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Sara Cameron McBean

Much of the work on this site was originally produced for UNICEF

The Brazilian city of Rio Branco, capital of the state of Acre in the southwest corner of the Amazon, is a frontier town struggling to keep up with the pace of change. Founded in 1902 as a rubber town, its swelling suburbs are now packed with migrants from rural Acre. Many of the newcomers and their families used to obtain a living tapping latex in the forest but they have been driven off the land - by falling rubber prices or by cattle ranchers ambitious to expand their grazing lands. In a decade the city has doubled in size and violence has a place in its history. Chico Mendes, the famous union organizer for the rubber tappers who led a campaign of passive resistance against deforestation throughout the Amazon, was murdered not far from Rio Branco. His killers escaped from the city's prison, apparently with the collusion of local influential politicians.

Yet Rio Branco has the double-sided aspect of many Amazon cities, of the struggle between forces that would ruthlessly exploit Amazon resources and those who are fighting at the front line for a development path that is rational and caring of the needs of people and the environment. Along with the powerful personal interests that sometimes dominate political decision making, exists one of the most encouraging efforts in the Brazilian Amazon to forge positive alliances between government and non-governmental organizations. UNICEF (United Nation's Children's Fund) is lending its support to that process which is resulting in the development of positive public policies that should help to improve the lives of children throughout the state.

It was because of the encouraging progress in Rio Branco that the city was chosen as the location for the first review of UNICEF's Pan-Amazon programme. My role was to write a report on programme progress that would help to raise funds for the multi-country programme. Operating for two years on US$4.5 million donated by the Dutch UNICEF Committee, plus contributions from committees in Spain and Germany, the programme aimed to improve the quality of life for millions of children and women living in the Amazon regions of eight countries - Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. The March 1996 meeting in Rio Branco provided an opportunity to assess progress during the first phase of the programme and to decide what action the agency should take in the future.

There is considerable similarity in conditions affecting women and children living in Amazon areas of the eight countries. For instance, maternal mortality rates in Amazon areas are considerably higher than most national averages. In the Peruvian Amazon, 405 women die for every 100,000 live births, compared with a national rate of 261. In Bolivia, the maternal mortality rate among the 40% of rural indigenous Amazon women without access to health services could be higher than 900, compared with a national average of 395. Venezuela’s maternal mortality rate of more than 300 in the state of Amazonas is five times greater than the national rate of 63. Infant mortality rates in Amazon areas are also higher and among indigenous populations are sometimes triple national rates. Poverty is more widespread in the Amazon than elsewhere and access to services including health, education and water supply, are much more limited.

All the countries reported varying degrees environmental devastation due to rapid deforestation, mining and/or colonization by migrants who typically applied agricultural techniques unsuited to the Amazon's fragile soils. After two or three crops the land was wasted and many migrants then moved to the swelling Amazon cities. Urban population growth in several Amazon countries was reported to be increasing at a faster rate than in rural areas, without adequate investment in services, particularly regarding access to sanitation.

Some Amazon territories had only recently been granted equal political status with other states in their respective countries. This was true of Amazon areas of Venezuela and Colombia as well as several states in the Brazilian Amazon. Yet at the very moment when the Amazon areas of all countries were gaining greater political powers, processes of decentralization were taking effect for which regional and local administrations were largely unprepared. Institutional weakness is profound in the Amazon states. Moreover, all countries reported a lower presence and more inadequate functioning of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Amazon areas.

The weakness of government presence and administration was said to contribute to the Amazon's role as a spawning ground for illegal activities and violent rebellion. Increasing lawlessness and violence occurs in connection with narcotics in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia and more often with conflicts over land and/or access to gold mining areas in Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela. Most countries reported the increasing vulnerability of women, especially of indigenous women and adolescent girls. Increases in child prostitution around mining encampments were reported in Brazil, Peru and Suriname. Most disturbing, it was reported that murder continues to be the leading cause of death among women of child bearing age in the Colombian Amazon.

In some Amazon areas the situation appeared closer to war than to peace. Peru and Ecuador had come close to outright war over their common Amazon border. For several years, Ashaninka people had been held hostage by terrorists in the Peruvian Amazon and used as a buffer between their captors and the army resulting in many violent deaths, a tripled infant mortality rate, and a tripling of the incidence of tuberculosis. Conflict between indigenous groups and gold miners was reported from Suriname. In Venezuela rising violence against the Yanomami people was said to be occurring along with the rising price of gold which is known to exist in their traditional lands. Earlier incursions by miners into Yanomami territory have been associated with massacres as well as with the spread of infections against which the Yanomami have little protection. During the ' eighties, about 15% of the Yanomami population is believed to have died as a result of contracting such infections. It is not known what proportion were children.

