According to Canadian environmentalist and economist Pat Adams, if the Jari Project continues to be a success, it could force a rethinking of accepted wisdom about Amazonian development.
"If Jari really works, it will provide a challenge to the way many look at the Amazon," says Ms. Adams, who has long been a critic of Jari. "It sounds like they have done some things right, but only time will tell."
Fear of big projects has led many environmentalists to support low-intensity development. Under international pressure, the Brazilian government has set up 19 "extractive reserves" where the jungle is kept intact and forest-dwelling populations harvest its natural bounty.
According to some analyses, the economic returns from low-intensity harvesting of fruit, wild rubber, nuts, and plants can be greater than those from clearing the forest for ranching, farming, or forestry.
While prices for many of these products, especially rubber, have collapsed in recent years and most residents of extractive reserves still remain very poor, people such as Adams still think the reserves offer a good way to deal with the Amazon's problems. "In the Amazon, traditional land rights have been wiped away and something is needed to replace it," she says. "Without clearly defined rights there is little to prevent people from using environmentally unsound practices or give them a stake in protect ion."
"We need to substitute intensive and limited development for extensive but low-intensity development," says Sergio Coutinho, the Jari Project's chief biologist. "I believe the popular extractive reserve idea is not the solution for the Amazon.
Stephen Schwartzman, the chief scientist of the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund disagrees.
"There is no doubt that large projects like Jari could have a role in the intelligent development of the Amazon, but the key is local control." he says. "Extractive reserves allow the Amazon's rural people to manage their own resources and decide how they want to develop. Big projects tend to displace people and reduce control."
The debate over intensive development and extractive reserves is bound to continue, but on one point both sides agree. It is going to be hard to make either model work without changing the idea that the Amazon is limitless and its exploitation free.
"There's no point in setting up well-managed reserves if they are merely islands in a sea of uncontrolled destruction," Mr. Schwartzman says.