The key claim made for
sustainable development is that it can simultaneously solve two problems:
meet the economic and social needs of the poor in Southern countries like
Brazil, whilst preserving the environment. Sustainable development treats
natural capital as a renewable resource for present and future
For the Amazon it is claimed that the working methods of poor peasants
farmers, rubber tappers and Indians are an optimum form of sustainable
development. It is argued that these groups have an inherent understanding
of the need to protect and sustainably use the forests resources
because they are dependent upon them for their survival and development.
Supporters of sustainable development concede that these groups are not
natural eco-warriors, that they do not live in harmony with
the forest and that many of their techniques are both inefficient and
do damage the environment. Yet they argue that these forest peoples are
the best defenders of the forest and that their removal or migration will
lead to the destruction of the forests natural capital. They also
insist that with the application of technologies which are appropriate
to the Amazon environment, the destructive and inefficient techniques
practised by forest peoples can be made more sustainable. None of this
is true. Sustainable development does not meet the economic or social
needs of the poor in the Amazon or any part of the South. The reason for
this is that environmental preservation is incompatible with the objective
of economic and social development. Poor communities in the Amazon do
not have an inherent understanding of the need to preserve natural resources.
Rather they have worked out the best way to survive with limited resources
at their disposal in an unforgiving environment. Finally, sustainable
or appropriate technologies will not free these people from poverty and
underdevelopment, nor do they offer a rational basis for the development
of the Amazon as a whole.
examples of sustainable development will illustrate these facts: sustainable
agroforestry and extractivism. These sustainable initiatives involve the
cultivation and harvesting of non-traditional forest products, (NTFPs),
such as spices, nuts, fruits and medicinal plants, selective and sustainable
tree cultivation and logging, fish nurseries and rubber extraction or
tapping. In some cases these activities are encouraged, combined with
limited cattle rearing and staple crop production. Western NGOs and governmental
aid institutions, such as the British Department for International Development,
(DfID), fund such initiatives. A core component of the G7 Pilot Programme,
is technical and financial support for sustainable agroforestry and extractivism.
agree that these methods cannot be used across the whole of the Amazon
and that they will not solve every problem faced by poor communities.
They do insist that they are capable of improving the lot of many groups
and that they are a more progressive form of development than large industrial
projects, large-scale cattle ranching and logging.
This is not the case. The problems faced by poor communities in the Amazon
are caused by economic and political factors, not environmental ones.
Their relative lack of economic and political power forced them to seek
an existence in the Amazon in the first place and keeps them trapped there
to this day. Yet, environmentalists perceive these social obstacles as
environmental ones. This is the basis of sustainable development - the
fusion or confusion of social and environmental problems. Through the
application of sustainable development, environmentalists attempt to solve
social problems with methods for solving environmental problems. This
represents social problems as environmental ones. The consequence is that
they impose solutions for preserving the environment which restrain the
social development of poor people in the Amazon. Ultimately this perpetuates
the poverty of Amazon peoples and contributes to the underdevelopment
In the Amazon state of Pará, sustainable agroforestry initiatives
reveal how the environmental imperative of sustainable development undermines
farmers attempts to economically develop. They show how the real
social problems faced by farmers are deprioritised by the application
of the environmentalists sustainability agenda.
this state as in many others in the Brazilian Amazon the present peasant
farmer population is the result of waves of migration from over the past
30 years. As Brazilian agriculture was modernised from the 1960s on, small
farmers and peasant labourers lost their land and jobs. These workers
and peasants fleeing the drought-ridden north-east of Brazil, joined the
Brazilian Governments Amazon colonisation schemes.
faced years of violent conflict as heavily subsidised cattle ranchers,
logging companies, large development schemes and land speculators, fought
them for possession of land and resources. Many were given plots of land
by the Government and others simply cut an area of forest for themselves.
On this land they have striven to eke out an existence in often brutal
predominant agricultural method used by these farmers is the slash and
burn technique to clear the forest for the cultivation of staple crops
such as cassava and rice. They also rear small quantities of cattle. This
is the most profitable activity for the farmers. Slash and burn is a medieval
and primitive farming technique. It was learnt from caboclos (traditional
forest peasants and river people) or Indians who had learnt to survive
in the harsh environment for many years. It is labour intensive and produces
little income. As a consequence many farmers are forced to work on large
farms, sell parts of their land and work in the informal sector in towns.
In effect they are trapped in a cycle of back-breaking work and poverty.
