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Brazil has battled for decades to halt the Amazon's destruction

RIO PARDO, Brazil - In December this year, the U.N. Climate Conference takes place in Paris. Ahead of the summit, Reuters will release a series of stories, titled "Earthprints," that show the ability of humans to change the landscape of the plane...

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Cows are seen in this aerial view on a deforested plot of the Amazon rainforest near Rio Pardo, in the district of Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

RIO PARDO, Brazil - In December this year, the U.N. Climate Conference takes place in Paris. Ahead of the summit, Reuters will release a series of stories, titled "Earthprints," that show the ability of humans to change the landscape of the planet. From sprawling urban growth to the construction of new islands, each site has profoundly changed in the last 30 years. Each story has accompanying NASA satellite images that show the scale of the change. 

In international talks over global climate policy, Brazil's government has declared time and again a goal that environmental activists scoff at: eliminating illegal deforestation in the Amazonrainforest.

They scoff because environmentalists believe that Brazil, as guardian of the world's largestrainforest, should be more ambitious. Eliminating illegal activity, after all, amounts to nothing more than enforcing the law.

But in remote corners of the Amazon – a major source of the planet's fresh water and oxygen and a crucial buffer against climate change – enforcing the law is not easy.

With few resources and personnel to police even major cities, Brazilian authorities are easily outmanned and outmaneuvered in a region the size of western Europe. As often as not, loggers, ranchers, miners and other would-be developers in the Amazon fell trees unchallenged.

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In Rondonia, a western Brazilian state about half the size of Ireland, forays into the rainforest by settlers in recent decades went largely unimpeded. Since 1988, about 16 percent of the state has been cleared, according to government data. And that is just a sliver of a total area bigger than Germany that has been razed across the entire Amazon over the same period.

The modest town of Rio Pardo, a muddy settlement of about 4,000 people, rises now where only jungle stood less than a quarter century ago.

Settlement there followed a routine that is well established across the deforested Amazon. Loggers clear forest, followed by ranchers and farmers, followed by small merchants and prospectors who smell opportunity.

Flying over the area to shoot pictures, I saw the starkest of contrasts between lush foliage and the bareness of the plots shaved into the jungle.

When Edivaldo Fernandes Oliveira first arrived in Rio Pardo in 1999, there were only 120 other people there. Like them, he took to cutting trees and eventually cleared enough land to start a small ranch where more than 100 cattle now graze.

Oliveira and others in Rio Pardo say they did not know at the time that the land was in one of the many national forests that Brazil's government has established, often in vain, to demarcate protected lands.

"I know now that it was wrong, but nobody told me when I got here," says Oliveira, 40. "Now I have to fight."

For Oliveira, fighting means struggling against efforts by Brazil's environmental agency to move settlers like him off the protected lands.

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But how do you move a whole town? How do you move many small towns?

Settlers, whether their crimes were deliberate or not, are now attached to the land, their families and livelihood tied to it.

"This is good land," says Zezito Oliveira, an 83-year-old farmer in Rio Pardo. "With courage and the desire to work, you reap good things here," adds Oliveira, who is not related to Edivaldo Fernandes Oliveira.

Already, the state has negotiated land swaps with the federal government, agreeing to establish new forest preserves in still-untouched areas that had not previously been demarcated, in exchange for letting some settlers stay in areas that have been cleared.

While pragmatic, such measures are seen by critics as tantamount to rewards for wrongdoing.

But settlers see the issue through a lens going back to the earliest days of colonization.

"The Portuguese had no titles when they came to Brazil," says Paulo Francisco Fernandes Oliveira, the 66-year-old father of Edivaldo, the rancher, who came to Rio Pardo later to help his son care for the cattle. "Brazil was born without titles."

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