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Extractive reserves

The main idea behind extractive reserves is that local communities own and control the harvesting of forest products. An attractive feature of this form of land use is that, in theory at least, much of the forest cover remains while people live in the area. Rather than fence people away from the forest, extractive reserves are supposed to permit people to manage the forest without destroying it.

The push to set up extractive reserves in Amazonia began in Acre, Brazil, in the mid-1980s under the leadership of Chico Mendes, a rubber tapper and community organizer. Mendes was attempting to galvanize rubber tappers to defend the forest against encroaching development, particularly cattle ranches, until he was shot in his backyard in December 1988. The murder of Chico Mendes catapulted the issue of extractive reserves to the forefront of the discussion of development policies for Amazonia, both within Brazil and abroad.

Environmental and labour groups coalesced around the charismatic figure of Chico Mendes. As a result of domestic and international pressure, the Brazilian government has created 12 extractive reserves covering over 3 million ha (table 4.3). The Chico Mendes Reserve, located at Xapuri, Acre, is the largest created thus far, with close to 1 million ha. The extractive reserves created in 1989 (Decreto Lei 7.804) fall under the jurisdiction of the federal land reform agency INCRA (Instituto Nacional de Colonizaçao e Reforma Agraria). On 14 March 1990, more extractive reserves were created by order of President Sarney during his last day in office, this time under the auspices of IBAMA. Two government agencies with sometimes conflicting agendas are thus charged with overseeing extractive reserves: one traditionally engaged in opening up forest for settlement, the other preoccupied with trying to protect forests and their biological resources. So much external pressure has been applied on the Brazilian government to set up extractive reserves that the rubber tappers' movement has been accused of trying to "internationalize" the Amazon region (Souza 1990: 21).

Table 4.3 Extractive reserves in the Brazilian Amazon

Extractive reserve Location Year
Area (ha) No. of
Chico Mendes Acre 1990 976,570 7,500
Alto Juruá Acre 1990 506,186 500
Rio Cajan Amapá 1990 481,560 5,000
Antimari Amazonas 1989 260,227 867
Maraca III Amapá 1989 226,500 760
Rio Ouro Preto Rondônia 1990 204,583 3,410
Terruã Amazonas 1989 139,295 426
Maraca I Amapá 1989 75,000 214
Santa Quitéria Acre 1988 43,247 150
São Luis do Remanso Acre 1989 39,752 130
Riozinho Acre 1989 35,896 32
Figueira Acre 1987 25,973 380
Cachoeira Acre 1989 24,973 80
Maraca II Amapá 1989 22,500 94
Porto Dias Acre 1989 22,145 83
TOTALS   3,084,407 19,626

Source: Rodrigues (1991); Map of Áreas de Proteção Ambiental Acre, 1991, Governo do Estado, Secretaria de Meio Ambiente.

The rubber tappers' movement was envisaged as a dual-purpose cause to improve regional living conditions for some 55,000 tappers and to preserve the forest (Allegretti 1989). Although Mendes has been referred to as an ecologist and portrayed as a saviour of Amazonian nature in the press (Bendix and Liebler 1991; Podesta 1993), it should be remembered that his struggle was primarily for the social rights of a poor and relatively disenfranchised group of people. The "green" aspect to his crusade is largely an artefact of diverse international and national groups who have skilfully exploited the drama of Chico Mendes' life and martyrdom as a way to further their goals.

Although the notion of extractive reserves has some appealing aspects, claims that extractive reserves can compete with other landuse options in Amazonia may be premature (Gradwohl and Greenberg 1988: 150; Revkin 1990: 219). The claim that 1 ha of forest near the village of Mishana on the Nanay River in the Peruvian Amazon has a net present value of US$6,330 for non-timber forest products has generated considerable discussion in the environmental and development communities (Peters, Gentry, and Mendelsohn 1989). Fruits and nuts alone can purportedly generate almost US$650/ha each year from the Mishana site. Such provocative findings should not be taken as indicative of the current economic value of forest throughout the basin. The Mishana study suggests that sustainable exploitation of non-timber products from rain forests could produce three times the income derived from converting the forest to other uses, such as agriculture.

