During the 1990s the environmental movement in Brazil, following an international trend, shifted from a “preservationist” to a “conservationist” approach. The key point of this change is that the conservation framework accepts that human activity and use of natural resources is not in principle incompatible with environmental protection, and might even be important means to promote it. This new framework of environmental protection was coupled with (and sometimes even encompassed by) the also emerging framework of sustainable development, proposed as a means to make socioeconomic development environmentally sound and socially inclusive. This integrative strategy fueled the enthusiasm of environmental NGOs, federal and state governments, and international development funding institutions (the World Bank, the Interamerican Development Bank [IDB], and bilateral agencies like US-AID). A variety of programs and projects emerged at national, regional, or local levels, aimed at promoting conservation and sustainable development in rural areas of the country where vulnerable natural environments and human populations (mostly poor, marginal to mainstream politics, economic development, and culture) co-existed. Although programs and projects varied immensely in the types of conservation and development (hereafter C&D) activities they promoted, they shared similar strategies of social mobilization and organization as the central process of implementation at the local level. The key guiding principles driving this strategy were those of what later was to be called empowerment, where inclusiveness and organized active participation at all levels of social, political, and economic processes, were expected to develop or strengthen a new type of citizenry. Empowerment was seen as a process of individual and collective learning supported by investment in human capital and in organizational capacity building.
This movement toward the integration of conservation and sustainable development was not exclusive to Brazil. Countries throughout the world’s tropical belt, where high levels of biodiversity coincide with low socioeconomic development, experienced a similar trend. In the space of half a decade, or even less, C&D programs and projects became the key strategy adopted by environmental NGOs, by a variety of United Nations programs (mostly the United Nations Environment Program and the United Nations Development Program and the Commission for Sustainable Development), national governments (leading to the creation of agencies for environmental protection at various levels of government), and international funding institutions.
Not surprisingly, soon afterward the evaluation of the effectiveness of their results also became a key concern for all those involved, generating a variety of indicators of measurement and methods of monitoring and evaluation. Most evaluations and analyses have focused on the impacts of programs and projects in terms of their intended conservation and development objectives, with impacts in terms of social organization receiving attention in a more mechanistic fashion; that is, usually limited to the verification of quantitative aspects of group formation and participation in various activities (such as workshops, training courses, conferences, etc.) rather than analyzing processual and structural impacts. The lack of critical analysis of impacts on social organization and structure is surprising given that the key strategy that differentiates these C&D programs and projects from previous environmental protection and economic development projects is focused on changing processes of social organization and relations,
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