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Societal responses

Many government organizations involved in development now recognize the importance of the environmental impacts of projects they promote and the need to conserve various ecosystems in Amazonia. Recent publications of the regional development agency for the Brazilian Amazon, SUDAM (Superintendência de Desenvolvimento da Amazonia), underscore the importance of conserving the environment and the ecological sustainability of economic activities (SUDAM 1990). At a May 1989 meeting of the Amazon Pact countries in Manaus, the heads of state of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela endorsed the need to use and protect natural and cultural resources, and highlighted the value of maintaining biodiversity.

Some may well argue that utterances from political leaders and development agencies may amount to little more than lip-service, but genuine concern does prevail about the ecological and social dimensions to Amazonian development among a broad range of government and development agencies. How much of this concern is translated into concrete action is debatable, but a change in values and attitudes is always a precursor to policy shifts. Some indicators that the "green positions" adopted by politicians and development agencies are more than mere window-dressing include evidence of changes in priorities for research and development in the region. Indeed, regional research and development bodies have approached various international organizations, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome and CIAT (Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical), based in Cali, Colombia, for guidance and technical assistance in sustainable agriculture.

Until recently, Brazilian government authorities rejected the notion of debt-for-nature swaps on the grounds that such deals would compromise national sovereignty. In 1991, the federal government decided to authorize the conversion of US$100 million of the US$123 billion external debt for environmental projects. These debt-for-nature dollars will be used mainly to demarcate national parks and reserves and to compensate landowners or settlers in protected areas for leaving their claims. Although effective protection and management of reserves and parks in Brazil will cost an estimated US$2 billion, the relinquished funds will certainly help.

Resources liberated by this debt-for-nature swap will be administered as a "patrimonial fund" under the control of the federal government. This adroit move allows the Brazilian government to avoid relinquishing any of its sovereignty while reducing, albeit slightly, its debt burden. At the same time, the availability of sizeable grants for certain worthwhile environmental causes permits the government to achieve a public relations coup at virtually no cost.

The growing influence of NGOs

Another response to the perceived need to tackle environmental and social problems in Amazonia is the striking growth in the number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in the region. More than 1,000 NGOs are currently operating in Brazil, and many of them focus on environmental concerns. This blossoming of NGOs seems to be a global trend; tens of thousands of grass-roots environmental groups have sprung up to raise public awareness of ecological problems and to press for policy (Brown 1991). About three-quarters of the NGOs in Brazil arose in the 1980s in response to increasing awareness among various levels of society about contentious development and environmental issues. A sense emerged in many quarters that prevailing models of economic development were not adequately addressing issues of social equity or sustainability and that more "extra-official" channels were needed for development assistance (Montecinos and Altieri 1991).

Many NGOs have targeted international media and organizations, rather than local, regional, or national governments. The primary mission of many NGOs is to promote the cause of disenfranchised groups, such as Indians, rubber tappers, and women, but they have skilfully "piggybacked" their agenda on the global preoccupation with the environment. Some groups advocating rights of rubber tappers and Indians have seized the growing concern about the environmental impacts of development in Amazonia as an opportunity to strengthen their hand and obtain greater media coverage and leverage with government and donor agencies.

Indigenous-rights groups, such as União das Nações Indígenas (UNI), and organizations attempting to organize rubber tappers, such as the National Council of Rubber Tappers (Conselho Nacional dos Seringueiros), have lobbied aggressively for land rights and for the defence of nature in Amazonia. Maria Allegretti's Institute for Amazon Studies has coordinated efforts to pressure authorities in Brazil to safeguard rubber groves against outside developers (Revkin 1990).

Although some NGOs are jockeying for position as saviours of the forest, particularly in the eyes of the media, this confluence of environmental and social concerns may turn out to be an ephemeral marriage of convenience. NGOs promoting the cause of disenfranchised groups have mixed agendas, and environmental concerns may well be peripheral in some instances.

