If World Wishes to Save Brazil’s Amazon It Has to Trust the Forest’s People

Amazon residents After over a decade of ignored complaints, failed negotiations with the government, and countless threats against their leaders by loggers and their gunmen, the residents of the Arapiuns region in the Brazilian Amazon launched a public protest over illegal logging on their lands.

More than 500 people from 40 communities joined in their rabetas (canoes with outboard motors), to block the Arapiuns River to logging activity in the Gleba Nova Olinda. The protestors seized two barges of timber.

Their protest dragged out for more than a month, as state and federal government officials alternately ignored them or responded evasively. Finally, the frustrated protestors decided to send a stronger message. On November 12, after their second meeting with state and federal government officials who again offered no resolution to their problems, they set fire to the barges.

Gleba Nova Olinda covers 172,900 hectares between the Maró and Aruá Rivers, at the source of the Arapiuns River in the municipality of Santarém. Its natural resources are vital to the survival of the people of the Arapiuns. The protest unites 14 communities from throughout the region in the “Movement in Defense of the Life and Culture of the Arapiuns.”

Gleba Nova Olinda’s indigenous and peasant communities have petitioned the government for legal recognition of their territorial rights since the creation of the neighboring Tapajós-Arapiuns Extractive Reserve 13 years ago. Over the past decade, state land exchange programs and development incentives drew loggers and potential soy farmers to Gleba Nova Olinda.

The influx sparked conflicts over land and resource rights with the area’s inhabitants that rapidly turned violent. Violence and threats of violence are a common means of conflict resolution in the state of Pará, where valuable resources such as timber lead to high-stakes conflicts and state enforcement is minimal.

The logging companies have divided communities in the region, spreading conflict beyond the traditional confrontation between loggers, land speculators, and communities. The companies have co-opted some communities, purchasing community support cheaply by providing infrastructure that the government never delivered, such as generators and community buildings, or jobs that turn the area’s inhabitants into agents of deforestation. Most people of the region, however, continue to protest the presence of the loggers.

The communities of Gleba Nova Olinda, the rural workers’ union, and the Pastoral Land Commission worked for three months to draft a land tenure plan that would guarantee the rights of inhabitants. This plan was based on years of discussion among the communities of Gleba Nova Olinda and the larger Arapiuns region. After all their effort, the state government chose to ignore their proposal in favor of a proposal submitted by the logging companies and cooperatives that illegally claimed land and resources in the area.1

The government of the state of Pará effectively decided not to expel the loggers and land speculators operating in traditional and indigenous territories. On the contrary, the proposal authorized 11 “sustainable management plans” and reduced the size of the Vista Alegre Agro-extractive Agrarian Reform Settlement Project from 25,000 hectares to 5,000 hectares.

Meanwhile, the legal process, by the National Foundation for Indians (FUNAI), to recognize and demarcate indigenous territory has been stalled for years.2 FUNAI’s reluctance to demarcate the area has allowed for the region’s loggers and the state government to continue to ignore the rights of the Borari-Arapiun indigenous people by constructing logging roads, licensing management plans, and refusing to enforce logging and land tenure regulations inside the indigenous territory.

Moving Land and Resources into Markets

In the state of Pará, the vast supply of natural resources has led to institutionally-embedded corruption. Through a combination of legal manipulation and violation of the law with impunity, the government often aids and abets environmental crimes in the region.

