Economic Development and Conservation in the Amazon
Manaus, Amazonas - Governor Eduardo Braga proudly declares that 98% of his state of Amazonas, the largest in Brazil in terms of area, is protected by law in the form of a mosaic of national parks, state parks, sustainable development reserves, ecological reserves and indigenous reserves. Yet the medical post in the tiny village of Arara, only 50 kilometers up the Negro River from the bustling capital of Manaus, is padlocked and the nurse is away “taking a course.” Needy locals say school and health supplies provided by the state are regularly hoarded by a few well-positioned families in the community.
The state’s economic plan, based upon a huge industrial district filled mostly with Asian electronics firms, is called “zona franca verde” (the green free trade zone).** Yet the minimum wage for the tens of thousands who work there 12 hours a day is still less than US$250 per month. Those enjoying the economic wealth of the state on any given weekend are industry directors who patrol the riverfront with family and friends aboard huge Miami Vice-like speedboats; on the other hand the natural wealth of the state is enjoyed by affluent, and predominantly foreign, eco-tourists on weeklong rainforest tours aboard multilevel houseboats. The masses themselves crowd a dirty stretch of beach known as the “Ponta Negra” (the Black Point) adjacent to (and partitioned off from) the 5 star Tropical Hotel EcoResort. Most locals have come in by public bus from the teeming slums surrounding the city center. Few live in the high-rise apartment complexes or mansions facing the beach and separated by concrete walls, guard houses and a well patrolled 4-lane thoroughfare. Beyond the city itself the river people known as “caboclos” spend their days fishing for dinner from leaky canoes in front of dilapidated and forgotten villages and within sight of the near distant “el dorado” of Manaus.
The Amazon of today is a place of stark contrasts and dark competition. And nowhere is this more evident than in Manaus city, the heart of Amazônia, both spiritually and economically. The former hub of the region’s 19th century rubber empire is today growing at a frenetic pace, prompting concern from less affluent citizens and environmentalists alike. The surrounding rivers and rainforest - the justifiably amazing flora and fauna - and the local indigenous people all face imposing threats.
Town & Country
It sounds so idyllic. It has a nice ring to it. But is such harmony possible, or even desirable, in as fragile an ecosystem as the Amazon? Today there seems no turning back. The urban reality of an industrialized metropolis of two million or more people is a specter here to stay. But if the challenge of reconciling all this seems daunting, consider for a moment not the cost of failure but the possibility of success. If Manaus city truly was able to reinvent itself as a “green” city and Amazonas state was truly able to balance the need for development and conservation, what a model this would be not only for the rest of the country but for the rest of the world, particularly for other developing nations with similar demands and concerns (such as India, China and Russia for example). Such success would truly be a light at the end of the tunnel of current environmental crisis on our planet.
As an outsider- an American married to a local girl and running a 15-year old ecotour company - as well as an inside r- director of incoming tourism for the state association of travel agents and ecotourism consultant to an assortment of NGOs and government institutions - my view of the Amazon today is unique. My work straddles the bar between an unscrupulous desire for economic development and an absolute need for environmental respect and social responsibility.
In Manaus city I am promoting the idea an eco city center, a green zone separate from the rest of the sprawling municipality, based around an eclectic array of fin-de-siecle buildings and parks, and featuring bicycle and walking trails, antique “electric” streetcars and, of course, tourist attractions, restaurants and shops. On the lower Negro River above Manaus I am helping to develop a new form of educational tourism based upon eco-projects owned and operated by the local communities found there.
The historical city center of Manaus is a cross-sectioned rectangle bordered lengthwise by the Amazonas Theatre (opera house) to the north and the Municipal Market to the south, and crosswise by the Rio Negro Palace to the west and Rio Branco Palace to the east. It is being restored and revitalized bit by bit but it is slow going and the work needs to be conducted with greater urgency. This area is filled with numerous fine buildings dating principally from the “rubber boom” period of the late 19th century; there are also plenty of parks, squares and other public areas. Despite the now chaotic transit situation the old center is still a walker’s city. The ever-increasing flow of traffic in and out of the center and the pollution (noise & waste) that is generated by ever more people using the area are huge new challenges. And while the city works to correct recognized problems new ones are created.
