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Logging permit threatens Quilombola bioeconomic ‘paradise’ in the Amazon

To reach the Terra Quilombola Alto Trombetas 1, it's a trip up the Trombetas River from the city of Oriximiná. Image by Antônio Silva/Ag. Pará.

  • Loggers have entered the Trombetas River Biological Reserve in Oriximiná, in Brazil’s Pará state, to develop a forest management project that has divided the local Quilombola community.
  • The reserve is known for its successful bioeconomy project, but the association representing the six local communities signed a contract with a logging company to explore timber in the area.
  • The Quilombola say they weren’t properly consulted about the contract and the Public Ministry of Pará recommended interrupting actions for timber management, but the association says it will not suspend the work without a judicial order.
  • The Quilombola territory is part of the mosaic of protected areas between the Amazon River and the border with Suriname and Guyana, one of the largest continuous forest blocks in the world.

Situated in one of the world’s largest blocks of protected rainforest, the remaining Quilombola communities of Oriximiná, in northern Pará, are seen as a model of sustainable development for the Brazilian Amazon with a bioeconomy based on non-timber products. The activities are centered on the extraction and sale of Brazil nuts, cumaru seeds, andiroba oil, and cobaípa oil — which are used as food or as raw material for medicine, perfume, and cosmetics. Those goods generate income and keep the trees standing, a business model in tune with the traditional knowledge that makes these Quilombolas guardians of the Amazon Rainforest.

In 2022, a report published in the newspaper Valor Econômico showed how a system of cooperatives set up by the communities with the support of a nonprofit civil organization drives socioeconomic progress, turning this Oriximiná’s area into a bioeconomic “paradise,” where thousands of Quilombolas guarantee their livelihood by keeping the forest preserved.

But a contract signed by a local association with a timber company affronts old customs and puts the sustainable development model at risk. The Mãe Domingas Association represents six communities of Alto Trombetas 1, one of the eight Quilombola territories in Oriximiná, and signed an agreement with a logging company called Benevides Madeiras to explore timber in the area. The deal has generated tensions, especially after the logging company employees accessed the territory to evaluate the forest’s potential.

“It is not in our culture to cut down trees,” said Aluízio Silvério dos Santos, a leader of the Tapagem Quilombola community, on the banks of the Trombetas River, in Oriximiná. At 74, he was one of the locals fighting the deal.

The loggers activity in the reserve was authorized by the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), which oversees federal conservation areas, on March 7 at the request of Ari Carlos Printes, coordinator of the Mãe Domingas Association. On March 30, in the opposite direction, the Pará State Prosecutor’s Office recommended the interruption of any action aimed at timber management in the Quilombola area until there is a “prior, free and informed consultation with all the communities.”

The prosecutors are looking into the accusation that the Mãe Domingas Association agreed with Benevides Madeiras without consulting the Quilombolas through changes in their statute and irregularities in the attendance list of the assembly that approved the partnership with the lumber company. The meeting documents showed only 65 people favored the management plan — not enough votes to define the territory’s direction, where nearly 400 families live.

The meeting minutes show only 65 people in the Quilombola territory favor the management plan. 

“We have a battle against harassment from loggers,” Silvio Rocha, another resident of the territory who fights against the project, told Mongabay by phone. “The association had already debated this kind of project when the residents decided that they didn’t want wood management. Logging goes against our principles and customs, not to mention the environmental impact,” Rocha said. “Here, nobody deforests, nobody degrades. And that will happen when the machines arrive in the territory. We are afraid that the situation will generate violence,” he said.

Questioned by Mongabay, ICMBio said the permission was only for loggers’ traffic through the Trombetas River Biological Reserve and that logging was not authorized in the Quilombola land. The agency said in an email statement that it complied with the recommendation, suspending the access of new people to the forest until the situation is pacified.

But the Mãe Domingas Association does not intend to suspend the work with Benevides Madeiras. “All the negotiations were done within the law,” Mário Luiz Guimarães Printes, the association’s lawyer, told Mongabay by phone. “The Federal Constitution supports this option for a management project in a Quilombola area.  This is not the function of the Public Prosecutor’s Office. We will continue with the work because no lawsuit prohibits it,” he said.

