SEEING GREEN: fiber, forests, futures
Is Brazil’s bad rep pulp fiction?

Ludwig Moldan listens with the weary expression of an old priest who’s heard it all before.

An executive with Bracelpa, the Brazil association for the pulp and paper industry, Moldan is aware of his country’s poor reputation on the environment. If people only knew.

Brazil must meet the environmental standards of the country receiving its pulp. Given Brazil is the seventh-largest exporter of pulp in the world, that means it has the same forest regulations as most of the developed world.

“The U.S., Germany, Sweden ... we export to so many countries and have to follow their laws,” he said. “We have very stupid environmental laws because we copy everyone.”

He acknowledges that most people associate his country with the wanton destruction of the Amazon rain forest. Illegal logging is still an issue, but not for the pulp and paper industry.

Concentrated in the southeast part of the country, away from Amazon forests, the industry got its start by converting degraded grazing lands — cerrados — into eucalyptus plantations. Today, those plantations are interspersed with native plants and other agricultural crops to preserve the Atlantic forest species. The combination helps the plantations resist the pests and diseases that spread in monocultures.

Moldan points to a statistic on a spreadsheet: Brazil’s pulp and paper industry manages 4.2 million acres of plantation forests, but preserves 6.4 million acres of native species.

“It is the future of our industry; we manage it well,” said Moldan of Brazil’s forests.

Going green

In contrast to its slash-and-burn image, Brazil’s environmental laws are comparable with those in the United States. A 2006 study by Yale and Columbia universities ranked Brazil at No. 34 and the U.S. at No. 28 on an environmental performance index — the difference between 77 and 78.5 on a score of 100. More than 130 countries were assessed in the study, which measured data such as timber harvest rates, energy efficiency, water quality and biodiversity.

Additionally, 8.6 million acres of Brazil’s working forests are certified by the independent Forest Stewardship Council for sound environmental management. In the U.S., that number stands at 18.5 million acres, 1.7 million acres of which are in Maine.

And there could be added incentives for more preservation if protocols from the Kyoto summit take off. Brazil’s forests have the potential to make money based on their pollution-scrubbing abilities. Trees — especially eucalyptus — pull carbon dioxide from the air and store it in their trunks. To combat global warming, a program was established at Kyoto that allows corporations to get pollution credits for financing projects that reduce emissions.

Two years ago General Motors and American Electric Power gave $15 million to a reforestation program in southeast Brazil in a deal brokered by the Nature Conservancy. An article in Nature Conservancy magazine noted that the companies are taking a gamble because no one knows if those credits will have any value since the carbon market hasn’t been worked out yet.

But the idea that pulp and paper companies might be flush with new money to funnel into their plantations and conservation lands holds promise. “We see the potential, but it is a new thing for us,” said Moldan. “We are planning a conference here on just that issue.”

The industry already benefits from conservation policies.

Prior to the Yom Kippur War in 1973, a barrel of oil in Brazil cost $3.86 (U.S.); following it, the price shot up to $21.50. Brazilian authorities reacted by investing in ethanol technology to avoid a reliance on foreign oil. Today, 77 percent of the cars in Brazil operate on Flex fuel — a combination of gas and ethanol derived from sugar cane.

Besides reducing emissions, motorists get a break at the pumps. Regular gas sells for $2.50 reals a liter ($1.25 U.S.) while the sugar cane derivative sells for $1.69 reals (85 cents).

The country also recycles about half of its paper products; the same rate as the U.S. But it consumes far less. According to Earthtrends, the typical Brazilian uses 93 pounds of paper per person per year. In the U.S., it’s 676 pounds.