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Mac Margolis

It Takes a Rancher to Save a Rainforest

Brazil's ranchers are learning to feed the planet without destroying it.
A laboratory for 'green' beef.
A laboratory for 'green' beef.

In the ongoing pillage of tropical rainforests, villains are plenty. None has stoked imaginations like the Amazonian rancher. With his bulldozers and chainsaws, and herds that wander from horizon to horizon, the rainforest cattleman has emerged as Amazonia's public enemy No. 1, his ruin chronicled in titles like "The World is Burning," and "The Hamburger Connection." America's National Academy of Sciences is the latest to sound off.

Now the genre may be due for revision. Deforestation, though still high, has plunged across South America. It fell to a 25-year low last year, even as the Brazilian economy grew. Indonesia recently overtook Brazil as the world's leading forest cutter. A severe crackdown by public officials has helped. Authorities use real-time satellite data to pinpoint illegal cutting and forest fires, then dispatch patrols to swoop down on rogue herders and loggers. But more than a police story, this tropical turnaround tale is about smart policy and science allied with resourceful ranchers trying to make ends meet on one of the planet's most hostile landscapes.