Of Fates, Forests, and Futures: Myths, Epistemes, and Policy in Tropical Conservation

Susanna B. Hecht


In spite of increasingly strident international censure, the global rates of deforestation in the tropical world have more than doubled during the last decade (Myers 1990). 'Ibis destructive pattern is well advanced in the Western Amazon. In 1980, less than 8,000 km of Rondonia's forests had fallen. Acre's forests were largely intact. By the end of the decade some 60,000 km, or 17% of the state of Rondonia had been cleared. In Acre - more distant, fewer roads and more politically organized - by the mid-1990s, some 5% of the lands had been deforested (FUNTAC 1990). Spurred by government colonization programs, fiscal distortions, land speculation, timber concessions, dubious land titles and the migration of almost a million peasants from southern Brazil (World Bank, 1989), forests relentlessly fell. Degraded pastures and abandoned farms soon replaced rich woodlands. Weed invasion, declines in soil fertility, and frontier economics all took their toll as colonists and ranchers pressed ever forward.

Such explosive deforestation and resource degradation are related to the ecological instability and economic peculiarities of the forms of land occupation - pasture and short cycle crop agriculture - which define current regional development efforts.1 In the frenzy to expand the agriculture frontier through the promotion of livestock enterprises and colonist programs, extractive activities that had organized the economic life in tropical regions for centuries were regularly deplored. Official planning documents by the score repeatedly berated extraction as the moribund remnant of a vicious feudal system, and a drag on any efforts to transform tropical rural economies into more bustling and modern forms. This attitude, prevalent for several hundred years (cf. Weinstein, 1982, Hecht and Cockburn 1989, Parker, 1985) has resulted in a systematic bias against investment in, or appreciation of the important economic role of extractive economies and the political context in which it unfolds. While I will focus my specific comments on Amazonia, many of my arguments about political economy of the environment can be broadly applied.

Rapid deforestation and resource degradation are related to the ecological instability and economic peculiarities of the forms of land occupation expressed by current regional development efforts. But why such forms of land use have come to dominate the landscape leads us further to questions that lie at the heart of deforestation: how we understand it, and how we hope to halt it.

What I will do in this article is to explore some of the deeper epistemological issues that inform our models and environmental sciences of how the world unfolds in these regions. While the scientific literature, airwaves and popular culture barrage us with "explanations," these competing, largely unexamined paradigms have policy and real-world outcomes. I will examine first two broad overarching approaches that have been instrumental in defining resources debates in the first world, how these have articulated with the scientific frameworks that have been significant in interpreting tropical forests and populations as well as their peoples. I will also discuss the emerging counter view. These will then be linked to explanations of deforestation, and their policy consequences.

The Amazon has always been a mirror to the vibrant fantasies of its observers. Any review of its history is always tremendously disconcerting because there are so many disparate versions of Amazonia, in part because the region is so enormous. But as much as it is a forest of trees, it is also in Turner's phrase "a forest of symbols." As one of the most profound and poetic analysts of Amazonia, Euclides da Cunha (1904) expressed it: "It is entirely impossible in the Amazon to take stock of the vastness which can only be measured in fragments; of the expansiveness of space which must be diminished to be appraised; of an infinity which is meted out little by little, deluding various onlookers with the treacherous uniformity of its immutable appearance. "It is," he said, "the last unfinished page of Genesis." As a tabula rasa, an area perceived in the Western mind as largely devoid of history, the tropics, and Amazonia particularly, have become a canvas for narratives about primitivism, purity, and the primeval, what I have called tropicality. Now, this may seem quite removed from the technical debates over rates of species extinction, magnitude of C02 generation, and alternative agroforestry systems. I argue that what at first seem like arcane philosophical debates have quite a bit to do with the way we view the tropics and their inhabitants, how we explain processes of deforestation, and how we propose to conserve or manage these regions.

Tropical Environmentalism

Lost Eden, and El Dorado

While we are accustomed to thinking about myths as attributes of primitive peoples, or as characteristics of our Mediterranean past, the extensive tropical myth making of the colonial period barely registers in the consciousness of most of today's analysts. In most of the US environmental community, and in its global equivalents, two major conceptions prevail: that of the Lost Eden and that of El Dorado. These overarching constructs have variants reflecting historical periods, and the political interests for which they have been mobilized, though simplified, as heuristic devices they are most useful.