The ecological heterogeneity of Amazonia makes it difficult to extrapolate findings from one area to another. In some forested areas, unusual concentrations of economic species, such as the buriti palm (Mauritia flexuosa) near Iquitos (Padoch 1988), or the acai palm (Euterpe oleracea) in the Amazon estuary, provide substantial food and income for riverside dwellers. In the Marabá area, cupuaçu (Theobroma grandiflorum) and Brazil nut are relatively common in the forest and are frequently collected by locals, whereas in the vicinity of Paragominas, some 250 km to the north-east, neither species occurs; instead, bacuri (Platonia insignia), uxi (Endopleura uchi), bacaba (Oenocarpus distichus), inajá (Maximiliana maripa), piquiá (Caryocar villosum), and cupuí (Theobroma speciosum) are the main species collected from the forest, but only for home consumption. It is doubtful that most patches of Amazon rain forest could generate three times as much income from harvesting of wild products as from alternative uses; if that were so, then forests would surely be less threatened.

The economics of extractive reserves needs further work. The notion that the traditional barter system in rural Amazonia (aviamento) is a principal stumbling block to making extractivism more profitable (Allegretti 1992) is simplistic. In the aviamento system no money changes hands; rather manufactured goods and foodstuffs are advanced against the future delivery of natural products. Under this arrangement, many individuals remain permanently indebted to their traders. The assumption that the aviamento system is the major hindrance to advancing the interest of peasants has led to efforts to help organize inhabitants of extractive reserves so that they process and market their products, thus bypassing existing trading networks.

Although such efforts are a worthy experiment, they will not necessarily ensure prosperity for extractivists, particularly if market prices for their products are low, and significant management problems arise. For all its faults, the aviamento system has long provided credit and goods to people who would otherwise be cut off from such assistance. Furthermore, aviadores have high operating costs in remote areas (Cleary 1990).

Economic analyses of alternative uses of land must reflect the array of options available to rural people (Pinedo-Vasquez, Zarin, and Jipp 1990). The ability of extractive reserves to wrest rubber tappers from poverty and to safeguard the forest from wanton destruction is by no means assured (Homma 1989a,b; Ryan 1992: 27). Dependence on gathering jungle products alone is unlikely to raise and sustain living conditions for forest inhabitants (Lavelle 1987).

Extractive reserves might be better regarded as supplements to the diet and income of people living in them (Homma 1992b). To raise living standards, communities would have to undertake other activities, such as farming (Benchimol 1992a: 108). In several parts of Amazonia, farmers manage fallows so that they remain productive long after they have been "abandoned." Swidden plots are not always farmed for a few years and then left to second growth. Sometimes they are deliberately planted with various perennials to form polycultural orchards. In other cases, certain spontaneous plants may be encouraged or a few species deliberately planted in among the rapidly encroaching weeds. Whether farmers are managing fallows, planting orchards, or simply leaving fields to regrowth, extractivism is a supplement, rather than a mainstay, to income and subsistence.

The cultivation of crops would mean clearing parts of extractive reserves. For political reasons, the need to raise crops and even cattle in extractive reserves has been resisted (Sawyer 1990). Nevertheless, the inhabitants of some extractive reserves in Acre and Rondônia are clearing land for crops and cattle, even if such practices are not condoned by government agencies, NGOs, and the international donor community.

If the inhabitants of extractive reserves were encouraged to engage in farming practices that minimize damage to the environment, such as agro-forestry, then the reserves might become more economically viable (Anderson 1989). Under current restrictions, a family can clear up to 5 ha for subsistence crops, but no more than 2 per cent of an extractive reserve is supposed to be felled (Fearnside 1989b). With existing limitations on clearing and the raising of cash crops, extractive reserves could condemn their inhabitants to poverty, at least for the foreseeable future.

Signs are already appearing that people living in extractive reserves will not adhere strictly to limitations on clearing. Ironically, some rubber tappers have cleared forest for pasture in extractive reserves within Acre, and there is a growing recognition of the need to raise crops for subsistence and commerce (Homma 1990b). Most rubber tappers would probably prefer to try their hand at a range of income-generating activities rather than spend the rest of their lives making daily rounds of the forest in the pre-dawn darkness to tap rubber trees or gather Brazil nuts. The young are especially eager to seek out other opportunities, particularly in towns and cities. Improving access to education is one of the laudable social goals of extractive reserves, and such opportunities will inevitably help individuals find outside employment and contribute to the evolution of extractive reserves into multiple-use systems.

In the case of extractive reserves in Acre, rubber and Brazil nuts appear to be the main economic products, unlikely candidates to extricate communities to new levels of prosperity. Three-quarters of Brazil's consumption of natural rubber is met by imports from South-East Asia. Rubber tapped from forests cannot compete in the marketplace with rubber derived from plantations in South-East Asia. In 1950, rubber from the forests of Amazonia accounted for virtually all of Brazil's need for the product, but by 1990 latex tapped from wild trees in the North region had dwindled to less than 10 per cent of Brazil's need for the commodity (Alvim 1991).

