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In Brazil, a forest community fights to remain on its traditional land

  • Traditional communities living within the limits of the Jureia-Itatins Ecological Station, a formally protected area in São Paulo state, are expecting a crucial ruling to decide whether they can remain on their traditionally occupied land.
  • These communities, known as Caiçaras, were established centuries ago along the southern coastline of Brazil, but the state forestry foundation, which manages the protected area, demolished the houses of some inhabitants in 2019, alleging violations of the strong restrictions on human activity it had imposed.
  • The ensuing legal battle has seen the Caiçara families win a decision to be allowed to rebuild their homes, but this was overturned just days later on environmental concerns raised by the forest foundation.
  • However, several studies show that the presence of these communities in conservation areas helps protect biodiversity instead of destroying it, and other Brazilian government agencies already recognize the need to work with traditional communities as the best “guardians of the forest.”

“We are hopeful, we never gave up on our goal, to get our house back,” says Heber do Prado Carneiro. He and his wife, Vanessa Honorato, are Caiçaras, members of traditional communities established centuries ago along the southern coastline of Brazil.

Carneiro’s family has lived since the 19th century in Caiçara communities in a swath of the Atlantic Forest in São Paulo state, according to an anthropological and historical study, making a living selling fish and planting crops. In 1986, the area was designated a conservation zone, part of the Juréia-Itatins Ecological Station. “Under the rules of the reserve, we have the right to stay,” Carneiro tells Mongabay in a phone interview.

But in July 2019, the Fundação Florestal (Forest Foundation), a conservation institute linked to the São Paulo state government, knocked down their house, Carneiro and Honorato say, along with that of his cousin, Marcos Venícius do Prado. The foundation told Mongabay in an email that all the houses there had been built irregularly.

The house of another cousin, Edmilson Prado, was spared, Carneiro says, because his pregnant wife, Karina Otsuka, refused to leave. The two evicted couples are now staying with a relative, in a nearby site. “It’s not easy, so many people in a single house, with an 11-month-old baby,” Carneiro says.

Family members and friends lie down in a circle around all that remains of Heber do Prado Carneiro and Vanessa Honorato’s family home in the Juréia-Itatins Ecological Station, in São Paulo state. They are Caiçaras, the name for people living in traditional communities established centuries ago along the southern coastline of Brazil, protesting about the demolition of their homes in 2019 by the state forest foundation. Image courtesy of the Rio Verde and Grajaúna community.

In May 2021, a preliminary request to allow the Prado cousins to rebuild their houses in the same site was denied, but in September 2021 an appeals court ruled in favor of the Caiçaras. “As soon as I heard [the court decision], I started planning [the construction of] our bedroom, the kitchen, the wood stove,” Honorato says. “And I started thinking where I would put my son Joaquim’s belongings — his toys, his clothes.”

“As we’re a very large and united family, everyone who helped build our house, who went through the same suffering as us, felt very happy,” Heber Prado says.

“We thought this court ruling would be the first step towards living with dignity again, all together,” Otsuka says.

But their celebrations were short-lived. The foundation mounted an appeal, saying that rebuilding would cause “irreparable environmental damage.” It argued that “there has been no Caiçara community in the area since 1980” and that the site was part of “the largest preserved area of Atlantic Forest in Brazil.” Recent surveys show that the Atlantic Forest today covers just 25.8% of its original area, and although restoration initiatives are making progress, it is still one of Brazil’s most threatened biomes.

Just a few days later, the same judge revoked his earlier ruling that had found in favor of the Caiçaras.

State forest foundation agents knock down Caiçara houses inside the Juréia-Itatins Ecological Station in 2019, on the coast of São Paulo state. Image courtesy of the Rio Verde and Grajaúna communities.

“It is an illegal situation,” Andrew Toshio, a member of the São Paulo Public Defender’s Office acting on the Caiçaras’ behalf, tells Mongabay in a video interview. “The Caiçaras’ rights have been violated.”

Toshio says this dispute has been simmering for decades. He criticizes the court case for allowing environmental arguments to prevail “over the arguments that demonstrated the traditional nature of the occupation, in all its aspects.” He has appealed the latest decision, arguing that the judge did not consider all the documentation gathered by the Caiçaras at an earlier stage or examine the legislation that provides the basis for Brazilians’ right to housing, especially its ratification of the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, on Indigenous and tribal peoples.

“[The forest foundation] doesn’t take into consideration that the houses were built in an area that the Caiçaras have used for many decades, where other families have lived and planted crops, with the blessing of the state,” says Adriana de Souza de Lima, president of the Union of Juréia Residents (UMJ).

Tapera Viva Camp: Caiçara supporters set up camp after the demolition of two houses in 2019 by the state forest foundation. The house was built in a tapera, an area long occupied by the Caiçaras, which is an important reference point for today’s residents. Image courtesy of the Rio Verde and Grajaúna community.

