Upper Juruá RESEX: conservation acquires a local meaning

Manuela Carneiro da Cunha (Anthropologist, Professor at the University of Chicago) & M.W.B.A. (Anthropologist, Professor at the State University of Campinas)

* Taken from the text “Traditional Populations and Environmental Conservation”, originally published in: Biodiversity in the Brazilian Amazon: Evaluation and Priority Actions for Conservation, Sustainable Use, and Repartition of Benefits. João Paulo Capobianco et al. (org.). São Paulo: Estação Liberdade – Instituto Socioambiental, 2001 (540 pp).


The government of the state of Acre published in 1975 announcements in the newspaper inviting those interested to “plant in Acre and export to the Pacific.” The economic decadence of the old rubber plantations based on the system of dispensing created opportunities for the purchase of cheap land. The fact that these lands did not have legal titles made it the first task of the purchasers of the land to expel the rubber workers who might claim possession rights.

Resex Alto Juruá, Marechal Thaumaturgo, Acre. 2003  / © Carla de Jesus Dias/ISA

Reacting to the invasion of the farmers and speculators who saw in the cheap lands of Acre a new frontier for easy riches, a network of rural unions was created as of 1977 that, allied with the action of the Church, channeled the resistance of the rubber workers against the expulsion. This struggle against the downing of the forests took the form of the “ties” – the term comes from the verb “tie up”, delay, obstruct – originally led by the president of the STR of Brasiléia, the union syndicalist Wilson Pinheiro. This leader of base actions was assassinated at the start of the decade of the 1980’s, but Chico Mendes, in the union of the neighboring municipality of Xapuri, continued and amplified the tactic of the ties. By this time, the work of the unions was supported not only by the Church (in its diocese on the Purus River, and not by the diocese of the Juruá River), but also by new organizations supporting the struggles of the Indians and the rubber workers.

In 1984, several Amazonian syndicalists proposed, at a national meeting of the National Confederation of Agricultural Workers (CONTAG), a solution for agrarian reform for rubber workers that provided for modules of land of 600 hectares, shocking many of their comrades who did not understand the need for so much forest for only one family. And as of1985, Chico Mendes began acting audaciously in order to remove the movement of the ties from the defensive situation in which it had been placed. One of the actions consisted in calling on the residents of the cities to participate in the ties: Thus, in 1986, the young teacher and syndicalist Marina Silva, two agronomists, an anthropologist, and a photographer participated beside about a hundred rubber workers in another tie operation, with the difference being that now the movement was clearly focused, as in the acts of civil disobedience organized by Gandhi in India and by Martin Luther King in the USA, on the notion of a whole. The tie of 1986 ended under the emerging leadership of Marina Silva and the command of Chico Mendes with the occupation of the then-existing Brazilian Institute for Forest Development (IBDF) – an autarchy tied to the Ministry of Agriculture charged with pertinent subjects relative to the forests and such, the embryo of the Special Secretary of the Environment (SEMA), which at the end gave origin to the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), in 1989 – and the attention of the press on the irregularities involved with authorization for downing the forest.

Another action by Chico Mendes consisted of proposing to Mary Allegretti, an anthropologist working in the Amazon for more than 30 years, involved with and researching social movements and public policies, especially the rubber workers and the extractive reserves, an action of public impact in support of the rubber workers. In response, Mary organized in Brasília, with the support of non-governmental entities and the government, a surprising meeting in which 120 union leaders from all over the Amazon, with the profile of rubber workers, directly faced off with the government technicians responsible for the rubber policy, deputies and ministers, and intellectuals and specialists.

At the end of the meeting, they had created an equally strange and unplanned entity: The National Council of the Rubber Workers, whose name mirrored that of the National Rubber Council, and in which there were no representatives. Another equally significant item was the production of a letter of principles that included in its agrarian the demand for the creation of “extractive reserves” for rubber workers, without division into lots, and with modules of at a minimum 300 hectares.

Although the rubber workers had been struggling for years for an agrarian reform that allowed for the continuity of their extractive activities, it was the first time that the word “Reserve” was used, in a direct transposition of the protection associated with the indigenous lands.

In the years that followed, the rubber workers perceived that the connection between the ties against deforestation and the program of preserving the forests in the form of Extractive Reserves had the potential of attracting powerful allies.

