- The recently created Estaçāo Ecológica da Terra do Meio (EsecTM, Terra do Meio Ecological Station) covers 3.4 million hectares (over 13,000 square miles), between the Amazon basin’s Xingu and Iriri rivers, and was created to discourage land grabs and violence. But the preserve has accidentally threatened the livelihoods and homes of families living there.
- The Altamira Public Prosecutor is working to protect the lands of this small group of beiradeiros. She sent a fact-finding team upriver to determine if the families’ small-scale economic activities are negatively impacting the ecosystem, or if, as some scientists suspect, their lifestyle has reshaped and even benefited the environment.
- If the 15 families are doing negligible harm, the prosecutor will ask the local judge to allow them to stay. A favorable decision could reverberate throughout the Amazon. It would legally challenge environmental protection as the sole land use priority inside Brazil’s ecological stations and other preserves, and recognize value of low impact human use there.
Before leaving Altamira, I spent an afternoon with Raquel Rodrigues Santos, one of two botanists going on the trip into the remote heart of the Amazon basin. We bought massive amounts of food for the trip: rice, feijāo (beans), sunflower oil, powdered milk, macaroni, and more. Way over the top, I thought, as there will only be eight of us going upriver. No matter how hungry we might get, we couldn’t possibly eat all we purchased.
Raquel patiently explained: the winter (rainy season) had only just begun and the families along the river won’t have been able to travel downstream for many months, due to the extreme severity of this year’s drought — due to a record El Niño likely intensified by climate change. Those families will catch fish for us, give us fried manioc flour to eat with it, and let us sling our hammocks in their homes; in exchange, we will provide them with some basic foodstuffs and leave supplies when we leave. A good arrangement all around.
We’ll be travelling up the Iriri river — the largest tributary of the Xingu — to visit the Terra do Meio, the Middle Land, so-called because it lies between the Xingu and Iriri rivers. It’s an isolated and inaccessible region which in the 1980s and 1990s became a byword for violence, as first loggers arrived and then grileiros (land thieves) sought to grab land and evict families that had lived there for decades.
Many of the families had moved in after the first rubber boom at the end of the 19th century or during the Second World War, when they worked as “rubber soldiers” to provide the Allies with all-important rubber, to replace supplies from Malaysia disrupted by the war. They’d stayed on, eking out a living from rubber, Brazil nuts and small-scale subsistence farming. Many families fled because of the recent violence, but a few clung on. And we’d meet some of them soon.
In the late 1990s, protests over the scale of the violence mounted, with some environmentalists arguing that the government should create a huge “mosaic” of conservation units. The idea was that, by setting up these units, the government would make it impossible for grileiros to grab land, thus putting an end to the horrific wave of environmental devastation and human rights abuses.
The proposal made sense but the authorities didn’t act until a wave of negative international publicity erupted after Dorothy Stang, an American nun, was murdered by an unscrupulous local landowner. Sister Dorothy was killed on 12 February 2005, and the decree creating the first units in the mosaic was issued just five days later.
The largest unit in the mosaic is the Estaçāo Ecológica da Terra do Meio (EsecTM, the Terra do Meio Ecological Station). Covering 3.4 million hectares (more than 13,000 square miles), it included the area in which land thieves were most active. Whereas some of the units permit limited economic activity, no individual can own (or sell) land in the EsecTM. Suddenly it no longer made sense for grileiros to seize land and almost overnight the violence ended.
Why didn’t the government act sooner? It seems that, in a region like the state of Pará in which conservative rural landowners are politically dominant, an act of spectacular and morally indefensible violence, particularly the murder of an iconic figure, is often needed to create the political space for action. A few years earlier it had taken the death of the famous rubber-tapper leader, Chico Mendes, on 22 December 1988, to get the authorities to set in motion the process for creating the “extractive reserves” for which Mendes had long campaigned.
Caught in the middle
Unfortunately for the locals, the mosaic was not set up as environmentalists had requested. The region is inhabited by a relatively small number of beiradeiros (literally, those living on the river banks), as the rubber-tappers and Brazil nut collectors are known. The original idea was to create “extractive reserves” so that the beiradeiros could stay and carry on with their low impact activities. But last minute jockeying by powerful landowners and politicians, anxious not to have their land included in the EsecTM, meant that considerable areas in the north and east were excluded. In compensation, the EsecTM was extended to the west, taking in land occupied by a small group of politically weak beiradeiros.
