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Brazil: Surprise victory for peasants on the Tapajós

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Victory for peasant families in the Amazon

After more than a century of struggle, peasant families along the Tapajós river, a tributary of the Amazon, have finally won rights to their land. Their victory is a remarkable recognition on the part of the authorities of the rights of a traditional community, because their land occupies an area where the government is planning to build a large hydroelectric dam.

“I am very proud to be ending a struggle like this one, giving rights to those who deserve them”, said Luiz Bacelar Guerreiro Júnior,  superintendent of INCRA (National Institute of Colonisation and Agrarian Reform) for the west of the state of Pará.  He was referring to his decision to create a 54,443-hectare land settlement for families in Montanha-Mangabal, an area stretching 70 kilometres along the left bank of the upper reaches of the Tapajós river.

Map showing area affected by the proposed dam

The decision is unexpected, because the settlement runs counter to the government’s plan to build a series of hydroelectric dams on the river. If the dams were to go ahead as planned – and the government has already started work on some of them, despite widespread opposition from traditional communities and the Munduruku Indians — almost all the land occupied by the communities would be flooded.

The creation of the settlement also comes at a time when INCRA’s land-reform programme has ground to a virtual standstill.  Indeed, if it continues at its current snail’s pace, less agrarian reform will be carried out this year than in any other year since the return to democratic rule in 1985.

Felipe Fritz Braga, a Prosecutor in the Federal Public Ministry, an independent branch of the government which defends the rights of disadvantaged groups within Brazilian society, welcomed the decision: “The recognition of Montanha-Mangabal by the Brazilian state is an unmistakeable act of true and effective agrarian reform.”

He went on: “It is the first time the federal government recognises the antiquity of the occupation of this land by these communities and treats them as people having fundamental rights, especially rights to the land.”

The decision creates a real dilemma for the government. If it is to press ahead with the dams, it will now have to relocate the families to a comparable location, which it will be unable to do without expelling other communities and creating further conflicts.

History of Struggle

The Montanha-Mangabal hamlets were formed in the second half of the 19th century, when hundreds of poor farmers from the north-east of Brazil migrated to the region to tap rubber. After the collapse of the rubber boom in the early 20th century, many were trapped in the region, without means of earning their living or the money to pay for the 2,000-kilometre trip home.

One solution was for the men, most of whom were single, to kidnap women from neighbouring indigenous groups. Dona Raimunda Araújo, 75 years old, who lives in Mangabal, remembers her family talking about the way her grandfather “stole” her grandmother, a Munduruku Indian.

The women were not passive victims. They brought to the rubber-tapper communities the vast knowledge of the ecology of the Amazon forest acquired over centuries by indigenous people. This helps to explain why, even though they fell small areas to plant crops, the communities have some of the best conserved forest in the region.

Cassava - the vital food grainThey have also managed to enhance the genetic diversity of their main crop, cassava, cultivating more than 30 different varieties, most of which are unknown to the Brazilian government’s research body Embrapa (Brazilian Agricultural Research Company).

In recent years the families have struggled to retain possession of their land. The first threat came in the 1970s when the Federal Government expelled them from their homes to set up the National Park of Amazonia, following the belief of the time that forests had to be empty of people to be conserved.

Devastating blow

But the families regrouped, settling higher up the river. In 2006 it seemed that their right to the land would finally be assured. They went through the long and difficult process of becoming a Resex (Extractive Reserve) – a type of conservation unit, set up after the murder of Chico Mendes, that gives land rights to traditional forest dwellers.

It is created by presidential decree and would have given the families very strong rights over their land, as a Resex can be extinguished only by a vote in the national Congress. After months of work, all that was missing for these communities to get their Resex was the signing of the decree by President Lula.

Simar Braga, a community leaderBut this was something he refused to do, much to the families’ dismay.

At the time, the president’s reluctance was widely attributed to the fact that the government was planning a series of hydroelectric dams along the Tapajos river. Part of the energy was to go to mining companies, as vast mineral wealth, particularly gold, had been discovered in the region.

Real Commitment

Against this background, INCRA’s recent decision to give land to the communities shows a real commitment to the rights of traditional communities.  When asked if he had faced opposition from powerful economic interests, Sr Bacelar replied: “I didn’t listen. I did what had to be done and that’s it.”

INCRA does not have authority to set up a Resex. Instead, Sr. Bacelar has created a PAE (Project of Agroextractive Settlement) which does not give the families such a secure hold over their land. Simar Braga, one of the community leaders, commented: “What we want to become really is a Resex. But this is a positive step.” 

Prosecutor Felipe Fritz Braga said:  “There is no doubt that, within the sphere of influence of the federal government’s land institute, the agroextractive reserves (PAEs) are the best solution for the identification and protection of the traditional communities.”

While many of the traditional communities and indigenous groups in Amazonia are pessimistic about their chances of getting their rights respected, now that big economic groups are moving into the region, the victory at Montanha-Mangabal shows that long years of struggle can at times, against all the odds, end in at least a partial victory.

You can see more photographs of the communities in the associated photo-essay, here. All images are copyright LAB.

A version of this article has been published by the BBC, here, and there is an accompanying video.