Lost Eden traces its American origins to John Muir as well as the American Transcendentalist movements. But its roots are much deeper and easily trace back to the French descriptions of Brazil by de Lery in the 16th century, and to the widely known works of de La Condamine, Condorcet and Rousseau-to the enlightenment roots of European romanticism. In this view, nature is a wilderness, an object of religious or scientific contemplation, an area of spiritual renewal, a primal area, an Eden. Spared the noxious hand of modem man and the corrupt state, nature's true glory, as well as man's innate nobility, is revealed. This stands in contrast to the deeper history of wildness and danger, and the necessity, indeed obligation as part of the civilizing process, to tame the natural world.

As he gazed upon the majesty of Yosemite, as an employee of the local logging company, Muir conceived of the mountain areas around him as an untrammeled wilderness. His lost Eden however beautiful and wild as he saw it, was a nature that in fact had been shaped and molded by human agency. He was contemplating the former territory of the Miwok Indians, whose population was the largest one north of the Aztec empire. The people who had fashioned this landscape had been devastated by the gold rush, been dispossessed by agricultural settlers and ravaged by disease. In their profound absence, he assumed that they had never been. What he took as a wilderness was to other eyes an agricultural landscape formed of trees and tubers which his own conception of agriculture, and his own conception of nature, could not comprehend. This area, so majestic in its beauty and its vegetation, had been both human artifact and habitat.

The Lost Eden paradigm posits conservation issues in terms of wilderness and wildness and more recently biodiversity. The poignancy of loss is traced to the corrupting hand of man, and thus to save what we admire, we must stop ourselves from inhabiting it in anything but a spiritual way. Environment and conservation are thus deeply moral issues. Thus set asides - the model for this is the US National Parks - are the dominant means to this lofty end. Human society - particularly in rude numbers - is specifically excluded.

In contrast to this highly ennobled vision of Muir, we turn to his contemporary, the rational, managerialist Gifford Pinchot, the first director of the US Forest Service. As a product of Roosevelt's progressive era as well as German scientific forestry, he was concerned to control unbridled excesses of petty entrepreneurialism that characterized the timber industry at the turn of the century. Thus using the emerging, unprecedented regulatory power of the state, he set his task to one of large scale state management of resources, and the creation of a regulatory apparatus focused on forest management along industrial lines (Hay, 1956). By rationalizing production, wasteful activities would be transcended. Consolidation into state holdings as well as corporate structures would provide economies of scale and economic buffers able to protect (at least in theory) land resources from mining and overuse.

For Muir, destruction of resources and their preservation represented a moral crisis, while for Pinchot the problem was merely managerial, a technical one of efficient resource use.

If we translate these perspectives to their international arena, they naturally become more complex because they are infused with colonial concerns pertaining to the three G's (God, gold, and glory) or 3 Cs (commerce, Christianity, and civilization). But Brazil in particular was deeply affected by French enlightenment thinkers and by its own nativist movements as well as by the waves of scientific expeditions and adventurers who surged over the region in thinly disguised forays of espionage and botanical theft.2 In the literature on Amazonian history and development, the search for the lost Eden is everywhere, at least when viewed by outsiders.3 The cousin of lost Eden, El Dorado, requires further elaboration because of its linkage to two deeper mythologies: for the individual entrepreneur, the Great Journey - a kind of entrepreneurial Iliad of knowledge and profit; for the state, Manifest Destiny. Both these views are highly "developmentalist," but one posits primacy in private gain to the glory of the national order, while the other invokes state management and control. For both the entrepreneur as well as the state, El Dorado evokes regions of untapped riches for both private glory and state coffers. In the idiom of Brazil, the entrepreneur, the Bandeirante - so named because they economically claimed uncharted lands for the crown and its flag, the bandeira - were the sinews that bound private gain with national identity in the uncharted tropics.

These optics, in complex interaction during the post colonial period with ideologies of nature whether that of the spiritual Muir, or materialist Pinchot, presume, when translated into their Third World matrix, forests to be wild entities, either devoid of people, or if inhabited, people of small consequence.4

Thus wildness and emptiness become the overarching view of these regions, awaiting salvation or pillage. The fact that these areas had been arenas of resistance and revolt since contact was obliterated by the frameworks imposed upon them in the post-war period in which scientific enterprise in biology and anthropology had an unusually important role.

As Edward Said has pointed out in Orientalism, artistic, scientific as well as political energies fuse in the development of ideologies about third world places. And not surprisingly, if one analyzes much of the effort in tropical scientific enterprise, there has been immense concern over the complexity, and evolutionary history of the tropics which has excised human agency from the arena. The focus on complexity of interactions, diversity, pollination biology, nutrient cycling in the tropical biology literature hardly suggests that human agency might have something to do with "natural" patterns of regional diversity and landscape (except for its destruction) until very recently. The historic dominance of equilibrium models in biology have also infused these areas with a purported stasis, a continuity that seemingly stretched back to the Permian. Like Eden, these forests supposedly resided in some complex perfection so ancient as to be outside of history.

