Olympio Barbanti, Jr.

 

Visiting Professor of Economics at the Federal University of Parana, Brazil

Topics: culture and conflict, development and conflict

Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003


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Q: Can you give me a brief overview of your work?

A: I have been dealing with development issues in the Brazilian Amazon for almost 20 years, but from different perspectives. I worked as a journalist and I lobbied for NGO's. I also worked for the Brazilian Congress, and special and social committees. I sometimes work as a consultant for the Brazilian Minister of the Government and other development organizations such as the World Bank.

Basically, I'm researching the same problem but from different perspectives. And the problem is, how to use the natural resources of the Brazilian Amazon in a sustainable way, which includes economic efficiency, social equality, environmental management, political democracy, and cultural respect. Basically there are these five dimensions, which must go together into the mold of a sustainable form of development. There are many other forces that go against this. So the aim is to find ways to promote sustainability while dealing with all these variables.

Over the years the approach to sustainable development became more and more sophisticated in the sense that in the beginning people were not talking about sustainable development, but just development. This was understood mostly as a transfer of capabilities from areas that would be considered to be more developed to those areas that were considered to be more underdeveloped. Then the US would transfer to Brazil, and also the more developed areas of Brazil would transfer to the less developed areas within the country. So this is a centric-periphery approach to development, so the center provides the periphery with its own image of what it wants the periphery to be. So it carries a very strong message in many different dimensions-political, cultural, economic, social, organizational, and all the rest.

Despite the fact that this approach of doing development carries all these dimensions, in the beginning people were looking at development as a transfer of how to deal with hard issues. Hard issues are related to those of infrastructure and economic dimensions of development. So more tangible things to promote development like building roads, airports and economic institutions that will provide the basis for development. The economists in theory believed that by providing the base of economic development, development itself would take place. By taking place, it would generate inequality for some time, but that inequality would reduce along the years. Development is inverted into a U curve for this kind of belief.

Very recently economists would believe that all that was needed was major hard inputs for development because these would lead to better economic performance. Better economic performance would then bring together all the factors of development like social equality, political democracy, cultural respect, and sustainable use of natural resources. In the sense that in order to achieve economic efficiency natural resources would have to be used in such a way that they are not destroyed. So everything would go under the major development approach.

Now when asked while working with development 20 years ago in the Amazon, this is the view that would prevail. Along the years it has changed a lot. I have been able to follow these changes, and see how the human practice of development has included other factors that are now taken into account by very international organizations that are supporting projects in the Amazon (the Brazilian Government as well).

My work and the work of these other organizations has changed so that we are looking more at soft approaches to development as a counter approach to hard development. The softer approach means trying to integrate more known tangible dimensions of development into those hard approaches.

Q: What would be an example of a soft approach?

A: A soft approach is if you build infrastructure, for example, and it changed social conditions and has deep cultural influences that must be looked after. These things must be assessed before implementation takes place. So people talk in terms of social and cultural impact assessment, needs assessment. There are many different kinds of assessment that go into the process of development. These assessments have to do with the fact that there are human beings involved; this is probably one of the major changes in development thinking. It use to consider just the hard side of development which is infrastructure, technology, technical capabilities needed for development, economic inputs (mostly financial inputs), and also questions of ecological systems.

To a very large extent people were not part of these equations that development deals with. Because of that, they will benefit from development itself, the development will trickle down from developed conditions and the whole society will benefit from this hard kind of development. It's not clear that this is not the case if you don't provide input to society as well. So you cannot achieve sustainable development. So this is the way the thinking of development has changed in general terms.

My work has tried to capture this by doing more consulting for the Brazilian government, and these environmental international organizations by looking at the way in which environmental policies can be developed or formulated and implemented in the Brazilian Amazon forest. This has been my main field of consultancy in the Amazon. When I say consultancy, it is the kind of consultancy that is more academic than the way in which consultancy is understood. I am hired by the Minister of the Environment or other organizations to go to them, do some research, interview people, talk to them and try to find ways that could shed some light on how policies should be formulated, or how implementation is taking place. Is there something wrong that could be changed? This is one approach to my work.