Extractive reserves and forest management for timber

Extractive reserves have elicited considerable interest both within Brazil and abroad. The main idea behind extractive reserves is that local communities own and control the harvesting of forest products. The push to set up extractive reserves in Amazonia began in Acre in the mid-1980s under the leadership of Chico Mendes. Mendes was attempting to organize rubber tappers to defend the forest against encroaching development, particularly cattle ranches, until he was killed in December 1988. The rubber tappers' movement was envisaged as a dual-purpose cause to improve living conditions and to preserve the forest. Although Mendes has been portrayed as a saviour of Amazonian nature, his struggle was primarily for the social rights of a poor and relatively disenfranchised group of people.

Although the notion of extractive reserves has some appealing aspects, their ability to wrest rubber tappers from poverty and to safeguard the forest from wanton destruction is by no means assured (Homma 1989a,b). It is difficult to raise the standard of living of people by depending exclusively on tropical forest products (Lavelle 1987). The economics of extractive reserves needs further work. One hectare of forest near the village of Mishana on the Nanay River in the Peruvian Amazon can purportedly generate US$650 a year on a sustainable basis from the sale of fruits, nuts, and latex (Peters, Gentry, and Mendelsohn 1989). The Mishana study suggests that sustainable exploitation of rain forests can produce several times the income derived from cutting down the forest for agriculture, silviculture, or pasture. Whereas the Mishana study indicates that Amazon forests have untapped potential, the ecological heterogeneity of the region makes it difficult to extrapolate findings from one area to another. The Mishana site is near Iquitos, the largest town in the Peruvian Amazon. Also, it is doubtful that all patches of the Amazonian rain forest could generate several times as much income as alternative uses; if that were so, then forests would surely be less threatened.

Extractive reserves might better be regarded as supplements to the diet and income of people living in them. To raise living standards, communities will have to undertake other activities, such as farming. The problem is that legislation on extractive reserves specifically prohibits cutting of the forest beyond small patches for subsistence needs. Cultivation of crops for food and income will mean clearing parts of extractive reserves. To prohibit cutting more than the current limit of 5 ha of forest per family may condemn rubber tappers to poverty, at least for the foreseeable future.

In the case of extractive reserves in Acre, rubber and Brazil nuts are the main economic products, a poor prescription to elevate local communities to new levels of prosperity. Three-quarters of Brazil's demand for rubber is met by imports from South-East Asia. Rubber tapped from forests cannot compete in the market-place with rubber derived from plantations in South-East Asia, a lesson learned in the 1920s. Natural rubber produced in Brazil has been subsidized at approximately three times the world price since 1967 (Led Federal No. 5227); even greater subsidies would be required to bring significant profits to rubber tappers working in the forest. In 1989, President Sarney abolished the Superintendency for promoting natural rubber (SUDHEVEA) and, in March 1990, the federal government reduced much of the subsidy for rubber as part of a policy of reducing import tariffs, thereby further weakening the economic prospects for extractive reserves in Acre. Subsidies will be needed to help extractive reserves survive, at least for the near term (Homma 1989a, 1991).

Although rubber tapped from wild trees in Amazonia still accounts for most of the natural rubber produced in Brazil, the contribution from plantations, mainly in Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Minas Gerais, São Paulo, Espírito Santo, and Bahia, is increasing. In the latter states, South American leaf blight is less prevalent because of the well-defined dry season, and high-yielding material has generally been planted.

Brazil nuts will undoubtedly prove a valuable source of cash income to people living in extractive reserves. Local processing of Brazil nuts, particularly to extract oil, will add value to the product, thereby generating more income. Cultural Survival in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has helped find markets for Brazil nuts gathered in extractive reserves in Acre, such as Ben and Jerry's Rainforest Crunch ice cream (Pearce 1990). It is not clear, though, how much income Brazil nuts will generate for communities living in extractive reserves. The main producing area for Brazil nuts is Pará from which transportation of nuts is easier to such deepwater ports as Belém and established firms have been operating for decades. Also, the Brazil nut is being domesticated and plantations of the crop may eventually produce most of the world's Brazil nuts.

