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close this bookAmazonia: Resiliency and Dynamism of the Land and Its People (UNU, 1995, 253 pages)
close this folder5. Silviculture and plantation crops
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentSilviculture for pulp
View the documentRubber plantations
View the documentOil-palm Oil palm
View the documentCoconut

(introductory text...)

Silviculture for pulp
Rubber plantations

Agriculture, livestock raising, and silviculture are often pinpointed as major factors in the destruction of Amazonian forests. But human occupation of the region does not necessarily provoke a downward ecological spiral. Many indigenous groups have prospered with relatively sophisticated cultures for protracted periods of time in various parts of Amazonia. Answers to the difficult question of promoting sustainable agriculture in Amazonia will come from a blend of indigenous knowledge and modern, scientific input. Also, a blend of native and exotic plants will provide the mainstay for farmers, ranchers, and plantation operators. Dynamic and successful agricultural and silvicultural systems are always open to new opportunities for incorporating promising plant and animal species, wherever they may come from.

A major focus on agriculture is justified because approximately half the people in Amazonia still live in rural areas and depend on farming, ranching, plantations, and forest resources for a living. Also, a growing number of forestand agriculture-based industries are being established in Amazonia, thereby creating employment opportunities in urban areas.

Sustainable agriculture requires flexible farming systems. No particular mix of crops or agronomic practices in a given area is likely to endure for long. New crops and varieties must be constantly introduced to raise and sustain productivity, and novel agronomic practices adopted in response to changing market and environmental conditions. Such practices are well developed in Amazonia among small-, medium-, and large-scale operators.

Sustainable agriculture is a multifaceted concept, involving both ecological and socio-economic and political dimensions (Smith 1990). A critical defect in much of the discussion about sustainable development in Amazonia, particularly as it applies to agriculture, is the lack of attention to economic realities. Ecologists provide valuable insights with regard to the role of forests in environmental stability and as food sources of pollinators, but ecological perspectives alone will not lead to sustainable development. Also, social scientists tend to stress policy and sociocultural dimensions to development; as important as these perspectives are, they need to be tempered by economic realities.

Our analysis does not suggest that technological fixes will solve sustainability issues in Amazonia. Rather, we stress the need to conserve and manage natural resources while designing agricultural systems that provide some hope of generating income for farmers, ranchers, and plantation owners.

Amazonia can be a graveyard for over-ambitious agricultural development schemes. Derelict rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) plantations, weed-choked pastures, and the early failure of some small farms along pioneer highways are testament to the folly of attempting to establish farming systems that are not attuned to ecological or market realities. Although ecological constraints were factors in the demise of some agricultural development schemes, mismanagement and a distorted policy of fiscal incentives are also to blame. The preponderance of ecological and socio-economic factors in farming difficulties varies with time and location. A major point here is that, with proper management and an openness to incorporating new technologies as well as learning from traditional systems, many constraints to raising and sustaining yields can be overcome. The relative success of many farms and plantations on the uplands attests to the resilience of some agricultural systems that have been deployed.

Some positive developments are under way in Amazonian agriculture and silviculture, indicating that environmental constraints are being surmounted. For example, Jari's plantations of exotic trees for pulp production appear to have turned the corner with respect to increased productivity and profitability. Cash-cropping with several perennial crops is breathing new life into the Bragantina zone east of Belém, an area once thought to be at the terminal stages of slash-andburn farming. An emphasis on what appears to be going right for at least some Amazonian farmers and plantation operators should provide some insights into the development process and could generate helpful information for policy makers.

Our analysis of sustainable agriculture and silviculture thus focuses mainly on perennial cropping systems, mostly geared to generating cash income. An emphasis on income generation is justified by the evolutionary trend of many subsistence systems towards cash-cropping (duo 1989). Jari's experience with pulp production, and the efforts of various companies to establish oil-palm and coconut plantations are discussed here. In subsequent chapters we explore agroforestry systems, ranching, and the potential of the flood plains for increased food production.