Importance to conservation

The Caiçaras’ way of life in the forest poses no threat to the environment, Lima says. She adds the foundation ignored “countless studies that show that the way of life of these communities and their knowledge of the forest have increased biodiversity, instead of destroying it.”

One of the most significant of these studies, in which the Caiçaras of Juréia participated, has just been published by the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC). Cristina Adams, a human ecologist and professor at the University of São Paulo (USP) and one of the coordinators of the study, says the conservation model imposed by the forest foundation is inappropriate for Juréia. “The Caiçaras have occupied this region for at least two centuries, and before them Indigenous peoples lived here,” she says in an email. She adds the area should be treated as a “cultural forest,” similar to how some areas in the Amazon are regarded.

“This does not make the area any less relevant for conservation,” Adams says, because it facilitates more research into sustainable traditional management systems. “For an environment like this one,” she says, “co-management is actually the best tool for conservation, because it means that the area is not dependent on the government in office, bringing it more security.”

Some government agencies have also recognized the need to work with traditional communities, seeing them as the best “guardians of the forest.” In a recent example, ICMBio, the federal government agency that administers parks and conservation units, reportedly established new mechanisms for working with families. But other agencies remain wedded to the old concept that has undergirded the establishment of national parks since Yellowstone in the U.S.: namely, that the best way to protect an area is by expelling its human inhabitants.

Fishermen set off on a traditional fishing trip. Selling fish is the main source of income for the community. Image courtesy of the Rio Verde and Grajaúna community.

Long history of battles

The current legal battle is just the latest in a series of conflicts that the Caiçaras of Jureia have faced over the past century. A key threat, say community leaders, is real estate speculation, a thriving practice in areas along Brazil’s coast. Another came from plans conceived 40 years ago by the Brazilian government to build a nuclear power plant on the land. At the time, environmentalists sought the support of the Caiçaras to fight against the plant and push for the protection of the area. But according to the Caiçaras, there wasn’t sufficient discussion about how these mechanisms would affect the families living in the area. As a result, the plant was stopped, and the Jureia-Itatins reserve was created in 1986.

What followed were years of restrictions and violence, the Caiçaras say. As the families fought to defend their rights, legislation was passed and international treaties ratified that gave greater rights to traditional communities, strengthening their legal position. And in 2013, the Jureia-Itatins Mosaic Law was approved by the São Paulo state government, making it possible for traditional communities to live within the ecological station.

But the Caiçaras say the state forest foundation hasn’t kept pace with the changes in thinking and is not respecting current legislation regarding traditional communities.

Women from the Rio Verde and Grajaúna Caiçara communities making manioc flour, a staple food. Image courtesy of the Rio Verde and Grajaúna community.

The struggles of traditional communities in Brazil are indicative of a much broader, international fight, which is expected to take on even greater significance this year. Unless it’s postponed once again because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.N.’s COP15 biodiversity summit will be held in Kunming, China, in April and May. This summit is expected to endorse the so-called 30-by-30 proposal, under which governments around the world are expected to pledge to offer full protection for 30% of the planet’s land and water areas by 2030.

There’s been no agreement yet on the rights of the traditional communities already living in most of the areas that would be affected, but many groups have argued that social justice demands that these communities be allowed to stay and to carry on with their traditional livelihoods. However, some major international environmental organizations argue against this.

The court case over rebuilding the Caiçara houses is part of a broader legal push for territorial rights inside the ecological station, which is still ongoing in another São Paulo court and may take years to reach a final decision, Toshio says. In light of this, the Public Defender’s Office has signaled that it may appeal to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on the grounds that the Brazilian state, including the judiciary, is willfully neglecting the violation of the Caiçara community’s rights.

A new decision about the rebuilding of the Prado cousins’ homes will be made by judges in the environmental chamber of the São Paulo state court, expected in the next few months.

Carneiro says he’s always aware in the back of his mind, no matter what he’s doing, of the looming court ruling that will decide whether or not they can rebuild the houses they lost in 2019. “All we’re asking for is for the courts to decide quickly and fairly, without preconceived ideas,” he says.

“We are happy to wait,” says his wife, Honorato, “if we can get back to our little patch of land, our home.”

Ilson de Lima Prado, Edmilson de Lima Prado and Marcos Venícius do Prado unloading their catch after a fishing trip along the Juréia coast in São Paulo state. Image courtesy of the Rio Verde and Grajaúna community.

Banner image: Traditional festival in honor of Saint John organized by the Caiçaras of the Juréia-Itatins Ecological Station in São Paulo state. It brings together neighbouring communities in the Grajaúna area of the ecological station. Image courtesy of the Rio Verde and Grajaúna community.

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