Until recently, natural rubber produced in Brazil was subsidized at a rate three times the world price for over two decades (Homma 1989a). To prop up domestic production of natural rubber, the Brazilian government exacted a tax on imported rubber. Known as TORMB (Taxa de Organizac,ao e Regulamentação do Mercado de Borracha), this tax amounted to a subsidy of close to a US$1 billion over 22 years (Goodyear 1989: 26). But, in March 1990, President Collor started implementing a policy of reducing import tariffs for certain products, including natural rubber. Prices for natural rubber tumbled in Brazil, thereby imperilling the economic viability of extractive reserves in Acre (OTA 1992:10).

Political pressure is mounting in Brazil to re-impose stiff import fees for natural rubber. Both the private sector involved in plantation rubber in Brazil and organizations promoting rubber tappers have lobbied state and federal governments in Brazil to erect trade barriers for natural rubber coming into the country. A former Minister of the Environment, Fernando Coutinho Jorge, even organized an inter-ministerial commission to coordinate efforts to shore up the price of natural rubber in Brazil. Such measures may bring temporary relief to rubber tappers and some plantation owners in Brazil, but the likelihood that natural rubber collected from forests will become a rewarding enterprise seems remote.

Table 4.4 Area planted to rubber (Hevea brasillensis) in Brazil, by state, April 1990

State Area (ha)
Mato Grosso 52,965
Rondônia 39,967
São Paulo. 23,820
Bahia 23,200
Pará 17,687
Amazonas 15,039
Espírito Santo 10,954
Acre 8,996
Maranhão 5,450
Pernambuco 5,220
Paraná 4,670
Minas Gerais 3,608
Mato Grosso do Sul 1,950
Goiás 955
Tocantins 535
Rio de Janeiro 478
Amapá 291
Roraima 25
TOTAL 215,810

Source: Gerência de Heveicultura/Divisão de Silvicultura, Instituto Brasileira do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis(IBAMA).

a. States where Microcyclus ulei, the causal agent of South American leaf blight. has not been recorded.

Latex tapped from wild trees is losing ground to plantations. Production of rubber from plantations in Brazil surpassed that from the forests of Amazonia in the late 1980s (Alvim 1991; Parfit 1989). The contribution from plantations, particularly in São Paulo and Espírito Santo, is increasing because South American leaf blight, caused by a fungus (Microcyclus ulei), is absent in the colder parts of Brazil, and high-yielding, cold-tolerant rubber clones have been selected (table 4.4). Rubber tapping in the forests of Amazonia is on a long, steady decline (Souza 1990: 26).

The virtual collapse of rubber prices in Brazil has propelled Brazil nuts to the forefront of extractive products in reserves in Acre. Just as rubber tappers have come to rely increasingly on Brazil nuts as a source of income and employment, Bolivia has emerged as a major supplier of the product. Historically, Brazil has dominated exports of the nuts, mainly through powerful merchants in Belém and Manaus. Bolivia has emerged as a player in the market because factories in the vicinity of Riberalta are able to sell the product for about a third less than Brazilian suppliers (Holt 1992). Although Bolivian producers do not always undercut Brazilian prices, they nevertheless pose a threat to the economic viability of extractive reserves since increased competition could drive prices down. Also, the European market generally demands a high-quality product, since many of the nuts are covered with chocolate. Quality control problems with Brazil nuts have surfaced in at least some of the extractive reserves in Acre as the rubber tappers attempt to master the art of operating small factories. The cooperative at Xapuri has on occasion been forced to buy Brazil nuts from dealers in Belém to fulfil orders from the United States.

Extractive reserves may not live up to their promise as safe havens for nature, either. Extractive products in the Amazon are generally exploited without regard to their sustainability (Browder 1992). Simply recommending the development of markets for forest products will not guarantee the sustainability of extractive reserves. Many forest plants and animals are highly susceptible to human disturbance and the inhabitants of extractive reserves may well respond to market opportunities by overexploiting forest resources (Bodmer and Ayres 1991; Mori 1992; Redford and Sanderson 1992).

