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Conflict in the Chico Mendes Reserve threatens this pioneering Amazonian project

  • Farmers and irregular occupants in the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve in Acre are enjoying newfound political power and pressuring for the reduction of the first protected area of its kind in Brazil as it approaches its 30th anniversary in March.
  • A bill in the Federal House of Representatives proposes that areas used for irregular cattle farming be removed from its perimeter, effectively legalizing the activity. Resident associations oppose the move.
  • The reserve, or Resex, is a model of territorial occupation that aligns the work and income of traditional populations with keeping the forest intact. Environmentalists fear intervention will make room for changes in other areas.
  • The conflict has revived the confrontation tactics from the era of the military dictatorship, when the rubber tappers emerged victorious but suffered the death of leaders like Chico Mendes, for whom the reserve is named.

In 1990, the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, or Resex, in the Brazilian state of Acre introduced a brand-new model of alliance between non-indigenous traditional peoples and environmental preservation. But as it approaches its 30th anniversary, this reserve is experiencing its worst nightmare — one that could endanger its very model of existence.

The first alerts came in mid-2019, when satellites from the National Institute of Space Research (INPE) detected deforestation rates well above the usual in the area. The total for the year had already reached 74.5 square kilometers (28.7 square miles), three times more than the average in each of the past five years. (The latter figure was itself twice as high as registered  before 2013, when the annual deforestation rate didn’t exceed 10 km² (3.8 mi²).

In November, there was yet another warning sign, this time from the office of the minister of the environment, Ricardo Salles. A meeting on Nov. 6, registered on the official calendar as “an appointment with the caucus from the state of Acre,” featured the participation of five environmental violators whose crimes were committed inside the Resex Chico Mendes. They were there to ask for protection against what they considered the “abuses” of monitors and to raise support for a proposed law to reduce the reserve’s physical borders, whose bill is already circulating in the Federal House of Representatives. According to the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, the minister agreed to both demands.

Burning to clear pastures in the Resex Chico Mendes in Acre. Image by Katie Maehler/Mídia NINJA (CC-BY-NC).

The fight against deforestation and the advances of land raiders are nothing new in the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve. The protected area itself was born as a consequence of the embates — literally “standoffs,” actions of peaceful resistance organized by rubber tappers in the 1970s to save the trees from destruction at the hands of loggers. Led by Chico Mendes and Wilson Pinheiro, forest residents would hug trees or hold hands forming human chains to block the tractors and chainsaws from advancing upon the vegetation.

This was a counterpoint to the developmental model pushed by the military dictatorship governing Brazil, which, based on the false assertion that the Amazon was uninhabited and unproductive, stimulated the implementation of large-scale farming, mining and logging operations.

Organized into unions, the rubber tappers defended their right to a traditional way of life; like the indigenous peoples, they also lived off the forest and wanted to ensure that it remained standing. “As an alternative to the occupation of the Amazonian territory, a new model, designated ‘Extractive Reserve,’ was constructed in which the lands belong to the Union, but for the fruition of those who inhabit and work in them,” as registered in the Resex Chico Mendes Management Plan.

This achievement, however, cost the leaders their lives. Chico Mendes was murdered on the doorstep of his home on Dec. 22, 1988. Pinheiro was killed much earlier, in 1980, when the peaceful standoffs were not the only form of confrontation in the region.

The first of its kind to be conceived in the country, the Resex Chico Mendes ended up, for one reason or another, delayed by the bureaucracy in Brasília, which had previously decreed the creation of the Resex Alto Juruá, also in Acre, in January of 1990, making it a true pioneer in Brazil. The document legalizing the reserve named in honor of the leader of the rubber tappers came three months later, on March 12. This year will mark its 30th anniversary.

But the official letterhead from the president was never enough to guarantee possession of the land and peace for the rubber-tapping, nut-harvesting and riverine peoples that inhabit it. Being a protected area with byways throughout nearly its entire span, in addition to two interstate roads (BR-364 to the north and BR-317 to the south), there has always been high pressure from raiders. For instance, the reserve’s entrance is just a two-hour drive from the state capital, Rio Branco.

Since the corruption-curtailed second term of President Dilma Rousseff (2015-2016), the tension has been growing incrementally, in inverse proportion to actions in support of the “extractivists” and the monitoring that protects against invaders, which have only decreased since then. The rise of the current president, Jair Bolsonaro, shifted the power relationship all at once in favor of the violators.

