Amazon lands and forests: What for and for whom?

Marc J. Dourojeanni 1


This paper discusses the relationship between Man and the forest, emphasising the conflict between the use of forested land for forest products and services on the one hand and agricultural products on the other. Following an analysis of the efforts to stabilise the agricultural/forest frontier, with special reference to Amazonia, we conclude that the only way to ensure that farming activities do not continue to expand at the expense of the forest is to increase the forest's economic competitiveness. Payment for environmentally-friendly services generated in the forest is one of the best available options for this purpose. In addition to creating pertinent national and international mechanisms, it is essential to ensure that civil society is given the opportunity to participate more effectively in the management of forestry and farming-related matters.


It would not be wrong to say that, on the subject of the forest, the population is divided into three groups: (i) a majority that is indifferent to or unaware of the situation; (ii) a large number who needs or knows the importance of the forest; and (iii) an equally large number who needs to or prefers to destroy the forest in order to carry out other activities. Leaving aside those who are indifferent - usually town-dwellers -, the other two groups form an antagonistic dichotomy which has shaped the face of the earth since the birth of crop and livestock farming. The relationship between these two groups - a relationship in which all those who are indifferent are also involved without knowing it - is due to the way human requirements have evolved. The common feeling is that this conflict should have been resolved through consensus, leaving room for both, given that they are necessary for everyone. Whilst this consensus exists in the developed countries, which is why the agricultural-forest frontiers in North America and Europe have remained more or less stable over the past hundred years, no such agreement has been reached in the tropics The cause of the situation in Latin America is certainly not a lack of legislation, of which there is an abundance. Perhaps what is needed is consensus to support the legitimacy of these laws but, in truth, the problem is much more complex.

In this paper, we shall analyse the consequences for the forest of the above-mentioned conflict. We shall also review, with reference to Amazonia, the lessons learned from efforts to stabilise the agricultural-forest frontier and, finally we shall examine how we can be more successful than in the past in maintaining the production of forest goods and generating environmentally-friendly forest services.

For whom should we maintain the forest?

The human beings who need the forest or who think it is important and who, in principle, would prefer to maintain it, do not in any way form a homogenous group. Generally speaking, they can be divided into three groups: (i) those who depend on the forest for their livelihood, either directly, i.e. the native and traditional inhabitants, or indirectly, i.e. those who rely on the forest industries and on trade in forest products; (ii) those who love nature and who are prepared to pay the price of preserving an asset which, for them, represents special ethical and aesthetic values; and (iii) those who have come to understand that the environmentally-friendly services provided by the forests and other natural or semi-natural ecosystems are of growing importance for future security. This includes, inter alia, those who see new business opportunities in those services. There is no clear division between the three groups.

Only the first of these groups is often involved in activities which damage the forest from which they either eke out a living or accumulate wealth. Most of the people who benefit from the forest look upon it merely as a means of earning a living or of enrichment. For the remainder, especially the indigenous people, the forest which provides their livelihood is also their home.

Contrary to the general belief, the three groups are large. The first is estimated at 1,600 million persons. The second is equally large since it includes the tens of millions of volunteers who help with nature conservation throughout the world and the hundreds of millions who use the forests for recreational purposes, including tourism. The third group is the fastest growing and will probably be the most influential, thanks to well-publicised recent scientific discoveries. The world at large is beginning to see the forest as a contributor to global security. Thanks to innovative economists, environmentally-friendly services are beginning to be accepted as tangible, even marketable, assets. Because of this, this group is also taking on some aspects of the first group in that it considers the forest as something more than a mere provider of forest products and is anxiously waiting for ways to be found to allow it to obtain other benefits.

For whom is the forest mainly an obstacle?

