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Amazonian forests play a crucial role in the global fight against climate change and loss of biodiversity. They are also an integral part of the social fabric in the region.

Efforts to protect these important forests have tended to focus on sustainable land use for the well-being of poor smallholders, including indigenous groups, traditional communities and small farmers. However, success has been rather modest. The destruction of forests continues with unabated speed, land conflicts between local and non-local actors remain aggravated, and the gap between urban rich and rural poor is ever increasing.

To uncover more promising experiences in forest protection, an international group of researchers and development practitioners asked non-governmental organizations, government agencies, and grassroots organizations active in the Bolivian, Brazilian, Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon to share their success stories in involving local natural-resource users. Guided by their suggestions, the project analyzed more than 150 initiatives throughout the region.

Insights from their research reveal that current approaches to development as employed by governments and non-governmental organizations are in critical need of revision. In fact, very few of the analyzed cases found local resource users to adopt the promoted management schemes without the occurance of any spontaneous replication outside of the projects. Frequently, the approaches were found to even accelerate cultural deterioration and environmental degradation.

   An aerial view of the Amazon rainforest near Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. CIAT Photo/Neil Palmer


A major reason for this lack of success is that prevailing policy frameworks still favor classic development approaches, oriented toward economic actors with the capital and capacity required to implement input-intensive, mechanized schemes for agroindustrial production, forest management, the exploitation of minerals and fossil fuels, and the generation of hydroenergy. Meanwhile, the capacity of smallholders to contribute to sound local development is widely ignored — surprisingly, even by those organizations explicitly working for and with local people.

Our findings suggest that the highly diverse socio-productive systems managed by Amazonian families do in fact have the potential to contribute to robust local development within environmentally stable landscapes, particularly when compared to other economic actors.

Local potential depends on the size and quality of land and resources, access to public services and markets providing fair prices, and the degree of social organization. Tapping this potential requires effective protection for local smallholders from economic actors who use their competitive advantage to access and exploit land and resources for the benefits of prospering urban centers and high-income countries.

Shifting the perspective on smallholders — from seeing them as an obstacle to seeing them as a solution for sound rural development — provides new opportunities for action. However, such a shift requires rethinking current visions, concepts and operational modes.

Instead of further investing in adapting smallholders to the conditions of a globalized economy, it is necessary to consider possibility of adapting conditions to their capacities and interests. To reach this ideal, more aggressive policies are needed that reward the socio-environmental activities of smallholders and, consequently, constrain the influence of non-local commercial actors in the land and resources of the region. Paternalistic structures and political favoritism prevailing in many Amazonian countries, as well as relevant international processes and governance mechanisms, need to be overcome.

Considering the serious implications of such a smallholder-oriented approach to rural development, massive opposition is to be expected from those groups that benefit from the current situation. The magnitude of the challenge can be guessed by viewing the desperate battle of indigenous groups and social movements to get their rights to land and resources recognized.

It might be a good idea to start by exploring the possibilities that everyone — researchers, politicians, development agencies, entrepreneurs, citizens and smallholders — has to make this shift, and what realistic options exist for action within the specific personal field of action of each.

There is a great deal of pressure and very little time.

For more information on this topic, please contact Benno Pokorny at or Pablo Pacheco at
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