Another concern about extractive reserves is their alleged role in forest conservation. As a means to conserve the forest, extractive reserves could help preserve wild gene pools of certain crop plants as well as potential economic plants. On the other hand, people living in extractive reserves hunt dispersal agents for tropical fruit and nut trees. Several species of monkey, such as capuchin (Cebus spp.) and titi monkeys (Callicebus), disperse wild cacao, whereas guans and curassows (Cracidae) swallow fruits and later defecate seeds. Agoutis (Dasyprocta spp.) bury Brazil nuts and the fruits of other forest species.

Given hard economic choices, communities living in extractive reserves may opt to cut down substantial tracts of forest for pasture, plantations, or field crops. A limited amount of clearing for pasture and other agricultural activities has already taken place in at least one of the four extractive reserves established thus far in Acre. Or these activities could be largely abandoned if they do not generate sufficient income; after all, the young are likely to seek better educational and employment opportunities in towns and cities.

Casting extractive reserves as multi-purpose resources that would include the freedom to farm, to set up plantations, and even to rear livestock would render them more likely to contribute to the region's welfare. Each extractive reserve would have a different mix and density of economic plant species. Sustained harvesting of forest products would need more botanical and faunal inventories coupled with natural history studies. Such studies should combine scientific expertise and folk knowledge and involve locals, particularly indigenous groups, in the research effort.

As in the case of extractive reserves, attempts to manage forests in Amazonia for timber production are in their infancy. Current wood-harvesting practices in the region for timber generally damage the recuperative capacity of the forests and are largely unsustainable. Traditionally, most of the lumbering in Amazonia has been concentrated along rivers where access to timber is easier. As more pioneer highways were built in the 1970s, however, timber extraction penetrated deeper into the forest, such as around Itacoatiara near Manaus (Wesche and Bruneau 1990, 59). The tempo of timber extraction in Amazonia continues to increase as the regional network of roads expands. Between 1975 and 1984, log production nearly quadrupled in the Brazilian Amazon (Anderson 1987). Close to half of the timber production comes from the state of Pará In a study of a logging operation near Paragominas, Pará for example, one-quarter of the trees with a diameter at breast height of at least 10 cm were killed or severely damaged by logging activities (Uhf and Vieira 1989). The canopy cover was allegedly reduced by half at the study site. At current logging rates, Pará's extensive forests could be stripped of valuable timber within 80 years.

Logging does not always destroy half the canopy, however. If only a few desirable species are removed, as is typically the case, perhaps only a quarter of the canopy is opened. During a 40-minute overflight of forest patches on heavily logged ranches near Paragominas in April 1991, only 10-30 per cent of the canopy appeared to be significantly damaged. Light gaps are important for generating many commercially important timber trees, such as mahogany.

Loggers largely ignore regulations designed to conserve timber resources and protect valuable fruit and nut trees. Sawmills avidly seek Brazil nut trees because of their durable and lustrous red-brown wood. Although it is illegal to cut down Brazil nut trees, landowners, particularly if they are in need of cash, frequently allow loggers to remove the trees. A Brazil nut tree can be legally cut down if it is dead or dying, or in the way of urban expansion. Along the Transamazon, some colonists in the early 1970s deliberately set hot fires at the base of Brazil nut trees so that a cash windfall could be obtained by inviting loggers to remove the damaged trees. In the late 1980s, some loggers in parts of northern Mato Grosso obtained permits to fell Brazil nut trees deemed in the way of urban expansion, even though some of the trees were several kilometres from the nearest house.

Few models for sustained management of tropical forests for timber production are available to guide policy makers in Amazonia. In one part of Suriname, selective logging with carefully planned skid trails and the poisoning of non-commercial trees can produce timber harvests of 20 m³ per hectare every two decades (Graaf 1982). Given the dispersed nature of desirable timber trees, sustained management of forests in Amazonia would appear to be a low-yield operation. Markets could be developed for some of the lesser-known timber trees, but dealers like reliable supplies in order to cultivate a new product. Considerable research is needed on potential timber trees and rational harvesting methods that offer reasonable economic returns. Of the more than 700 promising timber species in Amazonian forests, only 10 species accounted for more than 60 per cent of the region's saw and veneer log production in the 1980s (Anderson 1987).

