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9. Trends and opportunities

Environmental degradation
Wealth and well-being
Fine-tuning the policy environment
A team approach
Conservation and sustainable development

Amazonia is so heterogeneous, with so many poles of development and environmental change scattered across the vast basin, that it is difficult to sum up trends and opportunities adequately. Our main message is that, in spite of the many difficulties encountered in moving towards sustainable development and conservation of resources, many positive trends are under way that auger well for the long-term future of the region.

Particularly impressive is the entrepreneurial spirit of so many small, medium-, and large-scale operators as they try new approaches to managing farms, ranches, plantations, and mineral operations. Across the board it is clear that individuals, cooperatives, growers' associations, and corporations are not prepared simply to wait for the government to tackle problems for them; rather they are prepared to seek their own solutions within their resource constraints.

Environmental degradation

Amazonia has clearly not entered the critical stage with regard to environmental destruction. Deforestation is confined mainly to an arc stretching along the southern and eastern fringe of the Amazon, and along the mid to lower Amazon river (fig. 9.1). The only major ecosystem seriously threatened in the region is the Amazon flood-plain forest, particularly from Manaus to the mouth of the Xingu. Overall, only 10 per cent of Amazonia's forests are currently cleared (Brown and Brown 1992).

Fig. 9.1 Cleared areas in the Brazilian Amazon are concentrated in an arc from Rondônia in the south-west to south-eastern Pará (Sources: adapted from Stone 1992; Stone and Schlesinger 1992 - courtesy of P. A. Lefebvre, Jr., The Woods Hole Research Center)

Although the impacts of environmental changes under way in Amazonia appear to be confined to the regional or local scale, the forces of destruction are likely to increase in the future. Brazil's population is growing by some 3 million people a year, and efforts to open up Amazonia for settlement and development will inevitably intensify.

With a return to a democratic form of government in Brazil, pentup social pressures for land reform and more jobs will surely lead to greater migration currents and the opening up of forest to settlement and development projects. indeed, threats to parks and reserves are increasing during the transition to full democracy, as politicians seek to curry favour with voters, both poor and rich, by "liberating" forest areas for occupation.

Some forms of environmental degradation grow worse over time, whereas others improve as a country develops (Steer 1992). If incomes continue to rise in Amazonia, then urban sanitation is likely to improve. Installing or upgrading potable water and sewerage systems is a high priority for the state of Pará, for example. With hundreds of millions of dollars from the Inter-American Development Bank, Belém is bringing safe drinking water to hundreds of thousands of residents. Air pollution in cities generally becomes worse then gradually improves with rising incomes. Also, deforestation and encroachment generally diminish as living standards improve (Steer 1992). There is nothing automatic about these trends; they still hinge on the commitment and foresight of policy makers and funding agencies.

The underlying rationale here - and it is the key assumption - is that only by addressing the need to improve living conditions can concerns about environmental degradation be adequately addressed (World Bank 1992). Although some would argue that higher levels of consumption bring their own environmental problems, few would argue that the Amazon can be "saved" by restricting economic growth.

Wealth and well-being

In the aggregate, wealth in the Amazon region is increasing. Per capita income in the Brazilian Amazon leaped from US$204 in 1970, to US$1,192 by 1980, and US$1,509 by 1990 (Costa 1990). In the 1980s, economic growth in most parts of Brazil slowed, but the North region's economy grew by an average of 5.8 per cent per annum (Costa 1992).

Other social indicators suggest that living conditions overall have improved in the Brazilian Amazon. Life expectancy at birth in the North region has been rising steadily since the 1930-1940 period, when it was 39.8 years, to 63.1 years by 1970-1980, when it even surpassed the national average (Wood and Carvalho 1988: 93). Also, the Brazilian Amazon has the least difference in life expectancy at birth by monthly household income. Infant mortality in the Brazilian Amazon has dropped from 117.1 per thousand in 1960 to 72.3 in 1980 and 47 in 1988 (Costa 1990, 1992). Improved access to medical services, schooling, and potable water has contributed to the overall improvement in well-being in the Brazilian Amazon over the past half century (Wood and Carvalho 1988: 101). By 1980, 78.9 per cent of the population over the age of 5 in the Brazilian Amazon could read and write, up from 48.1 per cent in 1960 (Costa 1990). Other social indicators that improved in the Brazilian Amazon during the 1970s and 1980s include literacy rates, household income, and access to electricity.