The other approach is sometimes a policy has already been implemented in the sense that the project is already finished. So I go there and try to analyze the impact of the project. Was it successful or not? Did people learn from the approach or not? So, it's a kind of short-term academic consultancy to try to help the government and these international agencies to understand better their own role in the Amazon. These I do with the perspective that one needs to integrate all those dimensions into development. I'm talking about economic performance, political democracy, cultural diversity, the working of the environmental system, and social dimensions of development as well. Sometimes it's more than one dimension, it all depends on what you're dealing with. The idea is that my work is basically looking at public environmental policy in the Amazon through the eyes of sustainable development, which is understood in that way.

Q: Contextualize what hard and soft development means with the case study that you did for your PhD.

A: When I was doing my PhD, I was looking at a very specific topic in the theory of development, which is a classical issue in sociology, which is the way in which urban and rural areas relate to each other. My main argument is that the Amazon is an urbanized forest. People have an idea that the Amazon is this forest with people scattered all around, and lots of Indians, even. That is not the case. We have 200,000 Indians and 11 million people living in the Amazon now and I would say on average 70% of the population is now urban. There is no state in the Amazon in which the rural population is larger than the urban population. This is something that has been overlooked by international organizations dealing with the Amazon because they have a very European or North American approach to sustainable development. They are looking basically at the protection of the natural resources of the forest, mostly trees and wood.

This is because the burning of the forest calls so much attention in Europe and the U.S. and these international agencies respond to local, domestic demand by financing projects that would fulfill home demand, not the demand of the country they are working with.

The Germans are really concerned about the destruction of the forest, but they don't give a damn about the people that live there, and the same with other international organizations. They're more interested in the preservation of the Amazon forest, rather than looking at the people that live there. Because of that, I would say 90% of the money spent on this project in the last 5-7 years, I'm talking about something close to 300 million dollars, has been to try to build protection over natural resources, but not dealing with human beings that live there.

It's now been proved that if you miss the human side of development, sustainability will not take place; it became very famous, the case of a project that was being developed. It was not in the Amazon, but in another forest in

Brazil the A??? rain forest, on the Brazilian A??? coast. Some guys were trying to protect a monkey that lives there and is threatened by extinction and they created a reserve for the monkey, they studied the monkey 24 hours a day, and they were doing everything for the monkeys to procreate. Every time the scientists turned their backs and went to their towns for a rest, the population around would get into the reserve and kill the monkeys and take them to eat. They would eat the monkeys that were being preserved because the monkeys were receiving more attention than the population itself. Then they found out that if you want to preserve the monkey, the only way of doing it is to increase the income of the population that lives around the reserve, otherwise they will eat the monkeys.

In spite of the fact that you must take into account the social dimensions of development, these international organizations have overlooked them. One of the most astonishing aspects of this is the fact that they have spent 300 million dollars on the Amazon's rural areas without looking at the fact that you have 70% of almost 11 million people living in urban areas. These urban areas range from very small villages to cities with almost 3 million inhabitants. There are two large poles of population in the Amazon, Belem and Manaus, but also some other medium-sized cities.

In this project, they didn't look at the fact that the economics of the Amazon forest are in the urban areas, not rural areas, because you have, say, 9 million people in urban areas. All the social-economic dynamics are urban not rural. Urbanization implies necessarily more consumption and demand for manufactured products and therefore an increase in income.

Because the economic base of the Amazon is the use of natural resources, the only way of increasing the general income in the forest is by increasing the use of natural resources. So the more the forest becomes urbanized, the more you have to use it, and this has been overlooked by international agencies.

There is this understanding that if it's urbanized then you don't use the forest. They have this understanding because there is, in fact, an exception. There is a very large city in the Amazon that does not use the forest, which is Manaus, in the state of Amazon. In the Brazilian Amazon there is a state called the Amazon. The capital city is Manaus, and has almost 2 million inhabitants. It's different because there is a free trade zone built by the government there in the 60s, so it receives imports from all the regions of Brazil or other countries, and assembles products to export or sell to Brazil. I'm talking about goods like televisions or stereos, motorbikes. It's the largest Brazilian producer of CDs and all the rest.

