The tiny village of Tumbira sits nestled deep within northwest Brazil’s Amazon rain forest along the banks of the Rio Negro river. A series of Google “street view” images provides a window into the village, which sits 47 miles (75 kilometers) from the nearest city, Manaus, but is a world away culturally. The 360-degree vistas show small wooden houses on stilts, fishing boats, clothes hanging out to dry, a bright and neat school and the lush forest and river waters that are an ever-present backdrop to life in the village.

Tumbira sits at an environmental crossroads, as does the ecosystem that surrounds it. Over the last 40 years, humans have destroyed nearly one-fifth of the Amazon, the world’s largest rain forest. In some areas, the expansion of raising cattle and development of agriculture has contrinbuted to deforestation and population growth. In others, logging, mining and several large hydroelectric dam projects are driving an expansion of cities that continue to steamroll across the jungle. Tumbira is becoming a testing ground for strategies to stave off this kind of unsustainable development.

Quest to Recover a Lost Culture

Izolena Garrido has a personal stake in Tumbira’s future. She left the village more than 25 years ago seeking a formal education in another town. Garrido was lucky that she could travel, at the age of 11, to a municipality that had a school. Many girls she knew at the time ended up staying home to help their families and eventually getting married, some at the young age of 13 or 14 years old. When she came back to Tumbira after nine years, Garrido saw a village still stricken with poverty. “It angered me to see the situation of those I had played with as a child. I taught at a school that was falling to pieces,” she says.

For Garrido, it wasn’t just an educational opportunity that was being lost in her community. It was the culture of the caboclo — the people of mixed European and Brazilian heritage who comprise most of the rural population in the state of Amazonas. She says that contact with nature — the forest, the water, the fresh air — was no longer valued in Tumbira.

“The residents of the community began to lose faith in themselves, beginning to give more value to what came from outside,” Garrido says. “When the truth was that they had a lot to offer as well. After all, the fishing nets, the flour, these are things that only the people from here know how to do — it is not written in any book or manual.”

Garrido says that the situation in Tumbira has gotten better over the past decade, thanks to a new school that was built in 2005, where she now teaches and runs a distance learning program with classes taught by teachers in Manaus. The Foundation for a Sustainable Amazonas (FAS) helped establish the program, along with the village’s Google presence: In 2011, FAS teamed up with Google Earth Outreach to capture images of Tumbira and its surroundings, aiming to share the rain forest’s beauty with audiences around the world. FAS wants to create a new era of opportunity for Tumbira and villages like it — one that offers its people economic opportunity before they are driven to clear the rain forest for pasture or excessive logging. “We work with a holistic approach so it’s sustainable development,” says FAS director Virgilio Viana. “That means we focus on increasing income, reducing poverty, improving education, health, culture—everything that people consider daily priorities.” The motto for FAS, which works with 541 communities in Amazonas, is to “make forests worth more standing than cut.”

An Ecosystem Assaulted on Many Fronts

Although the Brazilian government said recently that Amazon deforestation is at its lowest level in 24 years thanks to better monitoring and protection of sensitive areas, people in villages like Tumbira will be crucial to preventing further rain forest loss.

The cascading effects of deforestation stretch far beyond the site of clear-cut trees. Rainfall produced by water vapors from the Amazonian forest is critical not only to Brazil’s agriculture but to the whole global ecosystem. Without it, areas become more prone to drought, and in turn, fires. As trees are lost, so too are biodiversity, a host of natural resources and a critical repository for the world’s carbon dioxide. One study found that though the Amazon had acted as a vast carbon sink for 25 years, that process was reversed during an anomalous drought in 2005. 

Such a major drought in the Amazon rain forest was thought to have been a once-in-a-century event — until it happened again in 2010. During the second drought, the Rio Negro — one of the Amazon River’s large tributaries — fell to its lowest level since record-keeping began in the early 1900s. The recurrence of such unusual and severe conditions in the Amazon twice in five years drew alarm from scientists, who noted that in a normal year, the rain forest absorbs 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. A drought produces the double whammy of preventing carbon absorption and actively pouring additional tons of the greenhouse gas into the air as dying trees decompose or burn.

The impact of the 2010 drought for residents of Tumbira, who depend on the “black river” (so named for its tea-colored water, tinted by decaying vegetation) for transit, was more immediate: “It is hard to go to school when we have to cross the river on foot, full of stones and mud. The teachers who came from other places did not adapt well,” Garrido says.

While the cause of the two recent Amazon droughts is not exactly known, some climate models suggest that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, such droughts could become more frequent. Deforestation contributes to those emissions, creating a vicious cycle and stoking global warming.

Development Without Deforestation

Muhtar Kent in Brazil

Viana, of FAS, is working to help rural communities in the Amazon derive economic benefits from the standing forest and flowing rivers, increasing residents’ investment in protecting the natural resources surrounding them. He says that the sustainable harvesting of fish, Brazil nuts, natural rubber and oils from seeds can generate income for a community, along with tourism and small business concepts that offer alternatives to cutting down trees.

One such small business idea is to create artisan goods using natural and recycled materials. In an effort partly supported by Coca-Cola, women in Rio Negro communities are being trained to create clothing, jewelry and accessories to sell. With this type of work, Garrido says, “we are recovering an entire culture, bringing back an art through products that are beginning to be made once again — handmade art, which unites skillful hands with reasoning. Now, the work involves creating new pieces of art by combining the natural with the recycled.”

In addition to teaching, Garrido is leading a group of craftspeople in Tumbira that includes women and a few men. “They became interested because we showed that art is not just about making things for women. It can be anything, including the fishing nets they use,” she says.

A public-private partnership, FAS receives funding from the Amazonas state government and private supporters, including Coca-Cola, which is one of the top two partner companies.  Initially, Coke donated $12 million to FAS' permanenet trust fund. This month, Coca-Cola announced that it is expanding its partnership to support communities in the Rio Negro Sustainable Development Reserve and as such is investing an additional $1.3 million through 2017.

Viana says that unless the rural communities of Amazonas can develop sustainable opportunities, the trend toward deforestation will continue. “[We need] to create a different economy that places a value on the role of forests before they are gone,” he says.

Garrido, for her part, is hopeful about her village’s future. “I believe that as our work earns visibility, people will gain new faith in themselves,” she says. “I see a door opening in Tumbira, with opportunities appearing for everyone.”