By Thais Borges and Sue Branford*
MAMURU RIVER VALLEY, Pará state, Brazil — On arrival in this remote part of the Amazon basin, the Mongabay reporting team was not welcomed by the sound of tropical birds, but by the monotonous industrial grumble of large machines resounding through the rainforest. Loggers and land grabbers are moving in with chainsaws, generators, GPS units and other modern equipment to extract valuable timber, often illegally, and to lay claim to the land.
The ever-present roar is just one sign of the fierce struggle underway here and elsewhere in the Amazon basin over how the forest should be used.
At issue: whether large expanses of rainforest should carry on as common land held by the government and utilized by indigenous and non-indigenous riverine communities pursuing traditional sustainable livelihoods; or whether these forests should be cut and the land claimed by elite, often wealthy, outsiders as private property to be exploited for logging, agribusiness or mining, with lucrative profits made from resource export.
This regional and local conflict is increasingly taking on international relevance as global awareness grows of the urgent need to conserve the Amazon rainforest to store carbon in trees and ground, to help stave off a global climate catastrophe.
A clash of cultures along the Mamuru River
One local conflict is playing out along the Mamuru River in Pará state, not far from the border with Amazonas state (see map). It is a region occupied for generations by Sateré Indians, now living mostly inside the Andirá Marau Indigenous Reserve, and by non-indigenous traditional riverine communities, living in the Mamuru State Agro-extractivist Project, known as PEAEX Mamuru. (Brazil’s National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform, INCRA, created the agro-extractivist project designation to define areas where non-indigenous communities are permitted to carry out traditional lifestyles and livelihoods.)
The clash of cultures isn’t new to this remote region. For many decades mistrust between the indigenous and riverine communities has smoldered. Historian Barbara Weinstein, professor of Latin American and Caribbean history at New York University, tells in her books of how, during the second half of the 19th century, big rubber barons violently expelled indigenous populations when setting up plantations, then settling thousands of laborers from northeast Brazil there to tap the trees. The riverine populations here today are descendants of those migrants.
But after the collapse of the rubber boom in the first half of the 20th century, relations between the two communities evolved toward acceptance. According to history professor Cristina Wollf, at Brazil’s Federal University of Santa Catarina, the riverine people only survived by learning from the Indians how to sustainably exploit the forest.
More recently, a new phase of cooperation has dawned as both indigenous and traditional communities realize that they must work together if they are to save the forests that surround and sustain them, and successfully stand against the powerful forces moving in from outside.
First, they clear and remove the valuable timber
Although the invading loggers are not clear-cutting the forest, they are the harbingers of destruction and extraordinary change. As they selectively log, the loggers open clearings to the brutal tropical sun while building roads which degrade and fragment the rainforest, drying it out and making it more susceptible to wildfires and giving access to more intruders.
Indeed, huge fires have recently raged in nearby Mamuru River basin forests, made more vulnerable by logging. Those fires, and the roar of equipment drive game away, depriving locals of the meat they need to live well, and forcing communities increasingly to pay for food, making them more dependent on the modern cash economy.
“Hidden from sight, the loggers are already taking control of everything,” reports Francisco Caetano de Souza a local leader. “A few years ago, we just had to walk a short way and we could find animals to hunt.” Now, he says, “we can hear the machines at work five kilometers (three miles) away. No animal will remain near a noise like that.”
The center of resistance
Currently, loggers can only claim to be working legally on the eastern bank of the Mamuru River. In some areas there, they operate within logging concessions that allow timber extraction on a sustainable basis for periods of up to 40 years, and that permit the building of rough tracks into the forest to transport out the timber.
But on the western bank it is a different story. No commercial logging is permitted there, but no matter — loggers are seeking a way in.
One approach: persuade a community within the PEAEX Mamuru to draw up a plan for sustainable logging, something they’re permitted to do by law, then sell the logging rights to an outside timber company.
Once legally operating in the area, and with the camel’s nose under the tent, the loggers would likely employ a tried and true method of thievery known as “heating the wood,” an underhand practice whereby they extract timber from the legal reserve, while also cutting it in surrounding areas, then mixing the legal and illegal cuts, claiming it all came from the permitted zone.
“Heating the wood” is currently rife across the Brazilian Amazon, doing irrevocable harm to communities and biodiversity. It’s a process aided by organized crime and poor government oversight of timber cutting and exports, and by a retail lumber industry the world over that often chooses to look the other way when it comes to valuable tropical woods which are highly valued by upscale consumers in the EU, US, China and elsewhere.
A hard life, grown harder
The loggers know that they have a fair chance of persuading some riverine families to back timber extraction contracts because life has become increasingly difficult for the communities.
Sitting on a bench outside her wooden hut in Forca, one of 18 settlements that make up PEAEX Mamuru, Darielma Bezerra says she is waiting for her husband to return from a week-long trip into the forest to collect copaiba oil. “My father-in-law says that in the old days there were a lot of copaiba trees very near here,” Darielma laments. “But now the loggers are destroying everything and we are the ones who suffer.”