As Amazonian scholar Leal Aluizio put it, “In the end, the ones who have the power to either impede or permit illegality are the authorities; this is the authority vested in institutional power. And so illegality, when it is ‘freed,’ is expressed in various forms of transgression, from the clearly illegal to the supposedly ‘legal,’ which are ‘protected’ by the law.”3

Recent changes in land use and territorial distribution in the Brazilian Amazon broadly follow two courses. There has been a push to recognize ethnic and culturally based rights to land/territory for indigenous and native peoples as a result of stronger grassroots movements and international conventions. Indigenous people, quilombolas (descendents of fugitive slave communities), “traditional” people, landless peasants, and nature have been allotted their own polygons on Economic and Ecological zoning maps – the Amazonian regional territorial plans created by the World Bank initiative to implement “participatory sustainable development.”4

The Bank-inspired re-drawing is designed to facilitate another territorial redistribution goal of economic development, namely major infrastructure development and the opening of new areas to wood and mineral extraction, industrial agriculture, and ranching. The Economic and Ecological Zoning plans (ZEEs by their Portuguese initials) intended to incorporate environmental and social concerns into economic development in the Amazon but have become a tool to “greenwash” Brazil’s economic development. Brazil’s latest economic development plan, the Program for Accelerated Growth (PAC – Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento), earmarks $95 billion dollars for the construction of highways, waterways, and dams in the Amazon over four years.

The Economic and Ecological Plan for Western Para (ZEE – Oeste do Pará) was created in response to environmental concerns surrounding the PAC project to pave the Santarém-Cuiabá Highway (BR 163). The Santarém-Cuiabá is the only highway that crosses the Amazon from south to north and potentially the fastest way to move soy harvests from southern Brazil to the Amazon River for export. The Ecological-Economic Zoning divides the region into areas with different use designations.

In 2009 state and national governments rapidly passed a series of laws and policies that facilitate the land-use changes embodied in the ZEE. These laws re-organize territory and state functions to facilitate regional economic development, including the creation of new kinds of land designations that relax regulations to facilitate concessions for logging, agriculture, and mineral extraction. Some laws also create new land titles, or collective use concessions.

Other laws target Brazil’s forest code. The ZEE itself effectively reduces the amount of land that landholders must keep as forest on their property from 80% to 50% in many cases.5 A measure is currently on the table to allow ranchers to purchase reserve areas outside of (and far from) their property to allow them to deforest more of their own land, including in areas that are protected.6

Indigenous land and conservation areas are allegedly protected from development, while all other areas are dedicated to “consolidating” or “expanding” productive activities for internal and external markets, such as ranching, industrial farming, and logging.7 Once these areas are delimited, various laws and policies compel each area to function according to its ZEE designation. Gleba Nova Olinda is designated as an expansion zone, which prioritizes development over conservation and makes it possible for developers to obtain licenses for the productive activities named above.

The ambiguous land tenure situation is considered a barrier to development in the state of Pará. Very few people have secure property rights in the form of clear titles and much of the state is terra devoluta, undesignated, but often occupied, federally-held land. In Pará, approximately 30 million hectares of this land is held by people who have taken the land illegally.8 Titling programs, agrarian reform settlements, and conservation areas are meant to address this issue.

Laws such as “terra legal,” passed in 2009, will legalize all land claims up to 1,500 hectares in the Brazilian Amazon on federal land. The state of Pará passed a similar law for state lands. The laws streamline the transfer of public land to private property.

Social movements, along with politicians on the Left and some scientists have criticized the law for its potential to legalize land obtained in illegal land grabs. The laws have also been criticized for promoting the large-scale commodification of land and skewing the law to benefit large landholders and land grabbers, known as grileiros.9

President Luiz Inácio da Silva brought in Harvard Professor Mangabeira Unger as special secretary of strategic subjects to do the political wrangling necessary to pass this law – convince legislators, make deals, and lend the prestige of Harvard to the project. Unger resigned and returned to the United States two days after the law was passed.

Indigenous territories and conservation areas are often treated as if they were “outside the market” but conflicts over land use in these areas shows that as long as they contain viable resources, it is unlikely they will be spared exploitation. Long delays to legally designate protected areas create large windows of opportunity for resources to be extracted rapidly before protection is implemented.

This is common practice.10 Increasingly, agrarian reform settlements and new conservation areas are being cut to a fraction of their originally petitioned size to accommodate logging and mineral interests.

