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Bertha Koiffmann Becker: The Amazon without extremism

After traveling over and studying the Amazon during 30 years, Bertha Koiffmann Becker proposes an integrated vision, without radical positions, as the only way for reconciling the preservation and the development of this region that covers a little more than half of the national territory. For this 73-year-old political geographer, who taught for 40 years at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and for 18 at the Rio Branco Institute, despite the aversion generated by the unsuccessful experiences of the 1970’s, large business enterprises should coexist with small family production projects.

“We will not be succeed in solving the problem of developing the Amazon with small family production projects alone”, the researcher argues. She is coordinating the Human Dimensions subprogram of the Large Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia (LBA), a scientific megaproject that brings together specialists from Latin America, Europe and the United States. For her, there should indeed be preservation, but ways of attributing economic value to the natural resources should also be discovered, with the participation of the inhabitants of the region, because “otherwise, the forest will not be able to compete with the predatory exploitation by timber, by cattle raising, and by soybeans”.

In the interview that follows, given in the spacious apartment where she has been living for six years, on the 13th floor of a building on Atlântica avenue, Rio de Janeiro, with a breathtaking view of the sea, Bertha Becker undoes a few mistakes about the Amazon: no, no it isn’t a demographic void, but a region with about 20 million inhabitants and a surprising level of urbanization.

Why do you call the Amazon an urbanized forest?
This is a nickname I created in 1985, because of the process of urbanization in the Amazon, which in the last few decades of the 20th century registered the highest rates in Brazil. There has been an enormous inflow of people from all the states, largely induced by the federal government, under the national integration program, in which the occupation of the Amazon was a priority. And as not everyone had access to land, and those who did manage lost it afterwards in land disputes, the population went to the urban centers. In the census of 2000, 69.07% of the population was concentrated in the urban centers. There are those who say that they are not urban, but large rural settlements.

It doesn’t matter, because urbanization is measured not only by the growth and multiplication of the cities, but also by the diffusion of urban values by the rural population, by means of the telecommunication networks and by the labor mobility. People who work in the cities and in the countryside, seasonally, move backwards and forwards, and they go on learning and absorbing the urban values. I have studied this question of mobility a lot. What the migrants wanted was to go to the cities to provide their children with education. This is our process of urbanization. Some colleagues don’t like this approach, because they want our urbanization to be the same as it is in Europe and the United States – but it isn’t.

In the study you did for the LBA conference, you comment that the urban centers are the Amazon’s biggest problem today. Why?
Because they are swollen. Everybody keeps talking just about the destruction of the forest, but the urban centers are today one of the largest environmental problems in the Amazon, because they shelter a lot of people without access to anything, with serious problems with health and sanitation. I don’t know how, but we have to find a way of doing so.

You also suggest an integrated vision of the Amazon, without any radicalism
Precisely. It is said that small is good, small does not destroy, poor little small; the bad guy is the big company. Everybody thinks that there is no possibility of reconciliation and fails to see that each one has its role, with good things and bad things. This is simple thinking black or white, which still holds sway, in particular because there was a very strong influence, in the 1980’s to the 1990’s, from a view, which at the time was very fair, for denouncing all of that military movement for occupying the Amazon. I myself did a book with these accusations, called Geopolítica da Amazônia [Geopolitics of the Amazon], in 1982.

It so happens that the world has changed and Brazil has changed. Afterwards, the Washington Consensus, with its proposition of a minimal State, the story that the State is coming to an end, and instead of seeing that this was a word from abroad, folks started a war against the State. This was very bad, because today everyone wants the State. Because the State is necessary, because the discourse came from abroad, and countries like the United States and the United kingdom, none of them has done away with their State, it was a discourse for the periphery. Here, the academic world too fell for this. The result was that today, in any place in the Amazon, with anybody: I have just been to Altamira, in the state of Pará, which is an extremely important political center for the civil society, and the first grievance is for the presence of the State. To prevent the land from being taken over. Talking to a cattle raiser, the first grievance is also for the presence of the State, but for different reasons: they think that it isn’t necessary to have such an area maintained, with forest, and they want to reduce it because of the risk of invasion. And there are enormous conflicts on the frontiers, conflicts of sovereignty…

