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A forgotten people: traditional Amazon hamlet fights for its territory

  • In the early 20th century, rubber tappers established traditional communities along the middle reaches of the Xingu River in the Amazon. In the late 20th century these communities endured the threats of illegal loggers and land thieves.
  • In the early 2000s, São Sebastião do Xingu residents were told that a group of elite landowners had bought the land on which their hamlet stood, and that the community would be forced to vacate, which it did, moving upstream. Then, in 2005, the people were told again they would have to move to make way for Serra do Pardo National Park.
  • This time, the residents of São Sebastião resisted and stayed on the land, despite intense pressure from the Brazilian government to leave. They argued that they were not properly informed of the government’s plan to establish the park, that their livelihoods are sustainable, and that they live in harmony with the local ecology, rather than harming it.
  • São Sebastião residents continue to negotiate to stay on their land with officials from ICMBio, the Chico Mendes Institute of Biodiversity Conservation. And while those talks have been painfully slow, the traditional people hope that the conflict will be resolved soon, and that they will be able to keep their homes and territory.
The residents of São Sebastião hold a procession in celebration of their village’s patron saint. This traditional community has resisted all attempts to move its people out of their homes and off their land. Image by Natalia Guerrero.

“What’s going to drive you off this land is hunger,” an official from ICMBio, the Chico Mendes Institute of Biodiversity Conservation, cautioned fishing families and settlers living along the mid-reaches of the Xingu River in the state of Pará in the Brazilian Amazon.

That ominous warning came in 2011, six years after the federal government absorbed the traditional riverine communities into the newly created Serra do Pardo National Park — a decision made without consulting the local people.

For the families, those words were perceived as a clear threat: they feared that ICMBio, the federal institute that oversees the park, would deprive them of everything they needed to sustain their traditional way of life, in order to drive them out.

“They told us that, if we stayed, we’d be like a tick, crushed by a fingernail,” says a young man from São Sebastião do Xingu, the hamlet where many of the families live.

And they had good reason to worry: Brazil’s conception of a national park is modelled on the U.S. concept, where the overriding priority is to protect ecosystems, not people. As such, the authorities press for the relocation of those found living within newly declared Brazilian national parks, even when they have settled in traditional communities that have been established for many years.

However, the São Sebastião residents felt a profound connection with their land, and for much of the second half of the 20th century braved loggers and violent land thieves to keep it. So when the national park came along, they chose the path of resistance and persistence.

Today, thirteen years after the park’s founding, ICMBio’s attitude is softening, though the handful of families living there still don’t know yet if they’ll be allowed to stay, even as they endure the challenges of living within a national park, including a perennial lack of basic human services, particularly public health and education.

Residents, lacking local healthcare and other government sponsored services, must travel by canoe to the town of São Félix to access medical care and other public services. The trip there takes nearly a whole day and can be risky, due to numerous waterfalls on the way. Image by Natalia Guerrero.

The shape of the river

Dona Albertina Lopes da Silva, an elderly inhabitant of São Sebastião, picks up a photo showing a dugout canoe on the Xingu River. Her gaze moves from the image of her fisherman son, in the foreground, to the shadowy landforms in the background. “It was taken beside the old hamlet, beside Gull Beach, the hill….” Silence. Her eyes and fingers concentrate on the far horizon in the picture. “I’m sure of that because of the shape of the river,” she explains.

Dona Albertina, like most of the dozens of families now living inside Serra do Pardo National Park and around it, are descended from rubber tappers as well as indigenous groups in a region known as Terra do Meio (the land In between), a stretch of forest flanked by the Xingu and Iriri rivers, bordering the municipal districts of Altamira and São Félix do Xingu.

The hamlet was set up in the early 20th Century by a seringalista, a rubber baron who arrived from Belém, a city at the mouth of the Amazon River. He enlisted migrants, mainly from the impoverished Brazilian Northeast, to tap the rubber trees. Before then, indigenous people used to wander at will through the region, though the arrival of the rubber tappers had a profoundly negative impact on the Indian’s social organization.

A map showing the location of São Sebastião do Xingu and Serra do Pardo National Park. Image by Mauricio Torres.

The rubber baron allocated dozens of small forest stretches to the rubber tappers, giving the sites names like São Paulo, Pajaú, Piranheira, Capoeirana, Formiga, Cerrado, and Faria.

“The men who established the families here came from outside,” explains 41-year-old Lucivaldo Vieira da Silva, who relates the family’s genealogy: Dona Albertina’s son, he was born and bred in São Sebastião, where he still lives. His father was born further down the Xingu River, the son of a migrant from the district of Castanhal in the very north of Pará.

