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Major objectives and regional coverage
The substance of sustainability
The question of criticality
The urgency of improved resource management
Considerable attention has focused in recent years on deforestation rates in Amazonia and on other ecological changes in the vast basin. Concern is mounting that deforestation in Amazonia is contributing to global warming, a reduction of the region's rainfall, ozone depletion, and more severe flooding along certain rivers (Denslow 1988; Myers 1984; Reis 1972). As forests are cut down to make way for new farms, ranches, and mining operations, biodiversity is lost and potential new crop plants and drugs may disappear. Also, people whose lives depend on the forest for sources of food and income can be adversely affected by the shrinking of forest habitats.
Heightened concern about resource management and the fate of forests in Amazonia has even stirred talk in some quarters that the region is global patrimony and should be conserved and developed more rationally. In 1988, President Mitterand of France suggested that countries might want to relinquish sovereignty over portions of their territory for the common good of humanity. To tackle the global warming issue, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) helped forge an international climate treaty that calls for restrictions on burning tropical forests; the treaty was signed by many nations following the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (Riebsame 1990). The Rainforest Preservation Foundation of Ft. Worth, Texas, has the status of a public utility in Brazil and solicits contributions of US$25 in magazines to buy and preserve slightly under half a hectare of rainforest.
Such discussion by politicians and some environmentalists ignites long-held fears in Brazil that foreign interests are intent on interfering or even expropriating Amazonia (ESG 1990; Reis 1960; Simons 1989; Sternberg 1987a). The international preoccupation with environmental issues is sometimes interpreted in Brazil as a smokescreen for the North's domination of the South (Benchimol 1992 a,b; Mattos 1992). The notion that Amazonia is a major ecological "safety-valve" for the world and therefore should be under some form of control by the global community thus stirs concerns about sovereignty.
Repeated calls for some form of international intervention in Amazonia could create a nationalistic backlash and make governments intransigent about rectifying environmental problems. Although the Japanese government and multilateral development banks have backed away from supporting efforts to build a road from Acre to Pucallpa in the Peruvian Amazon, which would allow goods from the Brazilian Amazon to be exported via Pacific ports, the Brazilian government has vowed to proceed with this road-building plan in the future (Swinbanks and Anderson 1989). The President of Ecuador has flatly declared that external interference in Amazonian affairs will not be permitted.
Nevertheless, mounting pressure to address environmental and social concerns about development in Amazonia appears to be modifying government stances. Brazil has traditionally eschewed any discussion of debt-for-nature swaps in the Amazon because of concerns about foreign meddling with land-use decisions. Yet recent signs indicate that both the federal and state governments in Brazil are now more amenable to such deals.
Pressure for change is also coming from within countries with territories in Amazonia, although often with international connections. Some 2,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have surfaced recently in Brazil, most of them concerned with policy aspects of social and environmental problems (Homma 1992a). Many of these groups readily capture the attention of the media, help mobilize public opinion, and thereby influence the political agenda. International donors, particularly foundations and NGOs based in major cities of North America and Western Europe, funnel increasing amounts of money and advice to the nascent NGOs with interests in Amazonia. The penetration of these NGOs on the political scene has been made possible by the wave of democracy sweeping Latin America.
Often impassioned debate about the future of the Amazon is thus under way in countries with direct stakes in the region, as well as in the industrialized countries. The media and many scientists and politicians in South America have expressed shock at the pace of destruction in Amazonia. Environmental changes in Amazonia have become the subject of some popular music in Brazil and abroad, such as Milton Nascimento's album Yauaretê (Iauaretê means jaguar in lingua geral and is the name of a small village in north-western Amazonas). The Grateful Dead, apparently revived by the growing international interest in the fate of rain forests, have written songs for a recently released album entitled Deadicated. Although the cover of the album features a red rose, rather than a tropical flower such as an orchid or heliconia, a proportion of the proceeds from the sales of Deadicated is supposed to help conserve rain forests (Killian 1991). Sting attended an encounter to "save the Amazon and her people" at Altamira, Pará, in February 1989, and has set up a foundation to help preserve tropical forests and defend indigenous peoples; the event was covered in other Latin American countries, such as Costa Rica (Alvarado 1990).
The exuberant flora and fauna of the region are depicted on T-shirts, dresses, swimwear, and even perfume, such as "Amazone" by Hermes. Fruits and nuts, purportedly collected "sustainably" from the Amazon forest, have found their way into exotic fruit juices, tempting ice-creams, environmentally friendly snacks, and politically correct breakfast cereals marketed in North America. The drama of the frontier in Amazonia with its environmental destruction and social tensions has even been captured in fiction (Mason 1991).
