Progressive & conservative Acre

I like Rio Branco.  It is not a big city, as are most Brazilian capitals.  Rather, it is a pleasant middle-sized city, kind of like Madison. And I have to admire the way Acre is run.  They are progressive in the sense of the word I remember in the Wisconsin of my childhood.  It is a kind of progressive conservatism. They are trying hard to make life better for the common people, while conserving their environment & making it worthwhile to work hard, all the while affirming the traditions and the values of the people of Acre. You can see picture of Rio Branco above. The statues are based on ordinary people walking the city’s streets. Below are the Nelore cattle now so common in Brazil.  They can thrive on low quality food and are adapted to hot weather. Being white is good for reflecting the tropical sun.

The Economist ran an article in its recent issue.  I suggest that read at this link.

Acre is still underdeveloped. We stopped at a store, one of the few places you could stop along the only road between Rio Branco and Taraucuá.  The “bathroom” literally consisted of a pot to p*ss in.  Above is the store and a few other pictures I took from Mariza’s Facebook.

There is a joke in the other parts of Brazil asking if Acre really exists. Acre does and its development is breaking new ground.  They are trying to find ways to make it as profitable or more profitable to keep the forests intact than to cut them.  I think this is possible, although I think there needs to be some modifications.  For example,  a strong conservation ethic requires/requires hunting and timber harvesting.   I think that in the longer run some of the preservation will need to give way to conservation, although it is understandable that preservation will seem more urgent right after so much was threatened or destroyed. Below you can see the pasture and erosion. The tree on the little hump of land is presumably the former level.  Most of the clearing took place in the 1970s. The grass is growing well.

So Acre is my kind of place … almost.I love the forest protection & I really like the way they celebrate and help common people.But Acres is a little too hot for me.I miss the season and the cold, or at least the cool that I grew up with. I guess I am getting homesick.I love Brazil, but America is where my soul will always abide.

Challenges of true people

The indigenous people Huni Kui live in Peru and the Brazilian state of Acre. About ten thousand of them are today spread over twelve indigenous lands in Acre. They are the largest indigenous group in Acre.

Pinuyá was founded in 1972 when three families arrived from other parts of the state.  They were not recognized until 1991 when they were granted 105 contiguous hectares (about 260 acres). The governor of Acre gave them another 200 hectares. With only 305 hectares, this is the smallest reserved area in the state. Today there are forty-three households and 162 people living on the reserve, which is 1.8 inhabitants per hectare. This is not enough for a hunting-gathering society.  The economy of the area is based on family agriculture, fish farming and crafts.

The reserve is surrounded by cattle operations and 70% of the reserved land is still covered in cow pasture.The forest was mostly removed in the 1970s when the government made a concerted push into the “empty” lands of the west.The band is trying to reforest the land with native species.Mariza and I planted one tree, as I discussed in a previous post.

Band leaders told me that they need more land. It is true that 305 hectares are not much to support 162 people. It is impossible with hunting and extensive agriculture. They told us about some intensive agriculture. They do fish farming and raise pigs, ducks & chickens, all of which produce significant amounts of protein with relatively small inputs.

When I was in college, living an organic self-sufficient life appealed to me. I never did it, but my research indicated that you needed at least five acres (a little more than two hectares) of fertile farmland to support yourself. This was a minimum using intensive methods and it still required part-time work off the land. If you have 305 hectares, it is likely that much or most of it is not fertile farmland. Beyond that, the Huni Kui want to reestablish native forests. This is something close to my heart, but it implies hunting & gathering. You need a lot more acreage for this kind of lifestyle. 

The rain forest ecosystem is not as rich as we might think if you look at the luxuriant growth, at least not for hunting and gathering.  Its organisms have evolved over millennia to deny their energy to others. Lots of the activity takes place high in the trees where it is difficult for humans to access. That is why populations of rain forest hunter-gatherers remained so small for all those millennia. The land simply does not support large human populations. Densities can be only around two or three people per square kilometer (although they are obviously not spread evenly over this land). There are 100 hectares in a square kilometer (metric is easy) so a band like the one we visited would need about 8000 hectares instead of the 305 they have.

