Antonio Luiz Macedo, a rubber tapper, is experimenting with many new ways of making the rain forest more productive. If he succeeds in making Jurua, a large Amazonian extractive reserve on the Bolivian border, an economic and organizational success, this new approach in harmonizing the needs of people and the forest will gain great new credibility.
The New Idea
Macedo's goal is to show how Brazil's new extractive reserves can work in practice.The idea of the reserves is very persuasive. For the forest to survive, its human population must be able to make a sustainable, good living from it. To the degree this is true, each will support the other.Since the highest yield from a living forest requires many overlapping uses--rubber tapping, collecting nuts and medicinal ingredients, hunting, fishing--human rights and responsibilities should be organized accordingly. Traditional property law in Brazil, however, gives one person exclusive control over each piece of land. This arrangement makes sense for farms, ranches, factories, and home sites, but it makes orderly, multiple use of a forest all but impossible. Single ownership of forests has led only to exploitation and chronic conflict for the past several decades in the Amazon.Extractive reserves provide a framework for life in the Amazon specifically fitted to the realities. Every user is given a "property" right to continue and further develop the use (for example, rubber tapping) he or she had engaged in before, subject to environmental and community self-governance constraints. The government grants the use of the reserve to its residents through legally constituted associations, which in turn economically develop the reserve.Since 1989, approximately seven million acres of the Amazon have been set aside for extractive reserves. The implementation of these reserves is now at its initial and critical stage. If the reserves prove to be economically and organizationally successful, millions more acres of Amazon forest can be saved and the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of rubber trappers and other forest residents can be substantially improved as further reserves take root. Jurua was one of the first reserves to be established by law, and Macedo is credited with convincing planners to delineate the reserve at twice the size originally planned. Its full ecological impact will be especially great because it borders on a larger national park. Together they create an enormous protected area.Jurua is also one of the most advanced reserves in terms of implementation. The numerous new ventures Macedo is testing and developing in Jurua are applicable with different degrees of adaptation to most of the Amazon. Jurua is an important testing ground that will influence the future of the rest of the rain forest.Conscious of the importance of his work as a model for many other areas, Macedo is attacking several areas at once. First he is searching for new products with high value in the international markets. He has a team of experts and students working on "oils and leaves," identifying potential teas, medicines, perfumes, etc. Another example is vegetable ivory, a seed that has the same appearance as the ivory from elephants. This seed not only offers potential economic benefits from its export, but could create a local, environmentally sound, high-value-added industry if people in the reserves could be trained to carve and make jewelry with it.Second, he is working to improve production, cut costs, and add value to existing products. Rubber production costs, for instance, can be cut significantly by processing the raw material closer to the original collection spot and by incorporating new technologies such as solar panels. Macedo is also upgrading homemade sweets to sell to alternative markets willing to pay a premium for conservation. An extractive reserve trademark is in the works as well.Third, Macedo believes that extractive activities alone are not enough to support the reserve's present and future population at acceptable living standards. So he is developing a series of activities that involve more intense forest management along with appropriate farming, fishing, and animal breeding. For example, increasing the density of palm trees in certain areas would then make it economically viable to harvest hearts of palm regularly.Finally, Macedo is starting to work in portions of the reserve that have already been deforested, examining their potential for reforestation and special agricultural uses.
The extractive reserve is a solution to several increasingly, widely recognized, and very serious problems: (1) the destruction of the Amazon rain forest, especially in regions where the land cannot sustainably be used for any greater value purpose, with all the attendant damage to the world's atmosphere and species diversity, and (2) the parallel destruction of the ways of life of the Amazon's several million people.However, the extractive reserve idea must now prove itself. Although much of the Brazilian government has now accepted and even popularized the idea, the reserves must work in practical operation before they can be safely declared a key pattern that will help define the region's future.If the extractive reserve cannot soon be proven as a viable solution for resolving the rain forest's problems, before long it may fade away or be labeled as one more unrealistic green initiative. This is the principal problem that Macedo has set out to tackle.On the operational level, he faces many tough problems. He must deal skillfully with many complex constituencies--beginning with rubber tappers and their organizations in Jurua and the National Council level. The tappers have immediate needs and political agendas that are not always consistent with the long-term preservation of the forest.Other relationships also require careful management. From the Brazilian government to the international organizations, there are many potential allies with conflicting agendas that have to be fit into a flexible, evolving strategy.
Macedo has set himself a goal "to make the reserves work in five years." That means that within the next few years, he must develop and test many income-generating ideas. He also must test and help the reserve's residents' new community and economic institutions.In order to develop these alternatives, Macedo has gathered financial support and technical help from a large array of people and institutions: from technicians of the government's Brazilian Institute for the Amazon to university students; from experts in fragrances searching for new perfumes to nutritionists testing local plants for nutritional content and devising new uses; from Ben and Jerry's to the Prince of Wales. Macedo must raise funds, oversee technical work, seek out new markets and new allies, and respond to the national and international press, all in a tense environment.When asked how he could do all these things at the same time, and do them well, he traced a parallel between his work and the forest whose very success lies in its diversity. "I, like the forest, have many 'species' of initiatives; if one gets sick and dies, it does not kill the forest. At the same time, I 'use nutrients well'; that is, different initiatives draw upon different resources so you can have many species in a nutrient-poor area."
Macedo's life has prepared him well for the task. Not only is he a rubber tapper himself, he is a self-taught Amazon scholar with profound knowledge of the forest and its people (he is writing the Encyclopedia of the Forest People) and carries years of professional experience serving the rubber tappers.Macedo was born in Acre. To date, he has spent most of his life working in a variety of public posts, in government as well as at the National Indian Foundation and the National Council of Rubber Tappers, managing social and economic projects for the local indigenous populations. Moreover, Macedo has played a founding role in both the Pro-Indio Commission and Amazonia Verde e Vida (a nonprofit environmental organization).A quiet, low-key person, Macedo has avoided a high political profile, despite all the disputes and passions for which this frontier region is now so notorious, which helps him work independently with his own long-term vision. This long experience has left him very conscious of the many diverse and complex forces and interests coming to play in the Amazon, and he has learned great skill in drawing support from and putting together very diverse teams to work with specific issues.