The economic base in the city of Manaus does not depend on the forest, but is an economic enclave, a model that cannot be replicated in other parts of the Amazon. It is unique. In fact, it guaranteed that the state of the Amazon is one of the most preserved in Brazil because all the rural population went to Manaus and didn't use the natural environment because the economic base does not depend on it. In the other states, where the economic base depends on the use of the natural resources, this process of urbanization has increased the use of natural resources, not the opposite.

Q: So, use of natural resources, like logging and water use? Why does urbanization entail more natural resource use?

A: The use of natural resources is basically timber, logging of timber, and minerals. It can be organized mining or just wildcat mining; and cattle ranching, a lot of cattle ranching; and in some areas agricultural production as well.

Q: So, the urban economies are based on resource extraction or grazing, for the most part?

A: Yeah, resource extraction and cattle raising. Normally they go together. There is also the case of mining, which has been reduced nowadays, but during the 80s it was booming. So when I started my PhD, I had this in mind: Look, this is an urbanized forest, the economic dynamics depend on urban areas, not on rural, so let's see this in practice. So I picked a very small project, financed by the Brazilian government, the Germans, and the Brits, in a small town in the very East part of the Amazon. I went there to look at the way in which the population relates to urban areas. Unfortunately, I didn't have enough funds to go to many other parts of the Amazon and compare. That would be necessary, because it changes a lot. I saw a place in which rural/urban dynamics take place in a very clear way. I was doing a project aimed at promoting sustainable development for the small-scale producers.

The rural producers have traditionally produced the agricultural staples of the region, like manioc, maize, rice, and beans. Those are typical small-scale family base agriculture in Brazil.

The idea of the project was to change their economic bases into something that would use their available natural resources in a sustainable way. Their available natural resources are fruits; there are lots of fruits in that part of the Amazon, which is a mix of forest and savannah. These are very good fruits that even Brazilians do not know because we've been colonized. We eat European foods, as they probably do in Mexico, for example. In other parts of the developing world it is the same. We eat pears, apples, and we don't eat josaram, gaba, jukee, purichee, and all the rest, which are fantastic, much better than European fruits in general. So the deal was, they have these, but so far what they do is they put fire on the land to clear the land for producing their traditional agricultural crops. So, the idea is to protect the forest, don't put fire on it, and let's make economic use of it. The project established a plan to industrialize this fruit by removing some selected fruits. They were just working with some of the fruits, not all of them, because it's a question of marketing the product. They introduced a machine to remove the pulp of the fruit and freeze it, and then sell the pulp for fruit juices.

Q: This is a machine that someone, somewhere in the world, developed, probably for use with other fruits? I mean, they didn't work together to develop this machine in this area of the Amazon that you're talking about?

A: They adapted a machine that was first conceived to produce milk from soybeans. It didn't work well enough, so someone from St. Paul, I believe, developed a specific machine for pulp extraction. They started this project, and this project had many, many problems and didn't succeed. The question here is not too difficult to talk about, it's a problem of ??? another issue. But when I was doing my research, I lived with these small rural producers for almost a year, and I realized that there was a dimension that the project overlooked, which at first I was not looking at as well. It was the potential conflict situation that would be involved in the project. Selection criteria from international organizations giving grants for projects is at the level of social organization that potential recipient communities already have.

In Latin America the large majority of rural population that has some sort of social organization are those that, in the past, have been organized though the work of the Catholic Church. During the 70s to mid-80s they had a strong emphasis on community-based approaches to social development and religious mobilization.

This is largely based on the work of the Brazilian pedagogy of the oppressed. So the Catholic Church took this method of making people more aware of their situation. Lately this process became known as the process of empowerment. In fact, it began in Brazil with the practice of a method of making people more conscious of their situation and trying to make them more capable of changing their destiny. This is what people today call empowerment.

Q: There's a certain amount of political mobilization, right?

A: Yeah, not only religious, but political as well. And Paolo Freire was a left-wing supporter and one of the founders of the Brazilian Workers' Party, which is now in power. Lula is the president, he is the founder of this party. PT and Partido de los Trabajadores used to be a very Marxist party. Nowadays it has changed to be more socially democratic for many reasons that I can't discuss here. The fact is that these rural communities in Brazil grew along with a Marxist thinking that came with this method of liberation that was influenced by the Catholic Church in the 70s and mid-80s that was very closely linked with Marxist thinking.

