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The Financialist: How to Eke Out a Living Deep in the Amazon
BY DOM PHILLIPS
Antonio de Oliveira kills his outboard engine and eases his canoe alongside a mangrove swamp. He lifts a wooden basket called a matapi out of the water. Inside, hundreds of shrimp are jumping. Shadows lengthen in the late afternoon sun here on Brazil’s Ilha das Cinzas (Island of Ashes), which lies a few hours’ boat ride from the mouth of the Amazon River.
A few hundred meters downriver de Oliveira, 53, lifts a semi-submerged wooden structure out of the water and pours the jumping shrimps inside. This is a viveiro, a shrimp nursery with holes below the waterline that allow smaller shrimps to swim out while imprisoning the mature ones inside. In the past six years this simple device, coupled with other fish conservation measures, has helped increase productivity by 50 percent, de Oliveira says.
With this added productivity, de Oliveira’s fishery last year produced 1,200 kilograms of shrimps, which he was able to sell for roughly R$5.8 ($2.81) a kilo to wholesale and local markets. Shrimp production and the collection of açaí berries “are our biggest source of revenue,” he says. “You can make a living,” adds fellow island resident Almir Malheiros, 33, who, like de Oliveira, farms shrimp and picks açaí.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Up until about 15 years ago, neither land preservation nor sustainable farming were priorities for the residents of Ilha das Cinzas. By 1997, the shrimp population as well as acai berries and hearts of palm had been depleted almost beyond rescue. “We entered a crisis,” recalls resident Walmir Malheiros, 34. “We had no idea how to protect our environment.” That’s when outside partners, including the Federação de órgãos para Assistência Social e Educacional (FASE), a group supporting sustainable initiatives throughout the Brazilian Amazon, stepped in, eager to help the community turn around a situation that was clearly unsustainable.
In 2000, FASE helped the island’s 50 or so families establish a natural reserveprotecting the island and develop sustainable fishing and farming practices. This meant deploying tools such as the viveiro and implementing an annual three-month fishing ban to replenish stocks. Açaí management is equally hands-off: the only intervention in the forest’s natural growth is the occasional tree removal to give others the ideal three-meter gap.
A decade on, residents work independently, selling their shrimp to intermediaries, who in turn sell to regional wholesalers or local markets. Some villagers tell The Financialist that they’re able to earn up to R$1,244 a month — twice Brazil’s minimum wage — by leveraging the forest’s resources. But in pure dollars and cents, how successful have the sustainable fishing and fruit picking initiatives been in supporting island residents such as de Oliveira?
While Ilha das Cinzas, with its protected forest and tidy riverside village, (which includes a community hall and even an Internet center), is often held up as a model, the reality is that its residents can only make a living from farming and fishing thanks to government support. Many families benefit from two federal subsidies: the Bolsa Verde (Green Fund), which pays R$1,200 a year to those who live in natural reserves, and the Bolsa Família (Family Fund), a welfare program that abates poverty across the country.
“The government can help us a little because we help nature enrich itself,” explains Manoel de Souza, whose income from fruit picking is supplemented by both the Bolsa Verde and Bolsa Família.
Other communities in the Amazon try to maximize their income from the forest’s rich resources by forming collectives and doing away with intermediaries, says Virgílio Viana, who leads the Fundação Amazonas Sustentável (FAS), a Brazilian NGO that oversees a number of sustainable cocoa collectives in the Amazon forest.
Viana says the collectives’ lean supply chain allows them to nearly double the price of their cocoa production to $R4.00 a kilo from R$2.80. Still, despite these larger margins, many of the cocoa farmers FAS works with continue to collect additional income from federal subsidies.
But a standard profit and loss ledger shouldn’t be used to measure the success of the FAS-led initiatives or the Ilha das Cinzas projects. By simply living in the Amazon, local residents say they are protecting the forest and providing a value for which they should be paid.
A recent report by US advocacy group Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) confirms this, noting that forest areas where the rights of indigenous people and communities are recognized outperform standard national parks in preventing deforestation and ensuring conservation.
Indeed, these various Amazon communities are driven by a double bottom line: protecting the fragile ecosystem they call home while benefiting from its rich ecosystem.
While deforestation in the Amazon by both big and small landowners continues to be a major problem, the rate appears to be decreasing. RRI research shows that projects such as those at Ilha das Cinzas help control the problem. Last year, according to the Brazilian government, some 6,418 square kilometers of forest were cut down, compared with 7,000 square kilometers in 2010. This positive trend comes as the amount of forest controlled by indigenous people or local communities around the world increased from 10% to 15% in the past two decades.
Upriver from the main Ilha das Cinzas settlement, de Oliveira points to a pristine forest along the coastline, which is an example of where deforestation has actually been reversed.
“I think it is very important to keep the forest as it is,” says de Oliveira. “I get a lot of value from this environment so when I see trees being cut down, I see this as an act of destruction.”
Dom Phillips is a British journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. He writes for Bloomberg World View, The Times and Sunday Times, People, Grazia and British soccer magazine 442. His book Superstar DJs Here We Go was published by Ebury/Random House in 2009.
Photos: Dom Phillips
Posted By David Robeck at 4:50pm on August 14, 2012
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