Brazil: River Dwellers and Indigenous Communities Join Forces to Offer Alternatives to Deforestation
Photo Courtesy of Mongabay
River Dwellers, ribeirinhos, in the Xingu Extractive Reserve have been collaborating with indigenous communities in creating a system to break a cycle of economic dependence. The Xingu Extractive Reserve, also referred to as Xingu Resex, is one of Brazil’s number of protected areas that act as crucial buffers to the rapidly increasing problem of deforestation, which has depleted the fish stock and caused a sharp spike in alcoholism, malnutrition and illness among indigenous communities. The Nascimento community and the Curuaia tribe, both badly affected by the Belo Monte dam, have come together to sell forest products through the cantina system. This system, conceived by Pedro Peireira de Castro of the ribeirinhos Nascimento community, allows producers to come and sell their products and receive their money and goods on the spot. Therefore, a far more long-term project that brings the communities together and remains sustainable, rather that the “emergency compensation” given out by the company behind the dam, Norte Energia, which created a system of dependence on cash handouts.
Below is an article posted by Mongabay:
On a blazing recent Amazonian afternoon, with the peak of the day’s heat beating down, Lindolfo Silva de Oliveira Filho, 68 – known as “Senhor Lindolfo” – unloaded a burlap sack full of Brazil nuts onto a scale. He took note of the weight, and then shifted the sack to one side. Lindolfo is a cantineiro, a manager of his community’s trading post at Baliza, located on a massive tract of land in Para state, in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.
Here, a network of tight-knit families of rubber-tappers live scattered along the banks of the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon and the lifeblood to thousands of indigenous and forest-dwelling communities.
This land falls within the Xingu Extractive Reserve. A federally-protected 303,000 hectare ecological reserve, the so-called “Xingu Resex” was created in 2008 to provide a means for ribeirinhos (river people) who have lived off its natural wealth for generations to sustainably continue their way of life. Mining and logging is prohibited, as is professional hunting. A resex is essentially a national park, but with people living in it – a radical concept to many conservationists at the time of its inception. It wasn’t until ribeirinhos were recognized as “traditional people” (communities whose survival and history is intimately tied to their environment) that they were granted rights to their land.
Reserves such as the one in which Lindolfo lives now cover 3.4 million hectares of land in Brazil, almost all of it in the Amazon. It is an immense area larger than the state of Maryland. Some experts argue that Brazil’s protected areas offer an alternative approach to the current trend of, as well as a crucial buffer against, continued wildcat deforestation, mining and land theft eating up the Amazonian rainforest. (There are currently 53 resex tracts of land across the country).
Deforestation has spiked in Brazil (up 29 percent this last year according to Brazil’s National Space Research Institute [INPE]) and a number of massive development projects, such as the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, completed in 2015, have caused wide-ranging social and environmental damage. Impacts include severely depleted fish stocks and a sharp spike in alcoholism, malnutrition and illness among indigenous communities in its “impact zone.”
Innovations such as extractive reserves like Xingu Resex are a step in the right direction, says Augusto Postigo. Postigo, 43, is an anthropologist at the Brazil-based nonprofit Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA). The Institute has a regional office in the nearby Amazonian boomtown of Altamira, where Postigo has been working with communities over the last five years. He knows the ribeirinhos well. He regularly spends weeks at a time in the field, going house-to-house by boat to keep up to date with them.
Postigo explains that the project of helping the extractive reserves in the Xingu region to sell their forest products is about elevating the community’s standard of living. But it is also about encouraging their political organization as a group with a rich history in the region.
“Ribeirinhos were [traditionally] totally forgotten and not even recognized by the state,” Postigo said in an interview. “They would seldom come to the city because they didn’t have transport, they didn’t have schools. The state didn’t go there and they didn’t go [to the city].”
Then between 2000-2004, Postigo explains that there were massive incursions from loggers and miners, and as a result, many ribeirinhos were bought out or expelled from their lands since there was little safety, nor any alternatives for them to continue their way of life. But since the reserve was formed, they can stay on their land and the idea of the ribeirinho has acquired a new meaning. The term is now a marker of dignity, not a pejorative word, as it used to be. It is now used with pride.
