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‘On the map’: App shines light on 5,000 ‘invisible’ families in Brazil’s Cerrado and beyond

Traditional communities who have based their livelihoods around the rich diversity of plants in the Brazilian Cerrado savanna are also considered some of the best guardians of Cerrado conservation. Image courtesy of Bento Viana/Institute for Society, People, and Nature (ISPN).

  • A new report shows the results of an application that has mapped out more than 5,000 families in 76 communities from 23 Brazilian states, whose territories amount to 350,000 hectares (865,000 acres) that, until now, have gone unrecognized on official government maps.
  • The digital mapping platform, called Tô No Mapa (“I am on the map” in Portuguese), allows traditional communities to demarcate their lands and list significant points of interest and conflict.
  • The app was developed by the Brazilian civil society organization Institute for Society, Population and Nature (ISPN), the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) and several other Brazilian NGOs working with traditional communities.
  • Traditional peoples and communities play a vital role in conserving biodiversity, and guaranteeing their legal rights to land and territory is increasingly being recognized as a key conservation necessity, according to a wide range of studies and reports.

Thousands of families from traditional communities in Brazil have finally been granted visibility through a digital mapping platform that’s allowed them to demarcate their lands, according to a new report released at the global conservation congress being held this week in Marseille, France.

The report, presented Sept. 9 at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, highlights the first results from the Tô No Mapa app, which shines a light on more than 5,000 families in 76 communities from 23 Brazilian states, whose territories amount to 350,000 hectares (865,000 acres) that, until now, have gone unrecognized on official government maps.

“It looks like a small number but it shows a huge gap between the official data of the state agency and the first results of the mobile app,” Suzanne Scaglia, a technical adviser with the Brazilian civil society organization Institute for Society, Population, and Nature (ISPN), one of the organizations behind the app, said in a phone interview from the congress in Marseille.

Babassu coconut breakers are one of many traditional communities who have lived off the unique diversity and richness of the Brazilian savanna and whose livelihoods are increasingly threatened by agricultural conflicts. Image courtesy of Peter Caton/Institute for Society, Population, and Nature (ISPN).

The platform, launched in October 2020, also allows communities to list significant points of interest and conflict, according to the ISPN.

In Brazil, there are dozens of different kinds of traditional peoples and communities recognized by law, but to differing degrees. While Indigenous peoples and Quilombola communities have their rights guaranteed bythe 1988 Constitution, other traditional communities like riverine dwellers, geraizeiro peasants and traditional grazers are under the 2007 National Policy on Sustainable Development of Peoples and Traditional Communities, which defines them as self-identified groups whose cultural, social, religious, ancestral and economic reproduction is dependent on their use of territory and natural resources.

But, in practice, many of these communities lack registration, access to legal services, and don’t appear on official maps, which can diminish their ability to claim rights over their communities and traditional territories.Many of them live in the Cerrado, the most biodiverse savanna in the world.

Brazil’s second-largest biome (after the Amazon), the Cerrado is a biodiversity hotspot currently threatened by rapid agricultural expansion. In 2020, almost half a million hectares ( 1,235,526 acres) of savanna were deforested or converted, roughly 41 times the size of the city of Paris. Soy expansion is responsible for just under a third of that deforestation, according to a report by Chain Reaction Research.

Hundreds of traditional communities — from Quilombolas, the Afro-Brazilian descendants of runaway slaves, to peasant and agro-extractivist communities — live in the Cerrado. Studies have shown their stewardship of these areas have kept deforestation at bay, conserved more remaining areas of native vegetation, conserved the native wildlife, provided food, contributed to the recharge of aquifers and water sources, and helped maintain the land’s capacity to store carbon dioxide.

Traditional communities who have based their livelihoods around the rich diversity of plants in the Cerrado, the Brazilian savanna, are also some of the best guardians of Cerrado conservation, experts say. Image courtesy of Bento Viana/Institute for Society, Population, and Nature (ISPN).