“The Sustainable Amazônia plan [of development for the forest populations] was not continued in the necessary magnitude. The actions became weaker and weaker, and during Dilma’s second administration, they were totally desiccated,” says Marina Silva, a former participant in the rubber tapper union movement, born and raised in the kind of rubber-producing community that Chico Mendes defended.She says Dilma’s successor and Bolsonaro’s predecessor, Michel Temer, “never assumed any identity regarding the subject and now Bolsonaro has abandoned it completely. In his view, these populations cannot be stimulated. Either they need to be assimilated or eliminated,” says Silva, who served as minister of the environment under Dilma’s predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Today, extractivist leaders and government employees are afraid to express their opposition to these measures. In November, the dispute over the land of a rubber-producing community in Xapuri ended with the death of the regional president of the political party PSOL. Ângela Mendes, daughter of Chico Mendes, says the farmers are going around with armed guards in order to intimidate landholders.

“We went to a public hearing recently and the representative for the Ministry of the Environment threatened the people who wanted to file complaints. Whenever it was a small landholder [talking], this person would remind us that everything was being recorded, that they could face legal repercussions for this,” Angela Mendes says.

Memória de Chico Mendes em casa da reserva extrativista que leva seu nome. Foto: Memorial for Chico Mendes in a house inside the extractivist reserve that bears his name. Photo: Cattle raising in the Resex Chico Mendes in Acre. Image by Katie Maehler/Mídia NINJA (CC-BY-NC).

A conflict resurrected

This new moment in Brazilian politics has brought to parliament representatives whose discourses — and bills — embrace ideas that weaken environmental control and preservation. For instance, Márcio Bittar of the MDB party and first-term senator from Acre, registered in a request for a public hearing that “many Amazonian communities have been forced to a give up their cattle ranching activities in name of the idea of florestania and extractivism as a model of development.”

Another new arrival to the Brazilian Congress, federal representative Mara Rocha (PSDB) proposed as a “more viable option for ending this conflict that has dragged on for years once and for all” a bill that would reduce the protected area by 190 km² (73 mi²) — the equivalent of 2% of the entire reserve. “Before Acre becomes the site of tragedy, with bloodshed … I would like to take the time to ask for the good sense of all the agencies involved” — [the Federal Public Ministry, the environmental agency (IBAMA), the Chico Mendes Institute (ICMBio), and the Army — “for the construction of a peaceful way out of this impasse,” she said in her speech during the short session on Oct. 31.

In justifying the need for her bill, Rocha alleges that there are residents of the Resex Chico Mendes who “are unable to find livelihood in the region’s extractivist products and are blocked from continuing the activities in which they always labored, namely: cattle raising and agriculture.” Though in her text she insists that “the aim is only the removal from the Resex area those small rural properties that were already occupied before the creation” of the protected area, residents, environmental experts and court documents indicate the opposite is true.

Road inside the Resex Chico Mendes in Acre. Image by Katie Maehler/Mídia NINJA (CC-BY-NC).

At least some of the people that Rocha cites as examples of inhabitants of the reserve trying to survive and being threatened by monitors from the ICMBio (the federal environmental agency responsible for managing protected areas and named in honor of Chico Mendes) are, in fact, invaders.

For example, in a preliminary decision regarding the accusation of four occupants of the reserve who had received notice to leave the area within 48 hours, federal judge Herley da Luz Brasil noted that they all had an “address in the city,” and that “none of the authors had been notified personally, but instead through intermediaries in the areas of the extractivist reserve, so that it is unknown if they effectively reside in the Resex.”

All four participated in the meeting with Minister Salles; two have been cited with land embargoes registered in the IBAMA system: Maria de Fátima de Abreu Sarkis was given notice on three occasions, in 2006, 2008 and 2009. She has a stud farm in the reserve and is a cattle rancher. Gutierri Ferreira da Silva is accused in a court case of “crimes against the flora,” and has been embargoed by IBAMA since 2009.

The current vice president of the Association of Residents and Producers of the Resex Chico Mendes in Brasileia and Epitaciolândia (also known as Amoprebe), Luiza Carlota da Silva Caldas, condemns the bill for solely benefiting the reserve’s invaders. “The areas under discussion in the bill are heavily populated, with a large amount of cattle ranches, but these people are there illegally. They aren’t traditional inhabitants of the reserves. The representatives haven’t done their homework: they heard 30 families who have a specific interest, when we have over 3,000 that oppose this reduction,” she says.

“The majority, 90% of the reserve’s population, categorically rejects the reduction of the reserve. To agree with this is to disregard, belittle and kill our hero Chico Mendes for the second time,” says Raimundo Mendes de Barros, also known as Raimundão, Chico Mendes’s cousin and companion on the front line against the loggers.

The text proposed by Representative Rocha also contains a second controversial point: to change the classification of Serra do Divisor National Park, today closed off from economic exploitation, to that of an environmental protection area, which would allow some extractive activity. “It’s the only region in the state that possesses rocks that can be extracted and utilized in commercial construction, able to foment the state’s economic development and lower the cost of public works that the people of the state so badly need,” Rocha says.