What are these conflicts of sovereignty?
In this process of everybody being against the State and being in favor only of the small and the good, there has been penetration by an environmentalist ideology by means of players from outside, for example, a few NGOs, which carry out political mobilization, religious organizations, in particular the evangelicals, and international research cooperation. The Amazon has become a fertile terrain for action from outside: people have come with money and helped the social movements, and the small producers, who had been fighting for survival and to remain on the land, have been transformed into sentinels of the forest. I am not an anti-environmentalist, but I’m not an environmentalist either. I don’t want the forest to be destroyed, I decidedly do not, nor do I want the large producers, the rubber tappers, and the riverside dwellers to be expelled. Mobilizing this population against the State is not OK. Nor is just making a protected area of the Amazon OK. A protected area has to be made, but when one protects, large portions of territory are taken out of the productive circuit. I am not against conservation units, I just don’t want everything to be just preserved. Because if the land is not used for production, what is it going to do? We have to respect nature, but also to use our patrimony and the land. We have to use it in a way that is not destructive, but we have to use it.

It seems that we came out of the 1970’s traumatized, and we don’t want to think any more about large projects for Amazonia.
What I am talking about really are traumas. Can’t there be a Petrobrás working in the Amazon? There has to be. There are people against making the gas pipeline. There is a movement that is very hostile with regard to the big companies. Carajás was an enclave, but it is no longer, it’s paying royalties and benefiting the towns around it. It is important to develop, with the local populations, a model based on the use of local resources, but we will not succeed in solving the problem of the development of the Amazon just with small projects for family production. Some have managed to achieve success, even in scale, but the majority lack scale, they are too small, they don’t have access to a byroad to carry the production away. There ought to be the small producers, the small company, the medium company, the small family farming project, I want the rubber tappers to organize themselves, all this, but we also have to have room for large projects, modern projects for production. There is still a helluva lot of minerals there. There have to be the two things, one should not exclude the other.

And how can these extremes be reconciled?
A good question. First of all, there has to be planning, starting the reconciliation in the public policies, with an orchestrated strategy, taking into account the diversity of resources and the social diversity. What happened was that each one would arrive and do what they wanted to, it was bedlam. And it wasn’t worse than it was, because the military government had a lot more planning than people think. We spent the 90’s with an extremely strong pressure for environmental preservation, which came with two distinct logics, but with the same project. One logic is concern with the environment, which is legitimate, without a doubt. Nature as a source of life. The other came with the scientific-technological revolution, in the sense of seeing that nature was being transformed into a scarce asset, so it was necessary to make a stock of natural capital. That is to say, for the great powers. And where is it that the stocks of natural capital to be found? In the peripheral countries, while the technology for using nature under new molds and with advanced technologies is in the central countries. So we have an unequal distribution of technology and of nature. And then there came all that preservationist pressure to keep areas preserved, not to destroy the natural capital. For environmentalists, it is a way of guaranteeing life. And for economic and geopolitical interests, a way of making reserves of natural capital for future use.

It’s a captious mechanism, isn’t it?
Of course it is. A process of commercialization of the elements of nature is going on. Natural capital, which before was natural capital for future realization, is now being realized, it is starting to be used. In the major global forums, an attempt is being made to regulate markets for air, biodiversity, and water. What is the Kyoto Protocol, other than the regulation of the market for air in which quotas of air are sold for another country to carry on polluting?

What is your proposal for the Amazon?
It is a scientific-technological revolution that uses biodiversity at all its levels, from extracts and oils to drugs, which is the most sophisticated technology, which calls for large investments. Some experiments already exist that seek to add value to biodiversity: in Manaus, for example, Natura and Croda, an English multinational that is now developing oils. We have to think of adding value in the heart of the forest, with the riverside dwellers, with social inclusion. There would therefore be productive chains forming, from the traditional populations to the biotechnology centers, where it is possible to make extracts, syrups, and drugs. Fishing, part of fishing is biodiversity. Fishing can be industrialized, it’s one of the greatest possibilities for the Amazon and nobody uses it. It’s being depredated. It is biodiversity that makes it possible to generate wealth, drugs make wealth, syrups and cosmetics as well. And what can generate wealth with social inclusion without depredating the environment? Technology. It’s the only way.