The reason for the continuing reduction of forest cover in Latin America does not lie in the forest. The most common cause is increased crop and livestock activities. Sometimes this is due to economic reasons, but not always, as in the case of extensive livestock farming in Amazonia. The advance of the agricultural frontier in that region has been promoted and subsidised in various ways by the national and regional govenrments since the end of the XIX century. The reasons range from geopolitical to avoiding agricultural reforms in other regions. The result has been the destruction of 12 to 15% of the Amazonian forest, although some less official sources put the loss much higher. The same process has destroyed 40% of the vegetation in Brazil's cerrado (scrub forest). The expansion of crop farming, especially soya, rice, cotton and maize, using available new technologies, such as transgenic varieties, is highly profitable on soils considered infertile three decades ago. The advance of intensive agriculture by powerful entrepreneurs, allocated public funds, in the states of Mato Grosso, Pará, Rondonia and, now, in Amazonia, is striking.

Agriculture is also increasing, albeit in a more dispersed way, among rural and urban poor in other parts of the country. With access made easier by road-building programmes, some of these precariously funded by settlement programmes, millions of rural poor have arrived and continue to arrive at the agricultural-forest frontier. For the new arrivals, the forest represents just two things: an obstacle and fear. It is an obstacle to crops and livestock. It causes fear because it is an unknown. And this is why they destroy it. In recent times, with more information and a growing demand for timber, the obstacle is easily turned to profit, by selling fine woods to pay for their first crop. However, obstacle, fear or profit, all these are working against the forest and against the common interest. And, as these rural poor have no access to technology or funding, most fall into a vicious circle of shifting cultivation.

More and more often, these poor migrants are mistaken for forest people and, doubtless, many are included in the statistics which show that 1,600 million people worldwide depend on the forests. Except that they do not depend on the forests, they depend on their destruction. Furthermore, in the Amazon region of the Andean countries, the forest people are being replaced by Andean farmers in the same way as the forest people in the Brazilian Amazon are being replaced by rural workers from the north east and south. A poverty analysis in Amazonia revealed that former forest people are now living in the peri-urban poverty belts and most of the present-day rural people come from other parts of the country. Seventy precent of the population of the Brazilian Amazon is urban. The proportion of the rural population actually living in the forest is small, mainly indigenous people.

Results of efforts to reconcile opposing demands on forested lands

What steps have been taken in Amazonia to bring the uses of forested lands into line and to create the conditions to ensure that forest destruction is limited to what is fair and necessary? Much has been attempted and can be classified under three strategic groups of measures: (i) measures which seek to control or manage land occupation; (ii) measures which seek to make the forestry sector more competitive vis a vis agriculture,and (iii) measures which seek to reduce farming expansion by increasing productivity. Generally speaking, the second and third group of measures have not been as successful as the first but, even so, there are encouraging signs.

The stragegy of increasing farm productivity in order to reduce the need to expand the area under cultivation failed for two main reasons: it was scuppered by the governments which continued to provide access to new lands, and the technologies for increasing productivity were only accessible to rich farmers. In addition, as was predictable, because the authorities failed to intervene, the increased profits from the rise in productivity led to an increase in crop farming. Only recently has the Acre state government begun to seriously apply this strategy and first results seem good.

The following land management strategies are worthwhile mentioning: (i) ecological and soil mapping, showing the land use potential, (ii) ecological and economic zoning, (iii) the removal of unsound tax incentives, (iv) the establishment of permanent conservation areas on some of the lands, (v) the creation of logging reserves and settlements, (vi) the creation of indigenous protected areas and lands, (vii) the provision of incentives for nature conservation on private lands, (viii) environmental impact assessments for public infrastructure and agricultural ventures, (ix) distribution of federal taxes in proportion to the size of a municipality's protected area and, inter alia, various bans and closed seasons relating to the use of rare species.

Many measures are also aimed at slowing down agriculture's advance on the forest by making forestry activities more profitable. Some of these measures have been around for a long time: (i) forest management, the traditional version and using sustainability criteria and indicators; (ii) the introduction of new species on the market, (iii) waste reduction, (iv) improved marketing channels and processes, (v) community forestry and, inter alia, (vi) reforestation, (vii) various agro-forestry and agro-sylvo-pastoral measures, and (viii) forest production in managed secondary forests. Others are relatively new: (i) development of and payment for environmentally-friendly services, such as carbon fixing, maintaining the water cycle, biodiversity protection and compensation for those who take care of the forests (ii) redistribution in the catchment basin of some water use rights, (iii) forest certification, (iv) natural disaster risk reduction assessments, (v) promotion of ecotourism and tourism in forested areas, and (vi) speculation about the forests future value.