Forest inhabitants also inhabit a history. Impressions of tropical forests were deeply imbued by African and Asian colonial history where barbarism and inchoate nature cohabit. Here, the imagery of its "grandeur of its beauty, and its murderous treacherous potency where, far from moral or social sanctions, humanity succumbs to the empire of the passions." As Whiffen wrote, "in truth there is nothing more cruel than the unconquered South American Tropical Forest. The Amazon Forest brings no consolation. It is a simple feat to pass from one's canoe, part the bushes and pass into the obscurity of barbarism." These areas of primitives and savage nature are thus ripe for the soothing balm of civilization.

The scientific luster placed on this perception owes a great deal to the work of the influential Amazon scholar, Betty Meggars.

Science and Society in Tropical Ecologies

In contrast to the classic trends in social anthropology which emphasized symbolic and political structures, Meggars extended Kroeber's ideas on the limits of culture through the elaboration of what might be called the "soil determinist" view of cultural history. Using the Kayapo Indians as the central example in her opus Counterfeit Paradise, she argued that in the vast areas of the tropics dominated by poor soils and cultivated with swidden agriculture, complex cultures could never evolve because of the inability to generate and store the surpluses necessary for stratified societies and their attendant arts and sciences. Thus, limits to culture were essentially environmental, and the kinds of dynamics and structures witnessed in these societies were adaptations to the unexpected rigors of tropical life and its marginally productive agriculture. Many cultural structures - trekking, taboos, infanticide etc. were viewed as cultural regulators mediating environmental pressures. Transferring other ideas from the biological sciences, such as those of carrying capacity, she argued that the low population densities were at "K" or maximum sustainable density, and expressed uniquely environmental conditions. She argued away the existence of complex cultures in Marajo, Santarem, the Beni, as Andean flotsam.

In promoting this view, hundreds of years of history had to be handily excised, including very recent events such as the World War II rubber boom as well as the earlier hundred year rubber cycle. Much well elaborated information on population declines, such as those of Hemming (1982) and the epidemiological analyses collected by Denevan (1976), not to mention the accessible 20th century information on native extinctions and marginalization, were leached from the analysis.5 The notion that cultural devolution and population declines might be the outcome of social and economic factors, and that premises about the relative productivity of land use might be mistaken rarely intruded on the arena of analysis and debate until the late 1970s, when a series of research lines and political concerns recast the approach to such land-use debates.

In the biological sciences, the rise of systems ecology, and the explosion in the studies of tropical evolutionary ecology was instrumental in both rounding out and in some cases redeveloping the approaches in terrestrial ecology. While this literature was "committed to expanding the knowledge base of the tropics, in many of the side comments and "future of the tropics" paragraphs, human intervention (as an outcome of population increase) was viewed as essentially destructive. More to the point, that tropical regions even had a human history was regularly overlooked, even as biologists toiled at "primary forests" of the La Selva research station, later discovered to have been substantially modified by Mayan occupation.

The ensemble of these views - the empty and the wild - certainly served the purposes of theory construction. In addition, the overarching evolutionary models of tropical life also implied a thinly veiled subtext of social Darwinism. This perspective had other implications. In another context, Michael Dove has made a very relevant point about the political economy of ignorance - that to see tropical realms as largely devoid of people, and these possessing only primitive technologies, and tropical lands as unmanaged, with no history other than a biological one, made swidden lands easy to expropriate by colonial governments. While land and resource appropriation was usually accompanied by a commentary on the wise economic use of such areas in contrast to the wasteful practices of native claimants, the denial of a human history to tropical ecologies, and the expunging of political histories from these realms legitimized incursions. In Latin America, the scientific dossier about the "demographic void" of its primeval, "empty" forests certainly provided the intellectual matrix that complemented the economic and geopolitical rationales for the dramatic development processes unleashed in the 1960s.

Conservationists of this period also shared these perspectives and held that the primal forests could only persist in a world outside of history.

While the logic of the motives of the developmentalist states and entrepreneurs, and conservationists were diametrically opposed, both camps viewed their intercessions as essential for the good of society as part of the mission civilizatrice. For the states, this charge was to bring these lands and peoples into the "new" orbit of modem history. For conservationists, the objective was to isolate these realms from history. Their impacts on local populations was roughly similar and involved vast processes of land expropriation.

Tropical Habitat and Artifact

While the dominant scientific paradigm tended to glorify nature, and trivialize natives6, a counter analysis was also developing that was informed by quite a different optic. Inspired by field ethnography and in some cases by the emerging political and environmental debates in both the US and Latin America, this "new paradigm" began to challenge prevailing doctrine. The focus was mainly historical and agroecological.

