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Look Here, Gringo!


new internationalist
issue 230 - April 1992

Look here, gringo!
Alex Shankland gets a dose of real ecology from
rubber tappers in the heart of the Amazon.

It is the hottest time of the day and the atmosphere is thick with the imminence of the aftemoon rains. No sound comes from the wall of forest on the far side of the sluggish brown expanse of the River Juruá; the heaviness of the air muffles even the shrieks and splashes of children seeking relief from the heat in its tepid waters.

This is the time when everything stops in Amazonia and most people take to their hammocks to await the cooler late-afternoon breezes. But an intense murmur of discussion fills the meeting hall, and the groups huddled in the four comers of the open-sided, tin-roofed shed show no sign of dispersing.

For the first time in the century since their parents and grandparents were brought by the Rubber Barons to this remote corner of Amazonia the seringueiros (rubber tappers) of the Upper Juruá Valley are to have a say in their own destiny. For the first time in its history the Brazilian Govemment is about to invest a group of forest dwellers with the power to run their own affairs.

The Upper Juruá 'Extractive Reserve' was the first such area to be formally estab lished after Chico Mendes, the murdered leader of the rubber tappers, had launched the idea - to combine environmental preservation with land reform as a radical alternative to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and its inhabitants.

Now, however, the euphoria of victory in the campaign to create the Reserve has wom off. There is a danger that the rubber tappers' movement could slide into confusion. It could fail to deliver on its promises and so surrender the initiative to the patrões ('barons') once again. But it is also possible that it will realize a long-elusive dream: self-govemment in the forest for the peoples of the forest.

The tappers, huddled in groups around the hall, are discussing the future shape of their Reserve. They are mostly illiterate, but each group has its literate member who is painstakingly writing down suggestions for their Utilization Plan to be presented to the Brazilian Government. If this plan is approved then a formal concession will be drawn up handing over to the rubber tappers association responsibility for the Reserve's administration. And looking after the forest and its resources is something in which they are well-versed.

'If too much land is cleared then all the dead leaf-litter gets washed away, and I've learned from my own experience that without this stuff called "humus" this land produces nothing,' says one tapper.

'If a palm tree is too tall to climb, don't cut it down - you should leave its fruit for the birds,' says another.

'The rubber tree is alive, and the latex is its blood - just like a human being it can bleed to death, and mistreating it to the point where it dies is a great crime which the Association must punish,' says a third.

From group after group voices rise in affirmation of principles of which any environmentalist would be proud - but they belong to people who would be hard pressed to give you a definition of 'ecology' or 'environmentalism'. The points they are discussing spring from the practical realities of their lives in the rainforest, rather than from any abstract ecological creed.

'It's interesting that these seringueiros have taken three days of discussion to arrive at a set of conclusions which are already on the Brazilian statute books,' remarks Ciomara Bittencourt, a sociologist from IBAMA, the federal environment agency which is legally responsible for the Reserve. Ciomara is there as an observer- and her remark is very much to the point. On paper Brazil has one of the world's best sets of environmental legislation - but it has become one of the world's biggest environmental disaster areas nonetheless.

One of the main reasons for this is that the legislators never bothered to ask the inhabitants of regions such as the Amazon for their opinions. Official policy has veered between erratic persecution of local people who hunt species such as the jabuti tortoise - a highly-prized delicacy - and repression of forest-dwellers' 'subversive' attempts to stop such destructive activities as ranching. By contrast, the rubber-tappers' Utilization Plan proposals are remarkably consistent and practical.

The Plan proposes to permit hunting 'to complement food supplies, with the traditional exchange between neighbours' - game is an essential source of protein in the rainforest. But the Plan imposes a complete ban on commercial hunting and the use of hunting dogs for large game such as deer and tapir. Bans are also proposed on all timber extraction not required for the immediate needs of the seringueiros - like building houses or canoes - on commercial fishing and on clearing forest beyond the few hectares required by each family's shifting manioc cultivation.

The main authority on the preservation of the area's natural resources, according to the Plan, should be 'a Commission for the Protection of the Reserve made up of long-established and respected inhabitants'. One such person is 61-year-old Dona Maria de Nazar6, who has made the two-day canoe journey from her home on the River Bagé to the site of the meeting to add her voice to the discussions. Antônio Macedo, the Juruá Valley seringueiros' leader who is coordinating the meeting, refers to Dona Maria as a 'guardian of the forest'. This determined old lady cuts a much more convincing figure as an authority on her environment than desk-bound Brasilia bureaucrats.