The rubber workers who, only a few years previous, had formed a category that was supposedly doomed to rapidly disappear, assumed at the end of the decade of the 1980’s a vanguard position in ecological mobilizations. At the end of 1988, an alliance for the defense of the forests and its inhabitants with the name of Alliance of the Peoples of the Forest, covering the rubber workers and indigenous groups by means of the two national organizations that had been formed in previous years: The National Council of Rubber Workers and the Union of the Indian Nations. The meeting in Altamira, organized by the Kayapó Indians against the dam project of the Xingu River, had an explicit environmental connotation. At the end of the decade of the 1980’s, the environmentalist connection had become inevitable. In contrast with the model of Yellowstone National Park that sought to create an “untouched” American environment without human population, it demanded that the local communities, who had protected the environment and who based their lives upon it, were not victims and indeed partners in the environmental concerns.    

To the contrary, in order that the environment were protected, they should be responsible for the management and control of the natural resources in the environments in which they lived. The new fact was the active role attributed to the local communities. At the start of 1992, the explicit connection between indigenous peoples and conservation gained an international dimension with the creation of the International Alliance of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forests, of which one of the founding organizations was COICA (Confederation of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin). The Convention on Biological Diversity and Agenda 21, approved in 1992, explicitly recognized the relevant role performed by the indigenous and local communities. It would fall on Colombia, in 1996, to implement on a large scale the idea of making the indigenous populations responsible for a large extension of tropical forests. In Brazil, as we will soon see, the same idea was applied six years prior to Colombia, on a smaller by no less important scale, in the Extractive Reserves. It was here that rubber workers and not the indigenous groups became the first protagonists of the experience.

Indigenous Lands and Conservation Units

It is calculated that the indigenous population of Brazil is in the area of 600 thousand individuals, of whom 450 thousand live in indigenous lands. Although this population is relatively small, it is extremely rich in social diversity. There are 233 indigenous peoples – 60% of which are in the Amazon – and approximately 180 languages and different dialects. It is estimated that there are 46 isolated indigenous groups without regular contact with the outside world1. With the exception of the short and violent rubber cycle that lasted from 1870 to 1910, the greater part of the Amazon distant from the main channel of the Amazon River remained largely indifferent to occupation. As a consequence, the majority of the indigenous groups that survived and the greater part of the indigenous lands that were able to be preserved are in the Amazon, which concentrates nearly 99% of the extension of Brazilian indigenous lands.

Although they are disseminated, the extension of the indigenous lands grouped together is impressive. The Indians have the constitutional right to nearly 13% of Brazilian territory, with lands distributed in 665 different areas and covering 21.73% of the Brazilian Amazon. The units of conservation in the Amazon where human presence is permitted, the units of conservation of direct use, cover another 10.77% of the region – excluding the APA’s1.

In the decade of the 1980’s, the extension of the indigenous lands in Brazil seemed exaggerated: “a lot of land for few Indians.” This focus has changed. The subject of the cover of Veja magazine on June 20, 1999, spoke of the 3.6 thousand Xingu Indians who “preserve an ecological paradise” the size of Belgium. The point was that a small number of Indians could take good care of a vast territory. The idea that people most qualified to handle the conservation of a territory are the people who live in it in a sustainable fashion is also the premise of the creation of Extractive Reserves.

It is clear that not all the areas of conservation can be administered by the pre-existing inhabitants in them. But it is also clear that in Brazil a solid and viable ecological policy must include the local populations. In addition to this, expelling the people from the areas of preservation without offering them alternative means of subsistence is the sure route to disasters.

How does Conservation acquire a local sense?

One difficulty in the involvement of local communities in conservation projects is that, by rule of thumb, from the start these projects area developed by someone in a position of power and only later are the local groups involved. But even in the cases in which the origin of conservationist projects comes from initiatives by local groups, there remains the difficulty of adjusting the plans of action in different spheres, of achieving external resources, and of obtaining the necessary technical capacity.

Resex Alto Juruá, Marechal Thaumaturgo, Acre. 2003  / © Carla de Jesus Dias/ISA

Later we will summarily describe the process of combining conservation with agrarian reform that resulted in the invention of the Extractive Reserves. By doing this, we will enter into details, seemingly miniscule in appearance, in order to provide evidence of the role performed by local initiative and also by Brazilian and foreign universities and non-governmental and governmental organizations.

