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Environment : In the Amazon, Forest and Farmers Have to Get Along : To save Brazil's tropical wilderness, experts say, alternatives are needed to destructive farming methods. They believe the region can be profitable and preserved.

Preserving the Amazon

October 23, 1990|WILLIAM R. LONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANAUS, Brazil — The sprawling, air-conditioned hotel at the edge of the Amazon forest teemed with ideas for saving the world's biggest tropical wilderness. It was a flourishing ecosystem of ideas, with the exuberance of a triple-canopy jungle, some ideas like towering trees, others like dense undergrowth and entwining vines.

They sprouted from the mouths of conservationists, researchers, government technicians and officials; they blossomed from photocopied treatises, slide projectors and posters; they germinated on note pads and paper napkins. The lush proliferation of ideas left no doubt that an international conference called "Forest 90" was a fertile theoretical environment.

A sampling:

Dirigibles will float over the wilderness, lowering in loggers to cut mature hardwood trees with as little damage to the forest as possible. New trees will be planted to replace the harvested ones, which will be hoisted into the sky and carried to nearby rivers, then floated to distant sawmills. No more logging roads slicing destructively through the fragile flora and fauna.

Forest dwellers will not only tap rubber and gather Brazil nuts, as they do today, but also will collect foods, medicinal plants, gums, fibers, dyes, oils and other products for marketing in Brazil and abroad. Useful species will be reseeded. In riverside settlements, processing plants and cottage industries will turn forest products into finished goods, providing needed jobs.

Agricultural extension workers will help farmers cultivate combinations of trees that yield profitable crops on small plots, protecting the land from the erosion and hardening that can occur when the forest is removed. This sustained "agroforestry" will render unnecessary the slash-and-burn farming methods that have already destroyed so much native forest.

Landowners will raise big, fast-growing Amazon fish in ponds covering a few acres, earning much more than they could by raising cattle on large tracts of cleared land. Waste from chicken coops at the edge of the water will feed the fish.

Two million Amazon colonos, pioneer farmers from other parts of Brazil, have shown how the imperative of economic survival can devour virgin forest. Most colonos begin by planting traditional subsistence crops such as beans, corn and an abundant root crop called manioc on cleared forest land. When the soil wears out in two or three years, they clear more land. More rain forest disappears.

Saving the forest, it was clear here, is not only a matter of curbing rapacious ranchers, but also of offering small farmers economic alternatives to destructive methods.

Like the vast rain forest itself, the ideas for weaning farmers from the slash-and-burn cycle seemed to have no end.

Plant manioc in combination with nitrogen-fixing legumes that will replenish and protect weak soils. Exploit unwooded river flood plains with intensive cultivation of rice or super-grasses to feed livestock. Grow shade-seeking perennial crops, such as pepper and cacao, under otherwise useless secondary forest growth, capoeira, on the deforested land. Develop more productive agroforestry "consortiums" of different crop trees that thrive together.

The goal is to "fix the man on the land" with a sustainable system of production. "For every year this person doesn't have to move, it means 'X' number of acres that aren't cleared," said John Butler, a consultant with the World Wildlife Fund.

But Forest 90's 1,200 participants--environmentalists and government officials--well knew that as deforestation chews away at Brazil's Amazon region, ideas alone will not save the unmatched diversity of its myriad plants and animals.

While the impressive flood of ideas offered hope for the Amazon, it also underlined a difficult challenge: A monumental effort is needed to sort out the various forest-saving possibilities and to put them into widespread practice.

To accomplish the goal, new techniques must be taught, and other assistance delivered, to a rural population of 5 million in an area nearly three times as large as Alaska. That could require an army of agricultural extension agents. Currently, few results of Amazon agricultural research reach farmers in the field.

Luiz Carlos Molion, a Brazilian climatologist and forest hydrologist, served himself a few chunks of river fish from the hotel's luncheon buffet.

"This is tambaqui, but it's undersized," said Molion, 43, a stout man with a ruddy face and scraggly russet beard. "They're taking small fish from the rivers because the big ones are being fished out."

Demand for tambaqui and other Amazon fish is high: A kilogram of tambaqui costs more than a kilogram of beef in Manaus, a city of more than a million people. Molion and others who know the Amazon say fish-raising in ponds could become a major source of food and income for the region's people, with a low ecological cost. But so far, little has been done to implement the idea.

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