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Brazilian indigenous chiefs act to halt illegal logging in historical landmark area

  • A valuable Atlantic Forest reserve and the historic setting of the discovery of Brazil, the land of the Pataxó is suffering from the illegal logging of fine woods used to produce handicrafts. Indigenous people are also allegedly involved in the crimes.
  • The pieces include the gamelas, famous bowls that are sold to tourists throughout the south of Bahia and transported to Brazil’s big cities by truck. In Monte Pascoal National Park, two of the four trails used by visitors have been shut down out of fear of the presence of invaders.
  • Cattle ranches, eucalyptus farms and coffee, papaya and black pepper crops are the targets of other complaints from the Pataxó. Their lands are suffering from the irregular spraying of pesticides and the damming of waterways.
  • On the other hand, indigenous involvement in conserving and restoring the forest has grown in recent years. The Pataxó have also started trying out more sustainable economic activities, such as the production of native seedlings and the breeding of small animals.

Last summer was atypical for Kaxiló Pataxó, an indigenous teacher who also acts as a tourist guide in Monte Pascoal National Historic Park, in the southern coast of the Brazilian state of Bahia. Now 28, he says that ever since he was a child, he has been taking people on the trails that lead through the Atlantic Forest up to the top of the famous hill that marks the arrival of the Portuguese to the Brazilian coast in 1500 and now names the national park.In recent months, Kaxiló stopped accompanying the visitors. “There was no way anymore. Everywhere you went you’d hear the noise of chainsaws,” he said to Mongabay. “The tourists kept asking: “And what are you all going to do?’ We would answer: ‘Look, all we can do is ask for oversight.’”

For the first time since he was a little boy, Kaxiló spent the summer working as a day laborer harvesting black pepper. “This was the saddest summer,” he sums up. “I was forced to submit myself to a farmer, something I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”

Satellite images reveal how the three national parks in the region between the towns of Porto Seguro and Prado, as well as the Barra Velha and Cahy-Pequi Indigenous Reserves, form a small green archipelago among the areas gradually deforested after the opening of the BR-101 interstate in the 1970s.

In the areas surrounding the reserves, cattle ranches, eucalyptus farms and coffee, papaya and black pepper crops have been targets of complaints by the indigenous, who protest again the spraying of pesticides, illegal deforestation and the abusive damming of waterways.

The problem pointed out by Kaxiló, however, is not in the area surrounding the national park, but rather inside the actual forest that covers Monte Pascoal Park. Of the four trails where guides used to lead visitors on hikes, two are currently shut down due to the illegal removal of timber. According to Kaxiló, of the 16 Pataxó who worked as tour guides, only five continue today – the majority are now living off of odd jobs at the farms in the area.

“Which tourist will want to visit a place where wood is being removed? Tourists want peace and quiet. They come to listen to the birds singing. They come here, get out of the car and they already hear the noise of the chainsaws,” explains Kaxiló. “There’s also the danger that whoever’s cutting down the trees will think I’m bringing people there to denounce them.”

In recent months, on at least two occasions, according to Kaxiló, people connected to activities for the conservation of the national parks were threatened with shots fired by people involved in the illegal logging as they approached the areas where the trees were being cut down. Even indigenous leaders and employees at the reserve have received threats.

View of the mountain for which Monte Pascoal National Historic Park is named, the geographic landmark of the Discovery of Brazil in the year 1500. Image by Heris Rocha/WikiParques.

Deforestation in the region reaches a critical point

Illegal timber extraction in the forests that still dominate in the areas surrounding Monte Pascoal National Historic Park is an old problem. But now, according to the Pataxó people of the Barra Velha Indigenous Reserve, it has reached a point that requires emergency action from the authorities.

On February 7, the caciques (indigenous leaders) from the 17 villages of the indigenous reserve held a meeting to begin preparing a document on the subject. Symbolically, they closed the main gate to the park and announced that the Council of Caciques is officially prohibiting visitors.

Guaru Pataxó, cacique of one of the villages located near the mountain, explains that there is a consensus among the leaders concerning the urgency in demanding action from federal agencies. “The day came that we couldn’t take it anymore. Everyone was mobilized,” he says. “This thing is out of control. From Monday to Sunday, day and night.”

Illegal logging in the area targets trees that produce special woods used to make pieces sold to tourists all throughout southern Bahia and transported by truck to Brazil’s big cities. Indigenous people are also involved in the crime, says the cacique.

“There’s a kind of handicraft that Indians make that does not damage nature, with seeds, lianas. But the kind they are making now is different, encouraged by non-Indians,” Guaru says. “This handicraft is transported by truck to Curitiba, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Brasília. Guys come, fill up their trucks with handicrafts and encourage the Indians to produce more pieces, so Indians go there and cut down trees.”