Take first the lessons of historical demography and archeology.

The first question was what had populations been? Caravajal's amazed descriptions of societies fielding 60,000 canoes full of warriors and hosting the Portuguese reconnaissance mission for months on end had been dismissed as foolish boasting. The dense populations of the central lowlands encountered by the Jesuits in eastern Bolivia and the LLanos do Mojo, as well as the complex pottery and dense settlements of the areas of Santarem and Marajo argued for a reassessment of the potential population densities in the region and always challenged the Meggars model. Native agricultural systems of the Americas suggested far more widespread impacts than previously thought (cf Denevan 1989) as ridged beds, drainage canals, terraces and other agronomic hardware of Amazonian craft became better known. The essential question was whether this evidence of complex culture represented transpositions of Andean culture. Donald Lathrap, who had a long standing feud with Meggers emphatically argued from Upper Amazonian data, mainly pottery styles and motifs, that the direction was from the lowlands to the highlands. Anna Roosevelt in the most detailed archeological effort in the lower Amazon, suggested that rather than being a remote cultural back-water, Amazonia, especially its lower reaches was a major center, with stratified societies and complex social and production arrangements. Indeed, South America's oldest pottery was found in Santarem.

Exhaustive reviews of contact and obliteration, such as those by Hemming (1987, 1982, 1976, 1972) provide insight into the patterns of indigenous dislocation and collapse. Other researchers, such as Gott (1992) Taussig (1988) Brown and Fernandez (1992) further illustrate the dynamics of disease and terror in the depopulation of Amazonian ecologies.

Historical botanical studies have also served to recast the debate. Denevan's magisterial efforts on ridged field agriculture throughout Latin America provided the intellectual and philosophical guidance for deeply recasting the debates on population through the optic of production, and bringing into to resolute focus human impacts on tropical landscapes. These helped stimulate general analyses of regional vegetation patterns such as those of Balee, who deemed the region to be characterized by "cultural forests" and posits that roughly 12% of Amazonian forests are decidedly anthropogenic. Thus large scale regional forest patterning reflects human intervention. Other studies have reviewed human impacts on succession in tropical zones, arguing that diversity patterns can in fact be enhanced by human modification. The classic work in Latin America certainly included Alcorn's Huastec ethnobotantical studies, as well as Dominque Irvine's detailed review of how diversity in managed fallows can be increased through human intervention. Posey (1989, and others) have reported that the
Kayapo regularly move plants from one watershed to another and plant along forest trails thus affecting the broader regional distribution of species and subspecies.

Assumptions of the productivity and technology of swidden agriculture on acid soils of the tropics, came under further review as efforts began to focus on indigenous production strategies and resource management, and quantitative descriptions of the agroecology of such systems became more widespread. The enormous literature often reprised the Meggars debate, (cf Hames and Vickers 1984) but increasingly also served to develop a systematic body of literature on ethnopedology (cf Hecht and Posey 1989), successional management (cf Denevan and Padoch 1988, Irvine 1989), crop diversity (Chernela 1991) and broader issues of resource management (Robinson and Redford 1990, Redford and Padoch 1993). Studies of mestizo populations also had much to contribute along these lines (cf the excellent publications of Padoch and de Jong, Hiraoka 1993). Detailed studies of the production systems of peasantries, including petty extractors have also amplified the way scientists have viewed the extent of human modification of "natural" tropical vegetation. In addition, the increased ability of tropical populations to articulate the nature of their interaction with environment as well as their enhanced political voice, further consolidated this perspective.

Table 1. outlines some of the analytic features that describe these differing approaches.

Table 1. Tropical Forests and Peoples in Classic and "emerging" Paradigm.

Scientific Orientation Classic Emerging
Reductionist, functionalist models Particularlist
Epistemological "slant" Equilibrium Disequilibrium
Historical emphasis Biological and Evolutionary Historical and Economic
System "drivers" Biophysical Historical, economic biotic
Perception of forests biotic entities Artifact and habitat
Precolonial Populations Low Relatively high
Native Technologies Simple Complex

While the emerging models emphasize social drivers and are more focused on historical factors, it bears emphasizing that the actual analytic methods are the same; the questions and means of explanation have shifted.

Explaining Deforestation

Population Models.

