When John Carter moved to Brazil in 1996 to run a large ranch handed down by his wife Kika’s family, the setting was a stark contrast to his upbringing in Texas.
“My wife and I moved to a very remote spot, about 15 hours away by car from the nearest hospital and the nearest little urban center, if you could call it an urban center,” said Carter, a parishioner at Christ the King Church who lives part of the year in Nashville. “It was all dirt streets. We had no electricity, no telephone.”
Even with the couple’s education in ranch management from Texas Christian University – where they met – and John’s experience as a senior scout behind enemy lines in Iraq during the Gulf War, they were unprepared for what they’d encounter in the Amazon.
“We had inserted ourselves into a very dangerous area of frontier,” Carter said. “There was violence and armed bandits and land invasions with squatters invading private property. It was daunting.”
While the Carters were trying to keep their homestead safe from undesirable elements, they were, helplessly, witnessing the systematic destruction of the beautiful forests of the Amazon. “Over the course of time we saw tens of millions of acres torn down,” explained Carter. “There was no respect for human life there, and if you don’t respect humans, you’re not going to respect nature.”
By the time October, 1997 came around, the situation had become untenable. John and Kika were sitting on their front porch – their usual spot since the house had no air-conditioning – unable to see 200 meters in front of them, due to heavy smoke from the burning forests. Some of the fires were intentionally set; others occurred spontaneously because of perilously dry conditions.
It was a turning point for John. He told Kika that they needed to do something to try to halt the madness, or they needed to leave the family ranch, and Brazil, entirely.
“It tugged on my heartstrings, and more importantly, took a chunk out of my soul,” recalled Carter. “That was where my faith stepped in. It wasn’t necessarily God telling me to do something, it was more that my conscience wouldn’t let me sleep at night. I tried to transfer that anger and rage I was feeling into something positive – a solution.
“So, I simply did what you’re not supposed to do in a frontier,” continued Carter. “You’re supposed to harden your heart and charge forward with your head. I ignored my head and charged forward with my heart.”
He started contacting officials and other potentially concerned parties, and kept getting let down. As a pilot with his own plane, he began flying people in from the United States and elsewhere, in the hopes of finding sympathetic partners who might reverse the downward spiral of the region. He became skeptical and then downright wary of environmental advocacy groups’ so-called “green efforts” that promoted the problems of the rainforest, but seemed to do little to erase them. The lack of progress overwhelmed and depressed him.
But after a while, he began to notice a divine pattern. “After something bad would happen, there would always be a spark,” said Carter. “When I looked backwards, I realized that if I followed that spark, I moved up a rung of the ladder. After 20 years of those sparks, I look back and realize that there was no way in the world I could have done what I did without taking huge leaps of faith. In my humble opinion, God was always there to catch me, and demanding that leap of faith to throw more responsibility to me.”
Ultimately, Carter had to trust his heart, and extend that trust to other people in the region who he perceived were operating in good faith too. Slowly he was able to build an army of like-minded landowners, ranchers and farmers, or, according to Carter, “a counter-insurgency to the onslaught,” who signed on to this sacred quest to fight for and reclaim the area’s natural beauty.
In 2004, the Carters established a non-profit called Alianca da Terra, translated as Land Alliance. Its mission was to work with private landowners in the Amazon Basin to save the territory by making it more economically feasible to use the land instead of destroy it. Since land value is five times more valuable when it’s cleared than as forest, Alianca da Terra had to create counter-incentives for landowners to even consider maintaining forests on their ground.
“Institutionally, we’re profit-driven for our landowners, because a farmer in the red can’t take care of the green,” Carter said. “We’re trying to create financial incentives for them to do the right thing. We’re tapping into world markets, and using the free market to bring value back to the soil, while telling our story at the same time.”
Carter’s organization also supports a fire-fighting initiative, utilizing 700 volunteers. That force includes 10 Indian tribes combatting fires that erupt in Brazil’s Indian reservations. This wasn’t an issue 30 years ago when the Amazon was too humid to burn. “Now with deforestation you’re drying out the landscape,” said Carter. “Once you deforest you reduce the rainfall. So those forests are now flammable and going up in smoke.”
Alianca da Terra can claim some significant successes. Today it manages 13 million acres, and represents 1,135 properties in its system. Illegal deforestation in these cooperating properties has nearly been halted, and the destruction from fires greatly reduced.
“The big number is that we’ve already re-forested 70,000 acres of rivers and streams,” Carter said. “We now have more forest standing in our private properties than Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks combined.”
Carter believes that the only way to protect nature from total annihilation is to “harness the power of private property” and to create market incentives by literally changing the way we think about the food and other goods we purchase and consume. Alianca da Terra is striving toward having several products for sale in major retail outlets in the United States. Ultimately its logo will be attached to commodities like coffee, beef, cotton clothes and towels.
Buying these items associated with the non-profit will support the hundreds of properties aligned with the initiative’s determination to turn the Amazon around. “Quality doesn’t just mean quality food, but also quality in environmental and social deliverables,” said Carter. “If you buy a product, you should know where it came from and how it was produced. In that process, you as the consumer actually help the people on the ground do the right thing.”
To find out more about the Carter’s efforts, or to donate to the group’s wildland firefighting effort which relies entirely on contributions to train and equip indigenous firefighters across the Amazon Basin, visit www.aliancaoriginegroup.com.