Mauro Roberto do Vale Martins, project coordinator for Benevides Madeiras, said the company intended to clear up the doubts of the Public Prosecutor’s Office before proceeding with the management project in the territory. “We don’t want to bring discord to the communities,” he told Mongabay by phone.

The Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio) authorized the entrance of loggers into the territory. 

Risky partnership

The Quilombola land Alto Trombetas 1 has been partially titled since 2013 in the name of the Association Mãe Domingas, which brings together the communities Abuí, Paraná do Abuí, Tapagem, Santo Antônio do Abuizinho, Sagrado Coração and Mãe Cué. The territory streches between the Saracá-Taquera National Forest and the Trombetas River Biological Reserve, in the Calha Norte region of Pará, between the Amazon River and the border with Suriname and Guyana. This part of the Amazon Rainforest is known for the mosaic of areas protected by conservation units, Indigenous lands, and Quilombola territories.

The Quilombolas of Oriximiná live in 37 communities of eight territories and are descendants of enslaved Africans who overcame the waterfalls of the Trombetas River in the 19th century to escape capture by cattle and cocoa farm owners. The thick forest became a refuge where they could live freely through hunting, fishing, growing small crops and harvesting nuts and other forest resources. This deep connection with nature explains why many Quilombolas reject development plans based on cutting down trees, even if they are sustainable.

Timber management is one of the sustainable models in the Amazon Rainforest because it generates jobs and money for the communities. Carried out correctly, respecting the limits set by environmental agencies, it supplies the timber market and helps curb illegal deforestation.

However, the partnership between communities and logging companies requires a certain degree of maturity and social organization for the contract to result in benefits, experts say. “These are isolated communities that are only now getting to know the different possibilities of sustainable development, often without the conditions to evaluate proposals, embrace projects and manage resources for the benefit of the population,” said Marco Lentini, forestry specialist for Imaflora, an organization that works with sustainable management projects in the Amazon, including in Quilombola communities in Oriximiná.

A meeting.
The logging company promoted meetings to discuss the project, but the community’s participation would have needed to be higher in order to approve the deal. Image courtesy of Mauro Roberto do Vale Martins.

He said it was necessary to develop a support network for these communities, especially in the more central areas of the Brazilian Amazon, showing that the catalog of forestry projects was quite broad. “We have to show the communities that they are not alone when the logger knocks on the association door to offer a partnership,” he told Mongabay by phone.

There is still no approved forest management plan for the territory of the Mãe Domingas Association. Nevertheless, the contract puts the management project’s preparation in Benevides Madeiras’s hands. The role of the Quilombolas is to guarantee access to the territory while the loggers work. “We have an agreement with the lumber company. The contract evaluates the project’s viability, if there is fine wood and if there is a way to transport the logs. We still don’t know if we will do it or not,” Carlos Printes said.

The first contract signed by the association puts the management project’s preparation in Benevides Madeiras’ hands.

Even without a defined model, the association coordinator guaranteed the partnership with the lumber company would benefit the six communities. “Today, we don’t have the resources to finance the health structure, having to travel several hours by boat in search of care, for example. We have the right to do a management project within the territory.”

The lawyer Rodolpho Cioffi de Ávila, who acts on behalf of the Oriximiná Quilombolas, warned that the resources from a project with a lumber company didn’t guarantee improvement because it was essential to create suitable mechanisms to manage this money for the benefit of the communities. “Many times, the simple division of the money among the families breaks traditional activities, changes the habits of the residents and opens the way for problems like alcoholism and domestic violence. It is necessary to accurately assess the environmental, economic and social vulnerabilities before signing an agreement, without leaving a blank check for the logging company to operate in the region,” Ávila told Mongabay by phone.

The loggers’ offensive isn’t the only threat to the Quilombolas of Oriximiná. Part of the territories suffers from the impacts of bauxite exploitation by Mineração Rio do Norte, which has been present in the Trombetas River region since the 1970s. The communities also fear that the project to extend the BR-163 road — connecting Santarém to Suriname — could stimulate deforestation in the region.

Banner image:To reach the Terra Quilombola Alto Trombetas 1, it’s a trip up the Trombetas River from the city of Oriximiná. Image by Antônio Silva/Ag. Pará.


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