It sounds a bit contradictory, but yes, they were working together, both Catholic thinking and this community-based development. It started to change after John Paul II was chosen as pope. My argument is that a very large number of communities that are organized in the Amazon or in Brazilian rural areas were organized by the Catholic Church using Marxist methods of liberation that we will call empowerment. This is reflected in the community I was looking at. This community lives in the municipality of Caroline, in the state of Maranao. At the time I was there in '97, these guys already had almost 20 years of joint activity.

They were first organized around the Catholic Church in Brazil called Ecclesial Grassroots Community. So they formed this Ecclesial Grassroots Community, and after that the same group created the local rural producers' trade union, which is a clear example that the religious work was linked with other dimensions in the rural producer's life. They were trying to get a better position in society by protecting their rights through the creation of a trade union. They decided to link the small trade union in Caroline municipality to a major national central trade union that is affiliated with the Workers' Party. There are some national trade unions in Brazil, and one day they decided to affiliate to the party, but they could have affiliated to some others, and this is also because the church and priests at that time were also very closely-linked to the Workers' Party.

In fact, the Workers' Party in Brazil was born with the union of three different groups: the trade unionists and blue collar workers, the Church, and intellectuals from academia and artists and all the rest. The work of this Ecclesial Grassroots Community had a lot to do with the fact that this group created this trade union and then linked to the major central trade union of the country. After creating the trade union, this group created the local Workers' Party in the state of Caroline. Many years after when the international organizations started to finance projects in the Amazon, they decided to create an association of producers in order to receive the grant.

So far they were doing their political work together through the local Workers' Party, they were doing the trade union together through the trade union they created, but they were not operating as a cooperative or an association of producers. They were not producing together. Each of them would have their own plot of land, produce their own goods, and eventually plant with the help of some other guy from the same community, but it didn't mean they were working together. So when I was there to see this project, I was first looking at the way in which these rural producers were related to urban areas because all the grants they received were actually directed for the sustainable development of the forest. So was the World Bank and all the other international organizations were looking at are these guys really going to use the trees of their plots of land in a sustainable way? That was the question. They're not looking at, which guys are these, which families do they have, where do they live, or the social dynamic, where are their children, and all the rest.

I first realized that all these beneficiaries of the project were much more empowered by all the rural producers from the same municipality that had not entered into the Ecclesial Grassroots Community. Because they were more empowered they had a slightly better economic situation than the average rural producer; they had much more urban links than all the rural producers, because they're more conscious so they took their children to the urban area to study; and they had double residences, a small house in the rural area and a better house in the urban area. They were actually transferring resources from rural to urban.

So the first point was that if the sustainable project succeeded, I concluded from my research, my interviews, etc., all the money taken from the sustainable use of natural resources in the rural area would be channeled to the urban area; that would take the children away from that area, somewhere else, so that there was no generation of sustainability, it was a dead end. The second point that relates to conflict was the fact that if the project succeeded, what was succeeding was not a sustainable way of dealing with trees, what was succeeding was a group of people that represent the left-wing party in town. Rural Brazil, like any other rural other area in developing countries, was very conservative and dominated by the rural traditional elite that operates within a context of what we call colonialism, or the politics of the colonels. This is political domination by buying other peoples' votes, by coercion, by any kind of basic domination that the elite can do over the poor.

Q: So client-patron relationships?

A: Exactly, patron-client relationships. If the project succeeded, what was succeeding was the empowerment of the left wing, the trade union, and not the rest. It was clear that the local elite was not going against the project because every other month there was a consultant from the World Bank or someone else from Brasilia, the capital or Brazil, or other state, the parachuting in to the municipalities, and gringos and all the rest.

Q: Experts everywhere.

A: Yeah, so the local elite didn't want to fight against these top cats. As soon as the financing would end and they would be on their own, then the local elite would certainly jump into those guys and eat them completely.

Q: So you're saying as the Leftists would benefit while the experts were there, and as soon as the experts would leave then the people in power who were not Leftists, but in fact the patron-client conservatives would then either take away the gains that the Leftists had made or punish them somehow?

A: Yes.

Q: And there was no consideration of that social dynamic?