Given hard economic choices, communities living in extractive reserves may opt to cut down substantial tracts of forest for pasture, plantations, or field crops, in spite of restrictions on deforestation. Without proper management, some forest species may be over-exploited; boom and bust cycles typify the exploitation of wild plant and animal resources in Amazonia. Also, hunting for meat could reduce seed dispersal agents, such as monkeys, leading to local reduction or even extinction for some tree species (Janzen 1970; Redford 1992). Agoutis (Dasyprocta spp.) abscond with Brazil nut seeds and bury many of them. Some popular game birds, such as pheasantlike guans and turkey-sized curassows (Cracidae), also disperse seed for some forest trees. Tapir (Tapirus terrestris) pass intact seeds of numerous forest plants, including buriti, whose vitamin C-rich fruit is used to make pulp for juices and ice-cream throughout Amazonia (Bodmer 1990, 1991).

The relative contribution of forest products to the regional economy peaked in 1910 during the rubber boom, but has since declined. By the 1950s, the value of agricultural production had surpassed that of forest products in Amazonia (Homma 1990c: 7; Pinedo-Vasquez, Zarin, and Jipp 1990). Rubber from the forest is unlikely to return as a mainstay to the regional economy.

One way to strengthen the contribution of extractive reserves to the income of local people as well as regional development is to develop new markets for existing forest products, as well as to discover new economic species. Cultural Survival, a non-profit human rights organization based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has established a nonprofit trading company to help find markets for Amazonian forest products that have been collected in a "sustainable" manner. Through the efforts of Cultural Survival, one ice-cream manufacturer in the United States, Community Products, is selling "Rainforest Crunch," a blend of Brazil and cashew nuts. The Community Products company has agreed to repatriate 40 per cent of its profits from "Rainforest Crunch" to Brazil nut gatherers. Commercial cashew production takes place on plantations, usually outside of rain forests in the drier tropics.

Rainforest Products buys Brazil nuts from Cultural Survival and markets them in two cereals: "Rainforest Crisp" and "Rainforest Granola."4 Seven per cent of Rainforest Products' profits are distributed to environmental groups. Brazil nuts from extractive reserves in Brazil have also recently turned up in "Rainforest" cookies in some markets in the United States. Body Shop, a British cosmetics firm, is testing oils and essences from Amazonian forests for its impressive line of creams and lotions now sold in boutiques around the world (Pearce 1990).

Although such efforts and developments are commendable, the dollar volume of this business is miniscule. In 1989, for example, the production capacity of "Rainforest Crunch" was only 680 kg a day (CGBD 1989). To make a larger impact, rain-forest products need to conquer shelf-space in major supermarkets, restaurants, and fast-food chains in both domestic and international markets.

One way to increase the perceived economic value of forests is to introduce new foods and fruit juices based on wild and semidomesticated trees, particularly in industrial countries. If a market is developed for such products, the tree or shrub would warrant domestication. The worth of wild populations of the new crop would then increase, rather than diminish, as a source of novel traits.

Increasingly sophisticated consumers are receptive to interesting new foods. But gaining a niche for novel products requires sustained efforts and a large advertising budget. The development costs for new products in complex and highly competitive markets, such as North America and Europe, can be exorbitant. In general, only a few food products dominate baked goods, cereals, fruit juices, and icecreams in North America and Europe. Many variants of this limited stock of basic foodstuffs occupy much of the space in supermarkets. Furthermore, few companies are likely to be as generous as Community Products in sending back such a large share of their profits to Amazonia.

Continued efforts to find expanded or new markets for rain-forest products are warranted, but reliance on extractive activities alone to provide for the material needs of rain-forest dwellers and to safeguard the forest is a shaky proposition. Any plant product that becomes important is usually domesticated or its relevant constituents are synthesized in a laboratory (Pendelton 1992). Rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora) harvesting in the Brazilian Amazon has essentially ceased now that linalool, used extensively in the perfume industry, is manufactured in laboratories. Wild stands of rosewood were being destroyed by overzealous collecting anyway.

Plants are domesticated to improve yields and other qualities, and forest would have to be cleared, or substantially altered, to cultivate them. Rubber is such an example, and Brazil nut is also being domesticated. One ranch near Itacoatiara, Amazonas, has established Brazil nut trees on 4,000 ha of degraded pasture (Smith et al. 1992: 400; fig. 4.2). Brazil nuts provide approximately half of the cash income in some extractive reserves (Schwartzman 1989), but eventually much of the production of Brazil nuts is likely to come from plantations. If extractive reserves are successful, their value may be more in saving forest resources for further study and for later domestication and synthesis of some of the useful chemical compounds.

