- In an exclusive interview with Mongabay, Marcelino Guedes, a researcher at Brazil’s Amapá Federal University, talks about how important the management of traditional knowledge is for strengthening the forest economy in Brazil to overcome the paradigm that sees standing forest as an enemy of development.
- “Human practices can be managed to become the basis for conservation in Amazonia,” he says. Countering the idea that forests must be maintained in their virgin state, he says the rational use of a forest’s resources is the best way to create an effective conservation dynamic, considering the many pressures the region is undergoing.
- Guedes cites the Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis, which holds that small changes to the environment are crucial for increasing biodiversity. These disturbances can be natural, as in the case of a storm, or caused by humans, which is the case of the indigenous peoples of Amazonia, who have, over the last 5,000 years, been modifying and enriching the landscape through itinerant agriculture and dispersal of native species.
Helping to protect the Amazon was already part of Marcelino Carneiro Guedes’s plans when he was studying for his undergraduate degree in forest engineering at Viçosa Federal University (UFV) in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. UFV doesn’t have much of a connection with the Amazonia region, but Guedes directed his focus there, leading to a job as a researcher for EMBRAPA, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, in the state of Amapá. He started out in the soil conservation and management division.
“Because my work is always focused on local needs, I noticed a demand for something more connected to forest management itself — while still utilizing all the knowledge I have about soil, and which allows me to understand the ecological compartments in an ecosystem, where everything is connected,” he says.
Guedes has now been working and carrying out research for 17 years in a context that, he points out, is different from the Amazonia as portrayed in the media. “You have to understand that there is a difference between conserved forest and deforested areas. Here in Amapá, we have conserved forest with very little deforestation and little need to care for degraded areas. Our challenge here is to maintain what has been preserved,” he says.
Today, Guedes is a professor and adviser for the postgraduate programs in tropical biodiversity and environmental sciences at Amapá Federal University, and lectures on management of native forest in Amazonia and ecosystem ecology. He also participates in sustainable use of Amazonian ecosystems and field ecology.
In this exclusive interview with Mongabay, Guedes explains the importance of management in developing a strong forest economy able to overcome the paradigm that places standing forest at odds with development. He also speaks about current difficulties in carrying out scientific work in Amazonia as well as the importance of traditional and indigenous populations’ knowledge in protecting biodiversity.
The interview was conducted in Portuguese and translated and edited for length and clarity.
Mongabay: How can human presence be important for the conservation of Amazonia?
Marcelino Guedes: The concept of preservation presupposes that man is separate from the forest. This is why it’s important that we talk about conservation, not preservation. Human practices, through management, are the basis for conservation in Amazonia — what we call “conservation through use,” as preached by [extractivist and environmentalist] Chico Mendes. The way we can create an effective conservation dynamic in the long term, given the considerable pressure the territory faces, is to use the forest in a rational manner, managing its wood products, its non-wood products and ecosystem services [carbon sequestration, conservation of biodiversity, soil, water] to gain the income and riches needed to promote well-being and development.
Can standing forest be financially lucrative?
Yes, absolutely. Many studies have clearly shown that the gains can cover the costs of management and that standing forest can generate profit. Wood, for example, is the forest’s main economic asset and there is a guaranteed market. Non-wood forest products (NWFPs) are gaining value and market share by supplying different industries like food and beverages, herbal medicine and cosmetics. In addition, there is still the possibility of wages from environmental services that people perform in caring for the forest and keeping it standing. When the forest economy is strong and these guardians manage to get an income out of the forest, they become the most interested of all in maintaining it. It’s a practice that brings economic and social development together with conservation in an integrated manner.
Brazilian archaeology as well as other scientific fields have proven that management carried out by populations prior to the arrival of European explorers had a profound influence on the Amazon. How important is the knowledge about these human ancestral actions in thinking about conservation today?
Amazonia’s original populations lived in the forest and managed it, together with the soil and fire, at least 5,000 years ago. This brought about enrichment of species useful to humans, like Brazil nut trees and the açaí palm, increasing the density of these species in the forest — both a natural and cultural selection process.
The disturbances caused by the indigenous peoples, mainly through itinerant agriculture, were important in creating varied landscapes that resulted in the abundant diversity we know today. Indigenous management of the soil resulted in extraordinary improvements in its quality as can still be seen today in anthropogenic soil in Amazonia. The extremely fertile so-called “black Indian soil,” for example, is a legacy of ancient indigenous peoples who used their knowledge to enrich the soil over the millennia.
What do you think of strategies and policies that ignore the importance of traditional populations’ knowledge as part of biodiversity conservation?
They are derived from minds that never lived inside Amazonia or that are unfamiliar with its ecological history, its workings and the essential nature of the forest. Today’s natives, who have been in the forest for a long time, hold knowledge about the best uses for each species, about which fruits are or are not edible and what is the best season for their harvest, the best woods for each use. And they know all this in great detail.
This knowledge rose from the need for survival, mostly when it comes to useful species. These populations have coexisted with the forest on a daily basis for centuries upon centuries, and their contact with nature has taught them many things that we will never learn from books in a university.
Another important field of knowledge held by traditional and indigenous populations is that of medicinal uses. Many of these communities still have no access to industrialized medications and they use plants to cure most of their illnesses — very valuable knowledge. To ignore this knowledge is to set aside an important part of the way the forest itself functions.