The forest here is a tough environment and we should not idealize the life of the past in a paradise full of serpents and dangers. There is no going back to the old lifestyle and the people clearly do not want to go back.  The band’s leader wants preserve the best of his traditions and combine them with good things from the wider world.   (We noticed the popularity of mobile phones and this implies mobile phone towers close by.) This is a balance very difficult to manage or even envision how it could work.

I sure don’t know what to do. It occurs to me that the problem of combining the old with the new is not a problem only for people like the Huni Kui. Although it seems much more urgent among them, creating sustainable futures for ourselves and our children  is what all we face every day, a condition of being human. In their language, Huni Kui means “true people”. Their challenges are the challenges of true people everywhere.

Planting Trees

I planted my first tree when I was ten years old, back in 1965.  I grew a bunch of horse chestnuts from the nuts we used to collect as kids.  When the trees came up, I put them on the hill in front of my house.  One is still there, now forty-seven years old.  I know because my old house is up for sale and the tree is the picture.  Today, with my forestry operations I plant trees on a semi-industrial scale, but I still like to touch the dirt with my own hands. 
The Huni Kui gave me an opportunity when we visited their village.  One of the nicer parts of the welcome was a tree planting.  I got to touch the dirt and put the tree in.  Mariza got to help, so she was also part. They said we should visit our tree for time to time. 

The picture up top shows Mariza and I planting a tree. Notice the guy taking a picture of us using his mobile phone. I thought it was very interesting when the people wearing native costumes would pull a mobile phone from their pockets. The picture on the left is the band’s forester. He does not have formal training, but learned his business from tradition and experience. In front of him are the trees to be planted.

WWW beats muddy roads

There is a strange mixture of connection and isolation among the  Huni Kui in Acre. On the one hand, they are physically isolated. The dirt road would effectively cut them off from the rest of the world many rainy days of the year. On the other hand, they are connected.

When you drive the road from Rio Branco to Taraucuá you can easily mistake progress for problem.   The road is not good.  There is long stretch that is about the width of an American driveway that runs between two broad clay shoulders. The driver told me that this part has only been in service for about two years. Before that, the trip that took us five hours would have taken at least two days because the road would have been impassible when wet. The driver said that you just had to wait until the sun came out to dry the mud.

We got a taste of this on the road to the indigenous village of Pinuyá.  We got to the village easily. That was before the rain.  After the rain, the four-wheel drive vehicles dared not come back all the way to pick us up. We had to walk about a mile through the mud to meet our vehicles, as you can see in the picture.  It was an especially clinging mud that clung to our shoes a couple inches thick.  The grass along the road was not better in most places.  This has vegetation, but it is still a quagmire. You sink deeper into that than you do in the mud of the road.  So we took the road. This is what the road recently asphalted that I mentioned above was like a few years ago.  The narrow ribbon of asphalt makes it passable in all weather.

The people we visited in Pinuyá are isolated in many ways. As we learned by bitter experience, there are times when you cannot use the dirt road to access the asphalt road that leads to the wider world. The founders of this band came to this place in 1972, in fact, the get away from the wider world. The chief told us that at that time the town was far away. I can imagine and the whole town was farther from the wider world until they paved that part of the world.  Of course Rio Branco was more isolated.  The band didn’t move to the town, but the down moved to them. Today their land in encroached upon on all sides and the town is within the distance of a long walk.

When the elders were telling the story of the tribe, a couple guys were recording their comments on their mobile phones. They are clearly within the net of world communications, but not able always to get there physically. You see an interesting anomaly below. The guy talking is telling about traditions and singing traditional songs. The two guys on the side are using their mobile phones to preserve the tradition.

Taking a tangent, I think this is why Brazilians are so interested in distance education.They can reach these villages more easily with Internet than any other way. I spoke to the Acre State Secretary of Education, who told me that they were considering changing the school year to take advantage of the dry season. Acre has distinctive wet and dry seasons.It would make sense to work within the seasonal imperative than to try to ignore them or overcome them.

Library of the Forest

The guy who runs the library of the forest was an IVLP; we made a good choice. He is clearly a local leader.  The library is more than a collection of books; it is a community center. Kids come to learn about their history and the local environment.  Researchers come to study sciences and history.  They have a theater where they show movies and have presentations.  The library is home to a variety of discussion groups.

