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Harmonious development in the Amazon.

Enrique Bello, a specialist with the Department of Regional Development and Environment of the Organization of American States, described his journey across the Colombian-Peruvian border. He was on an asphalt road, overgrown with dense foliage which draped the surroundings in emerald greens and deep browns. Following him were virtually all of the 60 residents of the border community, excited about Bello's inspection of the future highway site. In an area practically cut off from civilization, "This road is their dream," recalled Bello.

Bello, as well as 200 other specialists and field workers, are working as part of a Plurinational Project for Amazonian Cooperation, which was formally established by the Inter-American Economic and Social Council in July of 1984. Six years earlier, the Amazon countries had signed the Treaty on Amazonian Cooperation (TAC), giving high priority to joint efforts to promote development, environmental preservation, and rational use of the region's natural resources. This attitude was also reflected in a gradual incorporation of environmental management and sustainable development strategies of the Amazon countries.

Since 1985, the OAS, through its Department of Regional Development and Environment (DRDE), has been collaborating with TAC member countries--Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela--on the implementation of a variety of programs. These include offering technical cooperation through binational or multinational programs in river basins and border areas of the Amazon region; supporting the activities of the Council of Amazonian Cooperation in the fields of natural resources development and environmental management; and helping obtain external resources for specific projects. An important element of the Plurinational Project has been the execution of specific studies requested by countries. These studies will pave the way for a regional diagnosis of the area; an environmental zoning proposal, and an integrated development and investment strategy.

The OAS projects will potentially span almost 8 million square kilometers and over 22 million people. Last year the Project's scope doubled with the support of the Canadian government, which has a particular interest in supporting sustainable development activities in Amazonia. The Canadaian contribution is a little over $1 million during the three year period 1991 to 1993. The contribution of the OAS General Secretariat, from the beginning of studies undertaken in frontier areas to 1991, amounted to U.S. $1.4 million.

Binational border regions in the Amazon were selected by the countries as particularly problematic areas for development. Not only are these regions endowed by an enormous biodiversity, but they have the potentials and constraints of the Amazon region as a whole. The limiting of studies or programs to these much smaller, more specific border areas facilities inter-agency and interdisciplinary efforts for carrying out development activities. To date, the binational border projects have included: physical planning and management of the San Miguel and Putumayo River Basins between Colombia and Ecuador (1986); the model plan for the integrated development of the border communities along the Tabatinga-Apaporis axis between Colombia and Brazil (1987); the plan for the integrated development of the Putumayo River Basin between Colombia and Peru (1988); the integrated development plans for the Peruvian-Brazilian border communities (1988), and the Brazilian-Bolivian border communities (1991).

National technical units work with nongovernmental organizations (NGO's), such as fishing and forestry networks or indigenous associations in program development and implementation. Belizario Nunes, chief of the Brazil-based technical units, stressed the strategic importance of border regions to both the national governments and NGO's; "These areas have typically been marginalized by all active development groups." Newton Cordeiro, of the OAS DRDE, also commented on the benefits of this grassroots approach, "Projects initiated at the base, rather than from the top-down, allow the people to identify their own problems and contribute to their solutions."

Local organizations are especially crucial in dealing with indigenous groups, which can reach up to 40 percent of the population in some areas. Juan Poveda, a coordinator for the San Miguel-Putumayo Project on the Colombian-Ecuadorian border, related the difficulties of convincing traditional groups to accept modern technology. "The people are very skeptical at first of outside influences. We have to respect their rights in the diagnosis of the problems and the possible solutions before they accept our ideas." This delicate strategy is complicated by the sheer diversity of indigenous peoples that each project must satisfy. "There are over 40 different Indian ethnic groups in Ecuador alone. We have to make permanent contacts with each of these groups, which differ greatly in the culture and customs," explained Poveda.

One of the results of this painstaking process is the identification of environmental zones for resources management and sustainable development. Zoning helps divide large, unwieldy regions into smaller, more homogenous areas. In binational areas, governments can attempt to integrate transportation and communication systems, thus improving the management of resources. Belisario Nunes cited the importance of participation by indigenous groups and the National Foundation of Indians (FUNAI) in the resolution of zoning problems. FUNAI played an important role in settling a dispute between miners and the Ticuna people along the Brazil-Colombia border. "In the last three years, zoning has improved significantly the situation for more than 18,000 indians in Brazil," he added.

Through physical and management planning, the land settlement process can be oriented towards making efficient use of resources, setting standards to minimize potentially polluting activities, delimiting the uses of land and promoting a restructuring of the productive sector.

The conclusion is that in order to achieve a more satisfactory relationship between society and environment, provisions should be made for changes brought about by human activities, thus minimizing potential conflicts. This is the underlying premise of the OAS's long-term commitment to balanced and sustainable development in the Hemisphere. "Amazonia cannot be conquered as the American West was. We need to learn how to live in harmony with Amazonia," remarked Cordeiro.

Vicki Mayer, a former intern with Americas, now works for The Nation in New York City.
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Author:Mayer, Vicki
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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