Shanusi, Biofuels, and Conservation Trade-offs


At the end of last year, I arrived with two colleagues at the village of Nueva Italia near the border of the San Martin and Loreto regions of the Peruvian Amazon. After traveling three hours from Tarapoto, then half an hour down a rough logging road past small rainforest farms, we found almost forty people, with machetes, ready to march into the nearby palm oil development to fight against what they saw as an encroachment on their land. After convincing them to abandon their plans for a fight, we walked together to the site of clearing for the new palm oil plantation. With the sound of chainsaws echoing through the trees and uncertainty about what was going to happen, we were nervous about the possibility of being shot. Arriving at the plantation, armed security forces approached us. When the head of security arrived, recognizing that we were not all local farmers, a debate began that led to accusations from both sides. In many ways, that debate is continuing today.

The contested site is a 10 thousand acre palm oil monoculture, run by  Palmas del Shanusi,  of the Romero Group. The project has generated conflicts over deforestation, insufficient compensation to the state per hectare (5.5 dollars per hectare for 7000 hectares), and conflicts between local settlers and recent migrants of the district of Barranquita. The settlers accuse the company of confiscating them of their lands, destroying their forests, and convincing the state to block their entitlement procedures. The company accuses the farmers purposly settling in the borders of the monoculture to establish land rights which can then be sold to the company. The dispute between the company and the farmers for the usage rights of the forest occurs amid the state promotion of private investments and a generalized lack of governance of the territory.

The case of the Shanusi project and the conflict in Barranquita is helpful for understanding the socio-environmental conflicts related to biofuels. These conflicts are becoming more common with the increase in the demand for biofuels and policies that promote monocultures in the Amazon region. The act of selling large tracts of land in the Amazon region is already conflictive. If they were already deforested, it implies that there are peasants on those lands with some type of right over them. If there is still primary forest, it implies an attack on nature. In this case it is a combination of the two. Earlier interventions in the primary forest had left most of the forest standing: only the most valuable trees had been taken out by illegal loggers. We are not talking then about deforested and degraded lands, nor secondary forests, but a vital forest that actively provided environmental services. This puts into question the act of cutting down the forest to plant oil palm . The root of the problem lies in the strange administrative decision to change the use of land from forest to agricultural, which led to the sale by the Ministry of Agriculture of the land at the absurdly low price of 17.90 soles per hectare.

Despite the environmental discourse from the opponents of the monoculture, all evidence points to the fact that the motivations of the farmers are distributive rather than environmental. That there is deforestation is not the central preoccupation, but rather who carries it out and who benefits from it: the local population or an outsider company. Meanwhile, the interpretation of the incident by the Manager of Palmas del Shanusi is that with farming in the area all the forests are destined to turn into grasslands, which means that the oil palm plantations of the Romero Group will be the “lesser evil” of the two, in environmental terms. This conflict is not over. This is the  kind of situation that happens when primary forests and the livelihoods of local people are traded off in Amazonia for establishing large-scale monocultures.

Advancing Conservation in a Social Context

For the past few years, I’ve been part of an interdisciplinary, international group researching conservation and its social complications. The Advancing Conservation in a Social Context (ACSC) initiative is funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and administered through the University of Arizona, with support from UGA and members from the US, Peru, Tanzania, and Vietnam.

The ACSC research process has focused broadly on the idea of tradeoffs: the proposition that when something is gained, something else is lost and win-win scenarios are rare if they occur at all. So, when a decision is made to conserve a resource, species, or ecosystem, opportunities are lost in some other domain. I am oversimplifying here since interactions between people and their environment are vastly multifaceted. A key question is, how do we take into account the complexities and conflicts of ecology and society and still make decisions? And, in the above sentence, who is this “we”?

At a meeting of ACSC researchers this week, we are discussing the next phases of the project and one idea is to develop an ACSC blog, with individual researchers contributing posts on various issues surrounding conservation and society. I’m not sure if it will happen or not, but if it does I may try my hand at contributing–since it would tie nicely with my ongoing dissertation research and long-term interests.

A blog has the added benefit of being participatory, at least in theory. If someone blogs about current issues and others with direct interest in those issues respond, then the text changes from a one-way editorial to more of a conversation. From a social science perspective, this may be one way to increase objectivity in research by giving others the chance to “object” to what is being said about them, as Bruno Latour has suggested:

If social scientists wanted to become objective, they would have to find the very rare, costly, local, miraculous, situation where they can render their subject of study as much as possible able to object to what is said about them, to be as disobedient as possible to the protocol, and to be as capable to raise their own questions in their own terms and not in those of the scientists whose interests they do not have to share!

I’m not sure if the idea of an ongoing ACSC blog will fly in the long-term or not. Even if it does, it may be that the group is not yet ready to open the project to the decreased control that a Web 2.0 experience would bring. I’ll keep you all posted as (if) this moves ahead.