Upriver the forest is being cut for wood to support the phenomenal number of construction projects in the city. Sand and sandstone are also collected from the Negro River. Whatever can be stripped from the forest or river is brought downstream in small barges during the night to avoid the sparse police patrols. Despite government claims to the contrary access to health (family planning) and education (sexual education too) is limited in the interior. Despite continual migration towards the city population growth in the interior seems as high as ever. Most river families still have at least five children; sadly few of these children get beyond the local primary school. There are more people than ever fishing, more people than ever cutting down swaths of forest for their small farm plots, and more people than ever plying up and down this once quiet waterway in boats of so many shapes and sizes. Commercial fishing is increasing on a river not known for its bounty of fish. Lumbering is increasing in forests not known to be particularly rich in precious woods.
The bottom line is that as the population has naturally increased in the Amazon interior - even on traditionally less populated and nutrient poor river systems as the Negro – and the pressures upon the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems have increased. There is little employment on the Negro River, little trade and no factories; still everyone wants a speedboat and an outboard, a color TV and a cell phone. When possible kids are sent to Manaus to attend secondary school or work as domestics. The lives of many river people now revolve entirely around the materialistic aura of the city whether they want it to or not.
In the interior resolving old problems generate new ones as well. A federal project called ARPA, meant to create and coordinate a vast mosaic of conservation units around the country, has necessitated a demand for a more educational form of tourism in Brazil while at the same time making it more difficult for local populations to remain as simple and independent as they once were. Legal measures such as land reform and government handouts are meant to preserve the environment and educate the people of the interior. But the process is easily misunderstood and often painful as traditional peoples are encouraged to change their ways and work for a future they claim to desire yet don’t entirely comprehend.
Sustainable development is a term bantered about a lot these days in places like Amazônia. It sounds good on paper and looks even better on television. But sometimes the distance between environmental planning and economic reality is just too far to reach. The idea of living sustainably - being allowed to remain on your traditional lands and fish, hunt and farm as your father did and his father before him did - sounds right to an enlightened North American or European. But ask a caboclo river-person if that’s what he really wants out of life. The answer is, surprisingly, a definite No in many cases. Now ask him if he’d like to work for a new ecolodge and make some money so he can buy everything he sees everyone else in the world has on TV and he’ll probably, sadly, say Yes. He might even add without being prompted that he’s going to get those things whether he works for a lodge or not. How, you ask? He spreads his arms and says, I’ll take what I can from the forest and the river and sell it in Manaus, that’s how.
As in the cosmos itself, a whirl of competing forces fights for control over the Amazon. To Brazilians it is their Wild West and they have plans to develop and profit from all its resources, short term and long term. It would be a mistake to imagine, let alone expect, Brazil to simply declare the region one large biodiversity park or similar. Internationally-funded and nationally-administered conservation projects have preserved a vast portion of Amazônia. Rainforest “corridor” projects, meant to link and protect entire fluvial and forest ecosystems, have been projected over areas the size of European countries. Yet the threats are still there for all to see.
The Negro River is the second largest tributary of the Amazon River, which it meets at Manaus. It is the 6th largest river in the world and the largest blackwater river in the world. Its nutrient poor waters are the color of coca-cola and begin in the western foothills of the Andes mountains in Colombia and Ecuador and in the barren table-top plateaus of the northern Guiana Shield in Venezuela and British Guyana. Oil exploration in the Andes provokes concern about water pollution, agricultural settlement and terrorism. The constant threat of earthquake and volcanic activity in the area is also an issue. Ecuador’s Napo and Putumayo rivers connect with Brazil’s Ica and Negro rivers. All is connected.