On January 23, 1990, the Extractive Reserve of the Upper Juruá, was created by Decree No. 90.863. It was the first unit of conservation of this type, a territory of half a million hectares that would pass from control of bosses to the legal condition of Government land earmarked for the exclusive use of the residents, by means of a contract of concession, and whose administration could be by law undertaken by agreements between the government and the local representative organizations.

This conquest was the result of an articulation of organizations and people at different levels, including militants from the forest union delegations, leaders from the National Council of Rubber Workers, researchers and assessors, the National Bank of Economic Development, the Office of the Attorney General of the Republic, and several Brazilian and foreign NGO’s. It was also the result of unexpected events and contingent connections, of an effect of “combined unequal development,” which placed on the front lines of environmentalism one of the most remote and isolated places, where the struggle of the rubber workers was not so much against the new farmers and indeed against the shed bosses2.

In the previous years, the idea of the Extractive Reserves had spread throughout Brazil and abroad with success, being associated with the ideas of sustainable programs based on the local communities3,4. When the word “reserve” came into the public eye in 1985, read by Chico Mendes in the declaration that ended the National Meeting of Rubber Workers held in Brasília, it did not have a precise meaning. What he was pointing out, according to the delegation from Rondônia who had introduced the text, was that the lands of the rubber workers should have the same protection as indigenous reserves.

The term only went on to gain a more specific meaning in December of 1986 in the rural zone of the municipality of Brasiléia, Acre, in a landscape of Brazil nut trees surviving in a devastated countryside. At this workshop, which included members of the National Council of Rubber Workers and a small group of assessors, one of the themes was the founding statute of the Extractive Reserves. The express condition in the Brasiléia document stated only that the lands could not be “divided into lots”, having to respect the traditional colocation system. An anthropologist with experience at FUNAI (National Foundation of the Indian) explained the legal situation of the indigenous lands and other land alternatives.

Socialist rubber worker leaders were inclined toward the system of indigenous lands, as it was the only that completely impeded any possibility of reprivatization of the forest through the sale of land. Thus, after deliberating behind closed doors, without the interference of the advisory panel, the Council opted for the solution of “property of the Union” and “exclusive (collective) use of the land” by rubber workers.

Another important theme of this meeting in Brasiléia was the economic question. Up to that point, all the rubber worker union leaders, including Chico Mendes, were convinced that the production of Amazonian rubber had a fundamental importance to the national economy. This belief had been apparently confirmed by the importance of the extractive economy in the state Acre. An exposition held by one of the assessors, summarized some basic facts, among them the fact that Amazonian natural rubber supplied only a small portion of the rubber used by the national industry and with prices protected by the government, given that it was cheaper for the companies to import rubber than to buy it in the country. Even though the native rubber populations was supported by the government, the total production of the Amazon probably would not surpass the 40 thousand tons that it had reached at the apex of the rubber cycle, still way below the volume demanded by the national industry, and a nearly insignificant volume in the world market. In additional to this, on that occasion, in 1986 the mechanisms of protection for the prices and subsidies to the rubber bosses began to be dismantled. One of the leaders present, more precisely the one who had defended the collectivist solution for the Reserves, and who had asked before what “ecology” was, broke the silence by saying that if they did not want rubber, at least there were those who wanted ecology. And this they knew how to do.

In 1987, the connection between agrarian reform for rubber workers and the environmental question was expanded in the form of an alliance between the rubber workers and the environmentalists5,6,7. But by this point the Extractive Reserves were part of an agrarian program, and not an environmental program, and the first legal initiatives were directed to INCRA, and not to IBAMA. Prior to 1988, in fact, few people, like Mary Alegretti, contemplated the possibility of Extractive Reserves being instituted as areas of conservation. For the rubber workers, the bottom line question was still agrarian and union.  

