A Unique Laboratory for Change in the Amazon Rainforest

The communities clustered along the verdant banks of the Jari River in the Amazon basin present a study in contrasts: lush rainforest against the weathered boards of houses perched over the river on stilts. Immaculately kept homes atop mounds of waste and debris. Poverty on one side of the river and prosperity on the other, only a minute away by motor boat.

Sparsely inhabited only forty years ago, the Jari River Valley today is home to nearly 100,000 residents, lured from other parts of Brazil by the promise of a better future. The fate of these communities is intimately linked with two ambitious, but contrasting visions of Jari's future.

The story begins with Daniel K. Ludwig, a North American shipping magnate. In 1967, counting on a worldwide shortage of cellulose for paper production, Ludwig purchased several million hectares of virgin rainforest in the Jari region and proceeded to clear and plant more than 100,000 of those hectares in a fast-growing species of tree native to Asia. He invested heavily, floating a fully assembled factory built in Japan on platforms across two oceans and up the Amazon to its present location on the banks of the Jari River.

Dreams of finding jobs and livelihoods in Ludwig's Jari Project drew a steady stream of immigrants to the region. The town of Monte Dourado was built nearby to house about 1,000 employees, and equipped with water and electricity, schools, hospitals, supermarkets and banks.

When the grand scheme collapsed, victim to flawed market assumptions, high energy prices and a failure to understand the rainforest ecosystem, Ludwig pulled out in 1980, leaving in his wake widespread unemployment and social dislocation in a community heavily dependent on the only employer in the region. Some 30,000 of the displaced ended up on the other bank of the river, where they built a fragile existence on the flood-prone shores of Laranjal do Jari and other settlements.

A new vision of development for a threatened region

Now, more than 20 years later, another visionary business leader has emerged to guide development in Jari in a different direction. Sergio Amoroso, a pioneer in the country's young but growing corporate social responsibility movement is advancing a model of engagement that stands in sharp contrast to Ludwig's failed vision. For Amoroso, Jari represents a unique laboratory for change in a region still struggling with the past legacy of unsustainable business practices, environmental degradation and social neglect.

According to Amoroso's vision, a key agent of this change will be his company, the Orsa Group, and the social responsibility arm of the business, the Orsa Foundation (www.grupoorsa.com.br; www.fundacaoorsa.org.br). Wholly Brazilian-owned, the Orsa Group is one of the country's largest producers of pulp, packaging paper and cardboard, with sales of $370 million a year.

The Orsa Foundation, established in 1994, at a time when social responsibility and corporate citizenship was still in its early stages in Brazil, operates nationwide, with more than 60 programs in education, health and social promotion. The Orsa Group invests one percent of its gross revenues -- yielding $4.1 million in 2003 -- in the Foundation, whose mission is the complete education of children and adolescents under personal and social risk. The Foundation forges alliances with partners such as the Ministry of Health, the National Economic and Social Development Bank (BNDES), and a range of NGOs, to leverage its philanthropic resources.

"The Orsa Group is in the forefront of social investment in Brazil, as one of the few companies that invests one percent of its sales, no matter what profits are, in social projects," observed Helio Mattar, co-founder of the Ethos Institute (www.ethos.org.br), the vanguard organization in developing a corporate social responsibility ethic in Brazil. "That is most extraordinary, when we consider that the Jari Project was bought by Orsa as a business in a very difficult situation."

Amoroso's own experiences with poverty in his youth have given him a particular affinity for society's most vulnerable populations. As Amoroso explains it, his evolution as a philanthropist is a story of "a poor child, full of dreams, who grew up to achieve many times over what he had expected in his life." Following a time of personal crisis and reflection in mid-life, Amoroso came to the conclusion that his destiny was best fulfilled by investing a portion of his wealth in society "in an effective manner, without the traditional welfare approach," in an attempt to create new methodologies to help society resolve its most pressing problems.