Deforestation passed from being a local concern to a global problem with the mounting concern about global climate change and species extinction. Informed by a long history of malthusian thought in environmental circles, many analysts correlated rising population numbers with increased deforestation (cf Myers 1979, Barnes and Allen 1982, Grainger 1987). The policy prescription thus focuses on two central strategies: set asides, and encouraging population control programs. These approaches initially evolved from the transposition of US conservation models and were largely promoted by the classic environmental organizations such as IUCN Friends of the Earth, WWF and its offshoot Conservation International as well as their international affiliates. While an ample counter literature based in analyses of regional political economies exist (cf Hecht and Cockburn 1989, Peluso 1992 among others), the simplicity of this framework (as well as its "apolitical" nature) has immense appeal.

A subtheme in the Malthusian literature that intersects with the El Dorado ideas is that of technological determinism. In this view, problems of deforestation are the outcome of unadapted technologies. Tropical forest populations, their primitive technologies and agricultures may be stable at low population densities, but are untenable as human numbers expand. This results in increased environmental degradation at the cultivation site, as well as an expanding frontier of destruction.

The central thrust for intercession in shifting cultivation in the post war period is derived from the view that shifting cultivation is a primitive agriculture inherently transitional to a more developed form. The essential features of this model, which is the one most frequently used in theorizing shifting cultivation is outlined in the table below:

Table 2

Stage 1 Stage 2 Stage 3 Stage 4
SC Recurrent
Recurrent with
Continuous cult.plots
Forest Bush Short Annual Crop
Fallow Fallow Fallow  
4/km 4-16/km Short 16-64/km 64-265/km
Tribal tenure Imperfect Family Tenure   Private Property
Open Access Tragedy of Commons
Resource Degradation

Source: Boserup and Greenland.

Population pressure is seen as the driving historical force in agrarian history following this schema outlined by Boserup (1965) and later elaborated by Greenland (1973). In Boserup's model, fields are cultivated more frequently, fallows shorten, more area is cleared and the swidden degradation syndrome - a downward spiral of more clearing, lower yields more degradation sets in. If migration does not remove the pressure, the only escape from this dynamic is technical change which generates higher yields per unit of land or permits greater intensity of cropping by shortening fallow periods. This is seen as the central arena for the technological determinists (See NAS 1993). Those who do not fit stage one or stage four of the model are then seen as residents of a highly unstable agronomic nexus in which environmental degradation and social instability are the inevitable result. The equilibrium points of this system are at the "beginning" of agricultural history, and at its end. The poles of this continuum are really those of the primitive and the modem, and thus intercession in the seemingly unstable middle ground hastens a historically determined trajectory in which every hectare cleared will remain in cultivation.

It is this perspective that informs today's GEF "alternative to slash and bum" projects, and that has fueled almost a century of colonial agricultural research.

Another model often applied to the tropics (cf Meadows 199 1) is Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons, whose terrain is the intersection of population and property regimes. Because of its essential link to the development of neoclassical analytic frameworks, and its concerns to rationalize production, it really falls into the subset of economic models.

Economic Models.

Macroeconomic views hold that large scale economic forces drive deforestation and resource destruction. Historically this view has been part of Colonial and World Systems explanations that posit international demand resulted in resource plunder. Driven by logics of accumulation, international states and corporations through their political and economic power were able through their expressed demand and direct or indirect political control to trigger widespread processes of resource degradation either through demand for specific resources such as timber, or for commodities that replace forests. Another version of this idea places international financial institutions and the pressures of international debt and IMF strictures at the heart of the problem. (Rich 1993). In this view, nation states are required to pillage their own forests in order to pay down debts held in international markets, multilateral agencies, and private lenders. (Reed 1992, Kahn and MacDonald 1990). Critics often argue that the expansion of international markets undermines more sustainable regional ideologies of environment. While some analysts might argue that these macro models imply "too much" capitalism, and deep market extension much of the economic literature contends that the problem is more precisely one of poorly developed, or imperfect markets

The Price is Right: Consumer Choice Conservation.

Neoclassical economic models maintain that problems of valuation lie at the heart of environmental degradation. In tropical regions, the mainstream arguments are not as the macro analysts might have it, that markets are too deeply extended, but rather that they are not extended or developed enough. There are three main approaches, externality analysis, commodity analysis, and comparison of the economies of the three main forms of land occupation.

The most thoroughly developed analysis of the valuation problem resides in the classic literature on externalities - that the real costs of the impacts are not included in the price of the product (cf Pearse and Turner 1990). Another dimension of contemporary externality evaluation is the loss of local ecosystem services, (Barbier 1988) and increasingly, the more abstract potential resource contributions of forests through the maintenance of species diversity (McNeely 1988) and as ecosystem buffers of climate and hydrology. Theoretically, the development of better markets that reflect the broader values of forest products would substantially reduce deforestation. Indeed, the current trend toward national accounting is meant to provide information to illuminate both regulatory and free market solutions. While pressures for environmental monitoring agencies are essential, most of the fanfare focuses on green markets, whether for commodities or C02 rights. Here emerge the pressures for "Green" marketing, and what might be called Consumer Choice conservation. In this case international consumption plays a significant role. If hamburgers of tropical beef are consumed, then forests will fall. If on the other hand, forest products like nuts are bought, then forests will stand. Markets in C02 rights where first world power plants finance conservation or planting of third world forests is another dimension of the new market triumphalism.