As a result of huge external debt, political and economic instability and powerful personal interests all governments in the region had made unbalanced deals with foreign companies in which massive tracts of Amazon land had been handed over for mining, timber or cattle ranching. Heavy tax breaks and inadequate environmental controls meant that many of these deals did a disservice to the long-term interests of their countries and rarely provided benefits for local people. Environmental disasters such as the massive dumping of toxic wastes by petroleum companies into the Ecuadorian and Peruvian watersheds were reported. Meanwhile, decision makers with influence over events and policies in Amazon regions were reported to have little understanding of environmental and cultural impact issues, particularly with regard to indigenous people.

The rights of indigenous people to the land they had occupied for centuries were being ignored. While several governments in the region had passed legislation intending to defend indigenous interests these were rarely upheld. In some cases the paternalistic nature of such laws undermined the status of people they were supposed to protect. In others, laws that had provided strong protection were under threat of reversal and exposed some groups to legal action through the courts. Yet the nationalization of most indigenous populations in the region rendered them powerless in the face of opposition, whether from small scale miners and squatters or from large transnational corporations. In Rio Branco, many examples were offered of the lack of experience of indigenous organizations which undermined their capacity to successfully defend the interests of their people. On the other hand, indigenous organizations across the region were also reported to be more active in challenging inequitable laws and common perceptions of their people as passive, homogenous and unwilling to change. In some cases they were gaining strength by forming alliances with pressure groups in the USA and Europe.

The unplanned exploitation of the Amazon, the level of violence and the incapacity of local administrations, meant that the rights of Amazon children and women received far less attention and commitment than they did elsewhere in the respective countries. One reason is that Amazon populations are typically small and widely dispersed, communications and transportation systems are rudimentary and as a result service delivery is extremely expensive. There are only 40,000 people in the Suriname interior. Only 12% of Peruvians live in Amazon areas, and even in the vast Amazon territory of the North Region in Brazil there are only about 11 million people out of a total Brazilian population of more than 160 million. On a per capita basis it is extremely expensive to reach Amazon children and women and the returns on investment in social programmes are not always positive. Several Amazon projects sponsored by UNICEF in the last two years have failed to achieve their objectives. In some countries, violence impacted directly on UNICEF projects and prevented implementation. In others, political conflict associated with the weakness of institutions in Amazon areas interrupted the project process. Sometimes the sheer logistics of working in the territory prevented projects from proceeding, for example, the drop in the water level of a river which prevented ‘health brigades’ in the Peruvian Amazon from delivering assistance to several remote villages.

Hard questions were asked. Was the Amazon programme worthwhile for the expense and the number of children who could be reached and benefited? In these days of reduced funding, could the funds be better and more effectively used elsewhere?

Yet the rights of this severely deprived section of the child population in Latin America could not be ignored just because they are expensive to reach. Also many approaches to Amazon development were revealed that were meeting with success. It was shown that by taking an active and sometimes a leading role in the region UNICEF had been able to attract attention and additional resources for children, from governments, from NGOs and from other international agencies.

This report is an exploration of those trends and of their consequences for Amazon children and women. It examines UNICEF's experience in working in the region, studies the issues influencing project success and failure, and looks forward to the next five year phase of the Amazon programme, outlining chief areas of action.

"Fragile Environment....Vulnerable Children" is intended for many audiences: for UNICEF staff, for partners in government and non-governmental organizations, for organizations anywhere with interests in the Amazon, for local and international mass media as well as for past and potential donors to UNICEF. It is intended as a work of reference, providing such data as exists on the status of Amazon children and women. It is also intended as a tool for aiding the development of effective methods of working with Amazon populations. For too long, Amazon communities have been at the mercy of external forces. This report advocates the creation of opportunities which can empower communities with resources that will enable them to acquire greater control over the direction and improvement of their own lives and especially the lives of their children.

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Written for UNICEF, to help raise funds for the multi-country Amazon programme, “Fragile Environment, Vulnerable Children” was distributed at the Rio +5 conference in Sao Paolo and to Heads of State attending the Rio +5 summit in New York in 1995

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 Selected writings

Fragile environment, vulnerable children