During the 1980s, Brazilian rubber tapper Chico Mendes was a prominent activist for the preservation of the Amazon region. He urged his government to set up reserves for rubber tappers and was instrumental in creating various organizations and unions for his peers. In 1988, Mendes was murdered by a rancher intent on logging the site of a future reserve. Partly in response to the international media outcry, Brazil created the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, consisting of 980,000 hectares of land protected for forest-dependent indigenous inhabitants.

The extractive reserve model aims to simultaneously conserve forests and extract their resources in an economically sustainable way. Forest managers use collaborative strategies to reconcile these goals. By enhancing collaboration among local residents, non-governmental organizations, government institutions, and the private sector, extractive reserves have the potential to increase economic independence for local communities and conserve the Amazon rainforest.

Fires along the Rio Xingu, Brazil (Photo via Flickr, by NASA)

Extractive reserves are not limited to extractive activities, such as nut harvesting and rubber tapping, but can also be used for agricultural activities. Since the inception of extractive reserves in the 1980s, the idea has gained momentum due to international support. More than 3.4 million hectares of Brazilian land are now part of extractive reserves, and several more reserves are in the planning process.

Because of the relative newness of Brazil’s extractive reserve programs, researchers are still evaluating their success in balancing conservation with development. One study analyzed the Alto Jurua extractive reserve and found that while deforestation is occurring, its frequency is much lower than in neighboring non-reserve lands. The majority of households and individuals that live in the reserve have organized into the Rubber Tappers and Farmers Association, expressing their desire to continue living in the reserve. Rubber has become a less valuable commodity, so some residents have switched to bean cultivation and livestock. While these activities require land clearing, the management power of the community has been able to keep the clearing to a minimum.

Although the Alto Jurua reserve has been successful at limiting deforestation and providing opportunities for the local community, much of its success is due to external forces. For example, the Brazil Pilot Program controls deforestation on rural properties. Through Brazil’s Pilot Program, Brazil is developing a spatial database of private land boundaries and ownership. Brazil also limits land availability by placing unclaimed public lands under management in order to increase land and timber values.

Brazil has expanded its extractive reserve model from land to water. While the majority of the country’s reserves are land-based, there are a few marine ones, and many of the proposed future reserves will protect marine fisheries. But the results so far are mixed.

One researcher spent a year studying Brazil’s first marine extractive reserve, Arraial do Cobo. Although the reserve has created a more democratic forum for decision-making, it has yet to be utilized, as many fishers fear the consequences of participating outside of the traditional social hierarchy. The fishers also deeply distrust the government and view the reserve as a burden. Meawnhile, a lack of government funding and minimal cooperation from local fishermen limits monitoring and enforcement capabilities. The result is that traditional, self-imposed governing systems have eroded as more fishermen gain access to the fishing grounds, racial tensions persist, and certain families have gained economic and social control of the community. So far, the reserve has failed to replace the traditional governance structure with anything productive and sustainable.

The international community has touted extractive reserves as a way to protect valuable resources while simultaneously spurring local economic growth and development and protecting indigenous communities. But research shows that this fanfare may be premature, as the extractive reserve model is dependent on adequate funding and implementation, as well as the ability to monitor. Its success also depends on cooperation and communication among different levels of participants.

Certainly, extractive reserves are a step in the right direction, as local stakeholders are integrated into the decision-making process, improving conservation and development. If governance of extractive reserves can be improved, the reserves may well be a success story for all parties. But until then, their impact remains unclear.

(Written by Alison Singer; Edited by Antonia Sohns)

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