The Local Elite in Altamira

The overall objective of the LAET (Laboratorio Agro-Ecológico de Transama-zonica, or the Agroecological Laboratory of the Amazon region) project was to improve management of natural resources, with a specific goal of slowing the rate of deforestation in the region along the Amazon highway near Alta-mira, a center of colonization. The initial focus group was made up of farmers, since they were suspected of having the greatest impact on natural resource management. However, once researchers began to work with those in forestry and the wood industry, they realized that sawmill owners and large ranchers played a greater role in deforestation, especially when their interests coincided with those of farmers. For example, sawmill owners opened roads or rehabilitated them and encouraged further occupation by landless farmers (posseiros) to cover up illegal logging and to provide cheap manpower and logistical support for loggers. For farmers who were already established, sawmill owners arranged for repair of damaged feeder roads and for provision of free rides to the city.

Big ranchers also had common interests with small farmers. Ranchers offered the farmers opportunities for day labor, assistance in transport, and the renting or sharing of cattle. Some small farmers had a strategy of converting their land from forest to pasture and then selling it at a good profit to ranchers. Ranchers who wanted to expand their pastures quickly without having to depend on contracted manpower often depended on buying land from small farmers.

Merchants and service people in small towns also had an interest in expansion of agriculture, since farmers and ranchers were their main customers and providers of commodities. The business community also favored farmers, because their contribution to the population of the region was important in obtaining support from the state and federal government. Such support was based on the size of the county's population.

Because of the financial interest of these local groups in economic expansion, it was difficult for LAET to stimulate interest in concepts such as zoning that would reduce deforestation. However, there was a difference in attitude between business leaders in villages on the upland frontier, where regulations concerning natural resource management were strongly opposed, and long-established river towns where people were more aware of problems of deforestation, and therefore were more sympathetic towards regulations that would preserve forests (Castellanet and Jordan 2002).

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