Sustainable development in the Amazon

Brasil Observer - Jul 14 2016

It is essential to make forests worth more standing than cut


By Virgilio Viana

The role of the Amazon as a powerhouse to mitigate global climate change is becoming increasingly clear. The Amazon houses some 89 billion tons of carbon in its natural ecosystems. Releasing this into the atmosphere would push global climate change towards the most extreme and dangerous scenarios.

The role of the Amazon as a key driver of water circulation and rainfall regimes is also becoming increasingly clear. The Amazon River discharges some 2×105 cubic meters per second in the Atlantic Ocean – some 15% of all global aboveground freshwater. The Amazon rainforest releases some 20 billion tons of water every day into the atmosphere and acts a major pump of water circulation, affecting rainfall regimes worldwide. Deforestation can have profound consequences to global water circulation in the atmosphere, with dramatic consequences to rainfall patterns.

Reducing deforestation in the Amazon is a major challenge. Brazil has achieved some remarkable results, having reduced deforestation by some 80% in relation to 2003. However, reaching the zero deforestation goal is still extremely challenging.

Amazonas, the largest Brazilian state, covers some 40% of the remaining forest area. While there is still 97% forest cover remaining in Amazonas state, there are growing pressures of drivers of deforestation. This article focus on the lessons learned from Amazonas Sustainable Foundation (FAS), the largest NGO in the Brazilian Amazon.

FAS invests approximately five million pounds per year in 574 communities of traditional riverine populations, living in 16 protected areas, in an area of 10.8 million hectares. In 2015 alone, FAS implemented 656 income generation projects, 121 community empowerment projects and 104 social infrastructure projects. Compared to control areas, deforestation is 50% lower.

The first lesson learned is that it is essential to “make forests worth more standing than cut”. This was the slogan designed by the Secretary for Environment and Sustainable Development of Amazonas State, through the Zona Franca Verde (Green Free Trade Zone), which was implemented in the 2003-2010 period. The slogan, in fact, represents a sustainable development paradigm, linking jobs and income generation to sustainable forests and fisheries management. The same paradigm has led the work of Amazon Sustainable Foundation since its establishment in 2008.

The rationale to make forests worth more standing than cut is that reducing deforestation is dependent on human behaviour, which is to a large extent driven by economic drivers. If the perception of different local actors is that cutting the forest and turning them into pasture or other land uses is more attractive economically, then deforestation is practically non-stoppable. If, on the contrary, standing forests are perceived as a good economic option, then forest conservation is likely to succeed. The same rationale applies to the challenge of promoting sustainable fisheries management.

The good news is that there are a growing number of success stories. Investments in forest products such as Brazilian nuts, cocoa, acai berry, natural rubber, managed timber and natural oils have resulted in significant increases in economic returns to forest communities. Similarly, community-based tourism and handicraft production have also become drivers of behavioural changes towards reduction of deforestation in many communities. Increased income from sustainably managed fisheries has also reduced unsustainable fish production.

Making forests worth more standing than cut, however, is easier to be said than done. The challenge of making community-based income generation projects successful and self-sustainable is enormous. It is not hard to find cases where projects collapsed after external funding stopped.

The design of projects has to be based on an effective and efficient participatory planning process. This process should value traditional knowledge and, at the same time, create bridges with new technologies and processes. The right balance is not simple or easy to achieve. It is essential to create a process of empowerment and social learning so that there are continuous improvements of project results driven by local leaders themselves.

The monitoring of projects has to be based on a clear set of indicators that have to be collected and analysed through an efficient and effective process. Again, empowerment and social learning are keys. External analysis and evaluations is also very important to provide independent inputs for improvements.

The second lesson learned is that sustainable development projects and programs need to have a broad and holistic focus. This means that income generation projects will not succeed in the long run if they do not have actions related to health, education and other vital components of sustainable development. In fact, the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations provides a very useful framework for action. The 17 SDGs are broad and comprehensive enough. However, implementing projects and programs using the holistic scope of the SDGs is easier to be said than done.

Implementing holistic programs and projects require the capacity of leaders to have themselves cross sectorial and transdisciplinary thinking. It also requires managerial skills to manage people and institutions that deliver results efficiently and effectively. In addition, leaders have to be able to speak the different language and understand the different culture of riverine communities. However, these skills are not part of the training of most university programs.

There are other lessons learned: (i) payment for ecosystem services, (ii) design and implementation of effective and efficient public policies, (iii) design and management of new business models, (iv) design and management of innovative partnerships between non-governmental organizations, government, business, research and local associations, (v) mobilization of finance, and (vi) governance and transparency in institutional management.

Although sustainable development in the Amazon remains a great challenge, there are lessons learned from practice that can yield moderate and cautious optimism. The perspective is that if the lessons learned are applied with adequate funding over a large scale there is room for optimism for the Amazon. However, time is running out since climate change is creating new pressures on Amazon ecosystems. This creates a new urgency to incorporate the additional goal of adapting to climate change.


  • Ph.D. from Harvard University, former State Secretary for Environment and Sustainable Development of Amazonas State (2003-2008) and Director General of Amazon Sustainable Foundation (2008-present).
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