Inhibition of Sustainable Development

Olympio Barbanti

Faculty in the Department of International Relations at the Pontificia Universidade Catolica de Minas Gerais, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: So, contextualize then what hard and soft development means with the case study that you did for your PhD?


A:My main argument is that the Amazon is an urbanized forest. People have an idea that the Amazon is this forest with people scattered all around, and lots of Indians, even. That is not the case. We have 200,000 Indians and 11 million people living in the Amazon now and I would say on average 70% of the population is now urban. There is no state in the Amazon in which the rural population is larger than the urban population. This is something that has been overlooked by international organizations dealing with the Amazon because they have a very European or North American approach to sustainable development.

...They're more interested in the preservation of the Amazon forest, rather than looking at the people that live there. Because of that, I would say 90% of the money spent on this project in the last 5-7 years, I'm talking about something close to 300 million dollars, has been to try to build protection over natural resources, but not dealing with human beings that live there. It's now been proved that if you miss the human side of development, sustainability will not take place.

...So when I started my PhD, I had this in mind: Look, this is an urbanized forest, the economic dynamics depend on urban areas, not on rural, so let's see this in practice. So I picked a very small approach, financed by the Brazilian government, the Germans, and the Brits, in a small town in the very East part of the Amazon. I went there to look at the way in which the population relates to urban areas.

...I was doing a project aimed at promoting sustainable development for the small-scale producers.The rural producers have traditionally produced the agricultural staples of the region, like...

...manioc, maize, rice, and beans. Those are typical small-scale family based agriculture in Brazil. The idea of the project was to change their economic bases into something that would use their available natural resources in a sustainable way. Their available natural resources are fruits; there are lots of fruits in that part of the Amazon, which is a mix of forest and savannah. These are very good fruits that even Brazilians do not know because we've been colonized, so we eat European foods.

...We don't eat josaram, gaba, jukee, purichee, and all the rest, which are fantastic, much better than European fruits in general. So the deal was, they have these, but so far what they do is they put fire on the land to clear the land for producing their traditional agricultural crops. So, the idea is to protect the forest, don't put fire on it, and let's make economic use of it.

...They introduced a machine to remove the pulp of the fruit and freeze it, and then sell the pulp for fruit juices.

...They started this project, and this project had many, many problems and didn't succeed.

...But when I was doing my research, I lived with these small rural producers for almost a year, and I realized that there was a dimension that the project overlooked, which at first I was not looking at as well. It was the potential conflict situation that would be involved in the project.

...My argument is that a very large number of communities that are organized in the Amazon or in Brazilian rural areas were organized by the Catholic Church using Marxist methods of liberation that we will call empowerment. This is reflected in the community I was looking at.

...So when I was there to see this project, I was first looking at the way in which these rural producers were related to urban areas because all the grants they received were actually directed for the sustainable development of the forest. So was the World Bank and all the other international organizations were looking at are these guys really going to use the trees of their plots of land in a sustainable way? That was the question. They're not looking at, which guys are these, which families do they have, where do they live, or the social dynamic, where are their children, and all the rest.

I first realized that all these beneficiaries of the project were much more empowered by all the rural producers from the same municipality that had not entered into the Ecclesial Grassroots Community. Because they were more empowered they had a slightly better economic situation than the average rural producer; they had much more urban links than all the rural producers, because they're more conscious so they took their children to the urban area to study; and they had double residences, a small house in the rural area and a better house in the urban area. They were actually transferring resources from rural to urban.

So the first point was that if the sustainable project succeeded, I concluded from my research, my interviews, etc., all the money taken from the sustainable use of natural resources in the rural area would be channeled to the urban area; that would take the children away from that area, somewhere else, so that there was no generation of sustainability, it was a dead end. The second point that relates to conflict was the fact that if the project succeeded, what was succeeding was not a sustainable way of dealing with trees, what was succeeding was a group of people that represent the left-wing party in town. Rural Brazil, like any other rural other area in developing countries, was very conservative and dominated by the rural traditional elite that operates within a context of what we call colonialism, or the politics of the colonels. This is political domination by buying other peoples' votes, by coercion, by any kind of basic domination that the elite can do over the poor.

...It was clear that the local elite was not going against the project because every other month there was a consultant from the World Bank or someone else from Brasilia, the capital or Brazil, or other state, the parachuting in to the municipalities, and gringos and all the rest.

...The local elite didn't want to fight against these top cats. As soon as the financing would end and they would be on their own, then the local elite would certainly jump into those guys and eat them completely.

Q: So you're saying as the Leftists would benefit while the experts were there, and as soon as the experts would leave then the people in power who were not Leftists. In fact the patron-client conservatives would then either take away the gains that the Leftists had made or punish them somehow?

A: Yes.

Q: And there was no consideration of that social dynamic?

A: Within the processes that were aiming at promoting sustainable development, not even a word of this potential conflict, and also other kinds of conflict that could emerge after the project took place was brought up.. For example, there were other rural communities in the same municipality that had a social organization similar to there, but did not receive the grant. Why did that community receive the grant and this one did not, even if there were other communities linked to the Ecclesial Grassroots Community organization within the same municipality? That was because there was an intervening NGO that knew someone from that rural community and they managed to put a project on a sheet of paper and send it to the World Bank and the Brazil minister of the environment. They became beneficiaries just because of this, and not because of important criteria.

Q: Almost another form of patron-client relationship there, in a different sense?

A: So in this sense, this project also created tension between two different rural communities, between the elite and the community, and if it had succeeded it would have made these tensions more visible. Conflict would certainly have emerged. It didn't succeed, so we generated another sort of conflict, an intercommunity conflict. These guys who lived for 20 years together started to fight amongst themselves because the project didn't succeed and they were not well-prepared to receive the money Because they were ill prepared to receive the money there was some misuse of the money.. This generated an enormous conflict within the society in that community.


Q: So then what? We see that these conflict dynamics are not taken into consideration by developmental organizations. What should be done? What's an alternative?

A: I gave you one example of how conflict theory is not taking into account a very specific case of community-based development. In fact, if you look at all the kinds of intervention, with a very small exception, conflict is not taken into account.