As new ecological stations and other preserves are set up across Brazil, rural colonos and beiradeiros may be forced from their long-time homesteads.
As we moved up the Iriri River, the water level rose at a gathering pace. We landed at a welcoming house one evening, scrubbed our clothes on a washing board fixed to a riverbank rock, only to find the plank submerged the next morning. We’d had some rain, but not enough to raise the river that much.
The beiradeiros (river people) explained that though the rainy season came very late this year, there must have been very heavy rains farther south in the Iriri’s headwaters in Mato Grosso state. That was the first time I fully believed what others had told me, that a rise in the river here of ten meters is not unusual.
Our river pilot is José Alves Gomes de Silva (known as Zé Boi) — acknowledged as the finest guide on this part of the Iriri. He deftly wove his way upstream, skilfully avoiding barely submerged rocks. It was, I realized, not just a case of remembering the right way along a complex river, but of finding a new route almost every day, as the water levels radically rose and fell, altering daily perils. Only once or twice did the bottom of our voadeira scrape on a rock.
Everywhere we went, people welcomed the rain — a constant reminder that the region had just endured the toughest drought in living memory. From July to December, 2015 it hadn’t rained at all in this part of the Amazon — which is unprecedented.
Many people who had expected the annual rains to come, lost almost all their September crop plantings. Some families, anxious for a cash income, had grown cacao from which chocolate is made. It’s a reliable commodity in a region where river transport risks spoilage. Cacao’s large, resistant orange pods can withstand a long boat journey without rotting or wilting in the hot sun. A couple of farmers we met had planted 3,000 cacao seedlings in September, but all the plants died of drought. The farmers, as resilient as ever, were replanting.
For some families the drought brought even greater danger. When the beiradeiros slash-and-burn their small plots to plant their subsistence crops, they always make forest breaks to stop the fire spreading into the forest — something they’ve done for decades making them extremely skilled in fire management.
However, this year the drought was so fierce that on one occasion the flames leapt the break. The locals used all their expertise to stop the fire spreading, and succeeded, but said that the battle had been a nightmare. Such unexpected hazards underline what scientists have warned for years — that, with the extreme droughts now associated with climate change, the Amazon forest may become more vulnerable to uncontrollable fires.
The adventures of Dona Zefa
Farther upriver we stopped at the house of Josefa Jerônima da Silva. We’d already heard a lot about this woman known as Dona Zefa — she had singlehandedly confronted gunmen sent into the region by grileiros (land thieves).
The moment I met her, I knew I liked her. Dona Zefa is a small woman with large, sparkling eyes that light up when she smiles to greet you. When I met two children a few days later, I immediately recognised them as hers — they had her distinctive eyes!
Dona Zefa told us her extraordinary story. She was born on a seringal (rubber plantation) on the Iriri River, and was raised solely by her mother, who had separated from her husband soon after the birth. When Dona Zefa was 15, she married a rubber-tapper and they both cut rubber for Benedito Gama, one of the seringalistas (rubber plantation owners) we’d met in Altamira.
Benedito Gama may have paid relatively little for the rubber and Brazil nuts collected by Dona Zefa’s family, but he provided other help, partly making up for the lack of any assistance from the state. If someone was ill, he was the only person they could turn to. He was a bom patrão (a good boss), Dona Zefa said.
Dona Zefa had 14 children. All survived infancy, through two died later from malaria. The family faced Amazonian dangers together: a jaguar once entered the house to grab a dog, and a band of wild boars once charged through their vegetable patch, destroying crops and killing a couple more of their canines.
Although the family lived in a very remote area, they had links with the market, selling the rubber and Brazil nuts they collected in the forest to middlemen. But, they, and other local families, were forced to be self-sufficient, because goods shipped in from outside were too expensive to buy with their small earnings.
The sophistication of this subsistence survival strategy — based on extensive forest knowledge — isn’t easy to grasp on a short visit, partly because the families themselves take it all for granted and don’t see any of it as being very remarkable. But members of our team explained to me that over many years the beiradeiros, not just on the Iriri river but along other Amazon tributaries, have bred new varieties of manioc (cassava), timed to be harvested throughout the year and to play different roles in their diet — one, for example, is particularly resilient to drought, while another makes very tasty manioc flour. Some of these are completely new varieties, unknown to Brazil’s primary agricultural research institute, state-owned Embrapa (Brazilian Agricultural Research Company).
The families also harvest a wide variety of forest products, for all sorts of home uses, and know the best time to collect each. As one writer put it, the beiradeiros have made the forest into their “living pantry”.
Renowned biologist E. O. Wilson has argued persuasively for the immense value of such agro-diversity as a means for becoming more locally resilient in stressful times, such as those brought by climate change. He notes that global mono-crops like wheat, rice or corn could suffer catastrophic failures, and that agricultural diversification could help save humanity from future famines.