Signs are appearing that preoccupation with the fate of Amazonia is spurring action at the policy level. A number of policy changes over the past 15 years, such as withdrawal of fiscal incentives for creating cattle pastures in rain forests, have addressed some of the concerns about the environment in Amazonia. Article 225 of Brazil's new constitution emphasizes the need to live in harmony with the environment and to preserve nature and natural resources for future generations. Although lofty ideals sometimes remain ethereal, national consciousness is emerging in Brazil and neighbouring countries that Amazonia can be fragile and needs to be managed wisely. And Brazilians, Peruvians, Ecuadorians, Colombians, Bolivians, and Venezuelans will ultimately decide the fate of Amazonia.
The overall objective of this study is to analyse the main environmental threats to Amazonian ecosystems, including the societies that depend on them for a livelihood, to explore whether rural development efforts are "sustainable," and to assess whether the region has reached a critical stage in human-induced ecological change. The driving forces prompting environmental and social change will be identified and policy implications discussed.
All of the fieldwork for this volume was carried out in the Brazilian Amazon. We do not wish to imply that other portions of the Amazon basin are unimportant or that they are bereft of lessons for us to learn from. Indeed, biodiversity is often greater in the montane forests of western Amazonia, particularly in Peru and Ecuador. The choice of focusing on the Brazilian Amazon was dictated by the prior field experience of the authors and resource constraints. Most of Amazonia lies within Brazil's borders, and many of the development pressures are most intense there. When discussing environmental and socioeconomic change, however, relevant examples or cases from other parts of the basin are cited.
Collectively, the authors have travelled to all the states in the Brazilian Amazon within the past five years. Colonization zones and older settled areas on the uplands and Amazon flood plain were a high priority for data collection. Areas experiencing rapid transformation were targeted for closer scrutiny because sustainability and criticality are more likely to be significant issues in such places. Thus most of the upland farmers, ranchers, sawmills, and logging operations visited were in south-eastern Para, Acre, and Rondônia, and along roads radiating from Santarem in the middle Amazon. Older, more established farming communities were canvassed for their experiences in the Bragantina zone east of Belém and on the Amazon flood plain near Santarém. In this manner, we were better able to appreciate such factors as distance to markets and age of settlement when assessing the sustainability of production systems.
A number of definitions of sustainable development have emerged, reflecting different agendas and disciplinary perspectives. In spite of the plethora of interpretations of sustainability, a core concept is that technologies employed to raise productivity should not undercut the natural resource base and must benefit broad segments of the society (Brklacich, Bryant, and Smit 1991; FAO 1990, 1991a; NRC 1993; Serrão and Homma 1993; TAC 1988; Trenbath, Conway, and Craig 1990; York 1988). The welfare of generations to come is another important dimension to sustainability. Resources that are managed wisely provide intergenerational equity, a legacy for children that provides them with greater options in the future (Howarth and Norgaard 1990; Norgaard 1991).
Land-use systems for sustainable resource use must take into account biophysical aspects, such as nutrient cycling, soil erosion rates, resilience in the face of disease and pest pressure, the importance of microclimates, and soil moisture storage. Social dimensions to sustainable land-use systems include health and nutritional benefits, cultural viability, and political acceptability. Important economic facets of sustainable land use include the costs and benefits of external inputs, employment needs for given land uses, and income attributes (NRC 1993).
In our discussions of the economic development of Amazonia, environmental sustainability refers to situations in which nature-society relations support the continuation of land-use systems and can at least maintain current living standards. Further, options for the future are safeguarded by wise management of resources.
A major focus of our study will be agriculture and ranching since they are major factors in landscape change in Amazonia. Some definitions of sustainable agriculture underscore the importance of promoting equity and of eliminating purchased inputs. While improving the standards of living for as many people as possible is obviously a desirable goal for agricultural development, how this can be best achieved is not always clear, particularly if inputs are to be discouraged. Ideally, technologies deployed to boost yields should not promote inputs of environmentally damaging chemicals, trigger excessive soil erosion, or necessitate the clearing of natural vegetation. Further, crop varieties and management practices should be accessible to small- as well as middle- and large-scale enterprises (Smith 1990). Special emphasis will thus be placed on agricultural techniques that boost productivity on already cleared areas.
Technologies explored here will be as scale neutral as possible, capable of benefiting large as well as small operators. More progressive farmers often spearhead development in a region, and technologies should not be branded as unsustainable because they are not immediately adopted by the poorest farmers in a region.
Similarly, purchased inputs are often needed to sustain crop and livestock yields. Low-input agriculture does not necessarily mean sustainable agriculture. Purchased inputs that rely on fossil fuels should not be flagged automatically as unsustainable. Petroleum as a significant fuel will doubtless fade by the middle of the twenty-first century, but petroleum-based technologies are often sustainable in the short run. Sustainable agriculture hinges on the ability of farmers and the research and development system to adapt to change.
