Amanaka'a Amazon Network
— an interview with Christine Halvorson
AMANAKA'A IS A US.-based environmental organization which acts in solidarity with and as a liaison for indigenous peoples and workers who live in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil. They seek to communicate the proposals and express the concerns of the Amazon forest peoples to the rest of the world, and build awareness of their struggle to keep traditional ways of living and working in harmony with the forest.
Amanaka'a also seeks to build support for the peoples of the forest in their efforts to implement a self-sustainable development agenda for the Amazon. It calls fora new kind of environmental ethic in which social justice and ecology are inseparable.
Amanaka'a Projects Coordinator Christine Halvorson spoke with Solidarity member Chris Gaal about her work while she was in Bloomington, Indiana for a public speaking engagement at the end of March.
You can write to Amanaka'a at 339 Lafayette #8, New York NY 10012.
Against the Current: Describe the basic work that Amanaka'a does, and how you got started doing this wait?
Christine Halvorson: Basically, Amanaka'a works with the social movements in the Amazon. We work as a liaison for them here in the United States. Whenever someone from one of these movements comes to New York we always arrange for presentations, interviews with foundations and with the press. We also receive lots of project proposals from them, and my job there is to translate, format and send them off to foundations.
Another thing we do is that whenever something happens, like recently when the two assassins of Chico Mendes who were actually put in jail escaped, we issued a press release and tried to drum up some news in the press, some articles and so forth as well, we went to see the Brazilian ambassador.
Here in the United States we work with various organizations, especially when it comes to producing "Amazon Week." I see it as part of our mission to put together the issues of social justice and the environment in the Amazon; the U.S. environmental movement does not seem to appreciate social questions as much as perhaps it should, especially in the context of the Amazon.
ATC: How have you been received by environmental organizations in the United States? What connections have you made?
C.H.: Generally, we work with some people that we know, for example, at the Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco, with the Environmental Defense Fund, with the National Wildlife Federation and other groups that support us, especially during "Amazon Week.” During "Amazon Week" we really open the doors to environmental organizations. We're trying to get human rights groups involved as well. This year, we are going to try and do kind of a balance of what the American environmental movement has been doing in the Amazon or in support of the Amazon, such as "debt for nature Swaps," "protect an acre" or "buy an acre" programs or the various programs that other organizations have.
We want to bring and balance those, as well as listen to the people from the Amazon say what they feel about their needs and their hopes for the future.
ATC: The coalition in Brazil for which you act as a liaison—the coalition of the peoples of the forest—is made up of indigenous peoples, rubber tappers, landless peasants. How strong is this coalition; and what is their strategy?
CH.: The Alliance of the Peoples of the Forest is the strongest in Acre, which is in the western Amazon where people like Antonio Macedo have really built a coalition between rubber tappers and indigenous peoples through building the "extractive reserve,' through building cooperatives and connecting those with surrounding indigenous lands, and working to have those demarcated, too.
Since Chico Mendes, both the native peoples of the Amazon and the rubber tappers have realized that their struggles have much more in common than they have differences. So they've come to work together since 1988. But, basically, it's very strong in Acre; it's not as strong in other parts of the Amazon.
ATC: What are the problems that you see with 'debt for nature swaps" as a solution to the environmental crisis in the Amazon?
CH.: First of all, I think that debt-for-nature swaps won't help solve any of Brazil's debt. And secondly, if you do a debt for nature swap you are creating islands of protection that are outside the whole social context of the Amazon. Preserving these little islands of nature isn't going to do anything because they are going to be invaded by landless farmers, landless workers.
But all of this is supposing that the people of Brazil actually owe a debt—which was not incurred by them, but is now being paid by them.
ATC: Would you explain how the concentration of land and the need for land reform affect the process of deforestation?
CH.: In the 1970s, the Brazilian government, which was a military dictatorship, declared that they would give 'land without men for men without land,' which interestingly enough is what they say in Israel about Palestine In the seventies, they started this process of reducing conflicts in the south and in the northeast by giving incentives to landless peasants, giving them plots of land in the Amazon.
There's been a now migration from the south and from the northeast where patterns of land concentration are very unequal They moved into the Amazon, and while moving into the Amazon they plowed reads going through the Amazon, and alongside the reads what are called “fishbones,” small reads that go off the major reads where small settlers would go and have their plot of land.
Lots of factors lead these farmers or colonists to cuffing down the trees. Basically, when they come to the Amazon, they've never been in the forest they are afraid of the forest, so they cut it down. Also, there are incentives to cut down the trees.
Eventually, though, these settlers are forced to move out of their new plots, because they are isolated, far from hospital or health care, schools and so forth Amazon land in general is very poor for farming. They can't make a living off of the land that they have.
So they're forced off, and large landowners buy up their land and it's converted into cattle pasture. Raising cattle doesn't actually provide much income. What it does provide is that the land is razed so that its being “benefitted” and the ranchers get tax incentives!
ATC: So the arable land in more inhabited regions of Brazil is concentrated into a very few hands.
CH.: Exactly. We see that same pattern happening now in the Amazon, with these small plots of land being abandoned or sold to large landowners. The cities in the Amazon are growing as well.
ATC: “Extractive reserves” are widely put forth as a solution to deforestation. These cooperatives attempt to sustainably harvest Brazil nuts, rubber and other products that don't require clearing the forest. How does this approach compare with the North American counterpart of creating markets for rainforest products, often called the "Rainforest Crunch' solution. Is this a solution or just part of a larger struggle?
CH.: Well, I see both of those as different solutions. The extractive reserve is a proposal that was put forth by rubber tappers and by other extractive peoples in the Amazon. It's basically an agrarian reform for the Amazon, because it is land that is collectively worked and collectively managed by the people who live there and work there.
It's a proposal that comes from the people of the forest for their own management. They setup cooperatives.
The Brazil nut 'Rainforest Crunch' is a different proposal, which wasn't made by the peoples of the Amazon. The "Rainforest Crunch" venture is quite different in its approach. It's rather seeking to save the Amazon by creating something that is economically viable, such as fancy candy bars that can be bought here in the United States, although extracting brazil nuts is a traditional occupation among the peoples of the Amazon.
ATC: How are the extractive reserves organized?
CH.: Essentially they are organized through cooperatives and unions of rubber tappers or other extractive peoples, river dwellers and so forth, the rural workers who live there. The process of creating an extractive reserve varies according to the region.
ATC: Is the Worker's Party of Brazil, the PT, active around environmental issues? And to what extent have they included ecological ideas with their traditional leftist program?
CH.: I'm not a member of the PT, but as far as I know the PT is definitely trying to take into their agenda the social questions in the Amazon. They do support the creation of extractive reserves, the demarcation of indigenous lands, and so forth.
I think that it is of fundamental importance for the PT to take into account the question of the Amazon. I also think that the solution of basic questions with which the PT concerns itself, such as agrarian reform, will bring a lot of change in the Amazon.
July-August 1993, ATC 45