The results have varied, with successes and partial failures. Many of the failures have been due to poor implementation of the idea and not to the idea itself, others are attributable to the idiosyncrasies of the local people and the national community. Among the measures which failed blatantly were efforts, promoted in the Andean countries, whereby land was classified according to the use for which it was best suited. Another was the highly recommended ecological and economic zoning, applied 25 years previously in Rondonia and later disseminated and applied in all the states of the Brazilian Amazon. The shift from a technocratic and authoritarian zoning system to a highly participatory system based on economic tools proved useless. A few years after it was approved by the legislative chambers, territorial management has simply been forgotten, even by those who were supposed to implement it. Another matter poorly dealt with was the removal of inappropriate economic incentives. These have been replaced by more subtle and, sometimes, more advantageous support mechanisms. However, it is sad that professional foresters have to admit that what has been least successful in Amazonia is forest management, even with the support of certification. Such failure can hardly be considered insignificant. Millions of dollars invested in forest studies and inventories for sustainable management were wasted as quickly as it took the migrant farmers to reduce the forests to ashes and smoke. Many of the Amazon's national forests, such as Iparia and Von Humboldt in Peru and Ticoporo in Venezuela, once the focus of large-scale management programmes, have disappeared altogether or have been severely degraded. Equally unsuccessful have been the community forestry projects, which are expensive to run and which, in addition, require highly skilled technical staff with extraordinary human qualities.

Happily, other strategies have produced good results to balance out agricultural expansion. Most important of these is the de facto zoning resulting from the creation of indigenous reserves, protected areas and logging or community reserves and settlements. Although not necessarily well protected or well-managed, these areas have formed an effective protective barrier against the advance of farming by rich and poor alike. Forty two percent of Brazil's Amazon forest is reasonably well-protected in this way, mainly in the indigenous territories, which now cover more than 100 million hectares. Colombia has also decreed a vast area as indigenous.

The law which compels rural landowners to maintain the original forest cover on part of their land - in Brazil, between 20% and 80%, depending on the region - is beginning to bear fruit. After being ignored for decades, this provision is being increasingly complied with thanks to enforcement measures by the Ministry, and to a number of rules which create difficulties for those who fail to obey them. For example, the State of Acre is cross-checking information from the land and environmental authorities with public records, so that farmers who do not register their land cannot cut wood, burn stubble or, even, sell that land. Also, people who purchase land cannot reduce the size of the reserve. Of course, because of this, landowners are calling for changes in the law, but it is hoped that the measure will not be withdrawn under any circumstances. Another useful development is that Brazil is increasingly calling for environmental impact studies for infrastructure in Amazonia and, more recently, for similar studies for large-scale agricultural ventures.

It seems certain that various other strategies could succeed if applied with more coherence and persistence. One of these is reforestation, with native or exotic species, on land already degraded through crop cultivation and virtually abandoned. Another is the mangement of secondary forest vegetation. These strategies give rise to higher tree numbers per unit area which are more profitable than and reduce the pressure on natural forests and, since they are combined with agro-forestry practices, provide more opportunities for human development. Along the same lines are the already-mentioned logging or community reserves and indigenous lands. Brazil prohibits logging on these reserves, but has recently opened up this option as a means of supplementing the meagre incomes from rubber, chestnuts, etc. Tourism and leisure, and controlled hunting and fishing, are other high-potential activities coming into use in the protected areas and forests of Brazil and Peru.

Obviously, however, a balance between those who live from and endeavour to maintain the forest and those who have to cut it down to be able to carry out their activities will only be struck when the forest has become as or more profitable than crop and livestock farming. That day still has not arrived, but the great hope is that it will happen when, in addition to the current uses, new opportunities open up with the introduction of payment or compensation for environmentally-friendly services, especially carbon fixing, and the forest is appreciated for what it is and not only for what it can provide.

