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26.2.05

Political Ecology of Amazonia

Brazil's President Creates Massive Forest Reserves After Killing Of American Nun

Brazil's president ordered the creation of two massive new rain forest reserves Thursday amid increasing pressure to protect a lawless Amazon region from violent loggers and ranchers after the killing last weekend of an American nun who fought to protect the jungle.

Decrees signed by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will form a reserve of 8.15 million acres and a national park of 1.1 million acres in the state of Para, where 73-year-old Dorothy Stang was shot to death in a dispute with a powerful rancher.


Unfortunately, this article doesn't give enough information to know how positive a development Lula's decree is. Without good enforcement, drawing lines on paper won't do much to save the forest or its people. Also, conservation reserves have a history of (deliberately or unintentionally) depriving local people of resources that their livelihoods depend on. An archetypcal wilderness reserve may do more harm than good by undermining local peasants while making those in power think that the problem has been fixed.

I'm also concerned about this, from the end of the article:

Lawlessness has long been common in huge Para state, where ranchers, backed by hired gunmen, ensnare poor workers in an endless cycle of debt akin to slavery. Tensions rose further when the government recently ordered ranchers to evacuate land they occupied but couldn't prove they owned.

Ranchers and loggers blocked roads and rivers, and the government relented, allowing ranchers with dubious claims to the land to continue logging.

Environmentalists have complained bitterly about the government's decision. In their letter Thursday, the 60 groups demanded that Silva set a deadline for the occupiers of public land to prove ownership "without flexibility for any sector."


I understand the environmentalists' sentiment. However, demanding unassailable proof of ownership has the potential to greatly disadvantage the rural poor. Though situations have improved over the years, peasants in the Amazon -- and elsewhere -- are often without clear legal deeds to their land. They occupy it based on extra-legal custom and the fact that it's not worth the government's while to challenge them. Larger, more powerful operations like logging companies or big ranchers are typically more skilled at, and have more resources to invest in, obtaining some form of legal documentation of their claim. Mestizo peasants may be at the most disadvantage, as numerous state and international programs have focused on securing the rights and livelihoods of Indians (sometimes enticing mestizos to claim to be Indians in order to tap into these programs -- some Amazonian tribes have had population booms due to genetically-non-Indian people being adopted).

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