“Traditional communities hold centuries-old knowledge about the fruiting of plants, the distribution of native species, fire management and other techniques integral to the Cerrado environment,” says Valney Dias Rigonato, a geography professor at the Federal University of Western Bahia, who wasn’t involved in the creation of the report and has been studying traditional communities and livelihoods in the Cerrado for two decades. “Traditional communities both conserve and even positively enhance the landscape composition.”

The widespread conversion of the Cerrado’s native vegetation to farmland has sparked land conflicts with traditional communities, many of whom don’t exist on official government maps. Of the 7,353 localities where rural land conflicts occurred between 2003 and 2018, over 40% took place in the Cerrado, according to an analysis by the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) and the Federation of Organs for Social and Educational Assistance (FASE).

The Tô No Mapa app, which translates in Portuguese to “I am on the map,” is intended to remedy this, the developers say, as it was made in consultation with traditional communities, the ISPN, the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) and several other Brazilian NGOs.

“Through this initiative we want to offer a tool for communities to define their territories themselves, thus, contributing to ensuring the governance of these territories,” Isabel Figueiredo, the ISPN’s Cerrado and Caatinga program coordinator, said in a press release.

Fighting invisibility

In Brazil, as in many other places, the conservation sector’s narrow focus on deforestation has made other biomes and the peoples who inhabit them, like the Cerrado and its traditional communities, largely invisible. A recent paper published in the journal Nature Reviews Earth & Environment shows that despite the vast importance of ecosystems like grasslands, including their role in food production, water supply, and carbon storage, they are largely ignored in sustainable development agendas.

In a resolution passed this year’s congress, the IUCN, the global conservation authority, recognized the key contributions of local communities, including traditional and Indigenous peoples, in addition to other forms of environmental and social protection, to the maintenance of these vital ecosystem functions. It called for the mainstreaming of the Cerrado in international cooperation and global environmental funds, and acknowledged the rights and roles of traditional peoples and communities in the defense and conservation of the Brazilian savanna.

A woman stands in front of her house in the Cerrado biome, the Brazilian savanna. Thousands of small communities in Brazil are not located on official maps, leaving them at a disadvantage against agricultural encroachment and the destruction of the Cerrado, experts say. Image courtesy of Andre Dib/Institute for Society, Population, and Nature (ISPN).

In addition to Indigenous people, the more than two dozen different kinds of traditional peoples and communities in the Cerrado – such as Quilombolas, evergreen flower pickers, babassu coconut breakers, and peasant farmers – provide one of the strongest buffers against deforestation and land conversion, says Scaglia.

“They are the guardians of these landscapes because their livelihoods depend on these resources,” she says. “You can see on the maps where native vegetation remains is where traditional peoples and communities live.”

But these traditional communities are often excluded from maps and subsequently lack land rights increasing the threat of agricultural encroachment and land grabbing. A previous survey by the ISPN and IPAM showed there are three and a half times more traditional communities in the northern Cerrado than what government agencies recognize.

As more communities join the app, the ISPN plans to have the information integrated in a platform of traditional peoples and communities administrated by the National Council for Traditional Peoples and Communities and the Federal Public Ministry (MPF).

Rosângela Corrêa, director of the Cerrado Museum, a virtual museum focused on disseminating scientific information about the biome, agrees on the importance of such initiatives for giving visibility to the traditional peoples and communities in the Cerrado.

“It’s urgent to give visibility to these communities, since their territories are becoming islands of conservation and cultural diversity surrounded by pastures and extensive agriculture, which causes a contamination problem for native systems that are close to these cultivated areas,” she says. “The death of the Cerrado leads to the disappearance of these communities, therefore recognition of their territories is urgently needed to keep local socio-biodiversity alive.”

Banner image: Traditional communities who have based their livelihoods around the rich diversity of plants in the Brazilian Cerrado savanna are also considered some of the best guardians of Cerrado conservation. Image courtesy of Bento Viana/Institute for Society, Population, and Nature (ISPN).

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