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Amazonian river communities seek to boost hard-won land rights to fight loggers

House built on the bank of the Manicoré River, in the southern Amazonas state, in the Amazon, Brazil. People from the communities near the Manicoré River are fighting for their land rights to be acknowledged and their forest protected. Casa construída na margem do Rio Manicoré, no sul do Amazonas, na Amazônia. As comunidades ribeirinhas estão lutando para terem seus direitos territoriais reconhecidos e sua floresta protegida.

  • In March, 15 traditional communities on the Rio Manicoré in the state of Amazonas were granted a collective concession for the rights to sustainably use their land — the first of its kind in the state.
  • Some members of these communities have been working since 2006 to turn their territory into a sustainable development reserve, which would bring greater protection against logging and mining.
  • But a hostile campaign waged by illegal loggers and miners means the push for reserve status isn’t supported by most community members.
  • The Rio Manicoré region is considered one of the best-preserved parts of the Brazilian Amazon, but since 2015 deforestation rates have hit record levels.

Led by a teacher and a family farmer, 15 traditional communities living in public forests in Brazil’s Amazonas state earned official recognition and the rights to collective use of their territory in March this year, following a 16-year struggle.

This development in the municipality of Manicoré marks the first time in the history of Amazonas that traditional communities have been given collective title to what’s known as a concession for the real rights of use (CDRU) for perpetuity. It’s also the first time such a concession has been granted to families living outside a conservation unit.

“We have created the Rio Manicoré Common Use Territory, the first of its kind,” says Daniel Viegas, head of the state office for environmental law. He adds that granting the CDRU to the Rio Manicoré communities required that the state alter its land ownership legislation.

The Rio Manicoré region is one of the best-preserved parts of the Brazilian Amazon, and is composed of a mosaic of three Indigenous territories, nine conservation units, and nearly 9,000 square kilometers (3,500 square miles) of undesignated public forests, where the communities are located.

Besides ensuring the protection of an extremely important part of the Amazon, the CDRU will help protect the traditional way of life of the 4,000 riverbank-dwelling community members. Known as ribeirinhos, they include fruit and nut gatherers, family farmers, and canoe and paddle artisans.

“The Manicoré live off açaí, Brazil nuts, tucumã palm, bananas, cocoa, and their vegetable gardens,” says family farmer Maria Clea Delgado, president of the Rio Manicoré Agro-extractivist Associations Center (CAARIM), one of the groups responsible for helping the communities win the concession. “They live well on what nature gives them, without cutting down the forest.”

A woman from a traditional community in the Rio Manicoré region. People living here travel mostly by river. Image courtesy of Nilmar Lage/Greenpeace.

During Mongabay’s visit to the communities this past June, residents were preparing for the Açaí Festival in Estirão, a community an hour from the Manicoré city center by boat.

“Everyone plants açaí here,” says agro-extractivist Manoel Tomé Correa, proudly showing us his family’s small açaí farm. His uncles, parents, two brothers and nephews are all neighbors and also farm açaí.

“The Estirão Açaí Festival is the best one in Rio Manicoré. It lasts one day and one night. There’s forró music and the açaí dance. All the proceeds from the festival go to the community association,” Correa says.

His entire family was born in this community, and their livelihood centers around gathering açaí berries, Brazil nuts and andiroba almonds. They produce juice and pulp from the açaí; from the andiroba, they extract the famous oil that’s used in almost everything in Amazonas — from insect repellent to remedies for a sore throat. Everything they collect in their own backyard they can sell in the Manicoré city center or to middlemen who come up the river to buy forest products

“The forest must be preserved so we will always have it. Life is tranquil here. But we hear about destruction further into the forest. If they destroy the forest, how will we survive?” says Correa, who has never left the community.

Cristiane Mazzetti, environmental manager and spokesperson for Greenpeace Brazil’s Amazon campaign, says the CDRU is an important victory in the struggle of the Rio Manicoré ribeirinhos.

“Despite the fact that the CDRU isn’t an instrument for environmental conservation, its aims are similar to those of a sustainable development reserve, including the guarantee of the permanence of traditional populations and their sustainable activities, in addition to the recognition of their territory,” Mazzetti says.

Viegas agrees. “With the land regularization, the concession of real rights of use is effectively environmental protection because the text of the CDRU defines limits on exploration inside the territory.”

Under the 2000 law on conservation units, traditional populations living in reserves, national forests or other conservation units may use the natural resources there in a reasonable way and develop sustainable economic activities like gathering. The same law prohibits commercial hunting and fishing and mineral exploration.