The Case of the Renascer Extractive Reserve

The Renascer Extractive Reserve was created as a conservation area within the ZEE on June 5, 2009 after a decade of struggle. The communities of the region began lobbying for the creation of a reserve when major logging companies such as Madenorte moved into the region in the late 1990s, occupied the territory, and policed its boundaries with threats and violence.

Federal regulating agencies ignored innumerable appeals to remove loggers from the region. In 2006, the people of Santa Maria do Uruará implemented a series of actions over the course of three months, closing down the road to the port, sequestering barges of wood, and finally burning a barge carrying 1,000 square meters of wood.

It was only after the burning of the barges that the government finally responded. In December of 2006, the federal government implemented “Operation Renascer” against illegal logging, which resulted in nine arrests and closed down illegal logging in the region for some time.

Three years later, however, the reserve has still not been established and the same loggers have returned to the region. The logging companies themselves do not change – their personnel and infrastructure remains the same. They merely change the company name and continue the same practices. For instance, Madenorte now operates as Jaurú, using the same mill and port facilities inside of the reserve.

After negotiations between the state, the federal government, WWF, and members of the rural workers union and the fisherperson’s union, Renascer Extractive Reserve was created in June at half of its proposed size. The portion of the reserve containing potential mineral resources, the vast majority of the primary forest, and the sources of the area’s three rivers were excluded, according to senior officials at the Chico Mendes Institute for the Conservation of Biodiversity (ICMBio), which manages conservation units in Brazil often in the interests of loggers and miners.

With the creation of the reserve on paper, the pace at which lumber is being taken out illegally has increased exponentially. Area residents report that up to five timber barges containing between 1,000 and 2,000 cubic meters each leave the area per day.

In response to repeated denunciations by community members, the Institute of Chico Mendes, and SEMA, the state secretary of the environment responsible for enforcement of logging regulations on state and federal land in the state of Pará, said that they cannot do anything without going through long bureaucratic processes.

They say they need more specific information, such as GPS data and photos, which is beyond the resources of the communities and also dangerous for them to obtain. Government action and inaction send theoretically protected land and resources straight to the market.

On November 27, the residents of Renascer and of Santa Maria de Uruará, which borders the reserve, decided that they could no longer wait for the government to take action. They set up an encampment on the edge of the Reserve boundary where the Tamataí and Uruará Rivers meet. They informed the loggers and the municipal, state, and federal governments that they would not allow any more timber barges to pass. One barge that was on its way downriver immediately returned to the port it left from and no barges have passed the blockade for over a month.

After several weeks of communities camping by the side of the river, the Chico Mendes Institute issued an order closing the port. A municipal judge also ordered that the port be closed until laws against illegal logging inside of the reserve were enforced. Logging, however, within the reserve did not stop, and the municipal, state, and federal governments continued to claim that lack of resources made the judge-mandated enforcement prohibitive.

The community members continue to experience daily threats from passing planes, boats, and through verbal communication. More than 200 people remain camped at the mouth of the Tamataí, impeding the exit of barges and demanding government response.

After a failed attempt to bribe community members to allow illegal logging activities, on Jan. 3, the loggers contracted armed gunmen to bring their wood to market. When they reached the encampment and when the community members closed the river in their canoes, the gunmen opened fire. Two community members were shot. The timber barges continued to market.

Social movements’ acts of civil disobedience to call attention to violations of their rights are criminalized in the press, de-legitimized by international NGOs who claim to have supported them, and increasingly subject to legal prosecution.11 Leaders from the movements on both the Arapiuns and Renascer have been called in front of the police and threatened with imprisonment, while the loggers continue to act with impunity. Such acts, however, seem to be the only alternatives that elicit government response and force those who have committed crimes against them to back down.

Development-oriented conservation achieved through the market-based governance approaches has been heralded as the way to save the Amazon by G-20 governments, the press, most major international environmental NGOs, and many scientists. But these policies are rapidly proving insufficient, conflictive, and counterproductive, as seen in the Gleba Nova and Renascer cases.