The coming of the grileiros
It had been a hard life early on, Dona Zefa admitted, but her family had dealt well with the challenges Amazonia threw at them. That is, until the 1990’s when their lives were turned upside down by the arrival of the grileiros (land thieves).
By then, Dona Zefa’s husband had been incapacitated by a stroke. The grileiros sent in workers (some might call them thugs) to turn the family out of their home, and slash-and-burn their land so it could be sold to cattlemen. Dona Zefa, a canny woman, realized that she couldn’t directly confront the grileiros. She saw that her only chance for clinging to her land would be to take advantage of the land grabbers’ reluctance to murder a defenseless woman in cold blood.
So whenever they appeared she kept quiet and did as ordered. She even fed and lodged them. One man was contracted to kill her, but couldn’t bring himself to do it, and ended up telling her all about it. The situation went from bad to worse. Dona Zefa realized that her sons, by then young men, would be killed if they didn’t move out. She persuaded them to leave, but she clung on.
“I hadn’t anywhere to go”, she told us. “This is my home.”
Dona Zefa confided that she’ll never forget the brutal scenes she witnessed: “Once, the grileiro arrived [at my house] with his knife covered in blood. He’d just killed a worker, a tall fellow. He [had] put his body in a bag and threw it in the river, but the body swelled up and the bag floated. He had to take it back [from the river], cut the body in three parts and put each in a separate bag with stones. Then the bags sank.”
Still, Dona Zefa held on: “I was a woman alone. I couldn’t stand up to them, but I wouldn’t leave. And they didn’t feel happy about killing me.”
The search for a solution
What saved Dona Zefa was the federal government’s decision to turn the region into an ecological station. No longer able to lay claim to local lands, the grileiros moved on, and some of Dona Zefa’s children returned. Today she runs her house just as she wants to, and would be completely happy, if it were not for the restrictions imposed by conservation authorities. In particular, she resents not being able to sell a few fish to give her a small cash income.
Dona Zefa’s children are clearly devoted to her, if a little in awe. They helped her build her house, a particularly fine example of a typical Iriri River basin dwelling: the main beams are made of matamatá, a hard wood found over a kilometer away; the walls are constructed from tough but flexible wood found nearby; and the roof is composed of palm branches, woven closely together, so not a drop of water enters even during torrential rains. Scarcely a nail was used to build the house: it is mostly held together with creeper vines gathered from the forest. The house is cool and very serviceable.
Dona Zefa was the perfect host. In the early morning, she headed out in her canoe and returned with enough fish to feed us for the entire day. She was constantly busy, cooking, cleaning, and taking clothes and dirty crockery down to the river to wash. But she was also always ready to drop a chore for a chat, or to contact her children by radio — hers being on
e of the local homesteads with a wireless, the main form of communication by the area’s families for decades.
Like the others, Dona Zefa’s most pressing concern — something that keeps her awake at night — is the fear that she will be forced to leave her home and land by the government.
She told us that pressure from the Ministry of the Environment’s Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), was much tougher a few years ago: forest guards even came and confiscated her kitchen knives. Such things don’t happen today, she explained, but everyone is still well aware that the authorities want them to leave.
It will be ironic — and extremely sad for her — if after years of resistance, (standing up to marauding jaguars, wild boars, grileiros, and fierce drought), if she is finally forced to leave the land she loves so dearly by government bureaucrats.
The Iriri River families’ legal position is unclear. While federal law says that no human occupation is permitted inside ecological stations, other legal precedents guarantee that people must not be evicted from land they have traditionally occupied, notably Brazil’s own Constitution, and the International Labor Organization’s 169 Convention, which Brazil has signed.
Brazilian federal Prosecutor Thais Santi is trying to find a way-out, ensuring that the area is given ample environmental protection, while the rights of the local inhabitants are also respected. It was she who sent the fact-finding team, which I had joined, up the Iriri River to report on the viability of a compromise.
That report, likely being compiled as I write this, will play an essential role in the search for a solution.
From a compassionate point of view, the river families’ case seems unassailable — after all, they homesteaded this land long before it became an ecological station, and their livelihoods make very small demands on the surrounding forest. But some environmentalists fear that if a legal exemption is allowed here, for these families, it will set a harmful precedent, creating a loophole that could be exploited by unscrupulous land speculators elsewhere.
More is at stake than this scattering of families along the Iriri River: other families and small communities across the whole of Brazil find themselves in similar situations as other ecological stations or similar conservation units are established. In the end, it will all depend on a judge’s assessment of competing arguments and on a final ruling.
While it seems very likely that the case will be settled on technical, juridical grounds, I cannot help editorializing here, and expressing my own feeling that, in this case, the law is “an ass,” as Charles Dickens declared in Oliver Twist. Clearly these families protect the forest and even enhance it; and just as clearly, there is no collision in the real world between forest conservation and their staying in their homes. What is needed is a common sense compromise that recognizes Amazonian reality, rather than the faraway, impersonal legal niceties of Brasilia.
– This report was originally published in Mongabay and is republished by an agreement to share content.