As the more desirable species become scarce in heavily logged areas, however, sawmills shift increasing attention to second- and third-tier species. Sawmills in the Paragominas area, for example, send a substantial proportion of their production for the Brazilian market. In spite of the recession, demand is growing for lower-quality timber for general construction purposes, such as moulds for concrete. The Rosa Madeireira sawmill in Paragominas, for instance, was working with 58 timber trees in the early 1990s.

The increased logging activity may ironically help save some forest stands. In the vicinity of Paragominas, for example, several ranchers have halted deforestation on their properties, typically in the 1,00010,000 ha range, because of the income derived from selling their forest stands to sawmills. The owner of Fazenda São João, which has 600 ha of pasture, sold logging rights to his 400 ha of forest to sawmill operators in 1982, 1986, and 1988. Although the forest on the São João ranch is unlikely to yield sufficiently valuable timber to justify logging three more times in the 1990s, the shift to less desirable species means that a reasonable income can be achieved by permitting logging cycles shorter than the several decades typically required for the premier timber species. Income derived from logging has been reinvested in some cases to upgrade pastures.

Pasture restoration, savannas, and flood-plain ranching

Domestic beef markets are a major driving force in Amazonian deforestation. Most existing or proposed extractive reserves are under pressure from surrounding ranchers. In the short term at least, it often makes economic sense to convert forest to pasture.

Pasture development in Amazonia is mired in controversy. From the social standpoint, ranches provide minimal employment and have contributed to some conflicts over land ownership, particularly in southern Pará Ecologists have expressed alarm at the virtual biological deserts created by pastures planted to African grasses. Much of the heated debate about pastures in the region stems from the push, from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, to open up artificial pastures in mature forest. Cattle-raising in Amazonia, however, is centuries old. Furthermore, cattle ranches can be sustainable operations, if properly managed.

Traditionally, most cattle in Amazonia have been raised on pastures along white-water rivers, such as the Amazon proper, and on isolated pockets of savanna. The big push to open up new cattle pastures in Amazonian forests started in the late 1960s. Spurred by generous fiscal incentives, corporations started investing up to half their taxes in development projects in Amazonia. A "grass rush" of major proportions ensued in eastern and southern Amazonia (Sternberg 1973). Some 10 million ha of forest, mostly in southern Pará and northern Mato Grosso, were felled and planted to such imported species as guinea grass (Panicum maximum), brachiaria (Brachiaria decumbens), and, in areas with a more pronounced dry season, jaraguá (Hyparrhenia rufa). Within about five years, weeds, resprouting trees, and compacted soils depressed the productivity of many of these new pastures. By the mid-1970s, brachiaria pastures were being severely attacked by several species of spittlebugs, especially Deois incompleta, which withered the grass and allowed weeds to proliferate (Penny and Arias 1982, 65). Close to half of the artificial pastures in Amazonia are degraded (Hecht 1985; Serrão and Toledo 1988).

After it became apparent that incentives for cattle pasture were being used primarily for land speculation and timber extraction, the federal government withdrew subsidies for pasture development in forested areas of Amazonia in the early 1980s. But, even without fiscal incentives, cattle pastures remain the predominant use of land in pioneer areas of Amazonia. In the vicinity of Parauapebas, at the base of the Carajás range in southern Pará cattle pasture accounts for about 90 per cent of the cleared land in production after only 10 years of settlement (Niger J. H. Smith, field notes).

