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2. Amazonia

Study sites
Historical perspectives on environmental and social change
Human driving forces
Environmental impacts
Societal responses
The trajectory of change and regional dynamics

Nigel J. H. Smith, Paulo de T. Alvim, Emanuel Adilson S. Serrão, and Italo C. Falesi

The Amazon Basin contains the largest remaining stretch of tropical forest in the world. Development pressures are mounting to integrate better the still largely untapped region with national economies and global markets. Pioneer highways are providing ready access to formerly isolated portions of Amazonia, and reservoirs are transforming the landscapes of some large and small river valleys (fig. 2.1). A drive for greater energy self-sufficiency has prompted the construction of hydroelectric dams, which often lead to extensive flooding of forests and to changes in the fish fauna. The cutting and burning of Amazonia's biologically rich forests have triggered widespread concern about global and regional climatic change, loss of biodiversity, and disruption of peasant and indigenous communities. Indeed, few regions of the world have received more attention as a "critical" or "endangered zone" than has Amazonia (Smith et al. 1991).

The environmental and social consequences of the current changes in Amazonia cannot be adequately assessed without attention to the longer-term occupation of the region and the history of interaction between people and the various natural and human-influenced habitats in the region. Hence, we begin with a historical backdrop, emphasizing the diversity of ecosystems in the region and the significance of different management strategies for harnessing natural resources.

Fig. 2.1 Major highways and some development projects in Amazonia

Our treatment of human driving forces, consistent with the approach of this volume, focuses on changes in human populations, technologies, the policy framework and associated values for development, and issues surrounding the distribution of wealth. Specifically, we explore population growth and migration both within Amazonia and extraregionally; the impact of technologies on employment opportunities and on the environment; the socio-economic and institutional environment as it reflects on efforts to improve living conditions in the region; and attitudes and assumptions about appropriate development strategies for the region. Our analysis of environmental problems in Amazonia differentiates threats on the global, regional, and local levels. We treat the purported role of deforestation in warming the world's climate, the environmental impact of smoke from forest-clearing, and the effects of forest removal on soil erosion and flooding. Finally, we review the ecological impacts of mining activities and the implications of biodiversity loss.

Whereas much discussion has surfaced about the perceived environmental and social ills in Amazonia, little analysis has focused on social responses. Not surprisingly, the widely discussed environmental and social dimensions to Amazonian development have infused Brazil's nascent democratic system. New alliances are being struck between groups with common agendas for social and environmental change. The spectacular growth of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is one indication that cultural groups both within and outside the Amazon Basin are mobilizing to influence investment and development policies in the region.

After reviewing briefly the implications of flourishing NGO activities for research and development policies, we review some recent land-use trends in forest management, pasture recuperation, and agro-forestry. Wise management of forest and aquatic resources, combined with the raising and sustaining of agricultural yields, will be crucial to the goal of improving living conditions in the region. Raising standards of living for broad segments of society may alleviate pressure on the remaining forests. Such a strategy embraces small and large-scale enterprises, as well as the growth of forest- and agriculture-related industries in urban areas.

Our analysis of forest management in Amazonia begins with an assessment of the role of extractive reserves in the regional economy and the potential of such reserves for safeguarding forest environments. We also examine the management of Amazonian forests for timber production. The potential of agro-forestry and perennial crop ping systems to generate food and industrial products as well as to protect the soil is also analysed. Pasture is often a major feature of Amazonian landscapes after clearing, but many ranches suffer from low productivity. Beef and dairy production in Amazonia could double if existing pastures were better managed. Thus, we review efforts to upgrade pastures and their policy implications.

Study sites

Not only is Amazonia a vast (5 million km²) region, but, contrary to popular view, it is environmentally heterogeneous as well. It is not particularly useful, therefore, to address environmental change in Amazonia in terms of averages. Here we have broached this problem by focusing on several study sites or areas selected to represent a range of human activities in different forest and flood-plain ecosystems. A variety of land uses, ranging from mining to agroforestry, extractive reserves, ranching, and small-scale farms in interfluvial areas, is examined. Another important criterion used in the selection of study areas is the duration of human occupation, which is particularly important in attempting to assess sustainability of land uses under different management systems. Some of the study sites have a relatively long history of settlement, whereas others have been penetrated by pioneer settlers only within the last 20 years.

We selected for closer scrutiny several main areas in the Brazilian Amazon, each of which contains a range of human activities, soil types, and vegetation. Although we concentrated our fieldwork in these study areas, we also incorporated relevant research findings from other sites. Figure 2.1 should be consulted for the locations of the main study areas described below.

Mining is emerging as a major development thrust in Amazonia, and a suite of associated development activities usually follows in the wake of mineral projects. Mining operations open up opportunities for spontaneous and planned settlement and plantations. Two multifaceted mining operations - the Carajás and Trombetas projects - are described and analysed.

The Carajás project in southern Pará, managed by the Brazilian firm Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (CVRD), mines the world's largest iron-ore deposit as well as several other strategically important minerals. An 890 km railroad was recently built between the Carajás range southwest of Marabá and the port of Itaqui in coastal Maranhão to serve smelters in the rich iron-ore field. A series of corollary development schemes, ranging from pioneer farms to agro-forestry projects and harvesting the forest to provide charcoal for pig-iron smelters, are under way. This multi-purpose development programme slices across a broad spectrum of Amazonian environments, some with long histories of human occupation.