Our people “have to go farther and farther into the forest to get the oil,” she told Mongabay. On a good trip the men collect 40-60 liters (9-13 gallons). Once harvested, the locals then must make an arduous boat trip to the city of Parintins on the Amazon River to sell the oil, getting just R$40 (US$10) per liter. After telling us that a nephew was bitten by a jaca — a very poisonous bushmaster snake — on a recent trip, she complained: “It’s very little for so much time, hard work and risk.”
By contrast, Samuel Mendes de Souza, a leader from Monte Carmelo, another PEAEX Mamuru community, confirmed that a logging company is currently offering between R$50 (US$12.4) and R$300 (US$74.4) per cubic meter of hard timber.
That’s certainly far better money than Darielma’s husband can get for copaiba oil. But even so, it is not a fair price, and includes grave hidden community costs, say experts. A cubic meter of valuable ipê wood, sawn and ready for export, sells for about R$7,000 (US$1,735) in the Amazon port of Belém. Even taking into account the loggers’ expenses, this means they make a colossal profit at the expense of locals.
Even though many riverine people know they’re getting the shoddy end of the bargain, the offer of hard cash is often difficult for hard-pressed families to resist.
Today, logging negotiations with PEAEX Mamuru are ongoing and being mediated through its representative body, the Association of Communities. But some residents told us, off the record, that they are suspicious of the dealmaking.
The president of the Association, Raimundo Costa dos Santos, they say, is in league with the loggers and land grabbers. At the end of 2018, he lost the association president election to Caetano de Souza, but dos Santos refused to accept the balloting results, claiming the election was fixed. He then went to court and got the result annulled.
The Mongabay team was repeatedly told that dos Santos does not readily tolerate perceived opposition, so it was with some trepidation we made our way upriver to his home. There, we walked down a long pier to his residence, past chained, barking and snarling pit bull terriers. After restraining the dogs, dos Santos received us courteously. He had a far finer home than other locals, boasting running water, a wide veranda, and with two well-equipped boats moored on a private beach.
During our conversation, dos Santos emphatically argued in favor of the traditional community reaching a logging agreement with an outside timber company. “Selling timber brings in far more money than collecting oils from trees in the forest,” he declares.
However, many local residents — particularly those who have watched similar deals made elsewhere in the Amazon — are reluctant to sign a contract. They fear that once they permit even limited logging on their side of the river, the entire forest, on which their long-term future depends, will be destroyed.
Samuel Mendes de Souza explains: “As long as there are no legal projects for logging on the western bank, all roads, [river] ports or other infrastructure for extracting timber [there] are clearly illegal. If we set up a project for sustainable logging, it will be far harder to tell if the loggers are only taking out the timber to which they are entitled.”
Mongabay was shown a contract between a logging company and a riverine community on the east side the Mamuru. While saying little about the price the company would pay for timber, it stressed benefits the firm would provide: Internet, a community laptop, four artesian wells, a motorized canoe.
James Fraser, a UK University of Lancaster academic carrying out research in this part of the Amazon, says that this modern contract resembles deals made by 17th and 18th century Spanish and Portuguese Conquistadors with indigenous populations. “The laptop and the canoe are the modern equivalent of the mirrors that the colonialists handed over in exchange for an immense amount of gold,” he says.
“And there is another problem: basic sanitation, a communication network and transport are all civil rights [in Brazil]. It’s a dangerous path for the communities to tread when they receive these services from a private company that they should be getting from the government for free, as their right. That’s how mafias are created all over the world,” Fraser concluded.
Land grabbing, the next stage
As the communities struggle to deal with the loggers, another threat is emerging — land grabbing. A large stretch of public land lies between the Andirá Marau Indigenous Reserve and PEAEX Mamuru. Both the Sateré Indians and the riverine families actively use this land to hunt and collect forest products, but their right to exploit it has never been officially recognized.
Outsiders now appear regularly in the disputed area, identifying themselves as “landowners” and waving documents from CAR (the Rural Environment Registry), which they wrongly claim prove they have legal title to the land.
These land grabbers “act as if they have the support of the current government,” says Ladaiudo Almeida, a leader in the indigenous village of Ipiranga, located within the disputed area.
In June, Ladaiudo complained not for the first time to FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous agency, asking that the invaders be evicted, and reminding the institute that the Indians began calling for the legal boundaries of their reserve to be corrected and extended to include part of the disputed area as long ago in 2002 — to no avail.
“There were six of them,” Ladaiudo recalls, speaking of a recent invasion. “They offered to pay us R$50,000 (US$12,600) in exchange for extracting timber and building a road.” The indigenous community refused.
Lacking help from authorities, the Indians then took action. In July, warriors demolished an intruder camp and seized a sophisticated GPS instrument, valued at US$5,000. That piece of evidence showed that the invaders were intent on marking property boundaries, an obligatory step in legitimizing a public land claim in Brazil, and it also shows that they were backed by significant investment.
No one was hurt in the action, but the warriors warned the intruders: “If necessary, we will declare war on you.”
A proposed solution
James Fraser believes the disputed land should be divided between the Indigenous Territory of Andirá Marau and PEAEX Mamuru, shutting out the outsiders.
