Science - October 4, 2007

Conservationists don’t understand Amazonian settlers

Nature conservationists make wrong assumptions about local settlers in the Amazon, concludes sociologist Kei Otsuki. Communities of Amazonian settlers are less traditional than conservationists would like them to be. Policy could be improved by basing it more on the settlers’ reality.

Settler and family
The Japanese Kei Otsuki worked both as an ethnographer and a development practitioner among colonists in Pará, in the eastern part of the Amazon river basin, in Brazil. She found that nature conservationists often have a wrong impression of the life of the settlers. Basing their work on international discourses on conservation, conservationists often formulate projects which assume that the settlers share the same values about the forest as the traditional community-based forest dwellers, who are generally engaged in farming and cattle keeping. Moreover, when starting projects with the settlers where the objective is to preserve the Amazon, they target groups of people who stay in the same place. The real settlers, however, are always on the move and their communities have changing boundaries. What’s more, they are relatively recent migrants from elsewhere. They do indeed keep cattle for milk production, but they are also involved in trading land even though this is illegal. As a consequence, settlers tend not to want to cooperate in projects to maintain the forest, because the projects do not tie up with their livelihoods.

Otsuki’s main recommendation therefore is to first better understand the life of local settlers, before starting conservation projects. The situation has also changed. While in the eighties deforestation of the Amazon was mainly done by large logging companies, nowadays, due to public pressure, these big companies have adopted reforestation projects. The small settlers however continue to cause deforestation, because policies focused on them have not worked. One reason for this is that different ministries have different policies. There is an agency for colonisation that redistributes land to poor farmers to promote their economic performance. On the other hand, however, the ministry for environmental affairs limits what they can do with a rule that they may only use twenty percent of the newly bought land. Moreover, neither ministry has the means to monitor their policies. Based on a better understanding of the real life of settlers, socially oriented rules that allow more flexible land use combined with better monitoring would be a better idea, concludes Otsuki. / Joris Tielens

Dr Kei Otsuki defended her thesis ‘Paradise in a Brazil Nut Cemetery’ on 20 September at Wageningen University. Her promotor was Professor Jan Douwe van der Ploeg of the Rural Sociology Group.