In many parts of the Amazon, including here, the tappers who were mostly single men, quite often made families by forming relationships with indigenous women, at times against their will. Indigenous knowledge acquired from the women helped the men diversify their livelihood when the price of rubber fell. That is how these traditional communities came to rely on subsistence farming, the collection of forest products (including Brazil nuts and pilocarpus (Pilocarpus jaborandi), a leaf used by the pharmaceutical industry), small-scale mining, and the sale of animal pelts, an activity now banned within the national park.

Albertina Lopes da Silva, an elderly resident of São Sebastião, who currently lives in the city of Altamira because of health problems. Image by Natalia Guerrero.

Loggers and land thieves

The rubber trade faded away completely along the Xingu by the late 1980s. That’s around the time when outsiders started arriving in search of timber, particularly mahogany and cedar. Rival logging groups sought out clusters of valuable trees in the thick forests, frequently fighting between themselves over prized groves. “At that time, there were lots of loggers here, masses of them,” a local resident remembers. It was a violent time.

“They used gunmen to stop a rival logger stealing their timber,” another resident recalls.

The loggers created numerous tracks through the forest, which land thieves then utilized to take over vast tracts to set up cattle ranches. One Xingu resident remembers: “Everyone claimed to be the owner.” Over the same period, peasant families from other Brazilian states began migrating into the regionTwo of these families settled on the outskirts of São Sebastiãp where they still live, sharing the problems of the other families.

José Lopes da Silva, born and bred in São Sebastião. He had to leave the hamlet during the period of violent land conflicts. Image by Natalia Guerrero.

“This was a time when might was right,” recalls a São Sebastião resident. Many families were forced off their land at gunpoint. Seu José Lopes da Silva was among those illegally evicted. He describes his feeling of powerlessness: “Those with arms had their way, because we couldn’t stand up to them. I thought: ‘My lad, it’s no good, I’m going to have to give up, I don’t want to die.’ And I did. Today I’m alive to tell this story. If I’d remained, I would have died.”

In the early 2000s, the residents were stunned to learn that a group of elite landowners had bought the land on which São Sebastião stood, and that the entire community would be forced to vacate.

“Can you imagine it?,” says an old woman. “To have one of your brothers, your mother, and others close to you buried here, and then they knock everything down with a tractor?” In the face of repeated protests by the residents, these so-called landowners agreed to resettle the hamlet higher up the Xingu River, where it is sited today.

Domingos Pereira da Silva, a São Sebastião resident and his small land holding in the background. With the future still uncertain, many are fearful of planting perennial crops, like cacao, worrying that they will be forced to leave and lose everything. Image by Natalia Guerrero.

The creation of the park

That, of course, wasn’t the end of upheaval and uncertainty: the creation of the Serra do Pardo National Park was announced in February 2005. That decision came in response to the furore over the assassination of the U.S. missionary, Dorothy Stang, as the Brazilian government rapidly set up a mosaic of protected areas in the Terra do Meio to combat land theft and other predatory activities. In the original mosaic plan, all the territory along the left bank of this stretch of the Xingu River was to have been turned into a Resex (an extractivist reserve), a type of conservation unit where traditional inhabitants are allowed to stay on and practice sustainable livelihoods.

But that wasn’t what happened, according to the residents of São Sebastião. Without proper government consultation, they were informed that their community was to be absorbed by the Serra do Pardo National Park, a much stricter type of conservation unit where families couldn’t stay. The Park was to cover 445,408 hectares (1.1 million acres).

“We were all amazed,” recalls Domingos Pereira da Silva.

Valdenir Bezerra de Morias also remembers: “They said: ‘Do you agree to becoming a Resex? You can go on doing everything you do now.’ Everyone said, ‘Yes.’ But a year later, they arrived and said: ‘Do you know that now you’re in a National Park?’ We said: ‘No.’ We signed the proposal to become a reserve. We didn’t sign to become a [national] park’.” Unbeknown to the families, a new federal study had been carried out and the boundaries of the Resex had changed, excluding the families of São Sebastião.

The people of São Sebastião live on a remote stretch of the Xingu River in the Brazilian Amazon. The community practices sustainable livelihoods including fishing, subsistence farming, and the harvesting of brazil nuts and other forest products. Image by Natalia Guerrero.

Today, the families admit that this flurry of government initiatives did bring some benefits. The Federal Public Ministry (the MPF, Brazil’s Public Prosecutors Office, and an independent branch of government) identified and mapped the area occupied by land thieves. Under the MPF’s guidance, ICMBio began fining those responsible for large-scale deforestation. One successful initiative was the Pirate Cattle Operation, launched in 2008, which shut down illegal ranching activities.

“I thank the government for turning its attention to us here,” says João Inácio Assunção, an elderly resident forced to leave during the period of violence before the park’s founding.

The Ministry of the Environment estimates that by the time federal action was taken, 10 percent of the area of the Serra do Pardo National Park had been illegally deforested and converted to pasture. By the conclusion of the five-month Pirate Cattle Operation, 30,000 head of cattle were removed from the park and a neighboring conservation unit.

