Deforestation and Poor Amazonians: Brazil's Forest Dwellers, Often Its Best Stewards, Are Trying Hard to Make a Living from the Standing Forest

Article excerpt

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 largesized 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 Brasilia. 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. …