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Something new in the forest

By Roger Hamilton

NEAR XAPURI, BRAZIL—Although Francisca Nazaré de Oliveira has lived in the rain forest of western Brazil all her life, she never imagined that someday she would be in the forestry business.

Nor did 100 other families in the São Luís do Remanso extractive reserve. They were descendents of people who for generations had made their living mainly by tapping rubber trees and gathering other natural products, such as Brazil nuts. Hunting and fishing supplemented their income. For them, the rain forest was their supermarket, their pharmacy, the place where they made their living.

It might sound romantic, but it’s not. A rubber tapper lives a meager life in which options are few and hard times are always waiting around the corner. To make ends meet, families would sometimes cut and sell trees illegally or clear forest margins to plant more crops or plant pasture.

Then in 2000, experts from a nongovernmental organization called the Center for Amazonian Workers (CTA after its name in Portuguese) came to São Luís with a novel proposal. The families would cut trees and sell them, but in a way that would have little long-term impact on the forest. The people were interested but skeptical. While they understood the forest, they knew nothing about making inventories of trees, creating maps, designing cutting schedules, calculating income and costs and profits, planning capital investments and navigating regulatory red tape. Moreover, the CTA insisted that they would manage their forests as a community venture, never an easy task.

But despite their reticence, community-based forest management seemed to be São Luís’ destiny. First, its very existence was owed to Chico Mendes, an internationally revered defender of the rights of local people. The reserve was created in 1988, the same year Mendes was killed by powerful interests who wanted to take over the rubber tappers’ forests. By eking more benefits from their reserve while continuing to protect it, they would be honoring their fallen hero.


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A burst of color attracts a forest butterfly.

And then there is the forest itself. The São Luís do Remanso reserve is not only rich biologically, but economically as well. While it boasts the impressive species diversity normal present in tropical rain forests—more than 350 tree species alone—it is particularly rich in valuable mahogany and Spanish cedar. Therefore, a well-designed management plan can reconcile to a certain extent the competing aims of conservation and business by harvesting many different trees—including trees that had not previously been considered marketable—to maintain the existing species composition.

Finally, the reserve is close to good transportation as well as to processing firms in the nearby state capital of Rio Branco.

Some 30 families in São Luís do Remanso are managing their forest parcels using skills they learned from courses given by CTA experts. Of these families, 10 are engaged in managed forestry. The others collect and sell other forest products, such as oil from the copaiba tree and seeds, and produce handicrafts.

The CTA has also helped strengthen the community organization charged with managing the the reserve. Harvests have been carried out in the past three successive years, with both good and not-so-good results. But problems being overcome are also lessons learned. After all, this is a not only a start-up venture, but also something very new. The challenges of managing a tropical rain forest have bedeviled experts for many years, and the additional factor of community management only adds to the complexity.

The CTA’s work in São Luís do Remanso is being financed with the help of a US$750,000 grant from the Inter-American Development Bank through a fund that the IDB manages on behalf of the government of Japan. The CTA is carrying out the program in collaboration with the Technological Foundation of Acre, a quasi-governmental organization (see article “Machines in the garden”, click on the link Special Report on the right).

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Bruzzi (left) and other CTA technicians helped teach Oliveira how to make inventories of the trees in her forest.

Along a forest path. CTA forest engineer Pedro Bruzzi met Oliveira to tour of a section of her forest. Under her arm she carried a rolled up map, stained and discolored from its intimate contact with the tropical environment. Its grid pattern marked the locations of her trees and a key identified each one as to species, size and estimated commercial value. Every so often they stopped before a tree, and discussed its physical characteristics and potential commercial value.

“At first the people were afraid of forest management,” Oliveira recalled. It took nearly two years of meeting with the CTA experts before the people understood what was expected of them and accepted forest management as a part of their future.

In any given year, harvests are carried out in an area of 50 hectares located within a management area. Under the system used in São Luís, the management area is formed by five family owned forest parcels. At present, two groups of families are exploiting 50 hectares each, for a total of 100 hectares. In this way, the total area to be exploited is large enough to allow skidders and trucks to do their job efficiently and with minimum collateral damage to the forest.

Under the management plan, only a given number of families harvest trees each year. These families receive the larger share of the income from the trees’ sale, although all families receive a payment. Such a system would appear designed to create disputes. But Bruzzi says disagreements are minimized by making decisions out in the open. “We bring the numbers to the community, provide orientation, and we all discuss how to divide the profits,” he said. “The community members make the final decisions.”

Over a 20-year harvest cycle all families will receive benefits in accordance with the labor they invested and their level of production. Of course the hope is that the forest will continue to provide biological and economic benefits for many generations to come, in any case, far beyond several harvest cycles. One of the most difficult challenges in forest management is resisting the temptation to seek short-term gains and instead place faith in a future filled with uncertainties.

Bruzzi speaks frankly about the problems of continuity (see link to Q&A interview on the right). Government policies change; donors could lose interest. But there will always be a demand for wood, Bruzzi says. He puts his faith in the eternal self-interest of the marketplace.

Harvests in recent years highlight both the promise and pitfalls of community-based forest management. The 2004 harvest fell far short of expectations because of serious delays in building roads and making clearings for stockpiling logs. As a result, each family received only about US$435. Oliveira used her share to buy a motor and a machine to hull rice.

The forest not exploited the previous year was added to the 2005 quota, making a total of 200 hectares, with harvesting taking place on 150 hectares. The total yield was 1,100 cubic meters of logs, which included high-value hardwoods and lower value “white” woods that would be used for plywood.

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A new forest crop, mahogany seeds are sold to nurseries that grow seedlings that will restore degraded land.

The “white” wood was bought by a local company for a total of US$26,000. This amount, added to funds from the IDB contribution, covered working capital for 2005, leaving a preliminary profit of US$260 per participating family. Another local company will purchase the hardwood for US$87 per cubic meter. After subtracting marketing and processing costs, the hardwood will yield an expected US$2,174 per family. Part of this profit will be used by the association for working capital. The association will use another part to build up social funds for eventual projects in education, health, training and other areas.

Meanwhile, the newly minted entrepreneurs of São Luís do Remanso continue their traditional activities, such as rubber tapping, but also adding new ones, such as selling syrup from medicinal plants at a local products fair and collecting seeds from native species to sell to nurseries that use them to grow seedlings to reforest degraded areas. They have also started making necklaces and bracelets from seeds, dubbed “Amazonian Biojewelry.”

“We don’t earn much, but it’s enough to live on,” said Oliveira.

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