The capacity of farmers, ranchers, and extractivists to respond positively to shifts in the economic and ecological systems in which they operate is therefore a major focus of this study. All agricultural systems are in a state of flux, even "traditional" ones. How farmers tackle sudden environmental change and take advantage of new possibilities to market their goods is critical to understanding sustainability. No particular set of agricultural practices or crop varieties is likely to remain viable for long in the face of new disease and pest pressures as well as shifting market conditions.
Resilience is thus essential if ecological systems, including agroecosystems, are to overcome periodic disruptions (Holling 1986). Threshold effects, non-linear relationships, unexpected shifts in markets or environmental conditions, and constant readjustments are typical of society-environment relationships (Kasperson et al. 1995). Resilience of a particular ecosystem is the ability to maintain the basic structure and functions to support human uses during perturbations and to rebound quickly from such rapid, and often unpredictable, changes.
Another important dimension to our discussion of sustainable development in Amazonia is the beneficiary of social and economic change, and the losers in the case of environmental damage and farm failures. Agriculture, mining, and extraction of forest products, including timber, are thus the focus of much of our examination of economic activities in the region and their social and environmental impact. Small-, medium-, and large-scale producers are included in the analysis, since all are legitimate players and have a stake in Amazonia's future.
Although we examine strategies for conserving large blocks of Amazonia for future generations, we emphasize that better-managed farms, forests, ranches, and plantations will help reduce destruction of remaining wilderness. Also, we identify efforts to conserve resources and protect the environment by farmers, ranchers, plantation operators, and mining companies. Particular attention is paid to the integrity of nature reserves, strategies to reduce soil erosion and compaction, the importance of deploying diverse crops and varieties to help thwart pests and diseases, and the turnover of crops and varieties in response to environmental threats.
Sustainability is not a new issue in the region. Pre-Columbian cultures in the region grappled with the need to extract more food and other resources from the environment without undercutting the resource base. Some relatively complex cultures succeeded admirably, such as on Marajó Island, where wellfed and robust peoples built mounds and developed ornate polychrome pottery (Roosevelt 1989, 1991). Marajoara culture did not arrive as an advanced civilization at the mouth of the Amazon and then degenerate under the pervasive influence of the tropical forest (Meggers1971); rather it developed in situ and flourished for nearly a thousand years (ca. A.D. 4501300). Furthermore, Marajoarans were taller than the people living on the island today.
Other cultural groups succeeded in managing resources so that their numbers increased and prospered. The Tapajó, a much-feared chiefdom living at the confluence of the Amazon and the Tapajós, were actively expanding their territory when Europeans arrived in the early sixteenth century. In 1542, Carvajal reports that the numerous Tapajó repulsed attempts to land and trade with them for 150 miles along the Amazon (Hemming 1978: 194; Medina 1988: 103).
Even interfluvial forests, long thought to be inimical to dense human settlement in pre-contact times, now appear to have been greatly altered by sizeable indigenous groups. Various cultural forests in Amazonia have been identified, ranging from liana forests (mata de cipó) to Brazil nut groves (Baleé 1989; Smith in press). Pioneer highways and accompanying settlement have exposed numerous black-earth sites with pottery, suggesting that sizeable and sedentary populations once occupied many upland forest sites (Smith 1980; Eden et al. 1984).
The agricultural underpinnings of such cultures were as varied as the peoples that developed them. Little is known from the archaeological record about which plants and animals were used, although new techniques, such as micro-sifting for plant remains and the search for phytoliths, promise to help unravel the mysteries of the subsistence base in the distant past. Some of the cropping patterns developed after millennia of farming experience persist and can provide useful clues for sustainable agriculture.
Strategies for sustainable agriculture employed by indigenous peoples in Amazonia include the deployment of several varieties of each crop, multiplecropping, management of second growth, separation of fields by forest barriers, and soil enrichment. Many of these strategies help reduce pest and disease pressure and conserve the topsoil. For example, over 100 manioc (Manihot esculenta) cultivars have been found in a Jivaroan community in the Ecuadorian Amazon (Baster 1983).
The experience of indigenous cultures teaches us that both floodplain and upland forest environments can be managed on a sustainable basis to support dense populations. Such lessons should be taken to promote not the widespread destruction of wilderness but, rather, more rational utilization of already cleared areas. The history of precontact settlement in Amazonia implies not that all of Amazonia should be densely settled, only that environmental constraints to raising and sustaining agricultural yields can be overcome. The currently sparse populations in interfluvial areas and along many rivers are not an indication of Amazonia's agricultural potential.
Criticality as employed here denotes a state of both environmental degradation and associated socio-economic deterioration. Criticality can be divided roughly into three main states, each denoting various stages of environmental and socio-economic unravelling (Kasperson et al. 1995):
- Environmental criticality refers to situations in which the extent and/or rate of environmental degradation precludes the continuation of current human use systems or levels of human well-being, given feasible adaptations and societal capabilities to respond.