The majority are too poor to leave the forest permanently and they must
continue this method of farming in order to just survive.
isolate the slash and burn technique as the key problem faced by these
farmers. Not because it is primitive and produces little income but because
of its environmental impact. They highlight the fact that Amazon soils
are very nutrient poor. Most of the nutrients are held within the forest
biomass (plants and trees). After burning and cutting these nutrients
enter the soil and give good initial harvests. Soon the soils become poor
again as the crops rapidly absorb most of the nutrients. Weeds begin to
dominate the land and the farmers have to cut and burn more forest.
environmentalists priority is to find ways to prevent this increase
in deforestation. In Pará they are using sustainable agroforestry
involving the cultivation of NTFPs. Sustainable agroforestry initiatives
in Pará include: the Agricultural and Environmental Centre of Tocantins
which is funded by the European Union, Christian Aid and the British Government;
the Agro-ecological Programme of the TransAmazon highway, PAET; and a
joint project of an independent Amazon environmental research institute
and the Woods Hole Research Center of Massachusetts, US.
problems encountered by these projects exposes their underlying rationale
of environmental preservation and their consequent inability to solve
the poverty experienced by the farmers involved in them.
First, it is argued that they will increase the income of poor farmers.
In reality the cultivation of NTFPs is designed to increase incomes primarily
as a means of preventing farmers either from cutting more forest or from
migrating and so leaving the forest to cattle ranchers who cut large areas
NTFPs may produce greater wealth but they take many years to grow and
farmers cannot afford the time and investment when they face the immediate
task of survival. Also there is no significant or reliable market for
NTFPs and this adds to the risk for poor farmers. As a consequence the
main activity in these areas by small farmers remains cattle rearing,
staple crop production and logging which generate higher earnings.
Third, some of these projects recognise the long term nature of NTFP cultivation
and are developing ways of making staple crop cultivation and cattle rearing
more productive. Yet, this still has the underlying motive of preventing
whether long term NTFP cultivation or short-term traditional crop and
cattle production, both sustainable development driven initiatives demand
the continued use of low-tech, labour intensive techniques. This perpetuates
the brutal and impoverished living and working conditions of these farmers.
by focusing on ways which preserve the forest, methods which could relieve
the burden of such primitive techniques and hugely increase farmers
incomes are excluded. These might include chemical fertilisers to enrich
the nutrient poor soil, chemical pesticides, mechanised farming and the
creation of large-scale plantations or farming systems.
Extractivism and extractive resources
example of the extractivism and extractive reserves also illustrates how
environmentalists efforts to apply sustainable development to the Amazon
limits the economic opportunities of poor Amazon peoples.
Rubber tappers are some of the poorest peoples of the Brazilian Amazon
region. They were left there after the collapse in the rubber boom in
1910 and after several failed attempts since to make Brazils rubber
industry viable. Since the 1970s the rubber tappers have fought bloody
conflicts with cattle ranchers and land speculators.
a consequence they organised themselves into trade unions to combat this
threat to their land and livelihoods. In 1985 they set up the National
Council of Rubber Tappers to defend their interests. Soon after they created
the concept of extractive reserves. These reserves were a central aim
of the rubber tappers social struggle to achieve a form of agrarian
reform in the forest. They were perceived as a means of protection from
the encroaching cattle ranchers and land speculators.
an extractive reserve only extractive activities are permitted, such as
rubber tapping, Brazil nut collection and sustainable agroforestry techniques.
The processing of these products is also permitted. These activities,
with the exception of processing, are the traditional activities of rubber
tappers since they were freed from their slave-like bondage to their old
rubber bosses from the 1920s onwards.
has been developed as a means of making a living with only limited resources
and in isolated conditions. Like slash and burn farming methods it too
was learnt from caboclos and Indians. It is back-breaking and tedious
work with little financial reward. For the majority of rubber tappers
it is their only form of subsistence. The rubber tappers diet is
poor and communicable diseases are rampant. Again, like slash and burn
agriculture it is a primitive method of survival. As a consequence, rubber
tappers use other methods of subsistence such as logging, cattle rearing,
gold mining, slash and burn clearance and staple crop cultivation.
By the 1990s extractivism and extractive reserves were being celebrated
as an optimum form of sustainable development. In the late 1980s environmentalists
adopted extractive reserves as a means of preserving the rainforest while
allowing forest peoples to enjoy a limited form of economic development.
During this period there were influential Western environmental campaigns
over the levels of deforestation in the Amazon. Rubber tappers and Indians
were brought to Western capitals to campaign against road and dam projects.