Impressive strides in improving infrastructure notwithstanding, some segments of society in the North region have apparently not benefited as much as others. Some signs suggest that the gap between the poor and rich has grown in the North over the past two decades (Costa 1992). The numbers of urban poor have grown spectacularly, and are arguably one of the most serious social problems confronting development planners in the region. Still, it appears that the poor are better off in absolute terms than in the past.

Other segments of Amazonian society have benefited little if at all from the impressive investments in improving infrastructure and services in the region. Overall, indigenous groups have not reaped many rewards from economic development in the region. And some small-scale farmers occupying areas with no land titles have been driven off the land by new proprietors. Rural inhabitants in remote headwaters remain essentially cut off from social services and outside employment opportunities.

Nevertheless, both rural and urban poor generally have better access to services and educational and job opportunities than their parents had when they were young. Except in a few isolated areas, environmental degradation has not yet seriously undermined the long-term capacity of the landscape to cater for the needs of future generations.

Progress towards improved well-being slowed in the 1980s and early 1990s in response to inflationary pressures in Brazil and a downturn in rates of growth in the global economy. When inflation reached over 1,000 per cent a year by the close of the 1980s, very few segments of the economy were expanding. Few data are available to ascertain whether the inhabitants of Amazonia suffered a decline in well-being in the early 1990s. More likely, improvements in indicators such as life expectancy levelled off, or rose much more slowly.

Environmental degradation has not progressed on a sufficiently large scale to undercut economic development at this point. Poverty in the region is still by and large a problem of access to better roads, schooling, and medical care, rather than putting out environmental brushfires.


Although environmental deterioration is not as alarming as is often portrayed in the media, and well-being and incomes are generally improving in the region, the stakes are ever higher. As more Amazonian ecosystems are altered to make room for people and development projects, nutrient recycling pathways are interrupted, heat and water fluxes may change, and other unseen ecological chain reactions may be taking place. Some plant and animal species are surely slipping into extinction with every burning season. How many keystone species are being lost? The toll may not become obvious for generations to come. The assumption here is that, as forest and aquatic environments are increasingly altered, human activities could become increasingly vulnerable to ecological surprises.

As Amazonia is increasingly occupied and the tempo of resource extraction increases, management inputs will have to increase accordingly. As farmers switch from extensive slash-and-burn systems to more intensive cropping patterns in response to population pressure and rising land values, even more sophisticated management is needed. Traditional agro-forestry systems are certainly complex, but modern mixed cropping patterns must also make adjustments to market conditions as well as shifting biotic pressures. Modern farms are characterized by a more rapid turnover of crop varieties and other technologies, all of which require a finely tuned agricultural research and development system. Farmers could become vulnerable to serious production shortfalls if the R&D pipeline becomes inefficient (Plucknett and Smith 1986).

Fine-tuning the policy environment

One of the greatest obstacles to raising standards of living for both the urban and rural poor is improved infrastructure, particularly better roads. Whereas the opening of pioneer roads reduces the incentive to intensify production because new lots can be acquired readily and cheaply, paving existing roads improves land values and marketing opportunities (Southworth, Dale, and O'Neill 1991). The cost of goods in urban areas is also reduced. A moratorium on major new road-building activity would allow better consolidation of gains in existing cleared areas, and reduce wasteful land-use practices.

Another imperative to ensure the future of Amazonian forests and other natural habitats is to balance conservation efforts between the local, community level and the public sector. A decentralized approach to environmental protection can be effective only up to a point. The ultimate fate of parks and reserves will be decided by local people; unless they are involved in land-use regulations and the selection and management of protected areas, few reserves are likely to survive much into the twenty-first century. If local communities are convinced that it is in their material interest to conserve natural resources, they will be motivated to help safeguard their natural resource endowment.