Another set of valuation exercises compares the economic returns of existing forest land uses over those of their replacements (Peters et al 1989; Hecht 1993). While such issues remain unusually interesting, there are serious concerns about method. The most salient is that the value of wood, or the speculative value of lands are rarely compared with the potential (or actual) value forest products use. Moreover, the sustainability of forest based activities can be open to question, and their returns require long time horizons. Short term returns to forest clearing (five year horizons) virtually always are more lucrative than the standing forest economies (see for example data in Hecht 1993, Padoch and de Jong, 1988).

Consumer choice conservation has unfortunate imperial subtexts, and essentially reduces the dynamics of forest conservation to one of first world tastes. Once again, the regional dynamics are leached from the narrative.

The tragedy if the commons (Hardin, 1967) represents yet another version of "too little" market penetration, but focuses on a more institutional framework and targets the intersection of population, property and profit as the central dynamic of destruction. Described briefly, his model proposes that faulty property relations and the socialization of costs while privatizing gain leads to devastation. Private property regimes "internalize" these costs, and provide rapid feedback to resource users who, he believes win choose to conserve rather than degrade. This work triggered a large debate well beyond the scope of this paper, but it bears mentioning that most deforestation in Amazonia is carried out by private owners on their own lands, and that while security of tenure may improve management, there are numerous forms of common land ownership that also display excellent forms of resource management (May 1986). The widespread, marginally productive clearing on private lands, casts doubt on both population and faulty property relations as definitive explanations of resource degradation.

Most population and market models flee the larger issues of national political economies, and see the dynamics of destruction as the abstract workings of the laws of nature or economies. Informed by neoliberal doctrines, the next set of analyses focus market imperfections caused by state interventions.

Pricing and Policy

A great deal of research during the 1970s and 1980s began to address the deficiencies of simple economic and population explanations of deforestation, and focused increasingly on environmental impacts of public development policies. While some of this research was deeply informed by the ideas of political economy, a large portion of this research fell into classic exercises of policy analysis (cf Repetto 1988, Binswanger 1989, Mahar 1989). Following the well worn tracks of Shultz (1964), they argued that government intervention in regional development had generated enormous subsidies, incentives and concessions that greatly distorted the functioning of markets. Environmental degradation was viewed as policy distortions easily righted by a move to more rational management. Multilateral banks under pressure from the more managerial international environmental groups, have argued for policy reform, elimination of the most egregious subsidies, better environmental impact analysis, development of better regulatory capacity and zoning. As these models unfold into real world practice, they assume contours of very unequitable, and ecologically unsustainable outcomes that the emphasis on abstract laws of nature or markets obscures. These policy analyses embrace the idea that pricing, again, is the essential problem, and that policy is somehow exogenous to the social matrix that creates it. Regional development policy embraced assumptions that the regions forests were empty, that its populations were of no consequence and that history and politics are irrelevant forms of explanation.

In contrast, analyses associated with the political economy of the environment - what is now called political ecology - emphasizes class dynamics, historical economic processes and peasant and native perspectives in understanding the dynamics of access to and use of natural resources. Its focus is on the intersection of macro-level and regional processes with local politics and ecologies. Political Ecology.

While other modes of explanation view historical processes as essentially free of politics and conflicts, political ecology usually takes context and history as the point of departure. As a method of analysis it is heterodox, and can incorporate techniques from a wide variety of disciplines. The assumptions of political ecological perspectives on Amazonia originate in the idea of landscape formed of millennia of human agency, and feature many of the characteristics of the "emerging paradigm" outlined in Table 1.