In October of 1989, the Workers’ Party (PT) lost the presidential elections in the run-off, with the victory of Collor over Lula. In view of the right-wing political base of the recently elected president, the hope for agrarian reform at the federal level faded, already seriously shaken since the defeat suffered by the left-wing agrarian program in 1985. But there was one possibility: If the extractive reserves were decreed as being areas of conservation, the procedure of expropriation would not need to face all the difficulties encountered in INCRA. Thus, soon after the October elections, the National Council of Rubber Workers, based on the specific case of the Extractive Reserve of the Upper Juruá – with half a million hectares completely outside of INCRA’s plans – gave the green light for the forwarding of a solution within the scope of IBAMA. By being decreed the Extractive Reserve of Juruá, in January of 1990, with the victory of the the rubber workers of that remote region against the bosses led by Orleir Cameli, another three projects were prepared and submitted under a regime of urgency, following the same model. These three projects – in Acre, the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, Rondônia, the Ouro Preto River Extractive Reserve and in Amapá, the Cajari River Extractive Reserve, – were approved on the final day of the Sarney government, March 15, 1990, following a long sabbatical with the military in the SADEM.

RESEX Alto do Juruá (AC) 1998  / ROBERTO LINSKER/www.terravirgem.com.br

The conservationist alliance was thus a strategy, and creating the Extractive Reserves as units of conservation was a tactical choice. However, saying that the conservationist alliance was thus a strategy does not mean that it was a lie, either in substance or in terms of a project. With regards to the project, it is still being translated to the local plan. With regards to the substance, the rubber workers in fact were protecting biodiversity.  In the Upper Juruá, as has already been said, rubber had been already been exploited for more than 120 years, and the area had proven itself a hot-spot of biological diversity, with 616 species of birds, 102 species of amphibians, and 1,536 species of butterflies, of which 477 are Nimpalidae8.

It is true that, as Monsieur Jourdain was not aware he spoke in prose, the rubber workers were not aware that they were conserving biodiversity. They thought they were producing rubber, and not biodiversity. Rubber is tangible and individualized. Notwithstanding the oscillations in price, it had a relatively stable value in comparison to the purchasing power of the currency. When inflation was devastating the entire country, the rubber workers were able to measure the value of their work in rubber, both for exchanges between themselves and for external purchases. If someone wanted to hire the services of a rubber worker as a day-worker, the wage for a day’s work would be the value of 10 kg of rubber. In comparison with the rest of the country, this daily wage was high.

This does not mean that every rubber worker produced 10 kg of rubber per day every single day. An average rubber worker exploited two rubber runs and each tree was bled twice a week, at the most during eight months. With two runs, he would work four days a week and with the rest of the time would hunt in the winter and fish in the dry season. Furthermore, 10 kg of rubber per day was not the productive rate for the whole region, but a standard of the most productive areas. As a daily wage, however, these 10 kg represented dignity and independence: What a man could earn in one day if he wanted, whose monetary dimension is what the economists call cost of work opportunity (the rare businessmen who tried to establish rubber plantations in the Upper Juruá soon discovered that one of main problems was finding manual labor). The home of one rubber worker depends simultaneously on the extraction of rubber (in order to get money); slash-and-burn agriculture (in order to obtain the food base of farina); a small brood of hens, ducks, sheep, pigs, or cows (as a savings for the future); hunting; and fishing. There is also the importance of the seasonal collection of palm fruits and some other medicinal and food items, as well as construction materials. Even when not making rubber, the rubber workers are far from unemployed.

It is a known fact that the rubber plantations did not prosper in the Amazon, mainly because of the leaf blight – at least for those planted with the same density of the Asian plantations. The rubber trees remain healthy under the condition that they be dispersed throughout the forest. A rubber run consists of close to 120 trees of the genus Hevea. One rubber worker household uses an average of two runs, and sometimes three, and the total area will cover in the first case at least 300 ha, or 3 km2. This is the minimum area, but if we include the whole forest, including the zones that are not crossed by rubber runs, but are inhabited by the hunts, in the Upper Juruá Extractive Reserve the households occupy an average area of 500 ha or 5 km2. This fact – the low natural density of the rubber trees themselves in the virgin forest – explains the low human density in the rubber forest plantations, which is at around 1.2 people per square kilometer (one family with 6 people per 5 km2). This density is compatible with the conservation of the forest. In this whole area the deforested extension for the small fields of the rubber workers (but including here the pastures of the small farms on the banks of the Juruá River) barely reaches 1%. 