In your studies, you talk a lot of waste in the extraction of timber.
Timber is a disaster, because they extract it by busting up the forest. The problem is that the timber companies are one of the sectors that most provide employment in the Amazon. So it’s difficult to stop, but we have to invent a way of making better use of it. There is now a process for certification of timber going on, with forestry handling, which is important. You can no longer keep busting up the forest to take the timber out, nor can you let soybeans make its way into the forest. Soybeans have a lot of room to make headway, in the areas that have already been deforested, for example. What is happening today in Amazonia is a war between the current and future uses of the territory. Soybeans are extremely important for the country, and the forest is a potential wealth, enormous. At the end of the 20th century, the farm frontier reached the edge of the forest and destroyed transition forest, and true forest as well. At the beginning of the 1990’s, there was a movement to bar this destruction, with the policy of protected areas, which helped to contain the impetus from soybeans, a crop that is expanding on the basis of powerful logistics and a technified agroindustry. There is a great risk of soybeans expanding even more and bringing down the forest with more intensity. The protected areas alone are not a solution, perhaps the indigenous areas may succeed in barring more, because they are occupied. We have to attribute economic value to the natural resources, so as to face up to the competition with the commodities. Otherwise, the forest will not manage to compete with the predatory exploitation of timber, cattle raising, and soybeans.

Is the Amazon a problem for Brazil?
It’s a problem and a potential, because from the point of view of the government there is a concern with the question of sovereignty and external agent in Amazonia. On the political frontier, there are contacts with the Farcs (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), drug traders and contraband. All this in the light of the fragility of the institutions of the State, which has neither the condition nor the capacity for control. This is one of Brazil’s major issues: how to strengthen the institutions, of the State of Law, I mean! Another concern is the war between, on the one hand, family producers (family producers include rubber tapper, Indians and small farmers, all those who live off the land) and the environmentalists, who generally speaking are together, in a partnership that exerts pressure so as not to change things within the region. On the other hand, there are soybeans, grain, which is one of the bases of the country’s economy, and which is expanding brutally.

While there is a market and China continues to buy, soybeans are going to expand, because they are based on extremely powerful logistics. Logistics is not just transport, it is also storage, communication networks, towns, markets. This set of things generates veritable corporatized territories. But there is something that few people know: the major trading companies, like Bunge and Cargill, are not buying any more land, they now outsource the land. They give the seeds, money, and buy the crop in advance. They are smart. Why are they going to get involved in the land issue in Brazil? It’s a form of labor relationship, which Sadia has already been doing in the South, and which has expanded there. But the Maggi – do you know who Blairo Maggi is, the governor of the State of Mato Grosso? – outsources and buys land as well. Then we have a problem of expropriation of the small producers, when the plantations arrive. And what is happening? The major producers are looking for ways out for exporting by thenorth to the ports of Rotterdam and Shanghai. They are even financing a part of the paving of the Cuiabá-Santarém highway. In the light of this war, the government decided to transform the Cuiabá-Santarém, the BR-163, into a new model for implanting roads in Amazonia.

To avoid another Transamazonian (a highway that cut the Amazon forest)?
Precisely. It’s an attempt to establish a new model for opening up roads. The problem is the following: we have to open up roads. Or can Brazil not be able to open up roads to expand circulation in its national territory? The whole world can, it’s only us that cannot? But we have to make roads without destroying the forest in the way that it is being destroyed. So we are proposing, that includes me too, zonings: planning urban centers, because there is going to be migration, we have to have a base of support, decent, to sustain the population; areas of family farming; areas of soybeans, there certainly will be; and areas of forest handling, isn’t that right??

When did you come into this story?
In November 2003. Now we have a working group under way. There are 14 ministries, under the leadership of the Ministries of National Integration and of the Environment. We have to make policies in harmony. It is very, very difficult, but we are trying. We are going to carry out one planning for the whole area under the influence of the highway.

When did the project for this highway begin?
It was in the decade of the 1970’s, under the military government. They opened up a dirt road, but it was never paved. It was then that a migration began from Mato Grosso and from the South, and the small producers went to the Cuiabá-Santarém. Today, the majority are cattle raisers. The big producers are crazy for paving, for the road to serve for exporting soybeans. Without being paved, it only serves for cattle to pass.

And the small producers, what happens to them?
Excuse me for the expression, but it’s a dirty trick, to open up roads to be an export corridor, while the region continues to have an extremely weak internal connectivity, and that includes the small producers, who need byroads to carry their production away and don’t have them.