What is the Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis and how does it relate to management practices?
The IDH shows us that diversity is maximized in areas with intermediate disturbance. By “disturbance” we mean any phenomenon that causes change in the environment like, for example, a heavy storm, a lightning strike that starts a fire, or a large tree that falls, opening a clearing in the underbrush. If the disturbance is very large, intense or frequent, the damage to biodiversity will of course have the same proportions. On the other hand, if there are no disturbances (as in the case of complete preservation), there will also be little diversity.
Intermediate disturbances are fundamental for letting light in and renovating the forest. They allow species to coexist that have different needs for the resources. This doesn’t happen in extreme cases with much or very little disturbance. When a tree falls and opens a clearing, for example, species that need more heat and light tend to be favored, as well as their coexistence with other species. It is in assuming the existence of these changes and their importance to diversity that management is established. The role of research and scientific knowledge is to perceive the nuances of this dynamic and the ways in which human intervention can get forest products, including wood, at a rate of disturbance that is in accordance with what would happen naturally and in a way that favors ecosystems instead of harming them.
In your opinion, what is science’s role in helping the population become more aware and developing public policy that aims to keep forests standing?
Unfortunately, a role that should be central is increasingly undermined. Political and ideological polarization of the population means that the public believes less in science all the time. There are more and more scientific arguments defending standing forests, but they neither reach the public nor end up having an impact on society. The predominant social view on Amazonia is still dualistic, split between those who imagine the forest is a paradise that should remain untouched and those who think it’s a hell that should be burned.
It is also mostly due to this unfamiliarity that there are still voices raised against management practices, defending preservation and the absence of human activities in the forest as a means of protecting it, despite all the scientific and historical evidence on the importance of this interaction for biodiversity.
Science’s role is to break down this polarization and bring in a technical basis for sustainable development through forest use and conservation. But in order for this to happen, it’s fundamental that information reaches the general public — so that arguments and technology don’t simply circulate among our peers.
How do you interpret the current state of scientific study in Amazonia?
This is the most difficult time in all the 17 years that I’ve been studying Amazonia as an EMBRAPA researcher. I would really like to believe that we are experiencing the result of a lack of knowledge, of an old-school view that the forest is a huge enemy that needs to be cut down so colonization and integration can take place. But all this systematic dismantling of institutions makes me feel that it’s unfortunately not the case: there is planning behind all these actions.
In spite of the government’s attempts to make speeches on keeping the forest standing like it did recently at the U.N. Climate Conference in Madrid, you can see that actions don’t correspond with the discourse. It’s just a means of attaining more resources without doing the homework, without cultivating actions like management of standing forests or combatting deforestation. The situation really worries me both if we think about what they are proposing for Amazonia as a whole — in this paradigm where the forest is the enemy of development, that the way is to exploit mineral resources and sell raw materials overseas, a completely outdated view — and in terms of scientific research and education.
Those of us working in postgraduate scientific study in Amazonia feel as if an entire situation that was seeking to form a critical mass here in the region to work with science in the forest is being dismantled. One problem we were managing to overcome was the difficulty of forming teams of Ph.D.s because oftentimes outlying states are considered mere stepping-stones in academic careers, making it hard to maintain a technical and scientific base for working in the forest in these regions.
When I arrived in Amapá, we had about 10 Ph.D.s working in the region. Today there are over 100, many of them people from right here, holding doctorates. We were managing to make this important leap but what we’re experiencing now is that all this is being threatened by policies that don’t see Amazonia as something fundamental for Brazil. If you think in terms of territory, the Amazon forest covers 60% of the country. But it continues to be treated as a marginal topic.
Are there examples of regions where management and the forest economy are integral parts of public policy, generating positive results?
In tropical regions, in spite of all the obvious richness and diversity, there is still more territory to cover than big victories to celebrate. There are a few cases like Malaysia, where in fact a lot has happened. Costa Rica has some public policy, but most of the cases where we have seen the forest economy really become strong are in countries with temperate climates like Canada, where this sector represents around 20% of GDP. Other examples are Sweden and Finland, where there are initiatives showing how the subject is at the forefront, like the creation of the Ministry of the Forest. In these nations, even with climate challenges — there, a person plants a tree so their grandchild can collect the fruit — they have managed to establish a strong forest economy based on science and technology.
What are the main difficulties for implanting effective, sustainable management in Amazonia and what role does Brazilian legislation play in this process?
The greatest difficulties include a lack of financial liquidity and high startup costs, not enough land regularization, little credit and technical assistance for enabling the forest, aside from elaboration of the management plan. In addition, we are also dealing with excessive bureaucracy and a sluggish licensing process. Legislation needs to be simplified and incentives created for those wanting to manage, to be more demanding and have greater control over activities that depend on deforestation.
Which do you consider to be greatest challenges for the future?
Organizational issues like the lack of social organization and management difficulties inside communities. Also, market growth, bolstering the forest economy and building fomenting policy that brings scale to multiple-use forest management in Amazonia.
Banner image of a child from the São Félix community in the municipality of Novo Aripuanã, Amazonas state, by Neil Palmer/CIAT.