As would be expected, the local translation of the conservation project varied according to the situations and the plans. While in eastern Acre the “Paulista” buyers knocked down the forest and confronted the rubber workers, in western Acre there still prevailed in the decade of the 1980’s the old rubber plantation system. Some São Paulo-based (“Paulista”) companies had bought the land, but not for immediate use, but rather as speculative investment, in the hope that highway BR-364 would be paved. While this was not undertaken, they leased the forest to local bosses like Orleir Cameli, who for his part sublet it to other commercial bosses. At every mouth of an important river a deposit or shed was established for merchandise supplied on credit, where the rubber worker candidate was registered as “title-holder” of a pair of runs, under the condition that he paid 33 kg of rubber annually for each one. Thus, the head of a family was on one hand the tenant of rubber run through the boss, and on the other, a customer owing merchandise to the same boss.

The important thing for the boss was to maintain the monopoly over commerce. The bosses sought to control the flow of rubber, in order to avoid that the indebted rubber workers (who corresponded to the vast majority) sold rubber for regattas and shod, which always occurred at some measure. This contraband was the motive for the expulsion of rubber workers from their placements, with the use of police called from the cities to this end.

Thus, the rubber workers of the Juruá, in contrast with the rubber workers of eastern Acre, were considered captives. The rubber workers of the Acre Valley, in the east, abandoned by their former bosses who had sold their titles to the recently arrived farmers, were free, and could sell to whomever they wanted. In practice, it was impossible to control people spread out over a great forest territory. During the decade of the 1980’s, the most successful Juruá bosses economically were those who offered abundant merchandise in their sheds, thanks to financial loans subsidized by the bank Banco do Brasil. The value of one boss was measured by the size of his debt; as was the value of a rubber worker as well.

The Acrean lairds who were also commercial monopolists had a very fragile legal base for their alleged properties. In the decade of the 1980’s, when there was some legal title, he would cover a minimal fraction of the land, with around 10% being a lot. The return on 33 kg of hectare per rubber run, and not on the land itself, was a pre-capitalist return.  Being fixed and in kind, it did not depend on the effective production or potential of the runs, nor on the current prices. But it did represent the recognition on behalf of the rubber workers that the boss was the “owner of the runs,” and it thus made legitimate the dubious status of landowner that the bosses enjoyed: landowners therefore by fact, if not de jure. The battle of the rubber workers of the Upper Juruá was not against the farmers, but indeed against a humiliating situation of servitude. The basic program of the first union meetings was the refusal of payment from income and the protest against the violence used to prohibit free commerce. The first skirmishes of this fight, well before the extractive reserve project, were the exceptions to the payment of income (in the case of rubber workers, or the elderly, who opened their own runs) and later against the payment of all the income9.  

The rebellion against the payment of income and against the violence of the monopoly exploded for good in 1988, after a meeting with 700 rubber workers in the small city of Cruzeiro do Sul, the capital of western Acre. That same year, the meetings had begun in which the proposal for an Extractive Reserve began to be discussed. At the start of 1989, following the assassination of Chico Mendes at the end of 1988, an association of rubber workers was founded on the Tejo River in order to manage a cooperative with rotating capital, conceived by the BNDES. This signified a direct challenge to the bosses’ monopoly, jointly with the refusal of payment of income. Winning judicial actions of interdiction sponsored by the UDR, violent conflicts, imprisonments, and threats, around May 1989 a procession of boats from the “cooperative” entered triumphantly into the Tejo River, in what would go on to become the Extractive Reserve, loaded with merchandise, in an apotheosis and symbolic cargo that represented the end of an era. This first attempt to create a system of commercialization and cooperative supply was decapitalized following two or three years of operation, and one of the reasons is that almost nobody understood administration, much less in an environment of extremely high inflation. Another problem is that many rubber workers did not pay their debts, in light of an employer rumor that “the money is from the government, you don’t have to pay.”

But the importance of the initiative was that, following the first year of the Association’s operation, the Upper Juruá Extractive Reserve was created under the jurisdiction of IBAMA. It was a solution for the land and social problems (among which were the indexes of “slavery through debt” in a rubber plantation leased by Orleir Cameli), but was also a solution for the problem of conservation, supported by opinions by experts and reports by biologists.