When you joined the LBA, in 2002, the project was already under way, wasn’t it?
– For a long time. The LBA is a project that is intimately associated with the Global Environmental Change, which is what I call a process of globalizing research. And why globalize research? Because Global Change is a venture of the International Council for Science, (ICSU), an international council of all the scientific unions, and hence with a global concern. Concern that nature is being depredated, that the climate, with pollution, the greenhouse effect, that all this is going to change the planet, and evidently, with the production of knowledge, to make better use of what we have on the Earth and to avoid catastrophes. ICSU focused knowledge on natural sciences, climate, seas and oceans, vegetation… the human part was absolutely neglected. The LBA was created with this same conception, so much so that the central problem is the relationship between biosphere and atmosphere. On the human part, there was only one subprogram, Land Use and Land Cover Change, at ICSU itself, with plenty of biochemistry, biophysics, bio heavens knows what else. But nature doesn’t exist without man.

I thing the global question is important, but I can’t give priority to global questions because the problems in Brazil are enormous, including social ones. I cannot think only of the future generations, I have to think of the present one as well. Not least because there’s going to be a global repercussion. I don’t like this globalist emphasis, but this is my problem, it’s got nothing to do with the LBA. When ICSU introduced a subprogram of human notions in global environmental change, the LBA thought it as well to do the same. I was invited by Carlos Nobre, who has a very open mind, for me to implant research about the human dimension in global environmental change. To start with, he suggested that I did this summary, to see how human scientists dealt with the Amazon. Time was short, the survey had a few faults, but I passes the message that there now is a significant production on the Amazon, albeit much dispersed, and that there is a great debate, because they are fixed in their certainties. The LBA’s foreign squad has an enormous disdain for the human dimension, I’m obliged to confess.

What do you attribute this disdain to?
They think that human science is not science, that everything has to be measured, with equations and models. But I, having worked in the Amazon for 30 years, cannot fail to go into the field to see what is going on. Because things there change every year, with incredible dynamics. I have to be careful with these nice little stratospheric models. Models are important, but I have to go into the field, I need to get to know what is going on in various places in the Amazon to be able to make a generalization. I talk to different social players, from the manual laborer to the governor of the state, the cattle raisers and the family farmer. I can’t see how you can capture the trends in the changes in the Amazon unless you go there and recognize the diversity.

How has the dialog been with the physicists, chemists and biologists of the LBA?
Difficult. I have my prejudices too, I recognize. I didn’t like it a bit that they entered into a partnership with Nasa, because Brazil takes part in multilateral programs in which the foreigners have excessive autonomy. As I work with geopolitics, I have my suspicions of financial aid. Financial aid comes with a research agenda, in which the global processes have a very great importance, but, as I have already said, we have to think in regional and national terms. It’s something that is happening all over the world, but we have to know how to negotiate. We don’t have to submit.

When did you go to the Amazon for the first time?
When I was a teacher at the Rio Branco Institute, of the Ministry for Foreign Relations, it was there that I began to become interested in political geography. I had to teach future diplomats, and I began to look for something that would be useful for them. I was always telling Ambassador Antonio Correa do Lago, who was the head of the institute, that the boys ought to know Brazil before representing Brazil abroad, because they came from the urban elites and knew nothing of the country. I went with some 60 pupils in a airplane of the FAB (Brazilian Air Force), and we landed at all the barracks in the environs of the frontiers. It was the ambassador who chose to visit the frontiers of the Amazon, and that was in 1970, you see. Do you know that the populations in the frontier regions only used to listen to the radio from Cuba and not Rádio Nacional [National Radio]? I prepared the boys for some time, using questionnaires, for them to see what the connection was between the inhabitants and the Brazilian territory. I based myself on the issue of the center-periphery structure.

We went to Corumbá, Cáceres – Cáceres was already full of migrants -, afterwards we flew over the Guaporé valley, landing at the Príncipe da Beira fort, then Brazilian Guajará-Mirim, Bolivian Guajará-Mirim, Porto Velho, Rio Branco, Cruzeiro do Sul, and from there, Manaus and Brasilia. I didn’t know the Amazon, and then I have never left it. Afterwards I went on an excursion with the Engineering people from the Fundão (Federal University of Rio do Janeiro), I went with them by car all along the Belém-Brasilia. From then on, I did my projects for the CNPq and developed a know-how for field research: I would ask the DNER (National Highways Department) for help and use the houses of their engineers to sleep along the road.