Assessing challenges in Jari

In Amoroso's quest for innovative models for social change, the Jari Project represents a major new undertaking, both for the Orsa Group and its Foundation, and has challenged the mission in ways that are just beginning to be understood. In essence, the community in which Orsa does business consists of 100,000 residents with a vast array of social needs, and stewardship of 1.6 million hectares (half the size of Holland), 90 percent of which is native rainforest, the largest privately held reserve of native forest in the world.

When the Orsa group acquired the Jari cellulose business in 2000, the company commissioned a detailed exploratory study by Brazil's Federal University of Juiz de Fora to lay the groundwork for social action. "We saw that Jari was different from what we had experienced in other regions," said Roberto Waack, Executive Director of the Orsa Group. "Orsa was basically the only local agent committed to social change. It was very different from the big cities, where you find many other such organizations."

The conditions documented in Laranjal do Jari painted an alarming portrait of the daily challenges faced by the local population, and a daunting "to do" list for a Foundation committed to social change. Researchers found a lack of basic sanitation, haphazard educational opportunities, teen gang violence, heavy drug traffic and prostitution.

Without a tradition of civic participation, residents had little experience with collaborative networks. In the midst of one of the richest bioregions on earth, there was scant awareness about how to protect and improve their environment. Past efforts to deal with societal problems had consisted largely of handouts from politicians at election time, "like giving people fish, but not teaching them how to fish," said Waack.

Laying the groundwork for turnaround

On the other side of the equation, Amoroso said, Jari presented tremendous opportunities, such as an "extensive investment of infrastructure in the heart of the Amazon rainforest," thanks to Ludwig's previous business venture. "Putting all this together, you had a conducive environment for a big turnaround, a great opportunity in a medium- to long-term framework to bring about a transformation in the region, creating a development model for the Amazon based on preservation of the environment and wealth generation," said Amoroso.

Orsa set about putting this vision into action, an approach based on an integration of sustainable business practices, environmental responsibility and social investment.

As it turned out, the Orsa Foundation's focus on children and youth was well suited for an environment that presented so many threats to young people.

One of Orsa's first efforts aimed at young people in Jari was the formation of a folkloric performance group, Tupan Magic, as part of the Foundation's existing Social Inclusion and Building of Citizenship Program (PISCC). Tupan Magic, named after an Indian deity, celebrates the cultural traditions brought to the region by immigrants in legends, song and dance.

PISCC, which operates in a dozen projects in several other Brazilian cities, works in cooperation with the education system through after-school music, arts, sports and citizenship activities. Families are invited to participate, in handicrafts courses and discussion groups on health issues for women and children, adult literacy programs, and distance learning. In the Jari Valley, PISCC also provides environmental education and serves 200 meals to children a day.

Expanding horizons through intercultural exchange

Many of an age to take part in the Orsa Foundation's programs have never lived, or even traveled, outside of Jari. Therefore, in 2003, when a visiting delegation from the Interchurch Organization for Development Cooperation (ICCO), an anti-poverty organization in the Netherlands active in forest communities, invited the 16 members of Jari's Tupan Magic to represent the Amazon in a cooperative exchange trip to Holland, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most in the group.

"At first, we couldn't believe it. We had never thought of leaving, even if it was to go to some other Brazilian city, let alone to another country," said Adenilton Pinto, an educator with the Orsa Foundation in Jari who traveled to Holland with the troupe.

The trip last November included a series of performances by Tupan Magic that showcased Amazonian cultural traditions for the Dutch audiences, and opened the young Brazilians' eyes to a range of new experiences: living with a host family in the Netherlands and outings to a zoo, a seal orphanage, farms, and an ice skating rink, a particular source of wonder for children growing up in a tropical environment.