The World Bank was lobbied over its involvement in such projects.
this maelstrom of green campaigning and hysteria the rubber tappers became
a cause célèbre for Western environmentalists. It was at
this moment that the extractive reserve became a key element of the Western
environmentalists campaigns to preserve the rainforest. By the end of
1992, nine federal extractive reserves, under the supervision of the Brazilian
Institute for the Environment and Renewable Resources had been set up.
They cover an area of over two million hectares and have a population
of approximately 29,000 inhabitants.
substantial quantity of Western NGOs and institutions have given support
to extractive reserves: the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation,
the Canadian International Development Agency, the Environmental Defense
Fund, The Gaia Foundation, Cultural Survival and Health Unlimited. In
1996 the Assistance Programme for the Development of Extractivism was
set up by the Brazilian Government to supply credit.
largest amount of funds for extractive reserves has come from the G7 Pilot
programme. US$9 million of funds have been allocated for the four largest
reserves in the Amazon. Huge amounts have also been spent on extractive
produce processing initiatives such as the Agro-Extractive Co-operative
of Xapuri (CAEX) in the Amazon state of Acre.
Agro-Extractive Co-operative of Xapuri was set up to serve the Chico Mendes
Extractive Reserve. Part of the CAEX initiative was the building of a
Brazil nut processing factory. By 1993 this CAEX initiative had received
over US$1.6 million in overseas grants from donors such as the World Wildlife
Fund and Cultural Survival and the Inter-American Foundation.
with such support and subsidies extractivism, extractive reserves and
related processing remain economically unviable.
extractivism is supported by environmentalists because it does not involve
techniques which lead to deforestation. They hope that the security provided
the rubber tappers by the legal recognition of their land rights will
discourage them from engaging in more destructive exploitation of the
forest for short-term gain as they have done so in the past. Second, extractivism
is a back-breaking, labour intensive method of subsistence which does
not give rubber tappers either the time or income to have a decent standard
of living and the opportunities we take for granted. Each dollar of the
millions spent on sustaining extractivism perpetuates this state of under-development.
processing has also proved to be economically unviable because of extractivisms
dependence on high inputs of labour. In the experience of the Agro-Extractive
Co-operative of Xapuri, the labour force was predominantly female because
men had to do the more physically testing labour on the settlements. Yet,
there was competition for the time of the female labour due to the labour
intensive nature of rubber tapper subsistence methods, such as extractivism.
a result, productivity in the processing plant dropped and the Agro-Extractive
Co-operative of Xapuri lost valuable contracts. This problem was compounded
by inefficient technology. As a solution, the plant was decentralised
and child labour and piece-work were introduced to increase productivity
and lower wage and social security bills. This failed to solve the problem
of low productivity.
rubber tappers have been cultivating NTFPs for consumption purposes for
a great deal longer than peasant farmers. Yet, they face the same problem
as these farmers in the absence of a reliable market for their NTFP produce.
This has led rubber tappers to increase their use of more destructive
yet higher income generating methods like cattle rearing and logging.
by focusing on sustainable extractivism environmentalists are precluding
research and development of other more lucrative activities, such as large-scale
agriculture. In Acre, the home of many sustainable extractive initiatives,
the soils are uncharacteristically rich in nutrients for the Amazon region
and therefore good for crop cultivation.
reaction by environmentalists when rubber tappers threaten
to use such environmentally unsustainable methods exposes their real priority
–preserving the environment not meeting human needs. In a southern
rubber tapping area of Acre, Acrelândia, rubber tappers have been
involved in a G7 Pilot programme initiative to sustainably log the forest.
It is hoped that this will generate income as so prevent the rubber tappers
engaging in more destructive forms of logging.
has led to alarm and consternation amongst the ranks of environmentalists.
They fear that they will have to prevent these rubber tappers from cutting
beyond their sustainable quotas as they increase their incomes from the
sale of the timber.
extractivism may be a means of preserving the forest but it does not meet
the economic or social needs of its human inhabitants. Rubber tappers
accepted the transformation of extractivism and extractive reserves into
a form of sustainable crusade for pragmatic reasons. They sought to take
advantage of the huge support, political and financial, for their attempts
to defend their livelihoods. Extractive reserves are now policed by environmentalists
from Western NGOs and the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and
Renewable Resources. They resemble a form of sustainable stockade locking
rubber tappers into a low-tech, low-productivity, back-breaking form of
work which presently promises nothing more than mere survival.
environmentalists argue that at least these sustainable development initiatives
are better than the large-scale development projects installed in the
Amazon by the Brazilian Government and large multinational corporations.
argue that large-scale projects such as dams and mines destroy the Amazons
natural resources and environment upon which peasants depend, are implemented
by authoritarian means and do not give work to most of the Amazons
population of poor peasants. They claim that sustainable initiatives can
offer the peasants more opportunities and control over their own development
because they are sustainable, local and small-scale.
is wrong, deceptive and disingenuous of environmentalists to use social
problems as a means of arguing for environmental preservation.
