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New Amazonians

By Roger Hamilton

New ideas sometimes come from unlikely places. The airplane was developed in a garage in a small city in Ohio. The science of genetics was born at a monastery in Moravia.

Today, in a remote corner of the Amazon, a group of pragmatic visionaries believe they are answering a question that has bedeviled scientists and conservationists for many years: how to protect the Amazon rain forest while creating a better life for local people.

They are idealists, but not ideologues. In many cases, their ideas challenge traditional environmental assumptions. They don’t recoil at the image of a man in the rain forest wielding a chain saw. They don’t believe that roads automatically lead to environmental destruction. They don’t necessarily see cattle as the bête noire of forest conservation. For them, industrial parks can be a way to add value to natural ecosystems and their productions.

These new Amazonians are government officials, community leaders and private entrepreneurs in Brazil’s western state of Acre. They are committed to saving the rain forest and its people. But they also know the gritty reality of the place where they live. Many of them are veterans of the social and environmental turmoil that claimed the life of Chico Mendes. They have seen the dramatic changes the Amazon has undergone, and know that more change is on the way: new infrastructure, new crop technologies and growing overseas appetites for raw materials that the Amazon can produce.

It’s a tough reality, and these people are trying to meet it head on. Their aim, described in this issue of IDBAmérica, is to prove that they can build a solid local economy based on resources harvested from the intact natural forest. This falls short of the total protection many rain forest advocates demand. But then, the Amazon was never a nature preserve. And does anyone have a better idea?

Innovation and desperation. Latin America is rich in tough environmental realities. For ecosystems and the people who depend on them, these realities can have tragic outcomes. But sometimes, problems that would appear insurmountable in developed countries have inspired people in Latin American to find new approaches for protecting their natural environment. In nearly all cases, these innovations address the perennial question of how to reconcile the needs of local people with nature's capacity to meet them.

So in the Galápagos, after centuries of depredation, former antagonists are forging a plan to conserve marine resources. In Guatemala, a government agency and NGOs are helping local farmers to boost their production in order to reduce their incentive to invade national parks. In Nicaragua, a government agency has contracted local NGOs to work with farmers to plant trees and conserve soil. On Brazil’s Northeast coast, a marine biologist is helping local officials to protect the coral reefs. In Honduras, a mayor proudly shows off his mountaintop “ecological park” where his constituents learn the value of the natural forest as a provider of ecosystem services.

In each case, the objective is to help local people form a partnership with their natural environment. In most cases, persuasion is the only course available. Even when laws exist to protect the environment, governments lack the money and institutions to enforce them. In developed countries, such as the United States, well-funded public agencies are charged with protecting natural areas, although few are aware that these same areas were originally created by forcibly removing local people, creating a legacy of bitterness and resentment.

Latin America is attempting to create a relationship between man and nature that includes the history, heritage and views of local people. It has not been easy, but the experience gained so far constitutes the region’s major contribution to the practice of natural resource management and biodiversity conservation.

This innovative approach to conservation requires one caveat. In most cases, the process of dialogue has been led by dedicated individuals and groups working in the absence of strong public institutions. While admirable, these efforts are by their nature ephemeral. It will take effective government institutions, working closely together with their civil society counterparts, to make the changes permanent.

But there are exceptions, and one of them is Brazil’s state of Acre. There, the government is spearheading the process of change and innovation, working closely with a rich network of civil society and community organizations. They have accomplished a great deal in just a few years. Their example should be studied carefully in other developing countries and beyond.

A note to end on. Alexander von Humboldt, who was right about so many things, would perhaps not be surprised at what is happening in Acre. “There ,” he said, “sooner or later, the civilization of the world will be found.”

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