The social and environmental costs of green-washing this inherently destructive type of development are enormous. The severe problems of the post-Kyoto debates, the current global economic crisis, and the multiple crises of the free-market paradigm create a context of accelerated exploitation just when the world’s leaders pay lip service to conservation.

If countries and organizations of the global north truly want to stop destruction of the forests and peoples of tropical regions, they must recognize, value, and implement the myriad non-market-based approaches to conservation. The people of the forests are the ones who can guarantee, through their diverse knowledge and practices, the survival of these forests.

G-20 bureaucrats would do well to learn from these people. A more thoughtful paradigm begins by recognizing that our modes of consumption and international governance are directly responsible for much of the destruction.

The international community can better serve Amazonian conservation by paying close attention to the issues raised in local debates rather than using the generalized discourse of “governance” and market-based solutions to problems of global consumption patterns. A more reasonable approach is to put pressure on state and national governments to recognize and respect the rights of people to govern their own territories and resources in practice, not just rhetoric.

This is not a romantic appeal to localism, but an important question of political sovereignty. Shouldn’t the people of Gleba Nova Olinda and Resex Renascer have the right to determine their identity, demarcate their territories, and decide how the land and resources within them are managed?

End Notes

1. Treccani, G.D., 2009, Regularização Fundiária da Região Mamuru Arapiuns, Power Point Presentation, Ideflor Seminar, Santarém.

2. The process of recognizing Indigenous land rights begins with an anthropological investigation of the peoples’ history and culture along with a geographical investigation of the extent of their territory. A summary report is published in the Federal Daily Register, and there is a 90-day process in which interested parties may contest the area. All documents are sent to the Ministry of Justice which formally announces the demarcation. Physical demarcation of the boundaries is implemented by a third party contracted by the government. The anthropological and geographic research for Gleba Nova Olinda was completed in 2007. The summary report has yet to be published.

3. Leal, Aluizio, Trabalho Escravo Os porquês da questão? Portuguese text, not published.

4. ACSELRAD, Henri, O Zoneamento Ecológico-Econômico da Amazônia e o panoptismo imperfeito, P&A Editora: Rio de Janeiro, 2002.

5. See lei Nº 7.243, de 9 de Janeiro 2009. Whereas the forest code mandates 80% reserve, stating that if one holds land that is more than 80% deforested, that land must be reforested, the ZEE changed that requirement. People with land that has already been cleared may use that land rather than reforesting it, up to 50% of property.

6. See http://www.socioambiental.org/noticias/nsa/detalhe?id=.

7. See lei Nº 7.243, January 9, 2009.

8. Benatti 2007.

9. For an example see the open letter by Marina Silva on the measure, http://www.socioambiental.org/nsa/detalhe?id=2896.

10. Benatti, J.H., 2007, Internacionalização da Amazônia e a questão ambiental: o direito das populações tradicionais e indígenas à terra, Revista Amazônia Legal de estudos sócio-jurídico-ambientais, 1(1): 23-39.

11. For an example see “Moradores incendeiam balsas com Madeira no Pará,” http://www.greenblog.org.br/?cat=202.

For More Information

The CPT is a Catholic church-based organization founded during the military dictatorship that accompanies and documents land conflict and assists marginalized peoples in their struggle for land in Brazil. This is their website: http://www.cptnac.com.br/.

One of the best websites for following issues of land conflict in western Para and Amazonian politics more generally:

Blog following issues of land conflict:

Frente em defesa da amazonia:

Brenda Baletti has a master’s degree in geography from the University of Texas at Austin and is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She lives in Santarém and is conducting dissertation research on struggles over territorial rights in Western Para.

Gilson Rego is a sociologist by training (BA sociology Federal University of Pará) and works for the CPT (Comissão Pastoral da Terra or Pastoral Land Commission) in Santarém.

Antonio Sena is a law student at the Federal University of Amazonas and specializes in research on land rights.

Americas Program Report – http://americas.irc-online.org


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