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Rich Nations Should Pay To Preserve Rain Forest, Brazilian Politician Says

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

A climate change summit will be held in Paris later this month to discuss global warming. Scientists say unless we do something about it, the effects will be devastating. Already, 146 countries, including Brazil, have submitted their targets to reduce emissions. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro explains that what happens in one small Brazilian state in the Amazon can affect a global agreement on climate change.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: This is a story about Brazilian politics. OK, whoa, wait, do not turn off the radio. There's criminals. There's cowboys. There's corruption. And I'm about to get into a tiny plane in the Amazon. It was scary.

So we're about to fly over the state of Rondonia to see what deforestation looks like from the air. We're in a twin-engine Seneca with an impeccable safety record, we hope.

We soar over the far north part of the state. The forest is patchy.

We're traveling over vast distances where you can see cattle farm after cattle farm.

Trucks laden with freshly cut logs feed massive sawmills. Rondonia, once almost entirely covered by the Amazon rain forest, what people call the lungs of the world, from the air looks like the agricultural state it's become. And there's another thing you can see from above.

So we've just flown over the offices of the legislature that are in the shape of an I-C, for Ivo Cassol. A bit of hubris there, I think.

Ivo Cassol. He's the current federal senator from the great state of Rondonia. He sits on the Senate's environmental committee, which will have a say on any deal inked in Paris. But before he joined the National congress, he was a local politician here, a two-term governor where he used public money to build those offices in the shape of his initials. He kind of cattle branded the buildings. And that says a lot about the man, according to those who know him.

GUDEMBERG DE OLIVEIRA: When he talks to the public, he holds a hat and very common clothes to make him look like a normal person.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gudemberg de Oliveira works at the public prosecutor's office in Rondonia. He explains Rondonia is the newest state in Brazil. It was only created in the '80s. People moved here from other parts of the country to make their fortunes. And many, like Ivo Cassol, did through cattle ranching and logging. It made him rich. He's one of the wealthiest men in the Senate. But he presents himself as a man of the people.

DE OLIVEIRA: He speaks in a wrong way so that people can see him as a person from the people. And he does that intentionally. So people say, wow, this guy really represents me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The town where he's from in Rondonia is called Rolim de Moura. This is cattle country. Ivo Cassol was mayor here. It's where he started his political career. In the town square, a group of older men wearing cowboy boots and baseball caps sit in the shade, listening to sertaneja music, music of Brazil's countryside. They know Cassol personally.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Portuguese).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Portuguese).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They all speak over one another to sing his praises. He built roads. He changed the state. If he ever runs again, he'll win in a heartbeat, they say. The thing is, according to Brazil's Supreme Court and the country's prosecutor general, Ivo Cassol is also a criminal found guilty of fraud. He's still appealing his almost five-year prison sentence on technicalities. But he's been found guilty by the highest court in the land. It all started when he was mayor here in Rolim de Moura. According to the indictment, he was giving government contracts to his cronies and family. But to the people here, it doesn't really matter. He's a champion who fought for their interests. Those interests, though, often clash with preserving the rain forest.

HERMINIO COELHO: (Through interpreter) Unfortunately, all our politicians, just like Ivo Cassol, make their money from logging, from cattle ranching. They all own land.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Herminio Coelho, one of the few opposition politicians in the state legislature. He's with the leftist party. He says he's one of the few people in the state government who cares about the environment. Coelho's pretty plain spoken. He calls the local assembly, of which he forms part, whorehouse.

COELHO: (Through interpreter) Our assembly is a criminal enterprise. No one is interested in helping the environment. And if it was up to the state assembly, there wouldn't be a single tree left in Rondonia.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Rondonia's not alone in this. Brazil is an agricultural powerhouse. It's one of the bread baskets of the world. And one of the few bright spots in its struggling economy right now is agricultural exports - meat, soy - the very items that are pushing deforestation. Ivo Cassol is just one politician, but he's part of a large and powerful rural caucus and the National Congress. And they have their own ideas about any deal Brazil makes with the outside world. So we head to the capital.

Brasilia, where I am right now - I'm in front of the planalto, which is the presidential palace - was a city that was created out of nothing to be the center of government. And the architecture by Oscar Niemeyer is, I think, designed to show man's dominance over the land. You're seeing wide concrete esplanade's with not a tree in sight.

IVO CASSOL: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We finally meet Ivo Cassol at his office. He is indeed very charming. He calls me darling. For the record, he says, he's innocent of the corruption charges against him.

CASSOL: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He also denies being a deforester, even though he's been fined by the environmental monitoring agency IBAMA. He says he plants trees on his farms and properties. He doesn't cut them down. It's all a misunderstanding. I ask him about the deal that Brazil is going to make in Paris to try and slow climate change.

CASSOL: (Through interpreter) Is it fair to ask Brazil to do all the conservation when the United States made the mess to begin with? It's very hypocritical of the Americans. The same rules have to apply for everyone or for no one. Are we to be the slave of other countries, the lungs of the United States, the lungs of other countries, even though they send us only a pittance to pay for conservation? I won't accept it. No.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says if the Amazon is the lungs of the world, they're going to have to pay us to breathe. And this is one of the central sticking points in the upcoming Paris talks. Europe and the U.S. cut down a lot of their forests, already on the road to development. Politicians like Cassol say now rich nations need to foot the bill for poorer ones to save what remains. And that's why what Ivo Cassol thinks matters. Because whatever deal they come up with in Paris, it will have to be implemented. And you need politicians to do that. So Brazil's Congress matters to all of us, all around the world. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.