Natives of the Santa Catarina backwoods are instinctively reserved and mistrustful, but Luiz Backes manages to be even more tight-lipped than most. Minutes of silence pass, enough to honor all the martyrs to Brazil’s land struggles, as he rolls a cigarette and mulls his next utterance – or decides perhaps to remain silent after all.
But once he gets talking, the gruff old farmer sounds like a socio-environmental visionary. “Our concern here, I call it my doctrine, is to maintain the forest, especially the pine trees,” he finally offers.
“It was once like this all the way to Argentina,” he continues, motioning without flair to the greenery beyond his front porch. The landscape features sundry specimens of the flat-topped Paraná pine, or candelabra tree; its tall, straight trunk can sometimes soar up to 50 meters as the slightly upwardly-curved branches spread on high.
Only 5% of the original pine forests remain, according to Brazilian government figures. Most of the pines were logged during the 20th century. “They let the special interests tear down the forest,” says Backes.
Long before it became fashionable to wed the interests of the environment to those of the poor, the members of the little community of Santa Cruz dos Pinhais had established a de facto barrier to logging by defending their homesteading rights as small subsistence farmers against first one lumber company, then another. Today they face a new set of challenges, including one from a neighboring indigenous group that seeks to expand its nearby reservation.
Five families settled on what they believed to be public land in 1948. Over ensuing years, logging companies used every trick in the book to try to swindle, cajole, and threaten the homesteaders into packing up and moving on.
Four decades ago, Didi Augustinho was the leader of the community, then known simply as the “Posses” (the Occupied Areas). He obtained a written promise in 1965 from the military government to legalize the homesteaders’ claims. But he died before the promise could be fulfilled. From the hands of Augustinho’s widow, the fateful document fell into the grasp of a congressman – and disappeared.
Homes, barns, and tools started going up in flames. Hired gunmen openly threatened unarmed farmers tending their fields. Police established a checkpoint – not to disarm the gunmen but to indiscriminately search community members as they came and went. Some folks did indeed pack up and leave: the number of families dropped from 70 in the late 1960s to today’s 37.
“A big helping of persecution,” says Faustino Cardoso, a long-time community leader. “It got pretty insecure no matter where you were. That was one heck of a time.” Adds another old-timer, neighbor Antenor Cardoso: “We couldn’t rest peacefully at night.”
“Nobody helped us,” recalls Backes, president of the José Valentim Cardoso Association (AJOVACAR), a group organized by residents in 1997 to defend their interests and preserve their culture and heritage.
“We had to fight the authorities, the prosecutors, and the gunmen. I’m here by the grace of God. The cops, the detectives, the judges – it was very hard to get anybody to help us.”
When allowed, folks just went about their lives, planting corn, beans, and rice. Some began raising bees to make honey. Many signed on as contract farmers to grow tobacco for cigarette manufacturers.
They built a series of new and improved one-room schoolhouses. They moved their homes en masse to higher ground to make their community more accessible to the itinerant priest who would come through to say mass.
Despite all this industriousness, without land titles, people from the Posses couldn’t shake their unsavory reputation in town. “We were supposed to be hustlers, thieves, and all that bad stuff,” said Lourival Backes, one of Luiz’s sons.
So the men took solace, and had a few laughs, when their municipal league football squad lost most of its games but won the sportsmanship award. In a savvy public relations move, the community renamed itself Santa Cruz dos Pinhais (Holy Cross of the Pines) to get the occupation bogeyman off its back in the 1980s.
They also kept after officials to recognize their property rights. Community leaders visited local officials. They traveled to the state capital Florianópolis. They traveled to the federal capital Brasília. They sought allies from the Catholic Church’s land commission, established to aid landless peasants, and the Association to Preserve the Environment of the Upper Itajaí Valley (APREMAVI), a regional environmental group.
APREMAVI helped convince the federal government to establish the Serra de Abelha Ecological Reserve in 1996. The reserve encompasses an area of 4,604 hectares that includes both the community’s homestead farms and more than 8,000 old growth Paraná pine trees. In theory this eases the pressure from logging interests, though some observers suspect that the neighboring indigenous group wants to expand its nearby reservation precisely to sell the logging rights.
Last year Santa Cruz dos Pinhais finally received electrical service. A community task force is working to develop infrastructure for ecotourists keen to visit the forest and the waterfalls and caves hidden within. But residents still await the management plan for the reserve, which will help determine land use policies, and – just as in 1965 – the formal recognition of their landholdings.
Distrustful Luiz Backes and his neighbors show no signs of giving up. “Lots of people tell me it isn’t worth it, that so-and-so has money and will dig a hole wherever he wants,” he says. “I say he’ll only do that if we aren’t united.”
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AJOVACAR receives support from the Greengrants Alliance of Funds (GAF) (www.greengrants.org), a Colorado-based foundation, through its Brazilian representative, the Center for Social and Environmental Support (CASA). GAF and CASA bridge the gap between those who can offer financial support and grassroots groups that can make effective use of that support by identifying worthy organizations and moving funds at minimal cost.
A former correspondent in Brazil for The Financial Times and Business Week, Bill Hinchberger is the founder and editor of BrazilMax: www.BrazilMax.com and contributor to the IRC Americas Program: www.americaspolicy.org, where this article originally appeared. The Center for Social and Environmental Support (CASA) and the Greengrants Alliance of Funds (GAF) (www.greengrants.org) provided support for this article.