A "gringa" from Minnesota has been immersed in the ranching culture of rural Brazil for the past two years, seeking new ways to reduce tropical deforestation.

"Coming from Minnesota, it's a completely different world in the Amazon," said Rane Cortez, a Minnetonka native and senior policy adviser for The Nature Conservancy. "Except maybe for the mosquitoes."

Cortez specializes in using new methods and incentives to slow down forest clear-cutting and to replant areas that already have been leveled.

A graduate of Minnetonka High School, Northwestern University and the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Cortez was visiting family and friends recently and preparing for her next assignment in Mexico.

She talked about her work, climate change and personal experiences, including having her body painted by an indigenous woman whose only language was Kayapo.

Her responses have been edited for space.

How did you get interested in this?

"After college, I went into the Peace Corps and worked on environmental education and forest conservation in [the] western highlands of Guatemala for about two years," Cortez said.

That experience, plus her college major in environmental science, spurred an interest in protecting tropical forests. The forests benefit the environment by absorbing and storing huge amounts of carbon from the air, Cortez said, but clearing and burning them releases that carbon.

Scientists have estimated that cutting down tropical forests contributes about 15 percent of the man-made carbon dioxide annually that contributes to climate change, she said.

After Guatemala, Cortez returned to Minnesota to attend the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, where she graduated in 2007 with an M.A. in environmental policy.

How did you end up in Brazil?

After being hired by The Nature Conservancy in Washington, D.C., and working on climate policy for three years, Cortez said she wanted to go to the front lines of tropical deforestation in Brazil.

"I wanted to get my hands dirty, get some boots on the ground and really see what was going on in the developing countries," she said.

Cortez traveled with her husband to work on a Conservancy project in the northern Amazon, and lived and worked in both the city of Belem and a small ranching village called Sao Felix do Xingu.

What do you hope to accomplish?

The goal is to slow down deforestation to "near zero," Cortez said, yet also to help people on the Amazon frontier to make a living.

"It's a near-term opportunity," she said. "Once Brazil and Indonesia have cut down their forests, we've lost the opportunity to use this as one tool to reduce [carbon dioxide] emissions."

Changing the slash-and-burn practices also will help indigenous cultures that still depend on the forests, she said. And it will help Brazil's world-class agriculture sector, where soybeans and other export crops grown in the south depend on rain that's generated by the huge Amazon forest system.

What was your actual work?

"We're working with smaller farmers to switch from ranching to cacao, which is done under forest cover and produces a much more environmentally friendly product," she said.

Minnesota-based Cargill has helped with that effort by teaming up with a local cacao cooperative and a state technical agency, she said.

"With larger farmers, we're helping them improve their ranching practices so they can produce more cattle on less land."

Ranching and worldwide demand for beef have been the driving factor of deforestation, Cortez said, and millions of acres have been clear-cut and transformed into pasture and cropland.

Brazil's government once encouraged those practices, she said, but now is cracking down by enforcing old environmental laws for the first time that would preserve some of the forests.

Is your work dangerous?

The frontier areas of the Amazon, including Sao Felix, have a reputation for "being a gunslinging wild West," Cortez said, mainly because until recently there was a lot of "land grabbing and conflict."

The area has settled down considerably because land mapping and government regulation have improved, she said, but it's necessary to take normal safety precautions and hire local guides in remote areas.

Heat, dust and mosquitoes make the Amazon an uncomfortable place to live, she said.

One of the more intriguing aspects of her work has been visiting reserves where indigenous tribes with traditional customs live in the forest.

"It was fascinating for a girl from Minnetonka to be out in the Amazon getting painted in this permanent dye by a woman who only speaks Kayapo."

Are financial incentives part of the solution?

The traditional model to conserve forests is to provide grants to countries and communities that pledge to stop deforestation, Cortez said.

A new technique with greater accountability is called REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation.

Because trees store carbon, scientists can survey sample plots of tropical forest, count and measure trees, and estimate how much carbon would be lost to the atmosphere if they're cut down. REDD allows other countries to compensate Brazil for not clearing more forests -- something that can be verified on the ground and by satellite images.

"Norway is paying Brazil $5 per ton of carbon that they can reduce per year," compared with previous years of cutting, Cortez said.

Those kinds of efforts may become models for much larger international agreements and treaties to reduce tropical deforestation in the future.

Deforestation got a lot of international attention in the 1990s. Is it still happening on that scale?

"There still is a lot of deforestation that's happening in the Amazon, unfortunately," Cortez said, and in the Indonesia and Congo rainforests. "Giant swaths are deforested every year. It's not something that's going to stop overnight, but Brazil has made huge strides."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388