Porto Velho, Rondonia, Brazil – Ailson Basilia Guerra first bought half a hectare of land in the Brazilian state of Rondonia four years ago, with intentions to fulfil his life-long dream of becoming a farmer. But he quickly realised the pale, dry land was damaged and seemingly impossible to explore.
Now, four years later, he walks proudly among his banana trees and lists all the varieties of coffee he is growing.
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“Back then, I thought I’d had to sell my property, but thankfully someone from Rioterra approached us and taught us how to sustainably develop the land,” he told Al Jazeera from his small porch, hidden away from the searing sun. “There is nothing better than to invest in agriculture, you feel more human to live from your own effort and to work along with nature, everyone should do it.”
Guerra is one of the dozens of farmers in Rondonia supported by Rioterra, a non-governmental organisation that works to reforest the Amazon by offering producers seeds and education about how to farm their land sustainably in exchange for a promise to plant native Amazon species.
“Our work feels like a drop in the ocean but it’s a drop that can make a difference,” said Alexandre Queiroz, coordinator at Rioterra, as he walked through the dense Amazonian forest.
“We tell local farmers that it is possible to produce, survive and have a profit by conserving the forest because, without it, they won’t have water for their crops,” he told Al Jazeera.
In the past decade, Rioterra has reforested more than 800 hectares of the Amazon and it hopes to reforest 800 hectares more this year alone, after the implementation of a new, broader project. But their work could be at risk after its main source of fund is being cut dry.
Germany and Norway announced last month that they were freezing millions of dollars allocated to the Amazon Fund, a partnership between the two countries and Brazil to combat deforestation in the region. In more than 10 years, the fund has helped 103 projects and disbursed nearly $1.3bn.
The halt in donations came after the government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro changed the fund’s governance structure and removed its selection committee, leaving that role solely to his administration.
Bolsonaro responded with outrage, saying: “Isn’t Norway that country that kills whales up there in the North Pole? Take that money and help Angela Merkel reforest Germany.”
The spat and halt in funds have left organisations like Rioterra, which received $9m from the fund in 2017, scrambling to find alternative options.
“We are looking for other sources of funding and our goal is to show how important the Amazon is, how farmers and other institutions can work to develop the forest sustainably,” Queiroz said. The NGO is working to create a partnership with other organisations with the aim of setting up a centralised fund to receive foreign aid.
Ivaneide Bandeira Cardozo, founder of the Kaninde association, which works to help indigenous communities in Rondonia, said her organisation was also looking for alternative sources of funding.
“We will have difficulties, but we will continue,” she told Al Jazeera.
“We are already looking for alternative funding to continue the work we are doing. I don’t believe people will stop funding those who are protecting the Amazon,” she said.
Bolsonaro’s attack on NGOs
But organisations say they’re not only dealing with funding issues, but also the government’s anti-indigenous, anti-NGO and anti-environmental policies.
“I think [funders] won’t be going through the government any more, but to us directly, which might be easier because then we won’t have the government on top of our necks trying to kill us,” Bandeira Cardozo said, adding that she has received many phone calls from people looking to send in donations.
During his campaign, Bolsonaro said NGOs were “useless” and that “there will be no money” for the sector during his presidency.
Not long after his appointment in January, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles suspended all funding to NGOs for 90 days to “review” every contract and, in May, he said all the Amazon Fund projects presented irregularities.
After a surge in deforestation and fires in the Amazon region, Bolsonaro also claimed that NGOs were to blame for the fires – without providing evidence – suggesting they started them “because they lost money”.
“What’s the intention? To bring problems to Brazil,” he said during a steel congress in Brasilia in August.
“Who would believe that an NGO would set the Amazon on fire? That reveals so much lack of knowledge and also cruelty,” said Bandeira Cardozo.
She accused the president of saying such “foolishness” to distract his voters from the real problems on the ground. She said her association has been “full of work” since Bolsonaro took office, as invasions of indigenous territories have increased.
The far-right president also accused French President Emmanuel Macron of “meddling … in Brazilian sovereignty” over his call for the South American country to do more to protect the Amazon.
Despite the fires, Bolsonaro has maintained that exploration of the Amazon is needed to strengthen Brazil’s economy, prompting a national and global outcry.
On Thursday, protests were held in Brazil and cities worldwide in what was dubbed “Amazon Day”.
On Friday, regional leaders, including Bolsonaro, signed a thinly-detailed pact to work together to better protect the rainforest.
Despite growing international concern, the leaders of Kaninde and Rioterra know their mission will only get harder under Bolsonaro and the depletion of the Amazon Fund, but they remain committed to their work to protect the vast rainforest.
On Rioterra’s farm in the middle of the Amazon, more than 400,000 seedlings of forest and agricultural species are growing.
Two workers quickly filled sacks with dirt and seeds obtained from the heart of the Jamari national reserve. When all of the plants are ready, they will be sent as a “kit” to farmers.
“We are facing a worrying scenario with the Amazon Fund, but we have been working with them for so long. And the contract for the next project has already been approved so we are sure those funds are guaranteed,” Rioterra’s Queiroz said. But when asked if the Amazon Fund can continue to give such guarantees as the money stops coming in, he can’t muster an answer.
Instead, he smiled and looked towards the tiny green crops. “It’s amazing to imagine all of this 400,000 little plants as tall, green trees in a few years, isn’t it?” he said.