Raimundo Mendes de Barros, also known as Raimundão, cousin of Chico Mendes and local leader, extracting latex from a rubber tree. Image by Katie Maehler/Mídia NINJA (CC-BY-NC).

Divergences in the movements

Just as they did in the 1970s, the residents are now organizing in reaction to what they consider an affront to their rights and traditional way of life. An “Extractivist March” is being planned for early 2020 to block the passage of the bill. “I’m still waiting for the latest responses from the base nuclei after the meetings we had,” Caldas says.

However, it will be necessary to find some commonality between the two distinct visions held by the traditional residents. While Raimundão’s camp, connected umbilically to the National Council of Extractivists and the movement of resistance led by Chico Mendes, supports maintaining the reserve in the exact parameters by which it was created, Amoprebe favors a revision of the plan for the utilization of the area that would reconcile extractivism with cattle ranching.

Cattle ranching is not currently prohibited inside the preservation area, but it is limited to a small portion of land, with small herds meant for subsistence. Still, many traditional inhabitants do not respect this norm. During the last socio-environmental survey, the ICMBio found cattle on 97% of the “collocations” (as lots in the rubber forests are known), which don’t have a single standard size.

It is estimated that the total cattle population easily exceeds 50,000 animals — and wherever there is pasture, the forest disappears, which accounts for the fact that there are some rubber plantations with deforestation rates as high as 50%. According to the current rules, only 10% of the reserve can be cut down for complementary activities.

With only five officials to look after the reserve, spanning an area so vast that it takes up to three days to cross it by car, the ICMBio is not capable of proper oversight. Other legal instruments, such as the prohibition of the sale of animals originating from the deforested area, have not proved effective. In Resex Chico Mendes, it is very easy to raise a cow on properties located within the borders, but outside of the unit: shortly before it is to be slaughtered, the animal is removed from the reserve and given clean documentation of origin.

The problem is so serious that in 2010 the Federal Public Ministry introduced a sweeping program of conduct adjustment to regulate the beef industry in the Amazon. But as of September 2019, Acre was the state with the highest volume of meat-processing plants not in compliance with the standards for verifying the origin of slaughtered livestock.

Raising cattle became easy and it’s now consolidated as an economic alternative. “Brazil nuts are worth 25 reais [$6] a can, which is a good price, but not everyone is able to produce nuts. Rubber is a little bit better these days, 8 reais [$2] a kilo, but it pays in installments. So there are lots of people who can’t afford to live off of extractivism, and that’s why they raise pigs, chickens, cattle,” Caldas says.

Despite the invasion of cattle, there are still areas of extractivism where families live according to the traditional uses of the forest. And there are other possible activities aside from the extraction of latex and Brazil nuts: oils, fruits and lianas are products that are starting to be seen as having value, and scientific and environmental tourism can also serve as sources of income for families.

“But we need to give these activities the same financial, technological and political support, and technical assistance provided to cattle breeders and agriculture. People want the reserve to have the same results, the same liquidity as a predatory model that’s over 300 years old. The comparison is extremely unfair,” Marina Silva says.

Deforestation inside the São Bernardo rubber forest, near the border of the Resex Chico Mendes in Acre. Image by Pedro Saldanha Werneck/Mídia NINJA (CC-BY-NC).

Amoprebe, though opposed to the reduction of the extractive reserve’s area, understands that the use of the land needs to be loosened to legalize these cattle breeders. It wants deforesters registered in the ICMBio as traditional inhabitants to have their infractions forgiven, and, in exchange, to sign a written agreement to “no longer tinker with the forest,” Caldas says.

The association goes even further: it calls for an assessment of the deforestation. It proposes that, if the 10% of the total area of the reserve to be designated for complementary activities has not been achieved so far, residents who have not yet engaged in deforestation get an extra incentive to promote the cutting down of trees.

Raimundão rejects the idea: “Violators are always going to want to do whatever serves their self-interest, but the conscious residents are organized. We don’t need amnesty. What we need is punishment: either these people have to be removed from inside the reserve or they have to make a commitment to recuperate the forest that they cut down,” he says.

For Ângela Mendes, the “strategy behind this movement is to establish precedents” for other regions of the Amazon. “The danger is this: it begins with the removal of one community [of sustainable projects], then another and then soon enough the idea of the reserve loses the meaning of its existence,” she says.

Cattle breeding inside the Resex Chico Mendes in Acre. Image by Pedro Saldanha Werneck/Mídia NINJA (CC-BY-NC).

Banner image of deforestation in the São Bernardo rubber forest, near the border of the Resex Chico Mendes in Acre, by Pedro Saldanha Werneck/Mídia NINJA (CC-BY-NC).

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on Dec. 20, 2019.