Rio Branco is a small city where people know each other and Macros is even more connected than most.  It slowed us down when we went to a local restaurant, as he stopped to talk to patrons and people on the street.  This is the kind of place where one person can make a difference. 

I got to thinking about outreach and engagement.  We make an effort to reach out to young audiences on the theory that we can have influence because they have not yet made up their minds about a lot of things.  Does the analogy work for communities?  A place like Acre is young. Lots of things are new, still inchoate, like the school in Nova Eperança I mentioned earlier. The initial condition sets the pattern for the future.  Inputs have bigger influences here than any time.  

New Hope

We stopped off at a school called Nova Eperança or “New Hope” located in the town of the same name.  The school building is only a few months old and it houses kids of all ages.  You can see the village below. It is cute. The picture takes in most of the village, BTW.  The school serves the surrounding rural area. The teachers were enthusiastic to meet us.  I made a few comments referring to Science w/o Borders and the Youth Ambassador program. 

We had along with us Philippe Storch, one of the 2011 Youth Ambassadors. You see him in the picture below helping perhaps a future Youth Ambassador move a bench, The students were interested in him, since he was a local boy made good.  He told them that any one of them could also become a Youth Ambassador if they studied hard.  This is technically true, but long odds. I suppose that the odds are better in Acre than most other states. We choose at least one Youth Ambassador from each state, so in sparsely populated Acre you have a better chance than in crowded São Paulo with more than 40 million.

The enthusiasm in the school was palpable. The principal told me that he made a special and public gesture by enrolling his own daughter to show his confidence in the public schools. I didn’t ask and he didn’t say, but I am not sure there are many options nearby anyway.  If you look at the picture of the bus and the bridge, you notice that road is not exactly suitable for lots of traffic.  This is the place at the end of the world.  The kids recited a poem about their school.  It was something we might have seen back in the U.S. in a century ago, a little corny and old fashioned but nice.  The kids and their parents of this little town have seen improvements in their lives and they have learned to expect better. I think they will get it.

Rubber World

It is also probably because it is so far from most of the rest of the country. There was a lot of violence in the forests of Acre a few years ago and there still is some. Most of the conflict was between cattle ranchers and rubber tappers.  Cattle and rubber don’t mix. 

Rubber tappers depend on the forest for survival.  Most of their job consists of walking between widely spaced robber trees, cutting slits in the bark and then collecting the latex.  The trees grow wild and must be widely spaced because of a persistent blight that spreads among trees that are close together.  Rubber in the Amazon used to be a very lucrative business and there were many millions made in the rubber trade until an English adventurer smuggled seeds of the rubber trees to England. The English grew some trees in Kew Gardens and planted them in what was then British Malaya, mostly in Borneo. The climate was similar to the Amazon, but there was a big difference – there was no blight in Malaya, so the Brits were able to plant the trees close together in easily tended rows.  The Brazilian rubber tapper needed to walk all day to tap a few trees.  In Malaya the same work could be done in minutes. There was no way that the Brazilian rubber tappers could compete with the Malayan plantations, so about thirty years after the seeds were smuggled from Brazil, the Brazilian rubber industry collapsed. 

Some people still tapped rubber, mostly because they had no other options, but life was harder. Not that life was ever easy. Even in the boom years, rubber tappers made little money.  They were part of a company system. They worked for a landowner and usually had to buy their necessities on credit in the company store.  They were extended credit there, but prices were high.  After a year of hard work tapping rubber, they usually owed money to the company.  It was impossible for most to get out from under this debt load.  Few of the rubber tappers could even read or write. They lacked to tools to figure out how to improve their conditions, even if it would have been possible.

People were still tapping rubber in the 1970s when there was a push to develop cattle ranching in the Amazon, encouraged by the development dreams of the military government.  Outsiders bought thousands of acres of land for almost nothing.  They often didn’t bother to mark the boundaries. Instead they just flew over the land looking for general features or even just counting the kilometers.  From the height, they could probably see the houses of the rubber tappers, but that was of no consequence since these guys didn’t have title to the land.