Farmer Manoel Tomé Correa shows the andiroba oil that his family produces in a community in the Rio Manicoré region of the Amazon. Image courtesy of Nilmar Lage/Greenpeace.

‘Barges come and go every week, loaded with wood’

CAARIM, whose members include a portion of the region’s ribeirinhos, says it wants to push further and transform the region into a sustainable development reserve (RDS by its Portuguese initials), which would bring greater legal protections.

“We are fighting for this to become an RDS because of the invasions and deforestation that are going on inside our territory. We want protection,” says public school teacher and CAARIM co-founder Marilourdes Cunha da Silva.

The waterways that cut across the municipality of Manicoré are frequently plied by barges bearing distinctive names — Dona Raimunda, Dona Fátima, Dona Rosa — and heavy loads of logs. Some also carry cattle and tractors.

“There are many loggers in the region offering money for us to cut down native trees,” says a ribeirinho, pointing to a 30-meter-tall (98-foot) angelim tree (Dinizia excelsa), the tallest Amazonian tree species and one that’s highly coveted by loggers.

“They are paying 400 reais [$77] for an angelim tree this size,” he adds, asking not to be identified. “There are people who agree to cut them because it’s easy money, easier than planting vegetables and having to wait months to harvest them.”

A local woman tells us of barges that “come and go every week, loaded with wood. Three, four barges loaded with wood leave Rio Manicoré every Friday. This [has been going on] even since the CDRU,” she adds, also asking not to be identified for safety reasons.

In the Madeira River, near where Manicoré’s urban area ends, wildcat mining dredges are still turning over the earth and polluting the river.

A barge carrying logs on the Rio Manicoré in August 2022. Image courtesy of CAARIM.

“They’ve already offered me work on those mining barges on the Madeira, but I said no,” says a man who was born in a riverbank community and now lives in the city. “Then, later, some men came to my door with a friend of mine and tried to convince me.”

The barge traffic points to the changing state of the once preserved forest in Manicoré over the past decade. The municipality recorded more than 150 km2 (58 mi2) of deforestation during the first half of 2022 — more than the record figure of 134.7 km2 (52 mi2) for the whole of 2021, according to the PRODES deforestation monitoring program run by INPE, the Brazilian space agency.

“We’ve already taken photos [of the lumber barges] and sent them to the Federal Public Ministry, put in formal requests for monitoring, and we’ve never gotten a response. That’s why we want this region to be an SDR, to stop this deforestation,” says Delgado, the CAARIM president.

It’s not just logging that threatens the region. Data from the National Mining Agency show there are 19 pending applications for prospecting in Manicoré.

The communities have long complained about these activities to the authorities. Mongabay reached out to several of the latter for comment: IBAMA, the federal environmental protection agency, did not respond to our questions; the Amazonas Public Ministry, the state’s prosecutorial service, only confirmed that the complaints form part of a civil inquiry by its federal counterpart, the Federal Public Ministry.

“Right now, we’re worried about how many trees will be cut down [during the second half of 2022],” Delgado says. “We can see that if the coming months are like April and May, the loggers will have a field day.”

In March, the same month in which the Rio Manicoré territory came under the CDRU protection, Greenpeace discovered a 19-km2 (7.3-mi2) patch of deforested land in the middle of pristine rainforest there. In August, Greenpeace returned to the region to carry out aerial monitoring and reported intensive burning in the deforested region — a fire so massive that its smoke blotted out the sun over the Amazonas capital, Manaus, some 330 km (205 mi) away.

The burning reported in August 2022 inside the Rio Manicoré CDRU, in a region that had been deforested in March. Image courtesy of Christian Braga/Greenpeace.

Maria Clea Delgado and Marilourdes Cunha da Silva have been fighting for the creation of the Rio Manicoré RDS for 16 years. They met by chance in 2006 during a trip on a voadeira, a sort of motorized canoe, on the Rio Manicoré. Here, the rivers serve as streets and highways for the locals, as there are no roads connecting the communities, some of which lie hours away from the city center by boat.

“We started talking about the situation in Manicoré and realized that we had each started up associations inside our respective communities. We thought, ‘Why don’t we create an umbrella association?’” recalls Delgado, who’s known in the region for actions like the time she handed a letter to then-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva asking for electricity for the Rio Manicoré communities.

Before they officially founded CAARIM, the two women’s first step was to get to the bottom of “who owned the river,” in Delgado’s words. Despite having lived there for decades, the community members had no title to the land, which was undesignated public forest.

“We discovered that the land belongs to the state of Amazonas and so we asked INCRA [the Brazilian rural land authority] what could be done to protect us. That’s where we got the idea of creating a sustainable development reserve,” Delgado says.