- Environmental endangerment refers to situations in which the trajectory of environmental degradation threatens to preclude the continuation of current human use systems or levels of human well-being, given feasible adaptations and societal capabilities to respond.
- Environmental impoverishment refers to situations in which the trajectory of environmental degradation threatens to preclude the continuation of current human use systems or levels of well-being in the medium to longer term, and to narrow significantly the range of possibilities for different uses in the future.
Indicators used to assess whether an area can be regarded as critical, endangered, or impoverished include environmental degradation, wealth, well-being, and economic and technological substitutability. Dimensions to environmental degradation include loss of soil fertility and structure, deteriorating air and water quality, and the draw-down of other natural resources.
Wealth is generally measured by gross national product and per capita income. Well-being includes a broad category of barometers, such as mortality rates, nutritional levels, and the incidence of disease. Economic and technological substitutability is the ability to mobilize technological and financial resources to confront challenges to current levels of productivity. Indicators will be addressed throughout the book, but are summarized in the final chapter.
Little evidence has emerged to suggest that Amazonia as a whole has entered the environmental criticality stage. Press and television coverage of Amazonia depicting a massive pall of smoke might give the impression that the region is being rapidly transformed into a bleak landscape, devoid of resources. But even in areas undergoing the most intensive environmental changes, such as along many parts of the Amazon flood plain and active colonization zones in southeastern and south-western Amazonia, it would be difficult to argue that environmental degradation has reached the point that current land-use systems are collapsing. Some individual farms or ranches may have reached that point, but it is doubtful that areas on the scale of one or two square kilometres fall within that dire category.
Rather, areas occupied by people in Amazon fit better the environmental endangerment and especially the environmental impoverishment categories. Much of the Amazon still remains in forest, thus dampening many of the environmental effects of human interventions on a regional scale. Further, the majority of cleared areas or natural areas experiencing significant extractive activities are more representative of environmental impoverishment. Broad definitions and aggregate assessments do not mean that Amazonia is safe from irreversible ecological change or social marginalization. Environmental impoverishment of many settled areas means that options for future generations are being significantly narrowed by current management of land and aquatic resources (Turner et al. 1995). As will be emphasized in a later chapter, the flood-plain forests of the Amazon are among the most endangered ecosystems in Latin America.
Despite environmental impoverishment, however, many individuals are achieving higher living standards. Such overall improvement in economic wellbeing, in spite of a global recession, is heartening. Yet such an encouraging trend masks two worrisome realities. Some segments of society are benefiting little if at all from economic development. Second, substantial biodiversity is being lost. Whereas the plight of the poor is obvious, the disappearance of species and subspecies, many still unknown to science, is not currently a major rally cry for political action. In general, governments in tropical countries are much more concerned about urban environmental issues, such as air pollution and developing supplies of potable water for the evergrowing population of towns and cities. Politicians are more likely to gain votes by bringing a sewerage system to a city slum than by saving a remote tract of forest.
Fig. 1.1 Trends in land management as a result of development and increasing population in the humid tropics (Source: adapted from Serrão and Toledo, 1992)
The haemorrhaging of species and variation within wild animal and plant species is conceivably the most serious environmental issue in Amazonia. And, unless land-use practices change in the future, more areas of the Amazon are likely to slip into the endangerment or even criticality categories.
A central theme of this study is that Amazonia is indeed a rich realm of nature and culture and that some of the land-use changes under way in the basin could ultimately have regional or even global implications. In order to help avert any large-scale ecological catastrophe in the future, however, the productivity of farms, ranches, forests, and plantations will have to be raised and sustained. Some scientists have called for a doubling of crop yields over the next few decades to help slow deforestation rates (Pimentel et al. 1986).
As population increases in Amazonia, the need to intensify agricultural production becomes more urgent. Shifting agriculture based on annual crops will gradually be replaced by more permanent systems, such as agro-forestry, and, in some cases, by high-input cropping (fig. 1. 1). Extractive activities, long an important source of livelihood for Amazonian people, are becoming less important. In later chapters we explore the trend lines for activities in farming and forestry.
By raising and sustaining agricultural and livestock yields, pressure to encroach on parks, Indian reserves, national forests, extractive reserves, and biological preserves will be mitigated. Some 30-40 million hectares in Amazonia have already been altered by human activities, mainly farming and ranching, which is equivalent to the farming area of France, England, and Italy (Homma 1990a; INPE 1990). Better utilization of already cleared areas should certainly enable farmers and ranchers to feed the region's roughly 10 million people; even without adopting many of the intensive techniques of Western Europe, it should be possible to strive for increased productivity. Improving agriculture and raising rural incomes must go hand-in-hand with conservation efforts in Amazonia, as in other developing regions.
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