In the Amazon in Acre, it takes around 300 hectares to support one rubber tapper. This is because the trees are widely spaced and they cannot be over tapped or they die. Each tapper needs three trails and makes looks alternatively. A cattle ranching doesn’t really need any trees at all. In fact, trees get in the way of ranching. They shade out the grass that the cattle eat.  Furthermore, the new landowners had several incentives to clear the forests beyond the cattle.  For one thing, the wood was valuable. You could more than recover that price of the land by cutting trees and selling timber.  In fact, the timber was essentially free and the only costs involved were those of cutting and moving the product. Also important was land title. Land title was a question. One way you proved that you were the owner was to “improve” the land.  This usually meant clearing off the trees and producing pasture for cattle or fields from crops. So after you bought the land, it was in your best interests to get to work sawing as fast as you could. More likely, you would hire some former rubber tappers to run the chain saws. 

Rubber tappers seemed to be outclassed. Besides their lack of basic education, it was very difficult for them to organize for any kind of cooperative effort.  Their work was solitary and kept them busy and spread out over vast acreages. They were also in competition to sell their latex and often distrustful of each other because of the possibility that they could encroach on each other’s territories. This latter problem was exacerbated by the fact that some were on the payroll of landowners to keep an eye on others to prevent encroachment. They all recognized the threat that deforestation posed to their lifestyles, but didn’t know what to do. 

There is some disagreement about whether or not to call rubber tappers by the term ecologists. They wanted to save the forests, but not for any of abstract reasons. They wanted to save the forest for the practical reason that is where they lived and worked.  On the other hand, you could argue that they were so deeply ecologists that the term was made for them.  The word ecology comes from a Greek work – “οἶκος” – which means household.  Ecology really means the study of our home. For the rubber tappers, the forest was their home on the very basic level.  At first, the rubber tapper leaders rejected the connection with ecologists, but soon learned that their goals coincided with those of the environmentalists and that they could be allies. 

Perhaps the resident of Acre best known in the wider world is Chico Mendez. He was a leader of the rubber tappers.  He tried to organize them, but his initial motivation was not ecology. He was more on the order of a labor organizer trying to organize farm workers.  But in this case, the farm was the forest and the workers wanted to preserve it and thus also preserve their way of life. Chico Mendez was murdered in 1988.  His death was part of a too-common occurrence in the woods, but because of his wider-world reputation, his death was noticed more than the hundreds of others. He became a symbol and a martyr for the cause of forest preservation, so much so that many people outside Brazil – and lots of them inside too – are unaware of his connection with organizing rubber tappers.  His death had meaning that resonated and it proved a catalyst for greater forest protection in Acre and in Brazil.   

Deforestation didn’t stop, but Chico Mendez became a focus for otherwise unfocused efforts to slow it down.  This is one of his legacies, to recognize the value of traditional and overall sustainable forms of use of nature. He broadened the definition. Before Chico Mendez’s death, people like rubber tappers of traditional fishermen or hunters were often not included in the “traditional” category if they were not indigenous people. After, the category of traditional producers began to be applied to people like them too. 

This is not ancient history, although it seems a long time ago. Many of the people who knew and worked with Chico Mendez are still active today. I had breakfast with one of his associates, who wrote a book about Chico Mendez.  It was from him that I got much of the information I used above. 

Today Acre is one of Brazil’s leaders in forest preservation, natural restoration and valuing traditional lifestyles.  Kids learn about the environment as part of their school work.  The State of Acre is trying hard to portray itself as the state that most values the environment. Whether or not this would have happened anyway is an open question, but I think not or at least not as quickly.  You cannot miss the homage to Chico Mendez all around Acre. Defenders of nature have embraced him as a symbol.  It is clear to me that he did with his death help save the forests that he loved. 

There is a kind of coda to this story.  The price of latex was low, which was driving many rubber tappers out of business and encouraging forest clearance. In order to encourage the rubber industry, the Brazilian government opened a condom factory in Xapuri.  They use local latex and the Brazilian government buys all the condoms the place can produce for its public health program. In Portuguese condoms are called “preservatios”.  This always causes some embarrassment in Portuguese language classes, since most English speakers think this means some kind of canned products. But it is fitting the preservativos help preserve the forest.  I guess the slogan now is safe sex saves the rainforest.  There is also a similar rubber factory near Manaus, which I wrote about before.