North of Manaus, the state of Roraima is the most deforested state in Brazil. Each year settlers burn vast areas of savannah and rainforest for cattle pasture. Rice and soy plantations have overwhelmed whatever wetlands are left. Besides the obvious loss in terms of rainforest diversity huge amounts of topsoil is washed away down the Branco River and into the Negro River in the form of sediment which affects the formation of fluvial archipelagos such as the Anavilhanas above Manaus. The composition and health of the river in general is under threat. Gold, bauxite and tin mining also threaten the rivers and forests of the Negro River Basin.
In the Amazon - as in other threatened regions around the world - it is no longer appropriate to analyze the problems in terms of this city or that river, or this mountain range or that amphibian species. Just look at a map of any continent - but especially South America - and marvel at the web-like pattern the area’s rivers form. In Amazônia blackwater, bluewater and whitewater rivers - depending on where and how they were formed - spread out like a naked tree in autumn. Like the evolutionary tree of life itself the Amazon is made up of the gathering and interconnectedness of hundreds if not thousands of rivers. What happens in one place affects what happens in another especially if it is downriver. The farther upriver an ecological incident (or accident) the more parts of the whole it might affect on its way downriver. And as Brazil and the Amazon River itself are the most downriver of all they have the most to gain, and the most to lose, in this ever developing equation.
No longer do we have the luxury of taking care of just our own backyards - what was colonial isolationism - and not having to worry about what’s happening next door. Now what’s happening upriver of us - often in another country or even two or three - is of paramount importance to us. We must all be our brother’s keepers. But neither does this mean that we have a right to necessarily intervene in what’s going on next door. The so-called Internationalization of the Amazon does not mean that the region belongs to the world, or that the world - be it in the form of the forever singled-out Americans or squeaky-clean European Union - has the right to step in and direct development. Each sovereign state will have its development plan and do as it sees fit. However it does make perfect sense that the world community take pride in such phenomena as the Amazon (or the Sahara, the Antarctic, etc.) and surely it is morally correct that all strive to work together to overcome obstacles and promote sustainable development and responsible stewardship in the region.
Due to its obvious geographic situation Brazil should lead the way in whatever conservation and development the Amazon will undergo. And what an opportunity and challenge this is for such a complex and still-young nation. Hopefully Brazil will not go it alone though. Firstly they should count on the input and cooperation of the nine other nations which also contain portions of the Amazon. Then they should be able to count on the assistance and support of the world community at large beginning with Mercosul, the United Nations and the Organization of American States but also the European Union, NATO and other pan-regional organizations.
Change comes slow. And it often only comes about due to the collected efforts of large numbers of individuals and organizations working together towards a common goal. The stated goal in the Brazilian Amazon today is to responsibly develop the region, preserve biodiversity and the natural wonders that exist there, and to improve the well-being of her inhabitants. Yet words on paper, like political speeches and even public protests, amount to nothing if there is not a willingness amongst the people most affected by an issue to get involved, educate themselves, and demand positive action.
In Manaus city there seems little consensus amongst the people themselves to “save the rainforest.” Most are more concerned with putting food on the table, or making money to buy some new toy. But saving the Amazon IS a very real concern amongst hundreds of academics, politicians and environmentalists living and working in the region (Brazilians and foreigners alike). And insofar as change is possible it IS of some consolation that the issue is being debated and fought over and that action is taking place. What remains to be seen however is whether or not Brazil can reconcile its desire for first world material wealth at all costs with the urgent reality that our planet’s very health is at stake now and that the preservation and sustainable development of the Amazon is at the center of this crisis.
** In early 2008 construction began on a major bridge across the Negro River which, it is claimed, will relieve urban sprawl in metropolitan Manaus and create a new industrial zone in the municipality of Iranduba. Part of the new industrial district (PIM2) will be devoted to the metallurgy sector in a project intended to stimulate heavy industry (iron, tin, etc.) and bring to an end the century old craft industry of wooden boat-building in the region.
Check out Mark’s tour company Swallows and Amazons.