Deforestation and Poor Amazonians

The last 30 years of development in the Amazon have proven an essential rule: Whenever social groups depend on forest resources—for economic and social development—they will work to protect those resources. And the opposite is also true: If the market does not value the natural products of the forest sufficiently, the poor migrants who settle there will cut down the forest and use the land for farming or raising cattle.

The latter is what happened in most of the countries of the Amazon Basin between 1970 and 1990, when military regimes stimulated the transfer of poor groups to remote areas. An inevitable consequence of these movements of poor people into the Amazon was increased deforestation. Most often the migrants would clear the forest, sell the timber, plant for subsistence for one or two years, and then sell out to medium- and large-sized producers. With this money they advance further into the frontier and repeat the same cycle.

But this cycle is not irreversible. In some areas of the Amazon region, small farmers have realized the need to change the system, so that the forests themselves help produce income, and in so doing, the farmers are motivated to help protect the forests.

Many of the former migrants who today protect the Amazonian forest left the northeast region of Brazil to work in the Amazon region during the rubber boom at the end of the 19th century. When cultivated rubber from Southeast Asia replaced Amazonian rubber on world markets at the beginning of the 20th century, most of the workers left the Amazon and became poor migrants or marginalized city-dwellers. But rubber's decline did not completely disorganize the social life that had been built around it: Those who remained in former rubber areas found opportunities to market other naturally occurring Amazonian commodities, including the Brazil nut, oil from the copaiba tree, and, more recently, forest products like the oil and fruit of the assai and artisan craftwork made from native trees and plants. Forging survival from the products of the forest, the former rubber tappers created a genuine forest society in the Amazon region.

In the 1970s, the Brazilian military introduced and made major investments in a new model of Amazonian development based not on sustainable use of resources from the standing forest but on farming, mineral activities, colonization, and large infrastructure projects. One result was conflict, often violent, between those who were already there, depending on the forest for their subsistence, and newcomers who saw the forest as an obstacle to farming, ranching, and other government-supported activities.

Gradually the rubber tappers became aware of their rights to lands that they had been occupying for generations. In 1976 in the state of Acre in the western Amazon region, they found a way to defend their way of life. Known as the empate, a nonviolent form of resistance, this was the first social movement to defend the forest. It was led by Chico Mendes, a rubber tapper and the president of the Union of Rural Workers of Xapuri (a city located near the border between Acre and Bolivia). In 1985 it convened similar alliances elsewhere in the Amazon region. With support from national and international nongovernmental organizations, the first National Meeting of Rubber Tappers was organized in Brasília. The meeting had two important results: the creation of a representative entity, the National Council of Rubber Tappers, and the formation of a kind of environmental land reform specifically designed for the forest populations, entitled the Extractive Reserve, or Resex.

The Resex program, and others developed since (including Reserves of Sustainable Development), protect land used by local populations whose subsistence is based on harvesting products from the forest, complemented by agriculture and the farming of small animals. The program has as its basic objective to shelter the ways of life and the culture of the forest-dependent populations whose existence is based on sustainable systems of exploitation of the natural resources (sometimes including logging) developed through generations and adapted to local ecological conditions.

Between 1990 and 2007, 81 such units of land were created encompassing 81,000 square miles, or 4.29 percent, of the Brazil's Amazonian region, benefiting more than 200,000 people. One such unit was founded in 1997 by Brazil's Amapa state: the 32-family Rio Iratapuru Sustainable Development Reserve, located at the mouth of the Iratapuru river, a tributary of the Jari River. This community has undergone a profound transformation. Families that were isolated from one another joined together to form a town. They created a cooperative to organize marketing of the Brazil nut, a staple of the local economy. They also introduced two manufacturing facilities, one to make biscuits and another one for vegetable-oil processing, and formed a partnership with Natura, a Brazilian cosmetics company, to share knowledge about and possible benefits of the region's resources.

Similar work has been undertaken by Project RECA, the Joint Economic and Accumulative Reforesting Effort, an association of 364 families located between the Brazilian states of Acre and Rondônia in the western Amazon. RECA was formed in 1989 by migrants who were living in the region under extremely precarious conditions: a malaria epidemic and a lack of infrastructure, schools, and health-care services. After several years felling and burning trees, they realized that the soil would not support agriculture for many years, so they looked for a more sustainable system. They decided to form an agroforestry system based on the fruit of the cupuaçu tree, the pupunha (the palm that produces palm hearts), and Brazil nuts—all resources occurring naturally in the forest. In 1993 they opened a factory to process the cupuaçu, a member of the chocolate family, and started to benefit not only from the pulp, used to make a beverage and other foodstuffs, but from the seed, extracting the oil and making chocolate-like candy. In 1995 they launched commercial production of pupunha seeds, and in 1999 they began to export the seeds as well as palm hearts. The farmers of RECA have an efficient and democratic system of organization and of management that is considered a model in the whole Amazon region.

A group of small producers in a variety of other areas in the Brazilian Amazon has worked out an innovative development policy called Proambiente (Program for the Socio-Environmental Development of Family Production). Proambiente's initial assumption is that qualitative changes are needed to achieve sustainability and that the entire cost of making those changes should not be fully borne by producers since the entire society benefits from the environmental services that are generated. The program advocates six environmental goals: reducing deforestation, absorbing atmospheric carbon, recovering hydrological functions of the ecosystems, conserving land, preserving biodiversity, and reducing the risk of fire. The program is being developed in 11 zones in the Brazilian Amazon and has been defined as national public policy and incorporated into the government's budget. Though Proambiente is still a young program, it represents a radical change in the model of Amazonian colonization.

In my 20 years of experience, it has become clear to me that forest destruction need not be the only approach to the Amazon's natural resources. Others based on politics, innovative resource-management practices, and socio-environmental governance have emerged as well, resulting in more sustainable uses of the forest.

But agrarian conflicts persist, and the creation of protected territories is not enough to secure a sustainable future for the tropical forests and their inhabitants. For one thing, the fruits of the forest do not always command high enough prices to support the newly environmental farmers. Without a serious change in market conditions, it will be necessary for the government to intervene on behalf of indigenous and traditional communities. Securing a sustainable future for the Amazon region, with the added prospect of climate change, requires policies that remunerate the farmer and the forest.