However, while the authorities acted effectively in punishing and eradicating land theft, they failed to guarantee the rights of the traditional river communities, and in doing so, violated an international agreement. Brazil is a signatory of the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, which requires that governments consult the peoples concerned “whenever consideration is being given to legislative or administrative measures which may affect them directly.” But this did not happen in the case of the Xingu River settlements when incorporated into the national park.

Other coercive acts that appear to have violated national and international laws include ICMBio rulings that the families were not allowed to carry out small-scale subsistence agriculture, build houses, or even receive visits from friends and families.

“Nobody could visit us,” says Maria Neusa Teixeira da Silva. Of all the actions taken against the settlements, this was the one the people found most cruel. “I said: ‘I can put up with anything but this. To live alone, without relatives, without friends — this no’.”

The day’s catch from a São Sebastião fishing trip. Fish figures strongly in the local diet, while also serving as an important source of income. Image by Natalia Guerrero.

The threat of force and the force of neglect

The years of conflict and land grabbing, followed by the creation of the park, resulted in a decade-long failure by the state to provide basic public services in health, education and transportation to the region.

“If only we had schools,” laments Magno dos Santos Gomes. When he was young, his family left its home along the Xingu River and moved to the town of São Félix do Xingu so that the children could have access to a school. Other families did the same.

Complaints to municipal authorities over the lack of services apparently fell on deaf ears. Finally in 2017, the community of São Sebastião made a formal complaint to the MPF about the municipality’s neglect. It was only then that the local government recognized that it had obligations to the community.

The current mayor of São Félix do Xingu, Minervina Maria de Barros Silva, told Mongabay that the situation for São Sebastião residents was “very serious.… People are leaving the region because of the lack of assistance.… We must take urgent action so that they can return home.”

However, when pressed to say when mobile health visits would occur in São Sebastião, or when the hamlet’s energy generator would be repaired, the mayor was evasive: “it’s hard for us to take even these minimum actions,” she responded. “The municipal district has 124,000 inhabitants, with some people living up to 300 kilometers (186 miles) away from the main town.”

Residents making manioc (cassava) flour in the hamlet of São Sebastião. Farming, fishing and Brazil nut collection are the main sources of income in the traditional community. Those arguing in favor of the community maintaining their homes inside the national park say that the residents live sustainably and in harmony with nature, and do not harm the area’s ecology. Image by Natalia Guerrero.

Long negotiation process

The families of São Sebastião agree that change is coming, but in some ways, too slowly. Since 2014, ICMBio has been in talks with the inhabitants, negotiating a deal by which the settlers will be allowed to go on practicing a traditional way of life and livelihoods inside the national park.

A draft agreement was reached in 2015 but, as yet, not signed, with the document apparently stuck in the institute’s upper echelons. “It’s now 13 years since we’ve had a park here, and nothing has been sorted out,” complained one resident.

“Our spirits lifted with these talks, but we’ve got nowhere. We’re scared to plant crops and then lose everything, if we’re forced to leave,” said another.

The ICMBio press office admitted to Mongabay that the process is taking time, but said this is because it is trying “to negotiate with the families in a truly participatory way, guaranteeing their effective involvement.” When asked about its earlier infringement on the community’s legal rights, ICMBio responded that it is going through a process of “institutional learning.”

Despite that admission, some within ICMBio are still talking of resettling the families. Tatiana de Noronha Versiani Ribeiro, an MPF prosecutor in the town of Redenção, rejects this solution: “The protection of the environment, and the creation of a specially protected territorial park, doesn’t mean that the traditional community can’t remain on its land and be supplied with the public services it needs,” she says, adding that MPF’s role is to achieve a negotiated settlement. “It is only if this proves impossible that the MPF will go to court.”

Local residents take part in a procession in honor of São Sebastião, said to be the patron saint of rubber-tappers, and the namesake for the village. There are many processions in this saint’s honor in communities throughout the Amazon. Image by Natalia Guerrero.

A living community rejoices

In early January 2018, the hamlet church in São Sebastião took on a festive appearance as the building was garlanded with bunting and colored lights. Residents were preparing for the annual celebration in honor of the town’s patron saint, São Sebastião, an event observed here in much the same way for more than a century.

The celebration went on for three days, with food aplenty and music, as the community welcomed friends and family from near and far. Hundreds of visitors came, including the Parakanã Indians, who live close by, along with residents from Altamira, 200 kilometers (124 miles) downstream

Less than a decade ago, ICMBio threatened to ban the annual festival, arousing disgust and defiance from local residents. In the end, perhaps as part of its “institutional learning,” ICMBio’s prohibition was never imposed – though it wouldn’t have likely been respected if it had been.

So each year, the annual festival, involving a large extended community network, renews the people’s faith in the powers of their founding saint. The celebration has also become a powerful expression of the inhabitants’ determination to stay on the land they have called home for generations.

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