Brazilian Officials Accept Forest Dwellers as Conservation Allies

SANTAREM, Brazil, June 24, 2005 (ENS) - Traditional populations - Indians, descendants of runaway slaves, traditional fishermen, peasants, and communities engaged in extractive activities - are gaining greater official recognition as important allies in the fight to preserve the Amazon forest environment.

This recognition was evident in a debate on environmental management today in Santarém, according to the state-run Agencia Brasil. The debate is taking place on the second day of the National Seminar to Evaluate the Pilot Program for the Protection of Tropical Forests in Brazil.

The Pilot Program was created in 1992 as a result of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and implementation began in 1995.

"When there are traditional inhabitants in conservation units, the protection of nature becomes effective," declared Leonel Teixeira, who represented the Ministry of Environment (MMA) in the discussion on territorial organization and environmental management.

Teixeira was referring to the struggle by the National Council of Latex Gatherers for the creation of the first extractive reserves in the state of Acre.

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The Amazon rainforest near Manaus, Brazil as photographed by the U.S. satellite ICESat (Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite) (Photo courtesy Don Deering, NASA/LBA Project)
Conservationists had been working towards making forest preservation contingent upon the absence of human beings - the idea behind the establishment of the first conservation units, the officials said. But with the victory of the latex gatherers, or rubber tappers, for the establishment of extractive reserves, that idea began to be overturned, seminar participants heard.

This perspective was reinforced by Magaly Medeiros, representative of the Secretariat of Environment of the state of Acre, who said, "It is the resident population that keeps the forest standing."

This recognition represents a shift in perception on the part of national and state governments. Indigenous Amazon inhabitants and other traditional communities have fought for years for recognition of their traditional territories and human rights.

With the law that instituted the National System of Conservation Units in 2000, the units were divided into two categories - integral protection, which does permit permanent residents, and sustainable use, which permits the existence of inhabitants in the area.

Paulo Autiere, representative of the Secretariat of Environment of the state of Pará, told seminar participants that, "when the process of eco-economic macro-zoning began in his state in 1988, only 1.23 percent of the state's 1,247,689 square kilometers was in integral protection conservation units.

"We were hoping to attain 10 percent, but we have only 4.38 percent at present," he said.

"On the other hand, the sustainable use units expanded beyond our expectations," said Autiere, as proof of the growing recognition of the role of local residents in environmental management.

"They represented 10 percent and were supposed to reach 16 percent, but now they form 27 percent of Pará," he said.

"Our main challenge is to adapt government policy to the diversity of cultures and landscapes in the Amazon region," Teixeira observed.

Hanz Krueger, representative of the multilateral agency German Technical Cooperation (GTZ), a funder of the Pilot Program, pointed to deficiencies in socio-economic data as a barrier to be overcome in meeting this challenge.

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The Waiapi tribe inhabits an area on the border of Brazil and the French Guyana. The Waiapi Indians have only 760 people living in the two countries. (Photo courtesy Brett Greider)
"Nowadays there are abundant data for the analysis of physical space, good studies based on satellite images and good technological equipment. But satellites don't reveal people's heads and the dynamics of social processes," he said.

The Pilot Program is coordinated by the MMA's Secretariat of Amazon Coordination. The program, which is an offspring of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, represents a multilateral cooperation initiative to test and develop innovative strategies for the protection and sustainable use of Brazil's tropical forests.

Since its inception, the Pilot Program has invested US$ 400 million on projects in the Amazon and the Atlantic Rain Forest. The funds come from Germany, the European Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, the Netherlands, Japan, France, and Canada and are channeled through a Tropical Forests Fiduciary Fund administered by the World Bank.

Nearly 40 percent of all the tropical rainforest left in the world is in the Brazilian Amazon. But conservation groups say industrial development threatens the Amazon heartland.

Development plans include the creation of industrial waterways to transport natural resources to market and massive gas and hydroelectric development projects to meet Brazil´s energy demands.

Amazon Watch, a conservation group based in the United States, warned June 1 that over 700 kilometers (400 miles) upriver from Manaus, two new pipelines are planned to expand oil and gas production from the Urucu and Jurua gas fields.

"The pipeline route would serve as a conduit for loggers, miners, ranchers,and colonists to spread deforestation into pristine areas, some of which are inhabited by extremely vulnerable isolated indigenous groups including the Apurina, Paumari, Deni and Juma," Amazon Watch said.

Although Brazil has lost more than half of its large tracts of relatively undisturbed old growth forest, the country still has much worth protecting.

A partnership between U.S. and Brazilian nongovernmental organizations is is conducting an assessment of human impact in the forests of the Brazilian Amazon Biome, with results expected later this year.

Global Forest Watch, an initiative of the World Resources Institute based in Washington, DC, in partnership with IMAZON, the Amazon Institute of People and the Environment, is doing the assessment. Principal project supporters include the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, the AbnAmro Bank, and IKEA.

The first of its kind, the project combines a series of existing data layers such as roads, vegetations, urban centers and settlements to identify areas of human settlements and areas under pressure. Preliminary results show that the human impact is greater than previously estimated.