By confusing these issues environmentalists in fact help to keep the poor
in the Amazon and Brazil poor. The two issues must be separated if peasants
and workers in the Amazon and Brazil are to enjoy better lives.
large development projects or mega-projects as they are disparagingly
known, do destroy huge tracts of the forest. It is also true that many
of these mega-projects are inefficient. Yet, the attitude towards development
expressed by their construction is progressive.
The most important factor for the development of the Amazon is man. Man
has transformed the forest. He has manipulated its ecology for tens of
thousands of years to serve his needs. The Amazon itself, as a natural
phenomenon, does not have any development needs. It spontaneously evolves
and is devoid of any plans or opinions. The question therefore is how
can the Amazon best serve mans needs today?
Today, unlike previous periods of mans occupation of the Amazon,
we have the capacity to more fully exploit it to serve our needs. As we
research its potential we have discovered how it can supply huge amounts
of hydroelectric power and minerals and that it is a source of biodiversity
and genetic wealth which could be used for drugs and the manufacture of
food stuffs. One study has shown that the pupunha fruit, from the peach
palm, which is grown on a vast plantation in the Amazon, contains twice
as much starch as corn from Iowa. All that is lacking is the technological
knowledge to produce flour from it. The Amazon also contains approximately
US$5 trillion worth of timber.
development programmes in the Amazon are an attempt to expand and exploit
such discoveries. Sustainable development threatens to stall the massive
benefits that they can provide. This is because it is driven by a precautionary
attitude to development. It is predicated upon a strong and prevailing
belief that there are limits to social development.
In the Amazon this perception of limits assumes the form of natural limits–that
the forest itself is our main resource for development and that we must
therefore preserve it at all costs. This is expressed in the notion of
natural capital which is so often used to describe the forest
ecology. This notion presents the forest as a static natural resource.
A resource which has to be exploited through methods which are in harmony
with its ecology and which allow it to be a renewable resource if it is
to serve the economic needs of its inhabitants. Small-scale and local
sustainable development initiatives, such as agroforestry and extractivism,
therefore promote a precautionary and anti-experimental approach to human
intervention in the Amazon. The consequence is the imposition of a development
strategy which advocates low-tech, small-scale survival in place of real
human development. The only result can be poverty for the majority of
the Amazons inhabitants.
contrast the approach behind the construction of mega-projects is based
upon the assumption that development is a uniquely human or social concept
and that man is the key resource for development.
Environmentalists argue that mega-projects are constructed by and for
the economically and politically powerful. They claim that the benefits
from them are denied to the majority of the Amazons population.
This is a political and economic question and should be treated as such.
The cause of this state of inequality is the market and the most powerful
interests in the market–the rich Western nations. Their economic
and political power ensures that development in the Amazon and Brazil
suits their interests and expresses their ambitions.
the leaders of these nations do not hold out much for development. They
are consumed and preoccupied with the negative affects of human activity
and therefore with limits to social development in the world. For them
the Amazon is a fragile resource that will be inevitably damaged by mans
large-scale intervention. It is a symbol of their own pessimism. Consequently,
they look upon it as something to be conserved rather than a potential
resource to be developed. Sustainable development is an expression of
this preoccupation with the impact of human intervention. They are content,
in pursuing sustainable development, to see millions struggle to merely
survive equipped with their sustainable tools and methods.
The West is imposing this preoccupation on the Amazon and Brazil. This
is the new form of Western intervention in Brazil. As such, it is arrogant
and undemocratic. Brazil faces huge social problems. Millions of its citizens
live below the poverty line and it has a foreign debt of some US$150 billion.
The Amazon is a potential resource for the resolution of such problems.
Any development strategy for the Brazilian Amazon must serve the needs
of Brazilians first and they must have the right and independence to determine
that strategy. Instead, through the promotion of sustainable development,
Western governments and environmentalists are dictating to