Shifts in the market-place can undercut some extractive products from forests. At one time, for example, inhabitants in the vicinity of Belém valued forest-shrouded streams as a source of Heliconia leaves to wrap foodstuffs. An advantage of this banana relative is that the leaves rapidly disintegrated after use. Now ubiquitous and cheap plastic bags have virtually put a stop to the harvest of Heliconia leaves. Discarded plastic bags are a blight in urban areas and another source of water pollution, particularly at ports.

Each extractive reserve will have a different mix and concentration of economic plant species. Ideally, the potential economic value of forest products should be considered before selecting areas for extractive reserves (Prance 1989). Yet careful inventories and economic analyses are not preceding the selection of sites for extractive reserves. Extractive reserves may be only marginally feasible in a few favoured locations with the current tight restrictions on forest-clearing (FAO 1990: 3).

Another concern about extractive reserves is that they might be oversold as a model for regional development. Extractive reserves can support relatively few people on a sustainable basis, at least for the foreseeable future (Anderson 1989; Mori 1992; Sawyer 1990). The 3 million ha of currently established extractive reserves contain only 20,000 families (table 4.3). If rubber is the principal product, then at least 500 ha is needed per family (Allegretti 1989). Extractive reserves would have difficulty absorbing the waves of migrants entering Amazonia (Fearnside 1989b). If the inhabitants of Amazonia were to live by extractive activities alone, only about 1.5 million people could be supported in the region, compared with the approximately 10 million people currently residing there (Benchimol 1991). Extractive reserves are in effect helping to close Amazonia's frontier; they are best viewed as part of the mosaic of land-use systems in the region, rather than as a social and ecological panacea.

Medicinal plants, potential new crop plants, and genes from wild populations of existing crops may ultimately prove more valuable than current major uses of forests. But it will take time to discover such uses and to test products before they reach the market. In the case of new pharmaceuticals, for example, testing alone can take up to three years and tens of millions of dollars before the new product is deemed safe enough for public consumption. Market prices for forest products will fluctuate, as in the case of farming, silviculture, and ranching. Sustained harvesting of forest products will need more botanical and faunal inventories coupled with natural history studies. Such studies should combine scientific expertise and folk knowledge and involve locals in the research effort.

Extractive reserves will probably evolve to include a wide range of extractive and farming activities. One possible model for this is the Arara community some 35 km east of Marabá. In 1987, a group of 93 families, mostly from Maranhão, were transferred from lands of the Gavião Indians to a former castanhal (grove of Brazil nut trees) between the Transamazon Highway and the Tocantins River. In 1992, a further 30 families arrived in the area hoping to obtain plots for farming and forest extraction. With assistance from CEPASP (Centro de Educaeao, Pesquisa e Assessoria Sindical e Popular), settlers derive appreciable income and subsistence from the forest as well as from their fields. Farmers collect Brazil nuts and cupuaçu from the forest on their 60 ha lots, while CEPASP helps market the nuts and frozen cupuaçu pulp. One farmer harvested 1,000 cupuaçu fruits and 600 kg of Brazil nuts from the 30 ha of forest on his land. Farmers belonging to the Arara community also obtain other fruits from the forest for domestic consumption, such as cajá (Spondias mombim), bacaba, bacuri, tucumã (Astrocaryam vulgare), and açaí (Euterpe oleracea).

With financial assistance from the World Wildlife Fund, CEPASP has purchased four freezers with 600 litres capacity each to store cupuaçu pulp while prices are low. The freezers are kept in Marabá where electricity is available and transportation to markets in Belém, Castanhal, São Luis, and Brasilia can be arranged more easily.

The Arara community relies heavily on agriculture for food and income. Farmers are planting a variety of perennial crops, including cupuaçu and Brazil nut, for future income. In the meantime, food crops such as rice, beans, manioc, and bananas provide nourishment. Some Arara settlers raise a few head of cattle. Nevertheless, outside subsidies are critical to the success of this mixed venture of forest extraction and farming, at least in the short term. Resource-poor farmers are unlikely to be able to afford to buy freezers on their own, and electricity is not available in the community. The Arara experience may not be easily replicated throughout Amazonia since forests in the Marabá area are well known for their rich concentration of Brazil nuts and cupuaçu. Only 300 km further north around Paragominas and Tome-Açu, neither of these economically important trees is found in the forest. The combination of agriculture and forest extraction is the pertinent lesson from the Arara experience.


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