The best-known local handicraft is the gamela, a kind of a wooden bowl. The cacique explains that it was traditionally used in residences for bathing babies, salting fish or washing dishes. But, in the way it is produced nowadays, it can no longer be considered part of the indigenous culture.

“The gamela was for indigenous use, not for sale”, Guaru says. This handicraft that they sell by the side of the road is something driven by non-Indians, by people who come from outside. They order them to be made and buy them cheap, for crumbs.” In addition to the bowl, the wood taken from the park is used to make meat cutting boards, wood spoons and other utensils.

Guaru explains that inside the park it is no longer possible to some tree species, like paraju, maracanaíba, conduru and braúna. “By plane, you can see that there are holes in the forest,” he says. The park’s directors do not have exact numbers concerning the cutting of these trees in the area, Since the logging linked to the production of handicrafts is selective – it does not generate large clearings that are visible by satellite.

Even still, in 2016, the SOS Mata Atlântica Foundation calculated deforestation of 632 hectares (1,560 acres) inside the park area.

Whatever the numbers are, the situation, as evaluated by both by the caciques and the ICMBio (the Brazilian Institute for Biodiversity Conservation), is grave. “If it continues at this pace, by 2030, there will be nothing left,” says Guaru. “I believe it won’t take that long,” adds Cássia Saretta, an employee of ICMBio, which manages Monte Pascoal National Park.

Saretta reinforces the Pataxó leader’s statement: “This mass production of gamela is not cultural. It came about with the arrival of tourists to the region.” According to her, the agency is currently studying the renewal of an old local advertising campaign, aimed at visitors. “There is an entire chain feeding this trade, so we need to state clearly to tourists: ‘You are part of a criminal chain when you purchase this object.’”

In February, the Pataxó closed the entrance to Monte Pascoal National Historic Park in protest against the illegal removal of lumber from the reserve. Image by Spensy Pimentel.

The problem, inside and outside the national park

All it takes is a brief walk around the vicinity near the park’s gates, at the start of the trails used by the Pataxó, to grasp the problem. In several spots, during the reporting, large conduru (Brosimum rubescens) trees were found on the ground, with some of the trunks 70 to 80 centimeters in diameter (27 to 31 inches) converted into round or rectangular boards that will later be transformed into bowls or cutting boards for meat and snacks.

The work of cutting and part of the finishing is completed right there in the middle of the woods. The ready, or almost ready, pieces are carried on the backs of donkeys and can be transported to workshops in settlements in the region where new stages of production generate spoons and other utensils out of hardwood.

The last monitoring operation that involved the police occurred in 2017 and closed several workshops in Montinho, a settlement in the municipality of Itabela (at km 784 on BR-101), around 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the park’s gates.

José (fictitious name), an indigenous individual who worked in illegal logging for 20 years and abandoned the activity 10 years ago, says that the work is hard and low-paid. “It is very captive work. You don’t eat well. You spend the whole day out there in the middle of the woods having eaten nothing but farofa (toasted cassava flour). I used to go out the woods every day asking for God to get me out of there. And I got out on my own.”

He reports that many indigenous people are attracted by the money paid by middlemen, but they have difficulty in ascertaining that, in reality, the costs of production are high and, in the end, it is not worth it: “I would deliver the pieces to the middleman and I’d get R$5,000 [US$ 1,000]. But when I started putting everything down on paper, I saw that, considering the expenses I had with tools, animals, fuel, I was losing R$25 [US$ 5] per day. I couldn’t even manage to set make R$40 [US$ 8] day, which was my goal. I always ended up losing money. And this happens with everybody.”

Today, José says he is fighting for the park’s preservation. A religious man, he says that “wood cutters” in general are not able to accumulate money or goods from their work. “We are like the people who slaughter cattle. These people end up getting nothing. The ones who profit are those who sell the pieces of the cow after it’s already dead.”

To reinforce the image of sacrifice the cutting down of a tree represents, José recalls that some, like the paraju, gush water stored inside its trunk when ruptured by chainsaws. “The tree is a life. We are taking lives, and nature will take us to task.

Conduru trunks seen near the trails, before they are converted into boards that will be transformed into bowls or other domestic utensils. Image by Spensy Pimentel.

In search of new ways of life

Many of the villages in the Monte Pascoal region that are experiencing this problem of illegal logging have been searching for economic alternatives for their inhabitants. Today, the communities have projects underway to create agroforests, nurseries for producing seedlings of native plants and ranches for small animals. However, the volume of investment is still considered insufficient.

“Our idea is to search for projects to develop in the communities,” says cacique Guaru Pataxó. A state program, Bahia Produtiva, has supported some initiatives in recent years.