Another mega-scale mining project that has begun operations within the last two decades is located along the clear-water Trombetas River, a northern affluent of the Amazon. The Trombetas project, operated by Mineraçáo Rio do Norte, contains one of the world's largest deposits of bauxite and was a major factor in the Brazilian government's decision to build the Tucurui dam on the Tocantins River to supply hydroelectric power for smelting aluminium ore. The Trombetas project is removing large quantities of soil and vegetation.

The 1.6 million ha Jari project, formerly owned by Daniel Ludwig, is now managed by a consortium of Brazilian companies. Located in northern Pará and western Amapá, the Jari project includes plantations of eucalyptus, Caribbean pine, and Gmelina (Gmelina arborea) for pulp production, kaolin mining, and water buffalo ranching along the Amazon flood plain.

The environmental impacts and sustainability of some small-scale farmers and ranchers are reviewed in the Bragantina area, Tomé-Açu, Paragominas, and the Transamazon Highway. The Bragantina zone east of Belém encompasses some of the poorest soils in Amazonia and is also one of the most densely settled areas of the basin. The Bragantina zone comprises less than 1 per cent of the area of the Brazilian Amazon but contains dose to one-third of the region's population. Sizeable shell mounds along Bragantina's brackish coast bear witness to the long history of human occupation in the area. A review of the history of farming efforts in this highly modified, formerly forested zone and an analysis of agricultural changes will highlight adaptive responses to ecological change and economic opportunities.

The Tomé-Açu area south of the Bragantina zone was settled by Japanese immigrants in the 1930s. After first trying their hand at cultivating upland rice, the newcomers soon turned to perennial crops that help conserve soil moisture, structure, and fertility. Black pepper proved highly profitable for several decades until a fungal disease provoked a search for alternative crops. How Japanese-Brazilian farmers have coped with this ecological surprise underscores the importance of resilience for sustainable agriculture.

The Altamira region of the Transamazon Highway is a good area to study pioneer farms two decades after they have been carved out of the forest. The dark-red alfisols of the Altamira region of the Transamazon Highway are some of the best soils of upland Amazonia and provide an opportunity to contrast farming systems with those found in the Bragantina zone. Perennial crops, particularly cacao (Theabroma cacao), robusta coffee (Coffea canephora), and citrus, are providing valuable alternatives to shifting cultivation for annual cash crops. The Transamazon landscape is evolving to agro-forestry and improved pastures, with less environmental destruction than occurred in the earlier years.

Historical perspectives on environmental and social change

Boom-and-bust cycles characterize much of the history of Amazonian development. Poor planning, changes in world production patterns of certain commodities, ecological "surprises," and frequent shifts in policy at the national and regional level have all contributed to the demise of many extractive enterprises and settlement schemes. A brief historical review of major economic activities in Amazonia serves as a backdrop to current debates about appropriate models for development in the region.

From the seventeenth century to the early 1900s, extraction of forest products dominated economic activities in Amazonia. Dyes, woody and herbal essences, and certain highly prized timbers were obtained from the forests. Plantations of cacao and sugar cane were established, mainly along the Amazon flood plain and around Belém The harvesting of turtle eggs and manatees for oil and meat were the principal activities in the region until the close of the eighteenth century (Domning 1982; Serrão and Homma 1993; Smith 1974). Creole cattle were introduced to spontaneous or fire-induced grasslands in Roraima and Marajó Island, but beef production was limited and destined almost exclusively for local consumption.

A rubber boom lasted from 1850 to 1912, until plantations of rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis), based on seed taken out of the Brazilian Amazon by Henry Wickham in 1876, came into production. At the height of the rubber boom in Brazil, tens of thousands of north-easterners penetrated the myriad waterways of Amazonia to tap the wild trees. Rubber was once Brazil's third most important export commodity (Dean 1987; Weinstein 1983). Apart from the construction of some elaborate mansions, opera houses, and improved docking facilities in Belém and Manaus, the rubber boom did not sow the seeds of any long-lasting economic benefit. Profits were largely invested elsewhere.

Henry Ford's efforts to establish rubber plantations on uplands bordering the lower Tapajós in 1927 ultimately failed, mainly owing to attacks of South American leaf blight. The fungal pathogen, Microcyclus ulei, wreaked havoc in the large monocultural stands of rubber; attempts at double grafting to secure a resistant crown wedded to a highly productive bole proved too expensive in the face of competition from plantations in South-East Asia that still remain free of the disease. In 1945, Henry Ford pulled out of the rubber plantation business in the Amazon.

One of the most fertile environments for agriculture in Amazonia, the flood plain of the silt-laden Amazon, received a boost when Japanese immigrants introduced jute (Corchorus spp.) along the upper and middle Amazon in 1932. Although jute remains an important cash crop along the Amazon, competition from growers in Bangladesh and from synthetics is constraining further development of this fibrous crop in Amazonia. Recently, the Brazilian coffee industry, the largest customer for jute sacks in the country, has lobbied the government to allow the importation of less expensive jute sacks from Asia. The collapse of jute prices provoked a scramble for alternative crops on the Amazon flood plain.

