What use is a foreigner in the Amazon?

By David Swallow • 2 Jun 2009 • Nessun commento

dsc00510I’m sitting on a beach in a fork of the Teles Pires river feeling somewhat hypocritical. I’ve come on a project to map deforestation rates on ranches in the Amazon but here I am chewing on strips of barbequed tropical beef which, I’ve learned, is the overwhelming cause of rainforest clearance in this part of Brazil. The vegetation bordering the river - a tributary of the Amazon - is the exuberant, impenetrable mass of tropical forest. I’ve seen white-whiskered spider monkeys, a harpy eagle, troupes of capivaras, and a video of a two-day battle between a caiman and an anaconda. Nobody knew for sure which won, but a dead caiman washed up on shore the following day. Red macaws often pass silently overhead, always in pairs. 

This is the Southern edge of the Amazon rainforest, the largest and single most valuable forest ecosystem remaining to mankind today. It stores a volume of carbon equal to fifteen years of net anthropogenic emissions at current rates, it is the richest bank of biodiversity on the planet, and it is estimated to be cycling up to one fifth of the world’s water at any time. The cost of manufacturing any of those ecosystem services would be staggering, so why is the Amazon disappearing at faster rates than any other forest on earth and why are the people living around it so poor?

Alta Floresta, the town where my NGO is based, is an end-of-the-road place built around two avenues not more than three miles long. Many smallholding farmers here survive with zero financial income, living in bare wooden constructions with only a few prayers on the walls, coffee, and home-grown crops to keep them going. In the heat and dust of typical afternoons, Alta Floresta feels empty and slow. However, during the town’s big event - the agricultural fair - it is mobbed by people in their finest hats, string ties, boots, and babies on their shoulders, who have come to watch the rodeo. The sprawling savannah, cleared pastureland and jungle all around the town - which seems so empty - is actually teeming with these small family farmers who only venture into town on special occasions.

A minority of proprietors are both powerful and wealthy: their ranches sprawl over such enormous areas that over 80% of the land is in the hands of just 20% of the people. In Alta Floresta for example, the mayor is also  the largest landowner. Consequently, during the heated political gatherings which frequently empty the entire town, many politicians deride laws promoting eco-friendly practices as governmental tools of oppression. These large ranchers, and the soy producers in other states, have been singled out as the principal agents of Amazon deforestation. However, past political drives aiming to colonize the Amazon ahead of the perceived foreign invasion assigned great prestige to land settlers, so the pioneers are by no means to blame.

Forest-conservation NGOs, governmental bodies, environmental police and ecotourism businesses are abundant all around the Amazon but they are often at odds with locals. Anybody investing in the rainforest does so at a cost - original settlers lose rights to the land which historically has always been at their disposal. Foreign organizations often make this situation worse, such as a French NGO which recently claimed to be investing in sustainable development projects run by my employers -  a Brazilian NGO - but were shown to be lying. Brazilians essentially don’t trust foreigners with their forest and this is at the heart their refusal to take part in carbon-trading proposed by the Kyoto agreements: it would involve foreign control over Amazon lands.dsc06686

Who could blame the usually amazingly friendly Brazilians for the occasional bit of scepticism towards foreigners? The British ran out of timber for industry and had to start sending in trees from Norway as far back as Roman times. Generations later, their descendants get worried, fly west over the Atlantic wearing their bourgeois recycled pyjamas and start preaching conservation to people who are just trying to make a living. In fact, even as a reeling-drunk rancher urged me to leave Brazil and made unfounded claims about the sexual habits of my mother in the ’80s, in front of my entire dinner table, I felt an unexpected amount of sympathy.

With recent international policy - known as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) measures -international economic arrangements will change. Amazon farmers may soon receive international subsidies for the environmental services they provide. This is also good news for many developing countries such as Costa Rica, Papua-New Guinea, Indonesia, and central African nations, because their common predicament is their economic poverty in stark contrast with their ecological wealth. There is hope, then, that forest conservationists may cease to be regarded as a fly in the economic ointment, and come to represent an actually interesting business prospect. Try telling that to the soused rancher at my dinner table, though.

David Swallow

David Swallow David was born to English parents in Brussels in 1983. Growing up in Luxembourg he discovered the joys of being European and rootless. Studying Anthropology & Linguistics in Edinburgh and then Ecology, Evolution & Conservation at Imperial London, he was lucky to have continued adventures in Romance languages and rainforest in Brazil in 2008. His other interests include music – from Dizzee Rascal to Schubert to Baden Powell to Nina Simone; organic food; snowboarding; cycling and literature. He currently lives in London and studies journalism at the LSJ.
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