|Amazonia: Resiliency and Dynamism of the Land and Its People (UNU, 1995, 253 pages)|
|9. Trends and opportunities|
One of the greatest obstacles to raising standards of living for both the urban and rural poor is improved infrastructure, particularly better roads. Whereas the opening of pioneer roads reduces the incentive to intensify production because new lots can be acquired readily and cheaply, paving existing roads improves land values and marketing opportunities (Southworth, Dale, and O'Neill 1991). The cost of goods in urban areas is also reduced. A moratorium on major new road-building activity would allow better consolidation of gains in existing cleared areas, and reduce wasteful land-use practices.
Another imperative to ensure the future of Amazonian forests and other natural habitats is to balance conservation efforts between the local, community level and the public sector. A decentralized approach to environmental protection can be effective only up to a point. The ultimate fate of parks and reserves will be decided by local people; unless they are involved in land-use regulations and the selection and management of protected areas, few reserves are likely to survive much into the twenty-first century. If local communities are convinced that it is in their material interest to conserve natural resources, they will be motivated to help safeguard their natural resource endowment.
Empowerment should begin at the individual farm and community level, with municipal governments also involved in planning and overseeing protected areas. State and federal agencies are needed to help formulate broader conservation strategies and provide expertise in protecting and managing reserves. Funds for conservation should therefore flow as directly as possible to the field level, rather than slowly filtering down through various levels of bureaucracy in capital cities. A top-down approach to conservation often leads to slow disbursements, with their value eroded by rampant inflation. Rather than a punitive approach, conservation should be promoted by incentives, including payments for not cutting down forest in some cases.
International donors and development organizations need to recognize, however, that a "grass-roots" approach to conservation is not a panacea. "Grass roots" must include all players on the landscape, not just poor farmers or community organizations. This means the interests of powerful landholders, such as ranchers, should be considered when devising conservation plans. The well-to-do are not necessarily against preserving the environment, any more than all small farmers are naturally predisposed to managing natural resources rationally. As discussed in an earlier chapter, some of the best-protected forest in Amazonia is in private hands. Sawmill operators, plantation owners, and ranchers - as well as small farmers, indigenous peoples, and disenfranchised groups - should be brought into the local dialogue about conservation objectives. The task of building a consensus for action plans to preserve habitats and manage natural resources will often be difficult, as different groups must compromise and be sensitive to each other's concerns.
The notion that empowering communities will necessarily lead to "sustainable" development and wise management of resources warrants careful scrutiny. A community may overexploit resources owing to insufficient information about the natural history of the plants and animals concerned, or because of a desire to generate income for various projects. The conservation of ecosystems will require a coordinated effort over large distances, and no evidence has emerged that community groups can manage such a task.
Decentralization of environmental protection will thus not ensure the survival of forest reserves and other protected areas. Local governments can change, or the agendas of community groups might shift in response to emerging market opportunities. A change of mayors can signal a different philosophy towards the environment and even the handing over of protected areas to people without land or to the wealthy. Disbursements should always be contingent on respect for conservation programmes. To the extent that conservation efforts are built on the foundation of self-interest for broad segments of the society, and incentives are used rather than punitive measures, then prospects for safeguarding a substantial portion of Amazonia's biodiversity are improved.