Japanese immigrants also brought another important cash crop to Amazonia, black pepper (Piper nigrum), in 1933. Pepper was established in plantations at Tomé-Açu and, by the early 1950s, had become the leading agricultural export of Pará Pepper is still a viable perennial crop in uplands of Amazonia today, but it is now planted as one of a sequence of crops that is replaced as Fusarium wilt takes its toll.

Rubber extraction surged in Amazonia briefly during the Second World War as a result of the Washington Agreement, signed in 1942. This accord was designed to develop alternative sources of rubber in response to the Japanese cut-off of supplies from South-East Asia. In 1954 a decree promulgated by the Brazilian government required tyre companies to set up some rubber plantations and, in 1966, the Brazilian government's Superintendency for the Development of Rubber Culture (SUDHEVEA) launched a programme, PROBOR (Programa da Boracha), to plant more rubber trees and to tap both wild and planted trees more rationally (Dean 1987, 131). In spite of such efforts, Brazil still imports most of its natural rubber needs.

The 1960s witnessed two major land-use changes in Amazonia: the rapid opening of forest for pasture development, and the ambitious silvicultural operation at Jari for pulp production. Fuelled by fiscal incentives that allowed corporations to invest half of their tax liabilities in approved development projects in Amazonia, massive deforestation for cattle pasture began in 1966. Initially concentrated along the recently opened Belém-Brasília highway, particularly in Paragominas, large tracts of forest began falling for planted pasture in other parts of the Brazilian Amazon, such as southern Pará and northern Mato Grosso. Many of these ranches were established for purely speculative purposes, and, lacking proper upkeep, extensive areas of pasture are now degraded. Efforts to recuperate such pastures, and the economic and policy constraints to renovation of cattle-raising areas, are discussed later.

The huge Jari operation is often portrayed as a failure. Many mistakes were made in setting up plantations of Gmelina (Gmelina arborea), Caribbean pine, and eucalyptus, but many of these initial ecological and managerial problems have now been addressed. Only about one-tenth of the property (totalling 1.6 million ha) is slated for plantations, and the pulp operation is finally making a profit. Conservation of the environment is a high priority at Jari. Ludwig's US$1 billion experiment seems to be paying off, mainly because of sophisticated silvicultural know-how generated by Brazilian firms and scientists.

The 1970s was the decade for launching colonization schemes, sponsored by federal governments and, in the case of Brazil, private companies as well (Fearnside 1986; Kleinpenning 1975; Moran 1981; Smith 1982). Brazil's national integration plan called for thousands of kilometres of pioneer roads to cries-cross the region, creating access to settlers and natural resources. The colonization schemes were designed originally for small-scale settlers, but many of the original colonists have sold out and moved to other frontiers, often leading to conflicts with other claimants to the land, including Indians (Barbira-Scazzocchio 1980; Hemming 1985a,b; Schmink and Wood 1984). Some colonists remaining along pioneer highways are thriving after establishing good-quality pasture and a mix of perennial crops for cash income. A trend towards better management of already cleared areas, rather than opening new fields, is well pronounced along the 20-year-old Transamazon Highway.

Another major development of the 1970s and 1980s was the push to develop more of the mineral resources of Amazonia. The export value of gold, manganese, aluminium, and pig-iron now far exceeds the value of agricultural exports in Amazonia. Mineral exploitation and associated development projects, particularly the Grande Carajás programme, are likely to continue to play a leading role in regional development for the foreseeable future.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, timber extraction accelerated markedly, particularly in Pará Initially, only about 10 species were logged in any quantity, but now the sawmills are handling close to 100 species in the case of Paragominas. Much of the production is for domestic construction, although high-quality timbers, such as ipê (Tabebuia spp.), angelim pedra (Diniza excelsa), maçaranduba (Manilkara spp.), cumaru (Dipteryx spp.), and mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), are also exported, mainly through Belém and Manaus.

This recent history of resource use in Amazonia has taken place in the context of a "frontier" one in which there was extremely sparse occupation at least since the sixteenth century. The evidence is mounting, however, that previous to the European penetration of Amazonia large concentrations of Amerindians were present in different areas and different times (Smith 1995). The activities of people surely had an effect on the environments of the Amazon Basin, if only as a result of the considerable clearing of the forest that took place. The point here is that the Amazon experienced a lull of close to four centuries after indigenous populations crashed shortly after 1500 and that, once again, wider-scale environmental changes are under way.

Resource-use systems in Amazonia have been and remain highly dynamic. As population density increases in the region, the intensity of land management is likely to increase (fig. 2.2). Environmental issues vary along the spectrum of land-management intensity; for example, efforts to raise and sustain agricultural productivity pose a new set of environmental issues, such as the impact of pesticides on human health and the effects of continual use of a field on soil structure. After exploring some of the environmental concerns of Amazonian development, we analyse attempts to improve forest management, agroforestry, and perennial crop management, and to recuperate pastures.

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