There is a consensus among those interviewed regarding the difficulty in obtaining resources to aid with the conservation of the Atlantic Forest. government funds were already scant, and they have become even more so since the new administration took over in 2019.

“The state is debilitated, unable to act effectively,” summarizes biologist José Francisco Azevedo Jr., founder of Natureza Bela, a local environmentalist NGO that is partnered with the indigenous communities on projects of forest restoration in Monte Pascoal and another nearby national park, Pau Brasil, with support from the National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES), one of the few currently ongoing initiatives. “There are practically no more lines of credit for forest restoration today.”

Another difficulty is that international financing has also become scarce. Forestry engineer Daniel Piotto, a professor at the Federal University of Southern Bahia in Itabuna, explains that, since the 1990s, there has been a strong participation from Germans and other international donors in the region, but this has declined recently due to the focus on the Amazon and the new political positions taken by the federal government.

Piotto, who holds a PhD in Forestry and Environmental Studies from Yale University, one of the main centers for forestry studies in the world, was to be one of the coordinators at the Southern Bahia Reference Center for Forest Restoration, a project supported by Germany and the Ministry of the Environment. “International support for the Atlantic Forest has always been more modest, but now it has simply disappeared.”

According to data from SOS Mata Atlântica, 11.1% remains of the biome in the state of Bahia, or 2.3 million hectares (5.7 million acres). Bahia is among the five states that most destroy this vegetation.

Daniel Piotto emphasizes that, despite the small portion of the original Atlantic Forest that still remains in Bahia, studies have revealed that it is a biome with an extremely high index of biodiversity. “In the case of Monte Pascoal, it is a submontane forest that is the most biodiverse in Bahia. It has various endemic species,” says the forestry engineer.

Piotto adds that, in coming years, the region will face even greater challenges due to climate change, which should intensify the severity of the drought periods. “The selective cutting practiced in recent times leaves the remains of trees behind in the forest, which in turn becomes combustible material with a high probability of burning during these extreme events.”

In early 2019, a fire devastated 6% of the 22,500 hectares (55,500 acres) of Monte Pascoal National Historic Park. The fight against the fire counted on fundamental support from the indigenous fire brigade. “Our firefighters have been real warriors,” warns Cássia Saretta, the park administrator. But there are areas of the park already covered in ferns, with the acidic soil. Without greater attention, there won’t be resilience enough to withstand the situation.”

Map shows the overlap of Pataxó indigenous lands (TIs) with the national parks in the discovery region. Source: Monitoring Program of the Protected Areas of ISA.

Awareness for conservation

The involvement of indigenous people in conservation and restoration has grown in recent years. There is even an indigenous cooperative created to execute services on forest restoration projects, Cooplanjé. In February, Pataxó activists planted seeds in areas where the removal of trees has been detected by them.

The idea is to propagate a mood of commitment with a change in attitude, says the Guaru cacique: “Many of those formerly in favor of logging are now changing their tune. It’s no use trying to kid ourselves. Those who are committing errors will have to pay.”

According to data from the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), the 17 villages in the area of Barra Velha register around 5,000 residents. Originally, the indigenous land was demarcated with an area of 8,627 hectares (21,300 acres), but, in order to meet the criteria created by the Constitution of 1988, there was a revised study, still yet to be validated, that identified 44,121 hectares (109,025 acres), 13,275 (32,800 acres) of which overlap with the area of the Monte Pascoal National Historic Park.

The area corresponds to part of the ancestral territory of the Aimoré, located between Bahia, Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo – a name given during the colonial period to various groups who spoke the Jê language in region and who waged war against the Portuguese for nearly 120 years, from 1555 to 1673.

In 1951, the Pataxó were also the target of a police action that gave way to the diaspora of the inhabitants of Barra Velha all throughout the south of Bahia. The episode, known as the ‘Fire of 51,’ is associated, in indigenous memory, with the Brazilian government’s efforts to remove the natives by force from the area where the Monte Pascoal Park was being installed.

“In the south of Bahia, the state was already considered an aggressive entity. It was not able to reconcile environmental conservation and the guarantee of social rights,” assesses Cássia Saretta of the ICMBio.

“This park was created in 1961 on indigenous land. And it was all forest at the time,” says the Guaru cacique. “In 1999, when we occupied the lands around the mountain, the intention was to take care of nature.”

“It’s an environmental and social problem that we have here. We need to look for alternatives so the communities can find a way out of the uniformity of logging,” Saretta continues. “Nobody is going to starve if they stop cutting trees down. All it takes is the courage to work,” attests José, a former tree cutter now dedicated to saving the park.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on March 31, 2020.

Banner image of trail inside Monte Pascoal Historic National Park. Image by André Olmos.