Land to Those Who Work It and the Forest to Those Who Protect It: Agrarian Reform and Local Customs in Western Amazonia

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 9:00 AM
Salon 7 (Palmer House Hilton)
Kathryn Lehman, Indiana University
During the 1980s in Western Amazonia, as chainsaws and flames devoured large swaths of rainforest along newly constructed highways, rural rubber tapper communities began developing new and innovative strategies to stop the destruction of the forest they depended on for their livelihoods and establishing their rights to live and work there. To the standard refrain behind government land redistribution policies, “land to those who work it,” rubber tappers added the Amazonia-specific rationale of “the forest to those who protect it.” Part of what is remarkable about this story is that in both Bolivia and Brazil, with very different legal frameworks and separate national histories of land reform, in this particular region rubber tapper communities won the right to hold land based on the rubber and Brazil nut trees they used, rather than a uniform plot of farmland. They contested national agrarian reform models that were designed to ease social tension while organizing the population into orderly economically productive units of 50-150 hectares per family. Instead they mobilized their own local histories of labor and relationships with the natural environment to design a model based on the traditional rubber tapping household, requiring 300-500 hectares per family. This paper examines how, amid growing concern over deforestation on local, national, and global levels, rubber tappers were able to insert rainforest conservation into what had typically been a mostly social, economic, and political issue. By defining themselves as the true protectors of the forest, they made a convincing case for land reform on their own terms. By demonstrating generations-long customs of working in the forest and producing rubber and Brazil nuts with little-to-no negative environmental impact, rubber tappers created a new option for giving land rights to historically landless and disenfranchised communities, ensuring the economic productivity of land and conserving the rainforest.
Previous Presentation | Next Presentation >>