Saving God's little Acre of the rainforest

September 1, 1995

Fay Haussman on a project aimed at reconciling man and the environment of the Brazilian rainforest. Marina Silva, the new federal senator for Acre, Brazil's westernmost Amazonian state, recently went on television to say: "We are trying to combine the survival of man with the survival of the forest".

In fact, the fusion of these goals should have been stressed already within the new concept of "sustainable development" projected during the Earth Summit, the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro three years ago.

In Acre, bordering on Peru and Bolivia, the two goals have been combined and are gradually being implemented, through a joint project suggested to the Federal University of Acre in Rio Branco in 1986 by the University of Florida in Gainesville.

The project calls for "research and extension activities to improve the production system of colonists and rubber tappers in Acre". It has, since its pilot programme, amply proven its long-range viability, but without arousing much interest among Brazilians at large.

The death of Chico Mendes in December 1988 briefly focused the world's interest on Acre, its rubber tappers and their heroic leader.

Between 1987 and 1993, ten extractive reserves were officially established in Amazonia, five of them in Acre, on usually ample public lands designated for the specific use of resident rubber tappers and colonists. But various scientists stated that they considered these reserves to be socially and economically unviable.

The University of Florida programme, PESACRE, provides for a small but steadily growing group of Acrean professionals to work together to research all aspects of the survival of small producers in Acre's forests. PESACRE has three chief goals: forest preservation, land tenure issues and socio-economic development.

The project was conceived at the University of Florida, based on its programme for studies in tropical conservation and Amazon research. It was launched at Acre in 1988, when Gainesville sent three of its professors to Rio Branco to give an initial two-week training course in inter-disciplinary research and development methodology to nearly three dozen professionals from diverse institutions in different parts of the state.

In the autumn a group of Acre professors went to Gainesville to discuss the course and help plan its continuation and expansion. The initial project had been financed by the Ford Foundation, and since 1990 yearly grants have been obtained from the US Agency for International Development.

A non-academic programme to help rubber tappers and colonists in Acre with basic schooling and health care had been started in 1983, by the Amazonian Workers Centre, CTA. Under CTA's supervision, community-chosen monitors are trained in Rio Branco and sent back as teachers.

Acre has succeeded in limiting destructive clearings and keeping about 90 per cent of its forest intact. But it is no longer rubber country. Without government support, decreed but never implemented, Acre's superb natural rubber can no longer compete with the subsidizsed rubber from Asian plantations.

Thus most of its 50,000 rubber tappers, half the total of five years ago, must today look for additional, if not totally different, means of survival.

On the other hand, half of Acre's 400,000 inhabitants live in the Rio Branco area and, as CTA's coordinator, Ecio Rodrigues da Silva, said recently: "The people who today live on our extractive reserves prefer surviving in the forest without television to being poor in town with television."

PESACRE's work seems eminently suited to these aims. It has more than 60 Brazilian members who do research, do extension work and give technical assistance, and are being sent to Gainesville for additional training. Sometimes they go to the State University of New York, on Long Island, which has a training programme for young Brazilian professionals working in Amazonia.

Researchers visit the different extractive reserve communities "on invitation," and return at regular intervals over at least 18 months to see how the small colonists survive and discuss their concerns with them. If asked, they give advice on adequate plantings and harvests for different types of Amazonian fruit, of medical plants and, if a processing plant is not out of reach, of Brazil nuts.

Emphasis is on market crops which do not require mechanisation and can be transported through forest roads on mule-back, or, occasionally, trucks. And the regular exchange of ideas with a professional turns the small producer into a partner in shaping his community.

When President Fernando Henrique Cardoso visited Amazonia at the end of March, he spoke of various projects about to be launched there, apparently with international financing already guaranteed. From the human angle, he stressed the demarcation of Indian reserves and the need to guarantee land to the colonists scattered in the forest.

"But we can't only distribute land, we also must help settle them," the president explained. "And for that we need people capable of doing that, money alone won't do it, only capable people can".

That is exactly the type of people whom PESACRE, and also CTA in its own fashion, are trying to prepare in Acre.

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