A review of this history of social movements in Amazonia is well beyond the scope of this paper. Hemming, the best historian of European and native conflict describes a consistent pattern of uprising. Conflicts such as the Cabenagem revolt, and the frequent upwelling of radical milleniarian movements are testimony to the unseen pressures of vaster social energies below. In the contemporary scene, the continuing extensive agrarian strife defines the development arena (cf Schminck and Wood, 1992, Hecht and Cockburn 1989). The origins of much of the deforestation in the post war period however, reside in the peculiar dynamic of the livestock sector (Hecht 1993).7

In the Brazilian Amazon, livestock development has been the historically emblematic marker of enclosure, land concentration, expulsion of peasants and natives and of large scale deforestation. When viewed through the lens of political ecology subsidies, concessions, and enclosure movements are seen as deliberate procedures designed by national elites to enhance regional and national patterns of accumulation (cf Pompermeyer 1978, Hecht 1982). While livestock development, large infrastructure projects and colonization efforts ostensibly focused on production concerns, their essential logic resides in institutional rents. Bhagwati (1982) has called these activities "Directly Unproductive-Profit seeking activities" (or DUP's as they will be referred to now in the text). Making money via land in Amazonia has emphasized their use for capturing financial resources through speculation, their usefulness as means of securing institutional rents such as credits and subsidies, for claiming other assets. In this case, the value of the resource or land has little to do with its own characteristics, or the labor and resources applied to it (hence the irrelevance of only using pricing arguments to explain deforestation patterns). The value of the resource/land is linked to its ability to generate returns through a variety of structural and financial features in the larger economy, as well as factors such as validity of tide, or spatial characteristics, like proximity to roads. They represent ways of making a profit, but DUP's produce few goods and services through land production. In Bhagwati's initial formulation he focused on tariffs where the use of DUP activities would not, in principle, carry with them large externalities, but when the DUP strategy is transferred into tropical forests, DUPs can destroy real resources and marginalize real people. Livestock ranching is not exactly a pure case, since it is possible to make a return to sale of animals in some circumstances (Browder 1988, cf Hecht et al, 1988) but the range of benefits that flow to livestock often fall on the DUP rather than on the productive side of the resource use gradient.

The ensemble of financial benefits directly tied to the clearing of forest for cattle ranching were enormously attractive, and indeed they were designed to lure investors and capital into the region. Entrepreneurs from Southern Brazil were given extraordinary favors in part because they helped craft the terms of the incentives and because they were to take on the "mission civilizatrice" of taming the Amazon (Hecht and Cockburn 1989).

Whether the land use was sustainable, economic, or appropriate made very little difference in this context.

Land ownership in Amazonia has been characterized by concentration, extensive fraud, and overlapping and competing claims. While land fraud stories verge on the folkloric with archives ablaze and state governors selling title to areas that exceed the areas of their states (cf Asselin 1982, Martins 1990, Santos 1984), there are several fundamental problems that reflect the existence of colonial titles, emphyteusis rights, squatters rights, and the exceptionally rapid creation of capitalist land markets in Amazonia, and a rather chaotic, often corrupt, emission of definitive tide. (Bunker 1985, Hecht 1986, Pompermeyer, 1979, Santos 1984, Schmink and Wood 1992). In another context, Holsten (1991) has argued that the Brazilian land system regularly produces unresolvable, procedural, and substantive complexity in land conflicts. The bureaucratic quagmire dependably stimulates extra-juridical solutions that usually legitimize usurpation's. Land law in Brazil promotes conflict

Those who clear land have a stronger legal claim to a parcel than those who do not, so there is ample incentive to clear as much land as possible. Under the threats of agrarian reform, land in "effective use" - that is to say cleared, cannot be expropriated under the terms of the new 1988 constitution

This ensemble of powerful forces provides the context in which Amazonian indigenous, small farmers and extractors began to mobilize themselves for the protection of their livelihoods, as this juggernaut moved into the region. While most resistance in Amazonia has been piecemeal and not very successful, the ability to allay land usurpation via empates or "stand offs" by the rubber tappers movement represented one of the very few instances where modem enclosure processes worked in favor of forest dwellers.8 While land alone is not enough to secure livelihoods, in the explosive settings of Amazonian land grabs, removing terrain from speculative transactions was a key concern. In an atmosphere of quasi-suspended legality, the distinctions between legal and illegal are temporary and unstable, the reserve idea was one of the very few land tenure regimes capable of constraining external patterns of clearing and expropriation, while including local peasant populations. As an option of it stands in contrast to the broader array of recommendations developed from the Eden and El Dorado models, and strongly influenced regional environmental approaches to buffer zones.

Extractive economies and their associated agricultural formations do represent a viable economic use of tropical forests. But in the current context they are highly vulnerable due to the fragility of non-capitalist property rights, the irreversibility of replacement uses, frontier pressures, and virtually no efforts in agriculture and livestock R and D, the fragmentary research on extraction are risible. Serious considerations of the ways that extractive economies could be enhanced that go beyond the labor slavery and artificial prices have scarcely been broached.

Extractive reserves represent an interesting approach, but one which runs the danger of becoming yet another failed development scheme if realities on the ground are ignored in favor of an imagined populist Eden that ignores the fact that these peasantries are highly differentiated, and many are experiencing rapid shifts in social relations including the emergence of elites.

