Conservation without Miracles

A peasant farmers’ project in the western Amazon might hold the key to protecting the forests

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 31st January 1992.

The story of the Amazon is changing faster than ever before. Not only are the old causes of deforestation being rapidly overtaken by new ones; but, perhaps most importantly, the Amazon’s defenders are being forced into a radical reassessment of the means by which the forests might be saved and the lives of the people there improved.

Many campaigners are beginning to see that there are few opportunities for the Amazon’s colonists to become harvesters of forest products, such as rubber and brazilnuts. The markets for most of the principal wild crops in the Amazon are saturated, and the existing collectors are being undercut by the cultivation of rubber and other products in plantations. While many of the collectors are turning to farming, conservationists are beginning to realize that there is no future in trying to persuade the Amazon’s farmers to turn to collecting.

Yet solutions are desperately required, if the peasant colonists now rampaging across Amazonia are to find a means of making a living which does not involve the destruction of great swathes of the forest. While agronomists in the North struggle to devise ideas for farming the infertile soils without destroying them, in the middle of one of the government’s disastrous forest settlements the colonists are now presenting their own answers to the crisis in the Amazon.

In the settlement of Ouro Preto d’Oueste, in the western Amazonian state of Rondonia, a peasant trades union is overseeing a project which it claims could reduce the land its members clear each year by ninety per cent. It is encouraging the settlers to turn away from the cultivation of rice and the grazing of cattle, both of which use much land and generate little income, and to start farming vegetables, fruit trees and bees instead. Their project involves no clever techniques, no miracle crops or complex technology, yet it has already served to reduce the labour and increase the income of the people adopting it.

Valmir de Souza, the union member who first experimented with beekeeping, has discovered that he can sell a litre of honey for more than the price of a sack of rice. As each one hundred hectare farm can support as many as sixty hives, the financial productivity of his land has been transformed. The forest, whose flowering trees produce a fragrant honey, can be left uncut. “The beauty of it is,” Valmir told me, pointing to his hives in a forest clearing, “that I don’t even have to pay my workforce.”

In the peasant union’s experimental vegetable garden, Mauro dos Reis Custodia, a reformed rice farmer, has been using a simple irrigation system to grow the onions, tomatoes, lettuces and peppers now fetching a high price in local markets. He has demonstrated that a family of settlers can make more money by cutting and burning half a hectare of forest each year for growing vegetables than by clearing five hectares for rice or cattle farming. He uses coffee husks for fertiliser and rice straw to preserve the moisture in the soil, and irrigates his crops by means of a simple gravitational piping system. With a full family’s labour, he claims, the vegetables could be watered with buckets.

The 4000 members of the Ouro Preto peasant union, many of whom have visited Valmir’s beehives, Mauro’s vegetable garden or a new nursury of fruit tree seedlings, are rapidly abandoning their old, destructive farming techniques and trying out the experimental systems. According to Matilde Oliveira de Araujo, a colonist’s daughter who taught herself to read and write and is now helping to administer the project, the union members complain that the advice they used to receive from government agronomists – many of whom have no understanding of farming in the Amazon – simply impoverished them.

Matilde points out that both the Brazilian government and many foreign conservationists have failed to understand that development must respond to needs rather than ideas. Scientists have tended to devise means of using the land which make sense on paper, but which are useless when applied to the real situation in the Amazon. The union, by contrast, simply identified the needs of its members and looked for the means by which they might best be met. Only when it had built up a picture of what was required did it turn to outsiders for advice. The Canadian Embassy in Brazil gave the members US$25,000 to devise and develop the systems which suited them best.

What the colonists of the Amazon need, Matilde argues, is not the imposition of new ideas, but freedom to choose from a wide range of strategies: presented by both outsiders and other settlers. Once they have made their choices, they need above all to be assured that their efforts to implement them will not be disrupted. One reason for the continued farming of destructive and unprofitable crops like rice is that colonists in the Amazon are often dislodged, either by their desperate economic circumstances or by ranchers forcibly annexing the land to their own estates. While the colonists cannot be sure that it will be they, not the ranchers, who will harvest any long-maturing crops they plant, they will continue to farm for the short term: destructively and unsustainably.

Ouro Preto is one of several communities in the Amazon beginning to overcome the enormous difficulties they face, while helping to conserve the forests in which they live. Their experience suggests that if there is a principle for succesful farming strategies in the Amazon it is that there is no principle. Some are farming cassava, some raising chickens, some are growing perennial crops like coffee or fruit trees. The one characteristic common to all of them is that it is the farmers, not developers or conservationists, who are making the crucial decisions about the course of their lives. Were the people of the Amazon – settlers, long-established peasants or Indians – to be assured of both the ownership of their land and the control of their own development, both agronomists and conservationists might start to become redundant.

George Monbiot is the author of Amazon Watershed: the new environmental investigation, published by Abacus at 6.99