When Small Isn’t Beautiful

June 12, 2008 | Michael Shellenberger,

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When Brazil's Environment Minister Marina Silva quit her office last month to protest President Lula's decision to move forward with dam and road building in the Amazon, environmentalists in Brazil and the U.S. rightly worried that her departure was a harbinger of accelerated deforestation to come. But the episode also revealed the failure of the small-is-beautiful vision of sustainable development for the Amazon, represented by "extractive reserves," which have been championed by conservationists, Silva, and her late mentor, Chico Mendes, since the late 1980s.

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Mendes came to worldwide fame in the late 1980s as a rubber tapper who had created a political alliance with indigenous groups and American environmentalists. He organized forest communities to engage in civil disobedience to block logging operations. He lobbied international banks to stop financing deforestation. And he proposed that extractive reserves be created throughout the Amazon where rubber tappers, peasants and Indians could sustainably harvest nuts, oils and other products from the forest.

Mendes was killed by landlords in 1988 but his vision took off in 1992, the year the United Nations held an environment meeting in Rio de Janeiro. Foreign governments subsidized the reserves and sympathetic foreign companies like Ben and Jerry's and the Body Shop announced deals to purchase their nuts and oils. Many foreign observers saw in the extractive reserves the seed of a new kind of development, one that could leave most of the forest standing while also creating jobs for poor Brazilians.

But extractive reserves never became self-sustaining, much less capable of generating the billions Brazil needed to service its gargantuan $500 billion debt. By 2005, Leonardo Coutinho, an intrepid reporter for Brazil's largest newsweekly, Veja, reported that many if not most of the residents of the reserves turned to cattle ranching to survive. Even Mendes' widow was raising cattle within a reserve named after her husband. In many cases poor migrants gravitated to extractive reserves for work, but with no work available, turned to logging and cattle ranching. Poor Brazilians -- and Amazon ecosystems -- would have been better off had foreign investments been made to create jobs in cities, not the forest. In short, the problem with the small-is-beautiful approach is that it too often loses sight of the big picture.

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Chico Mendes was a socialist, not an environmentalist, but his vision of extractive reserves operating as cooperatives fit neatly into North American "small is beautiful" environmentalism, popularized by a 1973 American book by the same name. But the vision of small communities living in harmony with nature is even older, dating back to the philosophy of 17th Century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that modern society corrupted naturally peaceful humans, making us violent and exploitative. That view of human nature has been repeatedly debunked by the archeological record, which shows that early humans, and indigenous peoples, constantly engaged in war with each other and their environments, repeatedly extinguishing species. Nevertheless, the appeal of small-is-beautiful remains strong, appealing perhaps to our aversion to the complexity of modern life.

The Brazilian government, for its part, never saw extractive reserves as anything more than a green fig leaf for large scale development projects, whether dams, roads, or huge soy farms. Brazilian presidents regularly appoint high-profile environmental icons like Marina Silva as ministers but constantly overrule them on fundamental questions of economic development. As a consequence, of the one-fifth of the Amazon that has been lost to development, half has disappeared in the last 20 years.

With the obvious failure of the small-is-beautiful model, both ecologically and economically, conservationists should embrace a more complex view of development. Small is not always good and big is not always bad. Moreover, mega development projects are inevitable -- the question is whether they can be compatible with protecting large swaths of the forest, both for its biodiversity value and the role it plays in generating rainfall and stabilizing the climate.

Minister Silva's replacement, Carlos Minc, has experience in this regard. As environment minister for the state of Rio de Janeiro he oversaw measures to insure the conservation of wetlands and forest areas near the construction of a massive new petrochemical plant. The greening of mega-projects is critical, but if Brazil is to become a wealthy country while leaving most of the forest standing, it will need a more expansive vision for long-term protection of the forest, one supported financially by wealthy countries.

Some conservationists are promoting a plan that would allow companies in the developed world to offset their emissions by paying Brazil to keep the Amazon standing. In Brazil, legislation has been introduced in the Senate to impose a one percent tax on imports to pay for conservation. The problem is that, because there is so much Amazon forest -- it is nearly as large as the continental United States -- Brazil could conserve large swaths of forest while continuing with deforestation as usual. Twenty percent of the forest has been lost, and climate scientists in Brazil say that if that number reaches 40 percent, which may occur as soon as 2020, the Amazon may no longer be able to consistently create rainfall, or regulate the climate.

Despite the Amazon's enormous biological and climatic value, it is still cheaper for landowners to clear forest than farm on already cutover areas. Funds raised from selling pollution credits, taxing imports, or other mechanisms could be used to pay farmers the difference in price between farming on already cleared land and farming in the Amazon. While Brazilian law requires that 80 percent of the trees on a landowner's property in the Amazon remain standing, lack of money leaves these laws unenforced. These are just a few of the challenges. The bottom line is that what's needed is a big, global solution that permanently protects the forest while helping Brazil to become a great economic power. Since the U.N. conference in Rio in 1992, everyone has learned that there are no simple solutions. It's now time to realize that there are no small ones either.