Forest dependent poor at the agricultural frontier: the complexity of poverty and the promise of sustainable forest ecosystems in Amazonia

Lead Research Organisation: University of Aberdeen
Department Name: Inst of Biological and Environmental Sci


Deforestation and marginalization of rural poor continues in Brazil and Bolivia despite investment in institutional change, forest regulation, improving land management practices and economic development. Previous approaches to equitable management of forest ecosystems in the Amazon tended to offer very narrow formalised solutions, lacked structure and coherence, were too insular and lacked broader international perspective and expertise. The proposed project will address these gaps by providing a holistic and inter-disciplinary approach to understanding the links between the causes, mechanisms and the effects of deforestation on poverty at the agricultural frontier in three case study areas in Bolivia and Brazil. The problem of making the benefits of forest ecosystems available equitably to the disadvantaged people is one of the top priority policy issues identified in the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (2005). However, environmental governance in the Amazon tends to lack engagement with forest dependent poor, so that some ecosystem management initiatives restrict poor people's access to resources and reduce their anti-poverty capabilities. The proposed project attempts to rectify this problem by giving the voice to the rural poor in the Amazon frontier, reconnecting them with the regional policy makers and linking them into broader research networks to develop Southern-led solutions to the problems of deforestation and poverty. Through the series of workshops, pilot studies and user-engagement events the proposed project exposes dynamism of deforestation and its effects on poverty in the frontier areas as well as suggests institutional changes necessary for equitable forest ecosystems management in the Amazon. It will attend to three key areas: 1. Understanding concerns over, experiences of and reactions to deforestation by the forest dependent poor The project will give voice to the forest dependent poor to articulate their concerns over forest degradation and deforestation and to incorporate their perspectives on poverty and poverty alleviation into the development of pathways to sustaining ecosystem services. 2. Developing holistic, interdisciplinary approaches to poverty alleviation through sustainable forestry The proposed project will address fragmentation of existing mechanisms governing ecosystem management and tackling poverty of the people affected by deforestation by bringing together forest dependent poor, policy-makers, governing bodies, and research institutions involved in rural development. It will evaluate existing policies reducing environmental vulnerability, address the lack of capacity and explore the potential for more effective inter-agency work to avoid policy conflicts and duplication of development efforts. 3. Developing international knowledge networks to facilitate equitable forest management Through a series of workshops and pilot studies the project will develop southern-led solutions to deforestation and the alleviation of poverty. It will enable knowledge transfer, research networking and cross-agency learning for the actors at local, national and international levels involved in sustainable forest management in the Amazon.
Description The main achievements of our research are 1) giving voice to forest dependent poor to articulate their concerns over degradation and deforestation; 2) bringing together forest dependent poor, policy-makers, NGOs and researchers to identify the key issues that need to be addressed within the case study areas to promote effective sustainable resource use and address the drivers of human impoverishment; and 3) developing an international knowledge network to enable knowledge transfer and cross-agency learning to promote research relevant to the ESPA agenda.

From interviews with 119 people living in and near the forest in the case study areas we learned that local concepts of poverty are, for many, associated with urbanization, restricted access to cultural opportunities, lack of political voice, and destruction of the natural environment. Most people living in and near the forest did not recognize themselves as poor, as the forest provided for basic needs; more often poverty was associated with urban centres or was seen as a foreign concept. Their vulnerability was described as unfulfilled demands, for example, for medical services, and lack of quality education and hardship associated with traditional production systems were drivers of rural-urban migration. The form and intensity of forest dependence varied, but traditional extractivism was important to many, even those who had relocated to urban centres. People's relationship with the forest was presented as integral to people's concept of identity.

The second main achievement was realized in two workshops conducted for the project, attended by local government officials, community development officers, representatives from communities, research institutions and NGOs. In the workshops we discussed the meaning of poverty, human vulnerability in the local context, its relationship to environmental changes, and underlying drivers of poverty and ecosystem degradation.

First, our research evidence suggests that government policies in both Brazil and Bolivia reflect a partial understanding of the relationships between people and forest ecosystems and an incomplete understanding of poverty. In Brazil, conflicting agendas for land use and definitions of poverty provided by federal and state authorities contribute to a misunderstanding of forest dependency and often ignore traditional practices of ecosystem management employed by local communities. In Bolivia, conflicting development and regulatory changes between 1985 and present diluted the understanding of poverty and attributed deforestation effects mainly to specific common ownership mechanisms.

Second, our research findings demonstrate that many failures in policy aimed at providing equitable solutions for forest and land management in Brazil and Bolivia relate to the separation of the natural and social elements of the system. In Brazil, poverty-related development in forest clearance zones focuses mainly on agricultural land improvement and "productive" use of land, creating vulnerability both for traditional and sustainable use and for landless, impoverished people with mismatched agricultural skills and culture. In Bolivia, transfer of the land not complying with "socio-economic function" promotes forest clearing and cultivation of livestock, while destroying the interconnections between ecosystems and forest dependent communities and aggravates poverty.

Third, we found that efforts to alleviate poverty and sustain forests were hampered by an overly simplistic representation of the problem and fragmented responses to changing ecosystems. Our analysis suggests that solutions for equitable ecosystem management ignored the multiple scales across which drivers of poverty and forest degradation operate, misrepresented the relationship between people and forests, privileged certain stereotypes/types of poverty and ecosystems change and ignored the dynamic nature of the problem. In Brazil, government-led development initiatives tend to overlook different temporalities of poverty and seasonality of livelihoods, which often forces the poor to turn to ecosystem uses that provide minimally secure or quick income. Similarly, ignorance of the different scales of the impacts of environmental management interventions creates land/job shortages and diminished subsistence opportunities lead to male out-migration for work, contribute to gendered poverty in situ, family dysfunction, health and security problems, and vulnerability to socio-economic failure. In Bolivia, schemes to deal with new ecosystem conditions are top-down and prescriptive, rarely involving workable community participation at the local level. Misunderstanding of different temporalities of poverty in policy-making leads to regulation of poor people's access to land and prescribing their seasonal activities, which limits effective use of ecosystem resources resulting in deforestation and land degradation.

The original aim of our partnership and project development grant was to provide a holistic and inter-disciplinary approach to understanding of the links between the causes, mechanisms and the effects of deforestation on poverty at the agricultural frontier in two case study areas. We achieved this aim through the construction of our consortium bid that involved 8 research institutions and 6 partner organizations. The theoretical framework developed for the bid focused on the driving-forces of impoverishment and forest degradation that are intrinsically socio-natural, such as exploitation, variability and resilience, structuring a methodological approach that has both epistemological and methodological interdisciplinarity.
Exploitation Route The main users of the research will be policymakers and regulators in Brazil and Bolivia at both state and national levels, but also the other Latin American countries that share Amazonia (particularly, Peru and Ecuador), NGOs that support community development, agriculture, agroforestry and forest management, land rights and land use issues. Also, community groups and indigenous groups, and research institutions in the Amazon are likely beneficiaries of the results. The main contribution of the research outcomes derived from the adopted methodology, which allowed for a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between people and forests mediated by poverty alleviation, as well as deforestation, ecosystem services and the complexity of poverty in frontier environments. In addition, our work inspired the development of a new Agro-cultures Network which involves academic and non-academic partners to provide a gateway to novel explanations of historical, cultural, linguistic and religious dimensions of agricultural frontiers.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Agrocultures Network of the AHRC
Amount £48,576 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/R003645/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2017 
End 10/2019