Cunha da Silva remembers with pride that when CAARIM was created, residents from all the communities came out in support of establishing a reserve

“In the first few years, more than 400 local residents would come to our meetings,” she says. “But around 2014, a countermovement began to emerge. They started spreading rumors that if the reserve were approved, the ribeirinhos would be prohibited from hunting, fishing, cutting trees to build their houses and canoes, all that. The community members began to fear losing their land and our fight began to lose strength.”

The women attribute these rumors to local politicians and people connected to illegal logging coming from the Manicoré district of Santo Antônio de Matupi.

Tension rose on both sides in 2015 when a public hearing on the proposed creation of the Rio Manicoré RDS was held and the majority of attendees were from the opposition. “We were not allowed to speak at this public hearing,” Delgado says.

Community members who supported CAARIM at the time reported receiving anonymous threats like having their voadeiras pushed away from their communities on the river to places far away.

The pressure effectively quelled Delgado and Cunha da Silva’s struggle for the next four years.

“Since 2015, land grabbing, illegal fishing and illegal logging has greatly increased. The loggers all started up their chainsaws when they saw that the public hearing didn’t have any effect,” Delgado says.

A dock at a ribeirinho community on the Rio Manicoré. Image courtesy of Valdemir Cunha/Greenpeace.

“I saw the destruction arrive”

Raimundo Caetano, a farmer who lives in the community of Barro Alto, says that for many years he was one of those who were against establishing the reserve. That changed when the deforestation drew nearer to his own home.

“I was one of the first people to speak out against the reserve in 2015. I didn’t see how it could be a good thing. I stood up and walked out of a CAARIM meeting and never went back. But over time, I saw with my own eyes how the destruction was getting closer,” Caetano says.

PRODES data back up what the ribeirinhos have experienced: the annual deforestation rate in Manicoré grew by 148% in 2015 from the year before, with more than 75 km2 (29 mi2) deforested.

“It’s not new that loggers are lurking around, but these days they’re cutting down trees at a much faster rate,” Caetano says. “These barges come by completely full. It worries us. There are times when my wife and my mother are afraid to be at home by themselves because we can hear them cutting the trees down in the forest — taking out the red cedar, the copaíba, the angelim, the hardwoods.”

Red cedar (Cedrela odorata) is considered Latin America’s second most valuable timber species, according to the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (OTCA). It’s protected under CITES, the global convention on plant and animal trade, and along with angelim is listed on the Brazilian Forest Service’s list of species at risk of extinction.

“We have no security in Rio Manicoré, we don’t have any way to defend ourselves,” Caetano says. “I like to live here, to fish, to hunt animals for my family to eat, to work in my garden. I don’t want to leave. So, today, I think it’s very important that this be a reserve.”

Since 2017, Manicoré has been on the Ministry of Environment’s list of the priority municipalities for combating deforestation. Still, the municipality has lost 476 km2 (184 mi2) of forest over the past five years, an area a third the size of London.

“Manicoré is at the mercy of these people because there is no monitoring of the situation,” Cunha da Silva says.

Mongabay contacted the Ministry of Environment about the deforestation data for Manicoré. Its response did not mention the municipality specifically, and said only that data for the entire Brazilian Amazon in July “indicate the lowest monthly rate [of deforestation] since 2018.”

Reports of deforestation for the Rio Manicoré region between January 2015 and December 2021. Image by Mongabay.

‘Let’s take up the fight again?’

Cunha da Silva and Delgado, still pushing for the creation of the reserve after the 2015 setback, intensified their efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I spend a lot of time in Rio Manicoré and was seeing more and more invasions going on here,” Delgado says. “I went to find Marilourdes and said, ‘Let’s take up the fight again? If not, they’re going to destroy our territory.’”

“We had to practically go back to square one when we started again, but we didn’t give up,” Cunha da Silva says. “We kept explaining to people in the community that the RDS didn’t mean imprisonment, but rather freedom.”

At the start of the pandemic, their organization, CAARIM, filed a legal action asking the Amazonas state government to demarcate the reserve. But the process was suspended in November 2021.

Daniel Viegas, the state environmental lawyer, says this was because of a lack of support from the communities themselves. To revive the process, CAARIM must win the full support of all 15 communities. “Many had a hard time accepting the CDRU. So this isn’t the right time to start talks about creating a reserve.”

“I want this place to be protected, but they are saying that if it becomes a reserve, we won’t be able to plant a garden or cut down trees for the things we need,” says a 33-year-old farmer who asked not to be identified.

Viegas spent time in Rio Manicoré in August to hear what the people living there had to say and explain to them the importance of the CDRU. “I sensed that many people there don’t understand the risk they are running of losing their land,” he says.