These families, who have lived in the area for decades and caused little environmental damage, were harassed by the authority running the station — Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservaçāo da Biodiversidade (ICMBio) — and ordered to leave. Although the current administration is more sympathetic to their plight, the beiradeiros are still in an extremely precarious situation.
Their plight has come to the attention of Altamira’s young, and some would say, courageous Public Prosecutor, Thais Santi. Sitting in her uncluttered office in the center of Altamira, she spoke movingly about the need to protect the human rights of this small group of beiradeiros — no more than 15 families — who bravely hold onto their land, despite past attacks from angry Kayapó Indians and, more recently, violent threats from land thieves.
Santi has asked a multidisciplinary team, headed by Mauro Almeida, a professor in anthropology from the University of Campinas (Unicamp), to profile the families and examine the impact of their small-scale economic activities on the surrounding ecosystem. If, as she suspects, they are found to do negligible harm, she will ask the local judge to rule in their favor, allowing them to stay.
That ruling will have significance way beyond the Terra do Meio, because it will challenge the idea of environmental protection as being the sole priority for preserves, even in the case of ecological stations. Whichever way the judge rules, the decision is likely to be controversial, and will have consequences for Brazil’s other ecological stations and national parks.
If the families are allowed to stay, the judgment will pave the way for a much broader discussion, similar to ones happening all over the world (even with respect to Yellowstone National Park, the oldest park in the world). Some ecologists are now arguing that, far from causing damage to the environment, traditional inhabitants may have helped create the ecosystems they live in, and should today be encouraged to stay, as their knowledge and agricultural practices can help restore damaged land.
But that discussion is for the future. The priority for the team I am joining is to examine the way of life of the 15 families and the environmental impact it causes.
The journey begins
The first leg of our journey is by pickup. We bounce along the Transamazonian Highway and reach Uruará, a hot and dusty town, which I first visited in 2012 when I’d in been investigating illegal logging.
Then we turn south, heading toward Maribel, a river port on the left bank of the Iriri River. Our route takes us through the Indigenous Territory of Cachoeira Seca, inhabited by the Arara Indians. A team member tells me that one of the condicionantes (requirements) for the controversial Belo Monte dam was to close the road we are travelling along. The idea was to further protect the Arara Indians, but the road is so useful to local inhabitants that it seems highly unlikely that the authorities will push the measure through.
Then our driver says something shocking: that almost every time he comes here he sees lorries bringing out hardwood timber illegally extracted from the protected Indigenous Territory. The authorities could easily stop this: all they need do is check vehicles as they leave. But for various reasons — including alliances between loggers and local politicians — stopping the illegal shipments isn’t seen as a priority, and no money has been allotted to set up a checkpoint. So, despite the establishment of the preserve, deforestation and illegal logging are both on the rise again.
Before leaving Altamira, I had picked up, hot from the press, a short report from the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a big Brazilian NGO, chronicling deforestation in the Terra do Meio. Satellite images showed, it said, that for the third year running clear-cut felling had increased in the region; in 2015 alone 185 square kilometers (71.4 square miles) had been lost, a 41 percent rise on 2014.
Moreover, satellite images had also revealed that in 2015 loggers illegally opened 333 kilometers (206.9 miles) of rough roads in the indigenous reserve. The leaflet warned that loggers were now just 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from an Arara indigenous village, and that the road would shortly get there, with “catastrophic” consequences for the people.
The Arara have suffered greatly in recent years. Funai, Brazil’s Indian agency, repeatedly tried to make peaceful contact with the group in the early 1970s, before the Transamazonian Highway was cut through the heart of their land, but the Arara, who had been involved in violent clashes with rubber-tappers and jaguar pelt hunters, did not respond to Funai’s overtures.
They only accepted contact in the 1980s, by which time the indigenous group had suffered a drastic population decline. If they are to recover, invaders of all sorts must now be kept out of their lands. But still the road creeps toward them.
We left the indigenous territory behind and reached the small port of Maribel on the Iriri River. We were to spend the night there and then head upriver to one of the most remote reaches of the Amazon basin.