But few rubber tappers venture to define 'the environment'. Both Chico Ginu, the Association's charismatic young president, and the veteran accountant Senhor Antônio de Paula sum up their objectives as the 'holy trinity': Co-operatives, Health and Education. It is, they say, the lack of health care and education for their children, as much as material poverty, that drives seringueiro families to abandon the forest for the city slums.

This is what Senhor Antônio means when he says that 'development in Amazonia must go ahead, whether the ecologists like it or not'. He reflects a widespread suspicion that the gringos ecologistas would rather see the Amazon preserved as a kind of giant botanical garden or bird sanctuary than filled with healthy, well-fed human beings. But he also insists that 'we can't let the business bosses' system take over here, or the whole area will end up like the North-East' - the devastated, drought-stricken region from which he himself migrated to the rubber forests of the Juruá 41 years ago.

The first element of the 'holy trinity' to reach the reserve was the Co-operative. Its two years of existence have provided an occasionally bitter succession of learning experiences for the movement. Working capital is down to a critical level. The Brazilian National Development Bank has delayed releasing the third instalment of its start-up grant - a delay which Antbnio Macedo blames on pressure from pro-patrão politicians. Many seringueiros have failed to pay back what they owe the Co-op, convinced by the patrões' disinformation campaign that the goods they purchased on credit were 'presents from the gringos' which consequently need not be paid for.

The Reserve remains overwhelmingly dependent on rubber, which is under threat as new plantations in south-eastern Brazil begin to squeeze what remains of its market. Alternatives will take years of investment in production and marketing before a return can be guaranteed. But the Association is keen to try. Chico wants to bring in outsiders who can teach the seringueiros agro-forestry techniques and supervise the introduction of new crops.

This kind of exchange between outsiders and locals can already be found in the second area of the 'trinity', that of health care. In an initiative funded by the London-based development agency Health Unlimited specialists from outside are brought in to provide medical support and, above all, to set up a community-based health service using local people, working with local healers and midwives, the repositories of traditional knowledge.

The Association sees the third member of the trinity, education, as fundamental. The younger generation will find themselves learning the values which inspired the creation of the Extractive Reserve in school as well as from the older members of the community. Their curriculum will be based on the experience of these elders and the reality of forest life - provided, that is, that funding can be found.

Will this 'holy trinity' distance the seringueiros from their environment? Senhor Antônio holds the view that 'it's inevitable that people will grow further apart from nature'. He believes that better animal husbandry - including the breeding of tapirs and other native species - will lead to the eclipse of hunting. A health service with modern medicines will replace the less effective of the traditional cures - such as an infusion of dog excrement for curing measles. Work in the fields and reforested areas will replace the daily round of tapping the rubber trees scattered throughout the forest.

But, according to Chico: 'The seringueiro will always be of the forest, and knows that the forest is the source of life'.

Those who migrate to the towns - or even visit them - feel displaced and lost. Dolor Farias, Secretary of the Association, recently came to São Paulo for an eye operation: on his return he gave an emotional speech to the Assembly about how he had been to a place where 'development' held sway. He had seen such horrors as a dead river without fish and people lying hungry in the streets with no game to hunt and no palm-fronds with which to thatch a shelter. When Senhor Antônio went to Rio de Janeiro to visit some long-lost relatives he replied to their insistence that he move there permanently by saying: 'How could I leave my green paradise for your concrete hell?'

If the Brazilian Government approves the rubber tappers' Utilization Plan then the seringueiros of the Upper Juruá Extractive Reserve will have proved that it is sometimes possible to force officialdom to listen to the peoples of the rainforest. Whether their voice will be heard by the international officials about to descend on Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations 'Earth Summit' is quite another matter. It may well be that their dream of development involves replacing the 'green hell' of Amazônia with a concrete paradise...

Alex Shankland, a regular contributor to the NI, is based in São Paulo and is active in environmental and development projects in western Amazônia. For more background on the Upper Juruá Extractive Reserve and the Kampa Indians, see NI 219, May 1991, Thirst for Justice: The People of the Amazon.

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New Internationalist issue 230 magazine cover This article is from the April 1992 issue of New Internationalist.
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