Sue Branford and Nayana Fernandez in Brazil. Post 7. Rio Trombetas, September 28 2013.

All photos: Sue Branford & Nayana Fernandez

The sight of 25 boats, or thereabouts, moored on the banks of the Trombetas river is the first indication that a festa is underway in Jamari. As we arrive, we see high on the river bank a single row of wooden houses with corrugated iron roofs, all built on stilts, so that they won’t get flooded during the rainy season. Jamari is a community of 18 families

The festa is into its second day when we arrive. We’d had a pleasant trip upstream, time and again catching a glimpse of the long snouts of botos (pink river dolphins) as they come up for air. We’ve come from Porto Trombetas, a small port built and controlled by Mineração Rio do Norte (MRN), a privately held corporation, whose shareholders include Vale (40%), BHP Billiton and Alcoa. It’s already responsible for 69% of Brazil’s bauxite output and has ambitious expansion plans. While we’re there two large ships, one of them Russian, are loaded up with bauxite. I’d requested an interview with MRN but, after asking me if I was also going to visit the quilombos (communities originally set up by runaway slaves) and I’d said I was, they’d turned me down.

Dulcinéia de Jesús BarbosaIndeed, the main focus of our trip is to visit the quilombos, one of which is Jamari. They have gone through a remarkable transformation in recent decades. I made a trip here in 1992 with my partner and two children. Thanks in large part to the progressive 1988 constitution, promulgated after the return to civilian rule after 25 years of dictatorship, the quilombos had had their rights to their land recognised, but in 1992 few of the communities seemed to be aware of this hugely important change.

Today it is very different. The communities, which for so long were scared of contact with the outside world – on my first trip I spoke to several people who said that their parents used to hide in the forest when outsiders arrived in their village – are confident and proud of their origin. Many more communities have emerged: on my first trip I was told there were 19 in the district of Oriximiná; today there are known to be 35. Several of the older people have spoken to us of their delight on discovering that they share a common history with so many other people in the region.

Daniel de Souza with the authorDaniel de Souza, the coordinator of the board of Malungu-Pará, the main community organisation, is travelling with us and is warmly welcomed everywhere we go. He has clearly played a key role in increasing awareness. He has travelled a lot in the region in recent years. “I must have visited over 200 quilombos”, he tells us. Time and again people mention him as the person who made them aware of their identity and their rights.

The communities are proud of the way they have maintained – or, in some cases, resurrected – old traditions, like today’s festa. The large group of people here for the celebration we have stumbled upon are clearly having a great time – dancing, a football match, a game called mastro with youngsters jumping up to snatch small presents from a pole as it is waved from side to side, and a religious procession. There’s a lot of laughter, chatter, and beer drinking.

It’s a celebration in honour of Santo Antônio, who was adopted as the community’s patron saint when the village was founded by Antônio Ferreira de Jesús, known as macaxeiro (the manioc grower), back in 1934. Today his daughter, Antônia Santa de Jesús, who had twelve children, six of whom died as infants, has taken over his role as the main authority in the community. One of her sons finds room in his house for us to sling our hammocks.

Although the 1988 constitution recognised these communities’ rights, it has been – and still is – a long struggle to get these rights properly respected. One of the communities we stopped at on the way to Jamari was O Ultimo Quilombo (The Last Quilombo). There Dulcinéia de Jesús Barbosa, a woman in her 50s, says that when she was young the land was in the hands of a so-called patrão (boss), who insisted that they sold their Brazil nuts, their main source of income, to him at knock-down prices. It was the system of aviamento, where the patrão advanced food and supplies against the future crop, common throughout the Amazon.

More than two decades ago the area was turned into a Reserva Biológica, a conservation unit based on the concept, imported from the USA, that the best way to conserve an area is by evicting the local inhabitants. IBAMA, the government’s environment agency at the time, was given control of the area. “It got really bad”, said Dulcinéia. “They did all they could to get us out. Many people left. A man was killed by one of the IBAMA security guards.” Since then, things have improved; people have been given the right to stay in their hamlets and to fish, hunt and collect Brazil nuts (at certain times of the year).

But everyone we have spoken to has complained of the constraints still imposed on them. One of the most annoying is the ban during certain months of the year on travelling on some stretches of the river later than 6 p.m. This means that, if people from the community have been downriver to buy supplies in Porto Trombetas or Oriximiná and get delayed, they have to wait all night moored on the riverbank before they can return home, which may lie just a few miles upstream. The Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade (Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation), which has taken over IBAMA’s role, says that the ban is to protect the turtles during the breeding season when they lay eggs on the river beaches, but the communities say they are perfectly capable of looking after the turtles without these bans.

JamaríWhat many people really want is the right to the whole of the territory that they habitually use to hunt and to collect products from the forest, not just to the small areas occupied by their hamlets. The people in O Ultimo Quilombo, for instance, want control over a territory of 388,000 hectares. Today this area is divided between the Reserva Biológica and two flotas, large stretches of forest that have been designated by the state government as areas for logging by big companies. It’s a large area for 487 families, but they say that, just like the Indians, they know how to conserve their land. Indeed, many studies have shown that indigenous territories suffer considerably less degradation than “conservation” units. “It would be the same with us”, says Manuel Luizvaldo Siqueira, known as Buchecha (chubby-faced), who, despite his nickname, is a fiery young leader and one of the main advocates of the project.

Will O Ultimo Quilombo and the other communities get the land they want? It will be difficult. MRN is laying claim to much land, and 60 men with tractors are already working in the area claimed by O Ultimo Quilombo, although they are officially only prospecting. The government also plans to hand over a huge area beside the Trombetas river – a total of one million hectares – to loggers. The idea is clearly to restrict the communities to a small margin of land beside the river. But the communities will fight this tooth and nail, and today they are a formidable force.

In Jamari at the moment, however, none of this matters very much. Even Buchcecha, for all his commitment, is keen to get back to the party. “’We’ve got to leave early next morning”, he says, as he makes his apologies and leaves us. And indeed, just after 6 a.m., when the dancing ends, I see him go off in his boat with the rest of his community. Hundreds of empty beer cans lie scattered on the ground, but there are few signs of hangovers as people get into their boats and leave. Just more chatter and laughter.

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