Until the Resex reserves were created, violence, or the threat of violence, was a big part of daily life.
“Today we can sleep at ease,” Daniel Costa do Nascimento, a fervent young ribeirinho of twenty-six, said. “Before, we weren’t sure if we’d wake up the next day.” Nascimento has started a turtle sanctuary in a personal effort to help conserve the population.
Before the Resex was created in 2008, he explained, his family had been threatened multiple times by gunmen who wanted to steal their land. “They would arrive at your doorstep and say: ‘I want to buy your land.’ If you said, ‘No I don’t want to sell,’ they would say, ‘OK then your widow will sell it to us.’ We were really scared.”
The history of environmentalism and land tenure in Brazil has long been a brutal one. Extractive reserves were borne out of a political struggle during the 1980s led by the charismatic unionist and rubber tapper, Chico Mendez. It eventually cost him his life when he was assassinated by ranchers who disputed his claims to land in 1988.
The first Resex created in the state of Para also came about because of an act of violence, due to public pressure following the 2005 assassination of the American nun and activist, Dorothy Stang, who had campaigned for years on behalf of local people’s land rights and against illegal logging. This legacy continues to haunt this region.
On October 13, 2016, the environmental secretary of Altamira, Luiz Alberto Araujo, 54 – an official who had become known for holding illegal timber operations to account – was shot dead in front of his family by two men riding a motorbike. There is an ongoing investigation into his murder.
Despite the dangers and challenges, many continue to push forward.
Senhor Lindolfo’s community is the newest of the three reserves in the Para region, and it is still finding its feet. But its ribeirinhos have already overcome a major hurdle: they now have a legal title to land they have lived off for generations, and possess a newfound respect for their own identity as “river people.” In defiance of the Brazilian Amazon’s gloomy trends, the forest in Xingu Resex remains intact, and its inhabitants are at ease now that their land is protected.
“The Resex is a blessing,” said Danielson Maranao Vineo 79, who worked as a rubber tapper there for 30 years. “We can stay here as long as we want. We have the rights to plant a crop year-round; we have a right to the riverside. What more could we ask for?”
Families in the Xingu Resex are now selling latex tapped from the rubber tree, Brazil nuts, and the nut and membrane from the babassu tree to Brazil’s major distributors. In Gabiroto, a trading post upriver, they are installing a small machine to extract oil from the babassu and Brazil nuts, which will bring in a higher price than the raw nuts themselves.
Each year, producers and distributors meet face to face within the reserve to form an agreement. The nonprofit ISA, which helped establish the Resex in Para, is there every step of the way, helping the producers as an interlocutor and aiding them with logistics.
A contract is drawn up, giving producers a fixed income for the year, and more crucially a cash down payment, which gives them financial security as well as allowing them to extract forest products year-round. Ribeirinhos buy staples such as coffee, rice and beans with this money. They also fish, hunt and plant crops to keep their families fed.
It worked out well for the Xingu Resex last year, and the community is hoping to expand their economic activities with the production of mesocarpo, a membrane from the babassu nut, which is used in cosmetic products and fetches a high price on the market.
This would not have been possible, however, without the cantina system, conceived by a local producer Pedro Peireira de Castro from a neighboring reserve. Peireira, a youthful-looking 53 year-old ribeirinho, is responsible for a small revolution in the supply chain of forest products from the Xingu region, and is now something of a local celebrity.
Although extractive reserves represented a breakthrough by granting local communities land rights and giving them much needed government benefits, the vast distances in the Amazon made sustainable trade in forest products almost unviable. Pereira turned things around with the cantina system.
Before, individual producers would have to travel with their goods to the city to try and sell their wares to the highest bidder. This could take several months and it didn’t guarantee that their products would be sold, let alone at a fair price. Meanwhile, the producers’ families would be left alone to fend for themselves. Their only alternative was to sell their goods to traveling merchants who would set their own prices, which were often exploitative.