Empowerment should begin at the individual farm and community level, with municipal governments also involved in planning and overseeing protected areas. State and federal agencies are needed to help formulate broader conservation strategies and provide expertise in protecting and managing reserves. Funds for conservation should therefore flow as directly as possible to the field level, rather than slowly filtering down through various levels of bureaucracy in capital cities. A top-down approach to conservation often leads to slow disbursements, with their value eroded by rampant inflation. Rather than a punitive approach, conservation should be promoted by incentives, including payments for not cutting down forest in some cases.

International donors and development organizations need to recognize, however, that a "grass-roots" approach to conservation is not a panacea. "Grass roots" must include all players on the landscape, not just poor farmers or community organizations. This means the interests of powerful landholders, such as ranchers, should be considered when devising conservation plans. The well-to-do are not necessarily against preserving the environment, any more than all small farmers are naturally predisposed to managing natural resources rationally. As discussed in an earlier chapter, some of the best-protected forest in Amazonia is in private hands. Sawmill operators, plantation owners, and ranchers - as well as small farmers, indigenous peoples, and disenfranchised groups - should be brought into the local dialogue about conservation objectives. The task of building a consensus for action plans to preserve habitats and manage natural resources will often be difficult, as different groups must compromise and be sensitive to each other's concerns.

The notion that empowering communities will necessarily lead to "sustainable" development and wise management of resources warrants careful scrutiny. A community may overexploit resources owing to insufficient information about the natural history of the plants and animals concerned, or because of a desire to generate income for various projects. The conservation of ecosystems will require a coordinated effort over large distances, and no evidence has emerged that community groups can manage such a task.

Decentralization of environmental protection will thus not ensure the survival of forest reserves and other protected areas. Local governments can change, or the agendas of community groups might shift in response to emerging market opportunities. A change of mayors can signal a different philosophy towards the environment and even the handing over of protected areas to people without land or to the wealthy. Disbursements should always be contingent on respect for conservation programmes. To the extent that conservation efforts are built on the foundation of self-interest for broad segments of the society, and incentives are used rather than punitive measures, then prospects for safeguarding a substantial portion of Amazonia's biodiversity are improved.

A team approach

A better integration of research efforts across the many institutions conducting research within and outside of Amazonia would also help further our understanding of biodiversity patterns, sustainable agricultural practices, and the potential and impact of new technologies. Networking is poorly developed among Amazonian research institutions, ranging from basic and applied science to university centres. Networking could help avoid redundancy and could make more efficient use of resources, particularly important in countries with limited resources (Plucknett, Smith, and Ozgediz 1990).

Fortunately, innovative farmers and ranchers and skilled researchers are adopting and developing new technologies to help overcome constraints to raising and sustaining agricultural and silvicultural yields in Amazonia. Although much more research and testing of agricultural technologies developed at scientific institutes and in farmers' fields are needed, there is reason for hope that many tracts of Amazonia's unique forests will survive.

This dynamic nature of Amazonian agriculture, so important for the cultural and ecological integrity of the region, is not new. Farming systems have been evolving in Amazonia since the first fields were cleared at least 10,000 years ago. Peoples in Amazonia have always been open to new crops and resource management strategies. Maize made an early entry into Amazonia, while other crops were incorporated by indigenous groups in the region after contact with Europeans, such as plantain by the Yanomamo in northern Amazonia, and sugarcane by the Jivaro, the Chácabo of the Bolivian Amazon, and the Maku of north-western Amazonia (Boom 1989; Boster 1983; Milton 1984). Only the pace of change has quickened, particularly in the twentieth century.

If properly managed, a wide range of agricultural and silvicultural activities are possible in the region. Both small-scale farmers and corporate operations are achieving sustainable yields in various parts of the basin. The continued vitality of Amazonian agriculture will rest on controlling inflation, a deeper understanding of the natural history of Amazonian ecosystems, including manmade environments, and greater support for research at agricultural research stations, basic and applied research institutes, and the growing universities in the region.