And afterwards, where do you get to?
I began by the north of Goiás, which later became Tocantins. Araguaína, Imperatriz, then Rondônia, Mato Grosso, I covered Mato Grosso, I went to Sinop, all of that, Alta Floresta… Every year I would go to a place, I got to know just about everything.

When is the next expedition?
At the beginning of August, I’m going to Sinop, Guarantã do Norte, in Mato Grosso, Novo Progresso, in Pará, and Apuí and Humaitá, in Amazonas. We are going to see what is happening, when soybeans are moving in, and I want to see properly what it’s like. I want to see if this area should or not be part of the area of influence of the Cuiabá-Santarém.

Do geographers, generally speaking, take little part in the debates on Amazonia, in short, on the use of the Brazilian territory?
Scientists are great adepts of navel-gazing. They have their preferences and want to research in accordance with those preferences. They don’t look to the demands of society. In the case of geography, there is something else: the troop went into that leftism, a cockeyed Marxism, only concerned with finding Marxism in the problems, not in denunciations. But you can’t… Perhaps we need like never before the contribution from the academic world. Perhaps we have to take a step forward, not just keeping on researching, researching and researching for our entire lives. This is our function, of course, but it costs nothing to think about the problems of the country and to try to make some suggestion. I confess that today I am much more connected with non-geographers than with geographers. I am much more transdisciplinary.

What should any Brazilian know about the Amazon?
That the Amazon is part of Brazil; that the conflicts that occur there are conflicts of Brazilian society, they just appear there with greater clarity, for the very geographic peculiarities of the area; that the Amazon is not a demographic void.

It isn’t a demographic void?
No! That’s another myth. The myth that the Amazon is homogeneous and empty. It never has been empty, because there were already Indians living there, afterwards the riverside dwellers, the caboclos and the towns. It’s a region that at the end of last century went through enormous structural transformations, in connectivity, for the telecommunication networks; in the economy, with industrialization; in settlement, which started to take place along the roads instead of along the rivers; and in society. There was intense migration, from all over the country, and the civil society organized itself like never before. There are social movements in the countryside, because of the land, and in the towns, for citizenship. All these processes occurred in a differentiated manner, because there are today three large macroregions in the Amazon, which I distinguish.

The first is the so-called Arc of Fire, I think it’s ridiculous to call it like that, to me, it’s the Arc of Consolidated Settlement, because it’s full of big towns, roads, soybeans, cattle raising, Carajás… The other macroregion is the central region, Pará, the most vulnerable, because of the environmental and social conflicts, it’s where the Cuiabá-Santarém goes, that’s why we are making all this effort. The other macroregion, the western Amazon, still the one most preserved, with the states of Amazonas and Roraima and a part of Acre. It’s the realm of the waters, with the Solimões and Amazonas rivers, a lot of forest, indigenous lands and conservation units. But it has Manaus, a large industrial center, we’d better not forget. Within these macroregions, there are subregions, and there are many of them. It’s important to stress: we can no longer think of the Amazon without thinking of the South American Amazon as a whole. We have to think of integration of the countries of the Amazon.

How does this integration stand?
In Brasilia, there is now a Permanent Secretariat for the Amazonian Cooperation Treaty. At the beginning of July, they did the first workshop, now as the Amazonian Cooperation Treaty Organization (OTCA, bringing together Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Surinam and Venezuela), to discuss a strategic plan. I did an opening lecture, it was great, I said all these things, they loved it. Except that the plan didn’t talk about the social issue. I said that one of the challenges of continental integration is precisely the social one, because I want the social problem to be resolved, what I detest is for the social question to keep being trivialized. I said, “if you don’t want to attend to the social problem, there isn’t going to be integration of anything”. Another challenge is how to participate in globalization through the process that is taking place now, the commercialization of nature, with a model that doesn’t depredate the resources and brings social inclusion. And there I went, from then onwards. I suggested a technological revolution, which we could even do in conjunction. The governor of Colombian Amazonia came to talk with me, we have ideas, we have ideas…

For example?
Ah, I’m not going to tell. I cannot, otherwise I give the game away, I hand over all the gold to the bandit, it?s not you, no, but those who read it and already going to start to quarrel.