“The merchant would arrive and you’d have to sell your products to him because you didn’t have another alternative,” Pereira said. “So we came up with cantina to solve that problem.”
In 2011 Pereira teamed up with ISA and approached the Swiss firm Firmenich, the world’s largest privately-owned perfume and flavor distributor. They secured a contract to sell the company native copaiba oil, a medicinal sap that is tapped from the wild copaiba tree. Firmenich took up the offer and gave the community a down payment of $3,000 dollars. Pereira went on to set up a trading post in his community where producers could come and sell their products and receive money and goods on the spot.
It was a huge success, and Pereira’s reserve now has a surplus of over $15,000 dollars. They trade seven different forest products and have inspired indigenous communities outside the reserve to also get involved.
“The cantinas validate their way of life and gives them an economic means to stay on their land,” ISA’s Postigo said.
There are now 18 cantinas in Brazil’s northern state of Pará, four of which are within indigenous reserves.
In the wake of the social damage caused by the Belo Monte dam, an expanding coalition of indigenous people and ribeirinhos are joining forces to sell forest products in order to break out of a current cycle of economic dependence.
“We’ve always lived side by side (and) we all live and travel by river; we see each other and wish to be part of the same project,” Joao Luis Nascimento Curuaia, 45, said at an annual Meeting of the Cantineiros, on the outskirts of Altamira. He is a member of the Curuaia tribe.
Nascimento’s community started a cantina in 2014. Like the Resex communities, the Curuaia are now selling Brazil nuts to a national firm. Ribeirinhos and indigenous communities go through completely separate government agencies to organize projects and receive benefits, whereas the cantina system is completely homegrown and independent.
The Curuaia are among several tribes that have been badly affected by the Belo Monte dam. The company behind the dam, Norte Energia, was accused of “ethnocide” by the Altamira’s public prosecutor’s office in September 2016 for a chaotic compensation scheme that included cash handouts of up to $10,000 dollars a month per village over a two-year period.
“We were caught by surprise with no preparation,” Nascimento said of the Norte Energia handouts. The “emergency” compensation plan that the company employed created a system of dependence on cash handouts, which destroyed traditional means of living and divided communities. Nascimento said that selling Brazil nuts in a cantina has made them realize the value of long-term projects that bring the community together and are sustainable.
Representatives from Norte Energia did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Despite the large number of legally protected areas in Brazil, including the Xingu Resex, illegal logging continues to take place within the extractive reserves, and Para has the highest degree of deforestation in the country. What is needed, argues Postigo, is more government support as many efforts are squandered in the maze of Brazilian bureaucracy.
“There is no financial support for extractivism, only for agribusiness,” he said with frustration. Para state doesn’t tax beef and soya production, for instance, but does tax rubber-tapping. He believes that what’s missing is a sound public policy.
“This is absurd, and [the law] has to be overturned,” Postigo said.
Another, larger problem is the effect of climate change, ribeirinhos claim. They say that fish and turtles species are dying because of the “endless summer,” as they put it. They maintain that the weather is starving the fish and turtle species that feed off fruit trees that grow in smaller streams, which are drying up.
Recent studies back up claims that climate change is affecting the turtle and fish populations on the Xingu River.
“We are seeing extremes in weather that are very abnormal,” Brazil-based biologist Cristian Costa Carneira, said. Carneira, who researches aquatic fauna at the Federal University of Para, explains how the increasingly dry summers are killing many turtles before they are born, and turning a disproportionate number of those that survive into females, (since a turtle’s sex is determined by temperature), which can cause a graver long-term problem for the survival of the species. Meanwhile, extreme winters mean turtles can’t access streams where they feed off fruit, so they have stopped procreating and in some cases starved; the unusually high river also causes the young to get washed away and drown, because of extreme winter rainfall.
Daniel Costa, who breeds Tracaja and Tartaruga turtles, said he’d never seen a turtle die of hunger before, “but it’s happening a lot now.”