Given that cattle pastures are likely to remain an important part of the agricultural economy of Amazonia, technologies and management practices must be sought to improve their productivity. As in Central America, improvement of existing pastures and livestock, rather than trying to "re-educate" people not to eat beef, is likely to prove more fruitful (Nations and Kromer 1983). Far from providing an incentive to cut more forest, viable pastures will help relieve pressure to clear more land Serrão 1990). With proper management, artificial pastures in Amazonia can be productive and sustainable (Falesi 1976; Falesi et al. 1980). In Central America, fencing and rotation of pastures planted in former rainforest areas can substantially increase the yield and sustainability of cattle operations (Parsons 1989). Unless such pastures are managed correctly from the start, however, they soon degrade.

An investment up to US$300 per hectare is necessary to restore degraded pastures in Amazonia (Serrão and Toledo 1988; Uhl and Vieira 1989). In spite of the relatively high cost, between 700,000 and 1 million ha of artificial pasture had been rehabilitated in the Brazilian Amazon by the late 1980s (Serrão 1990; (Serrão and Homma 1989). Although only a small fraction of the pastures cleared from forest in the Brazilian Amazon have been upgraded, ranchers will likely turn to pasture improvement as growing urban centres create ever more attractive markets for beef, milk, butter, and cheese.

Small- to medium-holder ranchers appear to be the most active in upgrading artificial pastures throughout Amazonia. In 1991, ranches with restored pastures were observed along the Manaus-Itacoatiara road; the Transamazon Highway from the Altamira area to km 80 of the Altamira-Itaituba stretch; the highway linking Tomé-Açu and Paragominas (PA 256); the Belém-Brasília highway from Paragominas to Belém; the road from the Belém-Brasília highway to Capitão Poço, Pará. At least a quarter of the ranches observed along these roads had all or some of their pastures under improved management.

Technologies for upgrading pastures are relatively well developed, but their use depends on cost and degree of degradation. Methods for improving artificial pastures in the Amazon include the use of fertilizers, particularly phosphorus; replanting with more productive and pest-resistant grasses; interplanting legumes for improved ground cover and nitrogen fixation; intercropping with fruit trees; removal of weeds; and, in heavily compacted sites, mechanically raking the soil (Serrão 1986a,b).

In the case of pastures damaged by spittlebugs, ranchers started turning to quicuio da Amazonia (Brachiaria humidicola), a fast-growing grass with moderate resistance to the pests, in 1976. This species is also widely used for erosion control along roads, railways, and electrical transmission lines. By 1982, however, spittlebugs were severely attacking some pastures of B. humidicola in the Paragominas area, thereby rendering pastures more susceptible to weed invasion. In wetter areas of Amazonia, B. humidicola apparently still resists the pests. Many ranchers have been planting brachiarão (Brachiaria brizantha cv. Marandu) since 1983. Also known as brizantão, B. brizantha is more vigorous than B. humidicola, provides better ground cover to suppress weeds, and currently resists spittlebugs.

Restoration of pastures is not a one-shot affair. Inevitably, rehabilitated pastures will require more fertilization as well as new forage species or varieties. How soon a pasture needs restoration depends on its management history and soil. Some first-generation pastures of guinea grass on alfisols (terra roxa) in the Altamira area of the Transamazon Highway are still reasonably productive after 20 years without fertilizer, provided that they are periodically weeded and fenced to allow rotation. On the other hand, a regularly weeded and fenced guinea grass pasture on yellow oxisol near Paragominas had to be replaced with brachiarão after 12 years.

Another way to help brake conversion of forest to pasture would be to make better use of natural grasslands or pockets of savanna in various parts of Amazonia (Serrão 1986b). Between 50 and 75 million ha of grassland occur in the region: well-drained savannas; poorly drained grasslands, such as in eastern Marajó Island; and seasonally inundated flood plains of silt-laden rivers, such as the Amazon. Well-drained savannas, particularly in Roraima, account for much of these unplanted grasslands, which have expanded from core areas as a result of repeated burning. Each category of "natural" grassland would require different management strategies, but stocking rates in such areas could increase from about 6 million head of cattle to at least 30 million head without felling any more trees (Serrão 1990).