Acre and Rio Branco

Acre is as far away as you can get and still be in Brazil.  The flight takes about 3 ½ hours from Brasília and there is a one-hour time change.  You cannot get lost at the airport.  There are two gates and the flight I left on at 2:55 am left from both.  There are not many options.  The Gol flight leaves at 2:55am; Tam goes at 2:15.  If you miss that you have to wait twelve hours.  The airport has no self-check in, so you get to wait in the lines.  I was in Rio Branco to participate in visits related to the U.S.-Brazil school principal program and to meet people in general.  We don’t get to Acre very often and people are interested to see us.  I was interviewed by two television stations, the local newspaper and the major radio station.

Acre’s capital, Rio Branco, is medium sized city with about 400,000 inhabitants; this is half the total population of Acre.  There are no very tall buildings. It has a generally open and suburban feel.  The parallel is not perfect, but it reminded me of Montgomery, Alabama in the way it was spread out. I think the reason I thought of Montgomery, however, was the old governor’s residence.  It has that southern feeling.  Look at the picture above and tell me that it doesn’t remind you of the U.S. Deep South.  The people of Acre also have a kind of rebel heritage.  They broke free from Bolivia a little more than a century ago.  The border was finally settled by the Treaty of Petropolis. The great Brazilian diplomat, the Baron of Rio Branco negotiated the agreement, which is how the capital of Acre got its name. The city spreads out over some low hills more or less along the Acre River.  I was there during the dry season, so it is hot but not very humid.  During the wet season it is a bit cooler but more humid. It almost never gets cool.  They told me that occasionally a front moves in from Antarctica and it can get as cold as about 50 degrees F or about 10 C.  This doesn’t happen often.  
On the flight in, I looked out over the forests and fields.  The forest here is semi-deciduous tropical forest, i.e. lots of the trees lose their leaves during the dry season.  Acre is part of the Amazon forest, but it is not covered by rain forests in the true sense, since there is not much rain for much of the year.   It is not an unbroken forest as you notice when you fly over the Amazon going toward Manaus. Especially near the city, there are lots of farm fields with cattle.  They look funny from the height of the airplane as you come in for a landing.  They are mostly off white.  You cannot really make out their shapes but you see clusters of elongated white dots.

There are water shortages during the dry season, streams run dry and rivers get low. They turn off fountains and are generally careful to conserve water.  This is different from Brasília, which has a unique relationship with water. Although Brasília has a dry season too, water shortages never develop. I think Lake Paranoá has a lot to do with that.

I stayed in the Inacio Palace Hotel.  It was simple but not bad and they had free Internet.   It is evidently owned by the same guy who owns the Pinheiro Palace Hotel across the street, because you have to go there to get breakfast.  In the same building as the Inacio Palace, however, there is a good churrascaria.

According to what I was told, most of the people living in Acre came from the Northeast of Brazil, especially Ceará, but there is a significant mixture of Arabs of Lebanese extraction and native Indians.  The place used to belong to Bolivia, but they weren’t really using it and lots of Brazilians moved in to tap rubber in the late 19th Century.  Since almost nobody else lived here at the time, even a relatively small influx of Brazilians immigrants was enough to tip the balance and soon Brazilians were the most numerous.  When the Bolivians tried to reassert their authority over Acre, the Brazilian population rose up in armed rebellion, defeated the Bolivians and declared themselves an independent state.  That didn’t last very long. But they tried it again.  This time the Brazilians asserted sovereignty and Acre became a territory of Brazil.  It was not until fifty years later that it became a state.

The 100th Anniversary of Acre independence declaration in August 7, 2012, so if you are reading this on that day, raise a toast.  This period of independence, no matter how brief and inchoate, seems to have shaped Acre’s attitude.  At our meeting, they placed the Acre anthem instead of the Brazilian one and they refer to things that happen “in Brazil” as if there is an important distinction. I was told that was because the people of Acre won their own independence at the cost of their own blood, sweat, toil and tears and only later did the choose to become part of Brazil.

My pictures: Up top is the Governor’s palace, now a museum.  That and the picture below made me think the city had an Alabama feel. Below that is the public library. They get a good crowd.  The little girl reading at the library was iconic. The bottom picture is an election program.  They have car, motorcycles and even bikes circulating on the streets with boom boxes with political advertisements and catchy songs.