The itinerary also included stops at technical schools to observe woodworking and construction techniques, of relevance to young people whose career opportunities may well be tied to forest products. The group's final performance in the Netherlands was attended by the Governor of Pará State (one of the two regional jurisdictions of Jari), Simão Jalene, and the President of ICCO's Council, Tineke Lodders-Elfferich.

Amoroso, who accompanied Tupan Magic to Holland, said he was deeply touched in a personal way by the experience. "It's been gratifying to see that it is possible, through very simple actions, to transform the lives of children, to give them a new outlook on the world and the future, and to broaden their dreams, allowing them to have wider and bigger possibilities."

Upon their arrival back in Jari, the members of Tupan Magic reflected on the differences between life in Holland and Jari. A number of the young people remarked on the way that their Dutch hosts cared for their environment. Bruna Oliviera, for example, was struck by "the cleanliness -- surely the cleanliness is because they're all aware of what they do -- they know that they will spoil their own place if they soil it."

Promoting a culture of concern for the environment

This culture of concern for the environment is one that the Orsa Group promotes in all of its activities in Jari, since the viability of the business and the local communities is integrally linked to the continuing health of the Amazon rainforest.

"When we acquired Jari, the Orsa Group decided that the forest management should be sustainable, and our definition of sustainable was that it needed to include the economic side as well as the environmental and social side," said Waack. He cited a growing recognition that rainforests won't survive without generating economic value-that humans are here to stay in the forest ecosystem, and if they don't find means of livelihood, they will cut down the forest to achieve it. For Orsa, this means pursuing strategies that permit income generation in harmony with the native forest.

A basic step in protecting the environment is to understand it, so the Orsa Foundation is systematically cataloguing the flora and fauna of its holdings and has created a research and education center on rainforest biodiversity in cooperation with the Instituto Brasiliero para o Meio Ambiente e Recursos Naturais (IBAMA) and the Ministry of the Environment. Located in an ecological reserve 80 kilometers from Monte Dourado, the Nature School offers a range of environmental education programs for students, teachers and community members.

Orsa's decision to seek certification from the Forest Stewardship Council for its 1.6 million hectares of native rainforest ensures that the company's practices meet internationally agreed upon standards for sustainable forest management. The Council is an NGO created by the World Wildlife Fund and other environmental organizations to guide management and certification of forest resources.

The seal of approval from the FSC helps create a marketable rainforest "brand" that serves to protect the world's dwindling reserves of native forests by creating a consumer preference for timber that comes from sustainable forest operations, and adding value to these forest products in the world market. Through its Orsa Florestal operations, the company is exploring multiple sustainable uses of the native forest, including the harvesting and sale of certified sustainable timber, oils, nuts, cosmetics and plant products that have applications in medicine and nutrition.

Linking livelihoods with sustainable development

In one of its local wealth generation projects, Orsa Florestal has set up a starch plant to provide an expanded market for the manioc being raised by local farmers on plantations established in degraded areas of the rainforest prior to Orsa's arrival in Jari. In Jari, as in elsewhere in Brazil, inequities in land ownership pose a barrier for many to full participation in society. Orsa is trying to address the problem by helping the 10,000 or so who live on the borders of the native forest gain legal title to their land.

The scope of the new challenges facing the company in Jari have led to "an interesting debate on how far the Orsa Foundation must go on sustainable development action, how far to go on interventions with families, with women," said Roberto Waack. "Orsa is a very dynamic organization, not afraid to keep moving on with each new learning experience. This venture in Jari is providing food for the continuous development of the Orsa Foundation and reexamination of its mission. For now, we have concluded that the best way to solve social problems is through business."

For his part, Amoroso is confident the experience will serve as a model, showing that it's "possible to occupy the Amazon region in an intelligent manner, extracting resources from forests without destroying them. It's possible to convince people to generate wealth while respecting the environment, and it's possible to correct the mistakes of the past. We believe that in order to make this 'almost utopia' come true, we will need a lot of support both domestic and international. I invite everyone to enter this journey: the construction of a very different society!"