“The eastern limit of the indigenous reserve should be redrawn to include the excluded villages, and more land should be given to the riverine communities,” says Fraser. “Some [communities] were given just a 500-meter strip beside the river, and they need much more land for hunting and collecting forest products,” in order to live sustainably.
Pointing to the disputed area on a map, he adds: “Leaving this area as [unclaimed and un-demarcated] public land, [the government] sends the message that it is ‘available,’ automatically making it a target of loggers and land thieves.” The disputed area also has environmental importance: it is the missing piece in a mosaic of interconnected protected areas that includes Amazonia National Park, the Tapajós-Arapiuns Extractivist Reserve, and the Andirá Marau Indigenous Reserve.
But this solution seems unlikely to be implemented any time soon, with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro declaring that “there won’t be one centimeter [or inch] demarcated for indigenous reserves or quilombolas [runaway slave descendant communities].”
Riverine and indigenous communities unite
Despite the lack of government support, some of the communities are fighting back against both logging and land grabbing, and they’re doing it together.
In Ipiranga village, Ladaiudo watches as his children and other youths stopped splashing in the river and started playing with a peccary, a family pet. “These youngsters need the forest to survive,” he tells us. “We still hunt and fish to get our food, but with all this noise in the forest, the animals are disappearing. So how are our children going to live?”
In the presence of the Mongabay team, Ladaiudo Almeida, representing the Ipiranga indigenous village, and Samuel Mendes de Souza, representing the community of Monte Carmelo, within PEAEX Mamuru, concluded an agreement to work cooperatively to prevent loggers and land thieves invading their lands.
“Together we will be stronger to protect what is ours!” states Ladaiudo.
“From now on, invaders will have to step over our dead bodies to get onto our land,” Samuel concludes.
A further setback, and hope
Since Mongabay’s visit, the situation for indigenous and riverine populations in Pará state has become more precarious.
On 8 July, state governor Helder Barbalho signed bill 129/201 into law, altering the land registration process and making it far easier for land thieves to claim ownership of property over which they have “posse pacífica” (peaceful possession), meaning that no-one else is currently contesting their claim.
Under the old state statute, alleged owners had to show they lived permanently on common land before they could register it as theirs. But, among other concessions, bill 129/201, (transformed into state law 8,878), abolishes this condition — would-be landowners now only need declare their intention of living there sometime in the future, an unprovable pledge.
The new law, warmly welcomed by the state’s ruralists, representing agribusiness and mining interests, has been criticized by 62 NGOs and other entities, but to no avail.
According to a statement from IMAZON, the Amazon research body, the new law will benefit “those who have invaded public land illegally, control the land through stooges and have never farmed the land, which are the characteristics of speculative land thieving.” IMAZON estimates that in Pará state alone, a stunning 21 million hectares (81,000 square miles) of public land could be transferred to private hands via the new regulations.
Meanwhile, back on the Sateré-Mawé occupied lands on the banks of the Ipiranga and Mariaquã Rivers, the ruralists have met with a setback. The indigenous and traditional communities, using information supplied to the Mongabay team, have shown conclusively that would-be landowners and outsiders cannot claim “posse pacífica.”
This has led the State of Pará Public Ministry (MPPA), a group of independent public litigators, to recommend that ITERPA, Pará state’s land institute, stop the process of land regularization for outsiders laying claim to the disputed land until MPPA can fully investigate conflicts with indigenous and riverine populations in the Mamuru, Ipiranga and Mariaquã river basins.
The recommendation was signed by Ione Nakamura, an MPPA prosecutor. The win is, at best, partial, for ITERPA may not heed MPPA’s recommendation, but the communities remain delighted.
“Putting a brake on the maneuvers of the land thieves is a big victory in the current circumstances,” says Benito Miquiles, an indigenous leader in Campo Grande village, located in the disputed area. This land was traditionally occupied by the Sateré-Mawé, but mistakenly left out of the Andirá Marau Indigenous Reserve when demarcated in 1986.
Still, the road ahead seems likely to be hard, with escalating incursions requiring dogged resistance. The communities have become increasingly fearful, as the Bolsonaro administration ratchets up its rhetoric claiming that indigenous and traditional peoples control far too much of Brazil’s lands in proportion to their numbers, and arguing that the riches of their lands — both mineral and agricultural — belong to all Brazilians.
Unfortunately for rural populations, the ongoing invasion and the staunch opposition it inspires in the Mamuru River valley is no isolated case. All along the Tapajós, Xingu and other Amazonian rivers, indigenous, traditional riverine, and quilombola peoples are allying to bar people and projects threatening the forest. That is why, despite the very difficult political times, environmentalists say they still feel some hope for rainforest survival.
*Earlier this year, a Mongabay reporting team travelled to the Brazilian Amazon, spending time with the remote Sateré-Mawé, documenting their culture and long-time conflict with loggers, miners and land grabbers. This series looks at new threats imposed on the Sateré andindigenous groups across Brazil as they’re threatened by the policies of President Jair Bolsonaro. The trip was funded by the Rainforest Journalism Fund in association with the Pulitzer Center and Mongabay.
Source: This article was published by Mongabay