Traditional Peoples and Development in the Amazon

From the Series: Bolsonaro and the Unmaking of Brazil

Photo by Fernando Piva/ADUNICAMP. "Amerindian Scholars from Unicamp (State University of Campinas) against budget cuts in education." Student rally against Bolsonaro (Campinas-SP, May 2019).

After two decades of negotiations, the Brazilian government recently celebrated advances in the free trade agreement between Mercosur (the South American economic and political bloc) and the European Union. Brazil expects a growth of US$100 billion in exports to Europe over the next fifteen years, led by agriculture, mainly soy. Soy and cattle are also the main drivers of deforestation in the Amazon, accounting for 80 percent of total deforestation (Amazon Watch 2019). This scenario worsens when we consider that Brazil, over the past months, has witnessed the dismantling of environmental policies and that there was already a 15 percent increase in Amazon deforestation in the past year (between August 2018 and June 2019) (INPE 2019).

State support for land use associated with deforestation is based on an outdated view that the Amazon is a region of riches to be exploited to achieve “development” (see essay by Barreto Filho). Although the narrative that supports this development does not acknowledge its consequences, it presupposes expropriation of the territories of indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs). Not only for their land, but for their incorporation into the growing cities as cheap labor.

On the other hand, over the past decades, IPLCs have organized themselves against this dark future, demonstrating that another kind of “development” is possible, one that combines a good life in the forest with income generation. Contrary to prominent federal policies, traditional peoples are increasingly inserting socio-biodiversity products into regional, national, and even international markets. The commercialized products and market strategies are varied, reflecting the cultural diversity of the many Amazonian peoples and communities. Trade ranges from historical “in natura” goods, sold in large quantities (such as Brazil nuts, rubber, and some forest oils), to finished goods produced in the localities of IPLCs (e.g., dehydrated mushrooms by the Yanomami, pequi oil by the Kisêdjê, bee honey by the people of the Xingu Indigenous Territory, and chili powder by the Wai-Wai and Baniwa peoples). These are goods with high added value, associated with the history, culture, and production techniques by the IPLCs that produce them.

The importance of socio-biodiversity products of IPLCs goes far beyond economic concerns. It also results in the formation of alliances between different peoples and communities in order to manage close and common territories. An example comes from Terra do Meio, a region located in the municipality of Altamira, one of the focal points of deforestation and infrastructure projects in the country. Hundreds of riverine and indigenous families engage in a network of alliances and partnerships for the commercialization of socio-biodiversity products that extend through five conservation reservations, five indigenous lands, and an agro-extractive settlement, in an area of eight million hectares—larger than Belgium and the Netherlands together (ISA 2017, 2018). The organization of the network of forest producers presupposes that peoples and communities debate development models, access to forest resources, the defense of their cultural rights, and the problematization of intensified relations with the state and market.

This is a crucial point about socio-biodiversity products: the production of nuts, rubber, copaiba oil and many other forest products present results that go beyond strictly economic factors: they may generate social networks of support, cultural diversity, and other positive externalities that have yet to be adequately studied. These forms of organization materialize as counterpoints to the hegemonic discourse that measures development in terms of profit and wealth accumulation (Almeida 2016). In such discourse, predatory chains are much more efficient in value generation than socio-biodiversity chains. But there are multiple values at stake (Martinez-Alier 2002), and so long as we do not include the externalities of predatory production processes in public debates about development, all other social and environmental values will be taken as economically disadvantageous.

Furthermore, it is necessary to evaluate how the chains of socio-biodiversity products generate positive externalities that are not accounted for by hegemonic economic models. We need to assess how traditional productive practices and forest management by IPLCs contribute to the well-being of local, national, and global peoples and communities. As research in archeology and historical ecology has shown, an important part of the Amazon rainforest is anthropogenic, and products that are important sources of income today, such as Brazil nuts or açaí, are extracted in areas deliberately thickened by past indigenous peoples (Clement 2015). Additionally, traditional management practices increase biological diversity indices, either in clearing (as in the case of traditional agricultural systems) (Emperaire, Velthem, and Oliveira 2012) or in forested areas (through disturbance crops that result in diversification of forest parcels) (Balée 2006). Therefore, they generate positive climate effects by avoiding predatory land use, increasing greenhouse gas emissions and the deregulation of rainfall regimes that affect most of South America’s agricultural production. In other words, traditional peoples have been providing unrecognized and unpaid environmental services that are not accounted for as goods and services in current economic models.

Unfortunately, the development model that has been designed and implemented by the current government for the Amazon does not consider the social, environmental, and economic contributions by IPLCs. On the contrary, it will further undermine cultural and biological diversity as well as the possibility of long-term sustainable development. As national researchers have expressed, Brazil is missing a historic opportunity to invest in research that unites scientific and traditional knowledge for the development of commercial processes and products based on the country’s vast socio-biodiversity, entering a new industrial phase guided by bio and nanotechnology (Carneiro da Cunha 2007; Nobre et al. 2016). With its cultural and biological diversity, Brazil would be poised to spearhead paradigmatic ecological and economic changes on a global scale. At present, however, the government is going against the grain of history and undermining possibilities for future generations.


Almeida, Mauro William Barbosa de. 2016. “Desenvolvimento entrópico e a alternativa da diversidade.” RURIS: Revista do Centro de Estudos Rurais: UNICAMP 10, no. 1.

Amazon Watch. 2019. Complicity in Destruction II: How Northern Consumers and Financiers Enable Bolsonaro’s Assault on the Brazilian Amazon. Oakland, Calif.: Amazon Watch.

Balée, William. 2006. “The Research Program of Historical Ecology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 35: 75–98.

Clement, Charles R., William M. Denevan, Michael J. Heckenberger, André Braga Junqueira, Eduardo G. Neves, Wenceslau G. Teixeira, and William I. Woods. 2015. “The Domestication of Amazonia before European Conquest.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 282, no. 1812.

Carneiro da Cunha, Manuela. 2007. “Relações e dissensões entre saberes tradicionais e saber científico.” Revista USP 75: 76–84.

Emperaire, Laure, Lúcia van Velthem, Ana Gita de Oliveira. 2012. “Patrimônio cultural imaterial e sistema agrícola no médio Rio Negro: Amazonas.” Ciência e Ambiente 44.

INPE (Instituto Nacional De Pesquisas Espaciais). 2019. “Alertas do DETER na Amazônia em junho somam 2.072,03 km².”

ISA (Instituto Socioambiental). 2017. Xingu: Histórias dos produtos da floresta. ISA: São Paulo.

———. 2018. “Valuing the Old, Inspiring the Young.” Medium, July 18.

Martinez-Alier, Joan. 2002. “The Environmentalism of the Poor.” Paper prepared for the conference on “The Political Economy of Sustainable Development: Environmental Conflict, Participation and Movements.”

Nobre, Carlos A., Gilvan Sampaio, Laura S. Borma, Juan Carlos Castilla-Rubio, José S. Silva, and Manoel Cardoso. 2016. “Land-Use and Climate Change Risks in the Amazon and the Need of a Novel Sustainable Development Paradigm.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, no. 39: 10759–68.