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The Amazon's Real-World Laboratory for Sustainable Livelihoods

Inside the Tapajos National Forest, where 228 people have joined in a cooperative known as Coomflona, workers display sandals and wallets made of latex from rubber trees, necklaces and earrings made from the seeds of plants and tiny bottles of plant oils, pictured below at right.

More important, they talk about how they are harvesting timber from the rainforest with extreme care, strictly limiting the number of trees that are cut, preserving younger specimens and removing the older ones with minimum impact.

These activities and others like them -- harvesting acai or Brazil nuts, ecotourism, or developing oils for medicinal or cosmetic use -- are absolutely vital to protecting the Amazon because they generate the income needed by the people who live there.

They're often called sustainable livelihoods, meaning that they are ways to make a living that preserve or restore the environment.

Without them, people would resort to cattle ranching -- small-scale agriculture, soy farming or illegal logging -- the very activities that already have deforested nearby areas, as shown at left.

Yesterday (July 21), I visited Coomflona with a small group of reporters from the U.S., UK, France and Brazil. Before the visit, we took a charter flight from the small city of Santarem over the Tapajos forest to see the contrast between protected zones and denuded areas. Below is an image of the forest and another of deforestation, taken from the plane:


After the flight, we drove an hour from Santerem to the coop -- a potential solution to the problem of deforestation, albeit at a small scale. Coomflona, which began in 2005 with lots of Brazilian government and international support, has organized people from nearby communities to exploit the rainforest in sustainable ways.

"The secret is to find the right tools to create income for the people, while preserving the forest," says Darlyson Fernandez of the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation, a government agency that supports the operation.

So far, things are going very well. Jeremias Batista Dantas, a 23-year-old local man who has emerged as a leader of the forestry, told us that the incomes of families living in the region have doubled since the coop arrived.

Before, the typical family earned about 4800 reais, or $2700 a year, mostly by subsistence farming or fishing in the Tapajos River, an Amazon tributary. Now families earn about 7500 reais ($4215) from the coop, plus ($1350) from farming or fishing on their own when timber work stops, during the rainy season.

The coop itself appears to be thriving. In 2009, according to Dantas, the operation brought in about $1.45 million dollars by harvesting 13,000 cubic meters of timber that were sold for an average of $110 per cubic meter. They brought in roughly another $100,000-exact figures were hard to come by -- by selling handicrafts and oils. Operating costs were about $840,000, mostly for labor and equipment, and the profits were reinvested into the operation or spent on community development.

Most FORTUNE 500 companies would envy those margins.

Of course, the economics are not quite as simple as that. The coop's startup costs were paid by the federal government and other nonprofits, and they were substantial. In fact, some villagers were overwhelmed when they were allocated nearly $1 million to inventory the forest, develop a timber plan, organize the community and the like.

"We were not used to dealing with that kind of money, and we had no management skills," said Dantas, a very impressive guy who has a high school education and some technical training in forestry, but hopes to go to college soon.

What's more timber prices could fluctuate, and there's no guarantee that the forest will regenerate itself before too many trees are cut down. The coop's studies rely on computer models, and reforestation rates are hard to predict. Dantas said the coop would like to be less reliant on timber by building up revenues from handicrafts and oils.

After the visit to Coomflona, we took a walk through the rainforest where I had a brief but fascinating talk with Toby Gardner, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge. With funding from The Nature Conservancy, Gardner is leading an extensive study of land use in the Amazon, to measure the social, environmental and economic impacts of such activities as forestry, soy cultivation and cattle ranching.

He told me that he very much admired the coop, but noted that it is a pilot project that can't easily by replicated widely.

Fundamentally, he said, the people of the Amazon should aim to use land that is already deforested in ways that are intensive (i.e., as productive as possible), diverse (to generate various revenue streams and not be dependent on a single commodity) and able to capture more of the value chain (by selling processed goods or finished products rather than raw materials.) Put simply, the goal would be to extract the maximum value from deforested land and protect the rest.

For the coop, that might mean getting into the furniture business rather than selling wood. That's a lot to ask of 228 people, who are just learning to harvest and sell timber. In theory, of course, they could cooperate with others in the city of Santerem, a big river port that's about an hour away by road.

Santerem, as it happens, is the place from which the global agribusiness company Cargill ships soy to Europe, so that people there can feed it to cows, so that diners can enjoy meat and dairy products. (Or chicken, which set off a controversy involving McDonald's, Cargill and Greenpeace a few years back.) Soy farms are good for Cargill and meat-eaters but they deliver very little value to the people of the Amazon.

Better than Coomflona and other efforts like it succeed -- to preserve beautiful places like this:



Disclosure: My week-long trip to Brazil, with a focus on the environment in the Amazon, is being organized by Apex-Brasil, a government-backed agency that promotes trade and investment. It's sponsored by Electrobras, Petrobras and Banco do Brasil. Senior Writer Marc Gunther is a longtime journalist and speaker whose focus is business and sustainability. Marc maintains a blog at You can follow him on Twitter @marcGunther.

Top photo CC-licensed by TheJourney1972; all other photos courtesy the author.

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