A: Within the processes that were aiming at promoting sustainable development, not even a word of this potential conflict, and also other kinds of conflict that could emerge after the project took place was brought up.. For example, there were other rural communities in the same municipality that had a social organization similar to there, but did not receive the grant. Why did that community receive the grant and this one did not, even if there were other communities linked to the Ecclesial Grassroots Community organization within the same municipality? That was because there was an intervening NGO that knew someone from that rural community and they managed to put a project on a sheet of paper and send it to the World Bank and the Brazil minister of the environment. They became beneficiaries just because of this, and not because of important criteria.

Q: Almost another form of patron-client relationship there, in a different sense?

A: So in this sense, this project also created tension between two different rural communities, between the elite and the community, and if it had succeeded it would have made these tensions more visible. Conflict would certainly have emerged. It didn't succeed, so we generated another sort of conflict, an intercommunity conflict. These guys who lived for 20 years together started to fight amongst themselves because the project didn't succeed and they were not well-prepared to receive the money because they were ill prepared to receive the money there was some misuse of the money.. This generated an enormous conflict within the society in that community.

Q: Was this a conflict between the Left and the Right, or within the Left?

A: Within the rural producers and the beneficiaries of the project. The project didn't succeed, and those guys who were living together for 20 years with the same political and trade unionism issues split up. None of them will talk to each other any more, because the project didn't succeed and one started to blame the other. There was no concern about the potential conflicts that would be raised inside that group of beneficiaries, and so no concern between rural producers and other rural producers; rural producers and the local elite; and rural producers with themselves. Some families separated, some other members of the community didn't talk to each other any more, and some children just said now I really do not believe in the possibility of being here, living in our town. It was a pretty hard result.

Q: Sounds like a disaster.

A: It's a disaster, but if you get into the Ministry of the Environment website and see the assessment they did, it seemed marvelous, fantastic, and incredible. I'm about to write an article on this, I just need to return there once more. I was there last year, 5 years since I did my PhD research was completed, and I realized about all these problems. These problems are so serious and go against the official word, that I decided not to write an article immediately and wait one more year and return this July to that same community and check if this is exactly the case. When I write this article saying this is the case, I will create enemies and I will put some fire on the bottom of a number of guys.

Q: So then what? We see that these conflict dynamics are not taken into consideration by developmental organizations. What should be done? What's an alternative?

A: I gave you one example of how conflict theory is not taking into account a very specific case of community-based development. In fact, if you look at all the kinds of intervention, with a very small exception, conflict is not taken into account. A field of development that does take conflict into account is the field of gender relations because it's conflictual itself as a question of conflict between man and woman. Other fields of development do the same; they over look the dimensions of social conflict involved. Recently, some organizations like Gateway Aldis have just started to realize that conflict is a major issue that has been overlooked so far for development. What is needed is to mainstream conflict theory and practice into development theory and development interventions. The only way one can do this is by making conflict analysis more tangible because if you do social intervention you necessarily need to apply it with research, so it needs to be tangible.

What is paramount right now is to develop a method of conflict assessment that can be applied to different situations using different instruments because community-based conflict is not going to be the same as state-level public policy conflict, for example. If you look at different databases that deal with theory of conflict and try to find conflict assessment, you're going to see that we have an enormous theory of conflict, but no one says exactly how you do assess conflict. It's incredible. The lack of concern about the practical use of theory is astonishing.

Q: So is that where we are, then? We know there's a problem, given your research and maybe others to collaborate it. We know that there's theory of conflict out there and its resolution. And now, is that where we are, putting those two together? Where to apply the theory of conflict to these development situations and what we know of development social conflict?

A: Well, yes, that's the point. This includes merging the theory of conflict with other methodologies and social research that already exists because the field of conflict is the field of social research, nothing else. We need indicators of conflict in different situations that can be applied in the development field. Also one needs to merge the theory of conflict and the theory of development, for example, and other kinds of theory. This implies opening up the American box of conflict theory. This is because in spite of the fact that conflict theory is a major issue in sociological research, the practical use of conflict theory as an instrument for social regulation has been widely developed in the US, but not in other countries, mostly because we didn't have in other countries the same kind of liberal democracy that the US managed to create. It has its own model of social organization-based model of policy making that understands that differences in society can be sorted out through the conscious intervention of those in conflict. These can be sorted out with a very rational approach of creating dialogue. It assumes that the institutions of society are creating an environment that makes it possible and also gives incentives for this to take place.