To further research on the many pressing sustainable development issues, much broader cooperation will be required by research organizations and NGOs in the region. Closer working ties need to be forged along several dimensions: between research organizations; between NGOs; and between research organizations and NGOs (Blake 1992). Although NGOs often have many advantages, such as flexibility and their links to grass-roots causes, they usually lack the capacity for scientific research. Sustainable development in Amazonia, as in any region, will require long-term commitment to research in many fields among various institutional players. Exciting opportunities lie ahead for allying the strengths of NGOs with research organizations in seeking solutions to the complex problems facing people and the environment in Amazonia.

With restricted funds for research, citizens of Amazonia can ill afford scientific institutes going their own ways, with little regard for the activities of other organizations involved in research and extension. Even if a flood of funding suddenly became available, it might not be spent wisely if viable research priorities and programmes have not been worked out.

Fortunately, research institutions in the region increasingly recognize the need to coordinate their efforts better. One sign of this positive trend is the creation of the Regional Commission for Research in Amazonia (CORPAM - Comissão Coordenadora Regional de Pesquisas na Amazonia) in 1989. CORPAM advises the President of Brazil on research and training needs for the region and involves a range of institutions, from universities to development agencies.

Stronger collaborative links also need to be developed among NGOs. The very ease with which NGOs can be formed, essentially with a phone, fax, copier, and portable computer, can quickly overload the system. The spectacular growth of NGOs, reviewed in chapter 3, has been largely fuelled by exterior donors in response to their distrust of government agencies. By 1989, NGOs from industrial countries were distributing an estimated US$6.4 billion to developing countries (Livernash 1992), and countries with territory in Amazonia received a good share of this largess. But little effort has been made to encourage consolidation, or at least closer cooperation to avoid redundancy. Donors must accept some responsibility for possibly superfluous organizations with poorly defined agendas and questionable efficacy in Amazon basin countries.

Perhaps the weakest link in the research field is cooperation between NGOs and government research organizations, such as the agricultural research institutions, scientific institutes, and researchoriented universities. Ironically, many NGOs are flush with funds from foreign donors, but are devoid of any expertise to carry out research. The funds being channelled to NGOs in Brazil would be sufficient to pay off the external debt of several smaller developing countries, such as Uruguay.

Conservation and sustainable development

The survival of forests is critical for the long-term options for Amazonian development. But reliance on parks or reserves alone to safeguard the diversity of Amazonian ecosystems will not succeed. Only 2 per cent of the Brazilian Amazon is within the boundaries of parks or reserves and, as is the case in most developing countries, many areas designated for protection have been violated by loggers, miners, ranchers, and farmers. Even with debt-for-nature swaps or other mechanisms to increase park land in Amazonia, only small islands of forest and other Amazonian ecosystems are likely to be incorporated into reserves. Although efforts to set aside and safeguard parks and reserves must continue, they should be coupled with a broader strategy to improve living standards in countries with a stake in Amazonia.

What happens outside the boundaries of parks and reserves will largely determine their fate. The yields of farms, ranches, and plantations in Amazonia must be raised and sustained if large tracts of the region's forests are to survive. By intensifying production in already cleared areas, the need to open up new areas will be reduced.

The chances that sizeable tracts of forest will survive in the twentyfirst century will also improve if ways can be found to harvest their resources without destroying them. Extractive activities should be envisaged as a supplement to more conventional activities, at least in the short term. Poverty is the greatest enemy of Amazonian forests and, unless ways can be found to make forests "pay" for themselves, they will remain highly vulnerable.

Given the inevitable pressure to develop and occupy the Amazon further, careful management of forest resources and agricultural activities will become ever more urgent. Although research is under way on many fronts to further our understanding of Amazonian ecosystems and socio-economic processes, much more needs to be learned if the region's resources are to be managed on a sound basis.

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