While political ecology is an excellent analytic tool, its links to policy and practice are weak because its solutions are particularist and profoundly reliant on social movements. In other words, political ecology represents a radical analysis in a reactionary social context which has blocked many practical resolutions. In the case of the rubber tappers, the movement itself is weakly institutionalized, and as vulnerable to clientalism and corruption as any other group of people on the frontier. But the model they propose, both less wild, less profitable, and more decentralized than those informed by Edens and El Dorado's are one of the few alternatives that could take Amazonian forests through the 21st century. Political ecology in its narratives of explanation is deeply satisfying, but in the end, in policy and practice it leaves us to contend with the "mess of politics," in realms of deep uncertainty, with no preordained guidelines for facing the inchoate frontier where ecologies, markets, deep rooted social tensions and conflicting histories unfold.


1 Violence and contraction of labor markets also play an important role in this process. (cf Hecht 1990, Milliken 1988, Schminck and Wood, forthcoming.)
2 The classic espionage minion was that launched by the U.S. under Lieutenant Herndon; while Wickham was notorious for die theft of Hevea seeds, even such botanical icons as Spruce were involved in the collection Of cinchona and other medicinal plants in the service of Britain's tropical empire
3 Classic here are the works of Wallace; Innumerable more recent works reprise this theme: Ribeiro's Maira, Mathiesson's At Play in the Fields of the Lord.
4 This stands in contrast to the Jesuits and bandeirantes who saw these areas as populated by heathens in need of salvation or natives available for slavery.
5 While these collections are much later than the writings of Meggars in the 1950s, they are based upon historical materials that were quite well known.
6 Both the noble savage and savage brute place tropical peoples in a "state of nature and thus beyond or before history.
7 Amazonian development and environment has been widely analyzed and is more broadly complex that what I describe here. Broader political economy studies include Bunker 1985, Hecht and Cockburn 1989, Schminck and Wood 1992, Hall 1989, Nugent 1992.
8 Indigenous reserves represent a special case, because the legal features are very different, and Indians are wards of the state rather than citizens.

Introducing: Susanna B. Hecht

It is the University's privilege that Susanna Hecht is the 32nd Horace Marden Albright Lecturer in Conservation.

Susanna Hecht is Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of California at Los Angeles, where she took up her appointment beginning as a Visiting Professor in 1992. At UCLA she has taught a number of courses dealing with agricultural ecology and rural development, regional development and policy, tropical agricultural development and resources, soil morphology and management, and nutrient cycling. Much of her research interest is centered in the Amazon Basin and, since her initial work there in the mid- 1970s, Professor Hecht has established an international reputation as a leader in the broad field of resource conservation.

Professor Hecht received a Bachelor's degree in 1972 from the University of Chicago, and followed that with an MA in 1976 and a Ph.D. in 1982, both from the University of California at Berkeley.

Her numerous publications deal with a broad spectrum of Amazonian issues including environmental politics, deforestation, economics of cattle ranching, shifting cultivation, land use, agroforestry, societal development planning, soil and water policies, and global environmental change.

Being amazingly active professionally, Professor Hecht's professional activities include:

  • Member of the Board of Trustees of the Institute for PreHistory, Anthropology, and Ecology;
  • Member of the Board of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture;
  • In the last ten years she has served on a Blue Ribbon Panel: Agriculture 2000 which gave directions for US Development Assistance;
  • Advisor to the Committee on Sustainable Agriculture for Developing Countries;
  • Member of the Board of the Rainforest Alliance;
  • Member of two panels of the National Academy of Sciences;
  • Panel member of the National Research Council;
  • Advisory Board member of the Organization for Tropical Studies;
  • Member of the Directorate of the U.S. Man in the Biosphere Program;
  • Member of the Advisory Board of the US Congress' Board on Tropical Rainforest Policy.

Professor Hecht has served as a consultant to foundations such as Ford, Rockefeller, Pew Charitable Trusts and MacArthur, and to government agencies such as AID and equivalent agencies in several other countries. She also has done consulting for many non-governmental organizations such as Rainforest Action Network, Environmental Defense Fund, and the World Wildlife Fund, and Multilateral Organizations including the World Bank and the United Nations.

Her reputation is such that she has been interviewed by numerous newspapers including the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Examiner. She has appeared often on television and radio and written many articles for the international press and magazines. She has been an advisor to two film documentaries and contributed to exhibits at the Smithsonian, a museum in Brazil, and at the Earth Summit in Rio.

Professor Hecht has been honored since 1991 by being invited to give distinguished lectures at universities including Stanford, Illinois, Cornell, and Columbia.