For example, if you don't negotiate, you go to court, the court will judge your case, and it could be worse for you, so then you have an incentive for negotiation. All these conditions are not the same in developing countries. We don't have this kind of incentive like a legal system that works in an unbiased way and works well, or even a legal system that exists. If you go to many parts of the Brazilian Amazon there are no judges around. The next judge is at least two days by boat. So you don't have access to justice unless you have enough money and time to take a boat, go two days to complain to the judge, and return. It takes a whole week to make a complaint that your neighbor's dog is barking. It doesn't work like this, or with something more serious than just a dog barking. First, it doesn't work.

Second, for very material conditions, the conflict needs also to be adopted for the institutions of developing countries. There are different kinds of democracies so that if you apply the same theory and methods that exist in the US to the Dominican Republic, Brazil, or whatever, you are applying an ideology that may not be the same that may already exist in that country. One needs to fit different models of what democracy is about or cultural understanding is about.

Q: Do you think it can be done? Do you think there are models that exist now that we can transfer to a local setting, let us say Brazil, in a development context?

A: Yes. Not everything is different. Liberalism is a widely recognized way of doing policy.

Q: When you say liberalism you mean market economy, free market economy, in the sort of European sense, not necessarily the American sense?

A: I don't know if the American market economy is free.

Q: What I am trying to get at is in the United States when we say liberal we mean left, when you say liberal you mean market economy.

A: Yes. I am not saying liberal in terms of policy, political orientation, but rather economic liberalism that goes with political preferences. One needs to adopt this to the setting of developing countries, not to make it visible. On the one hand, we need to make conflict theory and practice more tangible in the sense that you can access this. Secondly, you need to make it more applicable to other settings: cultural, economic, political, social settings for the countries that are developed or developing. Then you need to merge all this with other theoretical approaches that do exist. But they haven't talked so closely.

For example, in this country the field of conflict studies almost became a field itself, but in fact what creates conflict is human action; it is this that is being studied by all your disciplines. So should conflict studies be represented by a separate discipline or should it be integrated in other disciplines that already exist. We then need to know how we integrate conflict into anthropology, sociology, economics, and other kinds of studies. So that is the point. In addition to all these adaptations that are necessary, what you also have to take into account is that in other countries of the world there are also other theoretical frameworks that maybe partially comfortable with the liberal approach of policy. Then some may be partially uncomfortable or totally uncomfortable.

For example, in developing countries, social theory is very influenced by some kind of Marxist approach, like in Latin America with the dependency theory. Together with a Marxist approach pose some limitations to the application to the conflict resolution approach to these same countries. People do not believe that conflicts can be resolved or they are not capable of sorting out their differences in a rational or formal way. In fact, they believe that conflict is a question of class struggle and the point is not to reduce conlict but to increase conflicts as a way of promoting a change in society. This has a social interface, but it also has an interface for the sustainable development. Look at the work of Greenpeace. They do not promote conflict resolution. They make conflict in order to give environmental problems visibility by putting the problems in the media. The work that Greenpeace does exacerbates the problem. And this works for them. So does it go against the American's theory of the conflict field of "oh you need to sort out your differences?" Well, sometimes all you need to do is make the differences more clearly visible for the whole society.

Q: So if the local dynamic is such that there is a strong Marxist framework to the political ideals of a group, who are all about struggle, and then you come and say we are going to initiate this development initiative. Let's talk about the possible consequences and talk about how we are going to deal with the arising conflict. People in that neighborhood are going to think that you are crazy, we need to fight for what we want, there is no talking of the other side?

A: It may be dependent on the theoretical framework that these communities are based. So if you pick up the movement in Brazil, they go for conflict and not for resolution. The people may also reject it because they know how patron-client relationships work, so they are not operating on a Marxist framework. They just know the reality that you cannot go against the powerful. As an American musician said, " Every king needs the keys of reality." Wake up to the real world, and the real world is that you have other theoretical frameworks and that you have a reality that does not fit into liberal basis over which all this field has been built.