Better utilization of grazing opportunities along flood plains of silt-laden rivers would also help alleviate pressure to clear forest on uplands. Water buffalo, introduced to Brazil in the late nineteenth century, now exceed 800,000 head, mostly in the lower Amazon (Alvim 1990; NRC 1981, 2). Only a small fraction of the estimated 11 million ha of flood-plain pasture available in the Amazon is effectively utilized by livestock, about the area cleared for artificial pastures in upland areas. Water buffalo take an average of three years to reach 350 kg, whereas cattle take four years to reach the same weight in Amazonia. Water buffalo can feed under flooded conditions, whereas cattle have to be transferred to upland pasture or crowded into floating corrals during the flood stage. How greater numbers of cattle can be accommodated on flood plains without further disruption of crop production remains an unsolved question.


As the forest is peeled further and further back from pioneer roads, pastures, second growth, and perennial crops eventually dominate the landscape in cleared areas. Several years are typically required to establish perennial crops, but they can provide a reliable source of food and income. Woody crops have the additional benefit of helping to protect the soil and provide more diverse agro-ecosystems for flora and fauna than annual cropping.

The Bragantina zone exemplifies the trend towards agro-forestry in upland areas. During the colonial period, Portuguese entrepreneurs established cacao and sugarcane plantations in the Bragantina zone most of which fell into disuse by the nineteenth century. In 1908, a new railroad between Belém and Bragança carried a large influx of settlers from the drought-plagued north-east who set up homesteads near the new transportation link. The government of Pará. also encouraged foreigners to settle in the Bragantina zone and by 1902 had brought in 1,726 Europeans, mainly from Spain, Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, and Switzerland. At that time, over 8,000 northeasterners had also settled on Bragantina's infertile oxisols and entisols. Cropping with maize, manioc, and sugar cane quickly exhausted the naturally infertile sandy clays of Tertiary and Quaternary age. By the 1950s, many of the farms in the vicinity of the 293 km railroad had failed owing to short fallow periods and increasingly exhausted soils.

In the 1950s, Japanese immigrants set up intensively managed black pepper plantations in parts of the Bragantina zone. By the early 1960s, however, Fusarium wilt severely attacked these highly productive pepper plantations. Instead of abandoning their farms, Japanese-Brazilians and many locals switched to other cash crops, particularly perennials. In the 1980s, numerous small- and medium-scale farmers experimented successfully with a medley of perennial crops, such as Sunrise Solo papaya (Carica papaya), passion fruit (Passiflora edulis), and vitamin C-rich Barbados cherry (Malpighia glabra), which are less demanding of the soil and provide a valuable cash income. Also, some medium-scale plantations of oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), coconut (Cocos nucifera), and rubber have been established in the Bragantina zone.

Sometimes perennial crops are grown in agro-forestry systems or in relay fashion. As black pepper plantations succumb to Fusarium fungal attacks after about seven or eight years, for example, other perennials, such as oil palm or passion fruit, are interplanted so that they can take advantage of residual fertilizer. Some farmers are experimenting with new perennial species, such as Brazil nut, and expanding production of hitherto minor crops, particularly cupuaçu (Theabroma grandiflorum), a relative of cacao that produces a much-appreciated pulp used to make juice, ice cream, cakes, and puddings. Recently, several farmers have established small plantations of mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana), one of the premier fruits of South-East Asia. Mangosteen fruits were selling for US$1 each in Belém in April 1991, and growers are investigating the feasibility of air-freighting the fruit to Japan.

One of the reasons that farmers are having success with cash-cropping in the Bragantina zone is that the region is served by a relatively good network of all-weather roads. But other areas are benefiting from agro-forestry with cash and food crops. In Tom-Au, for example, farmers are interplanting native and exotic fruit and nut trees to supply regional and international markets. Even along the Transamazon, which is often impassable for short periods during the rainy season, some farmers are prospering with a mix of perennial crops. Cacao (Theobroma cacao), black pepper, and robusta coffee (Coffea canephora) are among the more important sources of cash income for farmers along the Transamazon. Given unpredictable swings in the world price of cacao and coffee, farmers are learning to diversify their operations by including some annual food crops and pasture.

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