The future

Even though they not yet been fully implemented or fully tested, the new opportunities for increasing forests' economic competitiveness provide real hope. The main one is the recognition of the forest's externalities and payment to those who protect and manage it. It is, therefore, essential that international and national mechanisms be set up to administer the global environmental services fairly and effectively. If we add the income from sustainable forest management to that which is supposed to come from proportional payment for environmental services generated, we will certainly achieve our objective which is to see the forest competing on equal terms with agriculture. The rural landowners who comply with Brazilian law and keep part of their land under forest should also receive premiums for the services rendered, without detriment to rural land tax exemptions that they currently enjoy for protected areas.

However, it would be misleading to think that merely showing that sustainable forest management for goods and services can achieve an economic return comparable to other land uses will solve all our current problems. Before we get to that stage we will have to overcome many other obstacles, including the burden of tradition and the know-how amassed through agriculture (technology, equipment, sophisticated genetic material and skilled labour). Another obstacle in the forestry sector is the difficulty in monitoring the disregard for the law and, in addition, corruption which, in Amazonia, is closely related to (connected with/brings with it??) drug trafficking, with the forestry sector used for money laundering.

Social discipline, i.e. the degree of regard for the law, is very low in the forestry sector. It is difficult to demand respect for complex forest laws in the remotest of areas, in countries where the basic rules of harmonious human relations are systematically infringed. An experiment with contracts for forests up to 1,000 hectares in Bolivia and Peru revealed that these contracts are used only to cover timber transport. In many cases the logging took place hundreds of kilometres from the area covered by the contract and there is no forestry service capable of supervising millions of hectares under concession or contract. Each time a logging areas is reduced in order to concentrate the area under surveillance, local political pressure rescinds the concession earlier rather than later. In addition to the lack of regard for the law, there are many different kinds of corruption. For example, it is not uncommon to find hundreds of totally invented, yet approved, management plans copied many times over one from another. It is easy to imagine, with or without certification mechanisms, how easy it is to get round the sophistications of some model sustainable forest management plans.

If they are to be successful, the available options need to be supplemented with other mechanisms to improve the social monitoring of forestry and farming activities in tropical forests. Brazil is the Latin American country that has made the most progress in this area. First, the environmental councils head the country's environmental programme. The national council at federal level, the state councils in every state and more than 600 municipal environmental councils analyse and deal with a wide variety of environmental matters, including those relating to forestry and agriculture. Almost half the members of these councils which complement the legislative power within the executive, represent civil society or non-governmental authorities. This is why the measures decided upon do not always please the government. A recent Brazilian law on protected areas, including national forests, requires that these areas be managed by councils where, once again, civil society and interested parties participate in an informed and effective way. This type of social monitoring is gradually bringing corruption under control, pointing to breaches of and helping to amend the laws, and promoting compliance with them. Many other types of people's participation tailored to agriculture and forestry either exist or are possible. One of these, essential to ensure that sustainable forest management and certification requirements are met, is the establishment of councils in every forest district or canton, in which all the interested parties participate, stating their opinions and criticising, within the legal framework, the programmes and measures put forward by the forest authorities.


The continued expansion of agriculture in regions such as Amazonia has lost its direction and logic. More than half the area deforested for crop and livestock farming has now been abandoned or semi-abandoned and the area effectively worked each year produces only a fraction of what it could produce if it were properly used. Exhaustive logging continues, causing vast amounts of waste. This is shameful squandering of natural and human resources. As we have seen, the expansion of farming produces wealth for very few and brings poverty right to the outermost parts of the country. This is caused by outdated and latent geopolitical considerations, encouraged by private interests, such as the large construction companies.

Even though the forests in Latin America have always been the losers in the struggle to achieve a balance between agriculture and forestry, their future now seems brighter thanks to the growing respect for environmentally-friendly services. This will depend, to a large extent, on two measures being better thought out and implemented: (i) the establishment of a worldwide mechanism designed to allow environmental services to reward forest management and conservation efforts and, (ii) improved social monitoring through the participation of all the interested parties, including the agricultural sector.

Perhaps, the end result will depend on a consensus being reached by the large numbers of people, indifferent to or unaware of the issues, and who, for that reason, are drawn alternately by both sides of the argument. However, before they can come to a reasoned conclusion, they will have to be given much more and better information about what is at stake.

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