New land-use model eyed for Brazil’s Amazon settlers

This Q & A with WHRC’s Dr. Toby McGrath originally appeared in EcoAméricas. Visit for more information about EcoAméricas.

A recurring question in Brazil is how to ensure that land-reform settlements created in the Amazon rainforest don’t exacerbate deforestation. An answer might be found in a project that until now has involved neither recent settlers nor the rainforest. The project has focused instead on the lower Amazon floodplain in western Pará state, and on agreements reached by long-standing communities there to sustainably co-manage fisheries and grasslands. Currently run by Brazil’s nonprofit Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) and the Woods Hole Research Center of the United States, it is funded by WWF, the Moore Foundation and Brazil’s land-reform agency, the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (Incra). Now, IPAM and Woods Hole are adapting the model for Incra’s 1,800 rainforest settlements. Editor George Hatch spoke recently with lead researcher David McGrath, a Woods Hole scientist and a professor at Brazil’s Federal University of Western Pará.

Describe how the floodplain co-management project has unfolded.

The work began in 1990 with WWF funding to evaluate the sustainability of community-managed floodplain lake fisheries. The goal was to make informal community agreements the central component of a formal co-management policy for floodplain fisheries. By the early 2000s regional fisheries councils had been created for each of the seven major floodplain lake systems of Santarém municipality, encompassing roughly 2,600 square kilometers (1,000 sq miles) of floodplain and 135 communities with an estimated population of 35,000. These councils were the territorial units of the co-management system, which was developed with Ibama [the enforcement arm of Brazil’s Environment Ministry], and were responsible for negotiating and implementing collective fishing agreements for floodplain lakes.

What were the results of this phase?

A colleague’s study found that fishing productivity—kilos of fish caught per fisher-day—was 60% higher in lakes with functioning management systems. The institutional results were another matter. To obtain legal recognition for their agreements, communities could not exclude outsiders, charge fishing fees or require that fish be sold to a community association. Thus, while communities were responsible for managing the fishery, anyone who obeyed the rules could fish, whether or not they helped with management responsibilities. Furthermore, while Ibama was responsible for supporting community monitoring and enforcement, it provided little such support.

What happened in the next stage?

In 1997 varzea [Amazon-floodplain] communities sought to adapt the lake-fisheries approach to the management of cattle grazing on community grasslands. This had been a classic tragedy of the commons and a major source of conflict between cattle owners and farmers. Communities sought out IPAM and the Public Ministry [Brazil’s independent body of public prosecutors] for support in negotiating agreements with cattle owners to regulate grazing on the floodplain and establish procedures for settling damage claims. In the next few years, some 50 of these agreements were signed. However, as with fishing agreements, their effectiveness was limited by minimal government enforcement. The next problem was the ambiguous land-tenure status of floodplain landholdings. The floodplain by law belongs to the federal government, but in practice is divided into individual properties with no legal titles. In 2006 Incra was given responsibility for regularizing land tenure in these communities. It decided to transform groups of communities into agro-extractive settlement projects (PAE). The PAE was first designed to protect the environment and way of life of Amazon rubber tappers. Incra created some 41 PAEs on the lower Amazon floodplain [the area extending west from the mouth of the Xingu River to the border with the State of Amazonas]. We saw PAE settlements as a potentially effective model for resolving the problems with the fisheries and cattle-grazing co-management agreements. The PAE is a formal territory. Residents are responsible for managing it and drafting a utilization plan (UP) to regulate resource use. Incra has granted PAE communities exclusive rights to their fish and other resources, resolving a major deficiency of Ibama’s co-management policy. Residence in a PAE requires compliance with the utilization plan, giving the UP more teeth. Finally, PAE associations can charge user fees to support management activities.

How can this translate to upland Amazon rainforest settlements?

Through our work with varzea co-management policies, we have developed a governance-based approach in which the first step is to develop local institutional capacity to take effective control over settlement territories, land and resource use. Without strong local institutions, there’s no point talking about sustainable development. We saw the potential for adapting our approach to upland rainforest areas and strengthening governance in Incra settlements as a first step toward controlling deforestation and sustainably managing their forests. One advantage — and disadvantage, under current conditions—of Incra settlements in contrast to traditional rainforest reserves is that they are oriented more toward development than conservation and in theory have no formal government interference. Thus, they have more room to address colonists’ economic needs; and residents have full control over settlement-governance institutions, motivating them to invest in settlement governance.

What steps are you taking in these Incra rainforest settlements?

We’re now collaborating with Incra on a couple of fronts. IPAM has a memorandum of understanding with Incra and funding support from the Ford and Moore foundations to undertake a study of forest cover and deforestation rates in [upland] Incra settlements and to identify factors influencing land use and forest cover in these settlements. In a second phase, IPAM and Woods Hole will work with Incra, state environmental agencies and regional smallholder organizations on policies and programs that promote sustainable land use and forest management. Our other major initiative is an Amazon Fund project to develop sustainable forest-based economies in Incra settlements, drawing on our floodplain experience and on the results of our studies of deforestation and land-use trends in these settlements.