In April, Greenpeace identified a 2.8-km2 (1.1-mi2) area of cleared forest along the Igarapé Grande, an affluent of the Rio Manicoré. The cleared patch has since grown in size, and by June measured 9.3 km2 (3.6 mi2).

“The CDRU was granted, but the paper alone isn’t enough. Now the state has to take action, monitoring the territory, removing people who shouldn’t be there, restraining any deforestation or illegal extraction of wood,” says Greenpeace’s Cristiane Mazzetti.

In June, Greenpeace Brasil sponsored an expedition with researchers from Amazonian universities to the forests of the Rio Manicoré region to study the local biodiversity and highlight the importance of preserving the region. During the monthlong field research, the scientists identified more than 60 species of lizards, snakes and amphibians, in addition to hundreds of plant species, including several new to science.

Raimundo Correa lives in Manicoré, where his family has been cultivating açaí for 40 years. Image courtesy of Nilmar Lage/Greenpeace.

‘They are going to subdivide this forest’

In one of the Rio Manicoré communities, a ribeirinho tells of two men arriving from the Manicoré district of Santo Antônio de Matupi. They came to his father-in-law’s house in May, saying they were collecting signatures for the construction of a road connecting Matupi and the riverbank communities.

“They said it would help us transport the things we make, but what they really want is to have access to our land,” the ribeirinho says.

“There is a main road that passes through the forest, inside the CDRU,” Delgado says. “The goal of the people doing this is to connect Matupi to [the rest of] Manicoré with a road. If this happens, we’re sure that they will subdivide our forest.”

Cunha da Silva also says she’s “concerned about the road going down to Santo Antônio do Matupi. We don’t have the same destruction culture that they have down there. In Matupi, they use machines to cut down trees. They use tractors, chainsaws. Here in Manicoré, we use machetes, scythes.”

According to the BR-319 Observatory, a nonprofit that monitors the impacts of one of the most controversial roads running through the Amazon, it’s the web of unofficial roads built off official highways that are the main vectors of deforestation in the Amazon today.

In 2021, the organization mapped out the illegal roads in Manicoré and discovered the existence of more than 1,422 km (884 mi) within the municipality alone. Most of them branched off BR-230, better known as the Trans-Amazonian Highway, in Santo Antônio do Matupi district.

Of these roads, 845 km (525 mi) are inside undesignated public forests (such as the area that includes the ribeirinhos’ CDRU); 296 km (184 mi) are inside Indigenous territories (Tenharim Marmelos, Tenharim Marmelos/Area B and Sepoti); and nearly 67 km (42 mi) are inside conservation units.

“We have seen clearly with other highways inside the Amazon, like BR-163 in Pará state, that it is difficult to control the advance of deforestation and land grabbing when there is a highway on which to ship product,” Mazzetti says.

A deforested plot alongside a road in Manicoré that connects the BR-319 highway to the left bank of the Madeira River. Image courtesy of Christian Braga/Greenpeace.

AMACRO and the new arc of deforestation

Another source of concern for conservationists is the fact that Manicoré is one of 32 municipalities that make up the AMACRO project, which aims to regionalize agribusiness in the hinterlands of the states of Amazonas, Acre and Rondônia. The region is home to extensive swaths of undesignated public forests.

“This is worrisome because the arc of deforestation has already reached the AMACRO region,” Mazzetti says, referring to the sweeping agribusiness front laying waste to the Amazon from the southeast. “The Rio Manicoré CDRU area has still not been directly impacted, but it will only be a few years before the arc reaches it.”

Manicoré has been the fifth most deforested municipality in the state of Amazonas since 2018, according to INPE data.

“We could lose all of our territory if they keep destroying it,” Delgado says. “Territory, you know, because before the CDRU we used to call it ‘our place,’ but now we can say that these forests in Manicoré are ‘our territory.’”

Asked if she fears for her life, Delgado says no. But she says she’s concerned following the killing of Indigenous rights activist Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips in June this year in Amazonas’s Vale do Javari region.

“It does worry me because, like us, Bruno and Dom were guardians of the forest. And, like us, I have seen the folks from Vale do Javari ask for protection and nothing is done. It’s like what happened with our dear Chico Mendes,” Delgado says, invoking the prominent environmentalist and rights activist, who was killed in 1988. “So, I’m not afraid, but we never know what can happen in this fight.”

Mongabay sought comment from SEMA, the Amazonas state environmental secretariat, on the information presented in this article, but received no response.

Banner image: A home on the Rio Manicoré. Image courtesy of Valdemir Cunha/Greenpeace.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Sept. 1, 2022.

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