In contrast with the clashes against the downing of trees in Xapuri, in the Juruá the mobilizations were not openly ecological – except for the fact that the union delegates anticipated the imminent start of mahogany exploitation along the lines practiced by Orleir Cameli, and denounced the neglect of the rubber runs. But following the creation of the Reserve, and on the side of cooperative activity, an activity for the construction of new instutions around the Association of Rubber Workers and Farmers began, starting with the Plan of Use developed and approved at an assembly at the end of 1991. Projects of health and a project that involved research, assessment, and formation of personnel were begun, with sponsorship from entities that ranged from the McArthur Foundation to FAPESP and to CNPT-IBAMA and with the participation of several universities around the country – with the goal of demonstrating that in appropriate conditions it was possible for the local populations to manage an area of conservation. These conditions included well-defined legal rights, acceptable quality of life, democratic institutions in the local plan, and access to technical and scientific resources. The project supported the Association in many activities, from the undertaking of registrations, maps, and projects, to the joint intermediation with national and international organizations. In the next phase, IBAMA itself channeled resources from European countries  (Project PPG-7) to the area, as one of the “pilot experiences” of conservation.

The impact of these policies on all the aspects of life in the Upper Juruá was noticeable, but it is not surprising that it has been quite different than expected. One example is that the people the Juruá have developed their own version of environmental conservation. While the young people tended to enter into the political area by means of the Association and later the local posts, the more mature and respected men constituted a team of “base-level supervisors”, whose line of conduct followed the model of the old “woodsmen” of the rubber plantations. The woodsmen were specialized workers who supervised the rubber runs of the plantation and had the authority to impose sanctions (for example, to shut down runs) in case of a poorly made cut that threatened the life of the trees. The new “base-level supervisors”, in contrast with the old woodsmen, did not have the authority to impose punishments, and complained a lot about this, until they received the status from IBAMA of “collaborating supervisors” with limited authority to hand out violations of conduct. 

With or without formal authority, the base-level supervisors conducted their mission with great zeal. The main infractions were related to hunting. Any and all forms of hunting activity were prohibited under the Forest Code with draconian penalties, as is well-known; but locally this severe legislation was basically translated as a policy of social equity. Thus, in the Plan of Use  approved in the assembly following much debate, not only commercial hunting was prohibited by the rubber workers (and there was a small local market for game where the then-Vila Thaumaturgo existed, which was later transformed into a municipal capital), abut also “hunting with dogs”. There are two types of dogs in the area: The “pre-hardened” dogs and the expensive “Paulista” dogs. Nobody knows for certain whether these mixed dogs actually came from São Paulo, or if the name comes from their exaggerated predatory capacities, but in any case the “Paulistas” are dogs that chase large game with great persistence, after locating them without diverting their attention; contrary to the small “pre-hardened” dogs that go after any animal whose trail they find. The problem with the Paulista dogs, according to the rationale of the Juruá, is that they frighten the game – “when they don’t kill, they frighten”- and make the hunting of larger animals (deer, wild pigs) nearly imposible for those who does not have any. There was thus a local conflict surrounding the equal access to hunting, and the rubber workers decided to make equal everything down: Nobody could have dogs. This prohibition became the main banner of local conservationism. Not having dogs, at the start Paulista ones and later any kind of dog, became the outside sign of adhesion to the project of the Reserve, perhaps even greater than buying from the cooperative and not from the bosses, who continued acting like itinerant merchants.

There is an important dissonance that is related to the very notion of producing and maintaining biodiversity. As we mention above, what the rubber workers thought they were producing was their livelihood first, and for this rubber was earmarked for the market. In relation to everything in the forest, there are general rules of moderation and sharing of food with groups of neighbors and relatives, magic precautions, and pacts of various types broached with mothers and protectors which we can call “kingdom domains”, such as mother-of-the-rubber-tree, mother-of-hunting, and so on. Agriculture, on the other hand, does not have a “mother”. It is thought that it is the people who control the whole process here. There is thus a radical separation between what is exploited in nature and what is controlled by men and women, an acute disjoining between the domesticated and the wild. This can be perceived, for example, in the fact there does not exist a corresponding category to what we call “plants”: The word “plant” exists, of course, but it refers only to what we would call cultivated plants, a meaning that seems, moreover, evident to someone who knows that “plant” comes from the verb “to plant”. As wild species are not planted, how can one call them “plants”? Since in the forest there are also trees, stalks, vines, basts, etc.

