits off to the south. Abu Bakr was staring across the intersection where trees on a fractal chain of islands had been left to grow wild for millennia
But the forest was gone. The green canopy was replaced with thick smoke.
“I called my firefighter friends and they said they were aware it was burning but that the farmer had already paid someone in a senior role so they were allowing him to go ahead,” he says. “And anyway, they couldn’t stop that fire because the boats they had for these kinds of situations had no fuel and there was no money to buy fuel.
“Welcome to Brazil,” he continued.
Hope for the future
Abu Bakr said he learned a valuable lesson since moving to Brazil. Where he once thought it took the initiative of multi-millionaire Hollywood stars to advocate for the rain forest, a humble woodworker from Traverse City, Michigan, has changed his perspective.
Truly anyone can help save the rain forest, and Abu Bakr is proud of being a part of a movement taking direct action to accomplish that. Along the way there are also plans to invest in the people and resources of Santarém. Once a shield of secondary growth has been established, Abu Bakr and Paid intend to rebuild a high school in the village and bring back the young people who may some day carry on a tradition of standing up for the Amazon.
“We got tired of helplessly watching the devastation,” he writes on the Indiegogo page. “We want to preserve and expand the rain forest. We want to buy nearby properties, conserve, replant, teach people how to make organic plantations and find a good use for them. We want to study this forest that has more mysteries than we ever imagined. We want canopy platforms, walks, river expeditions. We want the forest to stand and people around it to be happy. That’s why we need your help.”
Learn more about the forest and efforts to protect it in the video below.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.