Another clue in the same direction is the distinction between “brabo” and “tame”. In regional use, “brabo” is approximately translated as “wild, uncivilized, uncouth”, the opposite of domesticated. In more general terms, it can refer to the contrast between creatures that flee from man and those that are not afraid of him. In the most restrictive sense of undomesticated or uncouth, the word “brabo” is applied to the recently arrived, inexperienced with the work and survival in the forest: In the Second World War, the rubber soldiers were called “brabos” or “wild”, which is not in the least surprising. They were left in the forest with supplies and instructions, sometimes under the orientation of more experienced rubber workers, with the goal of being “tamed”.

The opposition between the “brabo” and domesticated is ample and radical. “In the whole world there is the “brabo” and the tame: There is the tapir and the cow, there is the deer and the goat, there is the squirrel and the rat, and there is the tinamou and the chicken. Even with people there is the tame and the “brabo”, who are the caboclos.” (“Seu” Lico, base-line supervisor).

Producing biodiversity, producing nature, is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms (local). But it is precisely this that resources from the G-7 are financing. How should this be translated in political terms? A direct economic response would be to directly pay the rubber workers for that which the world market is really interested in today, which is biodiversity. But this goes against the local perception. Biodiversity is a bi-product of a way of life; it is the equivalent of what economists call positive externality. Externalities are products that result from an activity of a producer and which are freely “consumed” by others, such as the smoke from a factory that is inhaled by the neighbor (negative externality) or like the security of a street that is brought by a well-protected home (positive externality). The market ignores externalities. But biodiversity and environmental services (and disservices) are beginning to be taken into consideration, and their benefits are beginning to be treated as something to be compensated. This is a consequence, moreover, of a notion amplified of what the system is as a whole. If environmental services were directly paid in the Reserve, this inverts what is figure and what is a base: What was a bi-product, an unplanned consequence of a way of life, would become the product itself.

In contrast, IBAMA and other bodies concentrate their efforts on the development of the so-called sustainable forest products, and that the Reserves be economically viable based on these products, without including in their accounting the services of conservation. The problem could be resolved by means of a judicious combination of high quality forest products, for example, a source of monetary income for the family, and a fund that would globally compensate biological diversity by proportioning collective benefits related to the well-being of the population, as well as resources for financing the local collective organizations and sustainable products. It should also be remembered that until now, with a basis on the naturalized idea that peoples of the forest are essentially conservationists, permanent funds are not reserved for the costs of local government in the forest, despite the extremely high costs of travel for all the leaders who live in the upper reaches of the rivers.

These tendencies are beginning to happen. Conservation was initially a political weapon in a struggle for liberty and for land rights. Today, the resources for conservation are being used for getting canoe motors, boats, schools, and health installations. Conservation is becoming part of local projects and its importance is growing.

Revisiting the traditional peoples

We began with a definition “in extension” and affirmed that in time an analytical definition would emerge. From what we have seen, we can already take some steps in this direction and affirm that traditional populations are groups that have conquered or are struggle to conquer (by practical and symbolic means) a public identity that includes some but not necessarily all of the following characteristics: The use of low impact environmental techniques, equitable forms of social organization, the presence of institutions with legitimacy for enforcing their laws, local leadership, and, finally, cultural traces that are selectively reaffirmed and re-elaborated.

Therefore, although it is excessive to say that “traditional peoples” have a low destructive impact on the environment, it is not excessive to say that a specific group like the one of the cockle collectors of Santa Catarina are, or become, “traditional peoples”, in that it is a process of self-constitution. Internally, this self-constitutional process requires the establishing of rules of conservation, as well as leaders and legitimate institutions. Externally, it needs alliances with external organizations, from outside and inside the government.

It must be clear by now that the category of “traditional populations” is occupied by political subjects that are disposed to confer upon it substance, or rather, that are disposed to constitute a pact: Commit themselves to a series of practices, in exchange for some type of benefit and above all territorial rights. From this perspective, even those societies that are culturally conservationist are, notwithstanding and in a certain sense, neo-traditional our neo-conservationist.



  1. INSTITUTO SOCIOAMBIENTAL (ISA). Laboratório de Geoprocessamento com dados RAISG (Red Amazônica de Información Socioambiental Georreferenciada). 2010.
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