Mon, Jun 12, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Amazon protectors

Brazil’s indigenous people struggle to stave off loggers

By Chris Arsenault and Karla Mendes  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, BOCA DO ACRE, Brazi

A forest in the Amazon is seen being illegally burnt, near Novo Progresso, in the northern Brazilian state of Para.

Photo: AP

Inside Brazil’s Indigenous Reserve 124, Chief Geraldo Apurina walks along a muddy footpath, past towering trees as yet untouched by Amazon loggers.

Much of the land around the reserve has been cleared of trees. Grazing land for cattle now stretches as far as the eye can see from the highway, destroying what used to be the mighty Amazon rainforest.

“Thirty years ago, this was all untouched forest,” said Cosme da Silva, a local activist with the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) in Boca do Acre, in the southwest corner of Amazonas State.

“Today all of this has been taken over by grileiros (land grabbers) who destroyed it to raise cattle,” Silva told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from the passenger seat of a 4x4 truck driving past deforested land and into the reserve.

As politicians plan a radical shift in how land for Brazil’s 900,000 aboriginal people is demarcated, environmentalists say places like Reserve 124, where territory is formally owned by indigenous communities, represent the best chance to save endangered forests.

“I am certain we are better at preserving the forests than other nearby communities,” said Chief Geraldo Apurina, standing on the porch of his hand-built home inside the reserve, as chickens pecked for scraps in his shaded yard.


The Apurina indigenous community received formal ownership of the 450sq km of land in 1988 when Brazil emerged from a military dictatorship and signed a new constitution guaranteeing indigenous rights.

Prior to demarcation, residents constantly faced violence from ranchers and farmers who wanted the land, said Maria Jose Apurina, 40, a mother of four and the chief’s wife.

“I’ve seen blood spilled (for this),” she said, sitting in her wooden home. “But now that we have the land it’s better for our children... this is our place.”

Reserve residents, who number around 800, make a living fishing and hunting on the land and harvesting nuts and acai berries which grow there naturally, said Apurina, 57.

“We only harvest the nuts — we don’t harm the trees,” he said, a claim backed up by research.

Forest in the Amazon where indigenous communities formally own their land is much better protected than similar non-demarcated areas, according to a study by American scientists in Peru’s rainforest published in April, backing the findings of two previous studies.

In Brazil’s Amazon, an area larger than Germany has been deforested since 1988, according to government data.

After years of declines, the rate of deforestation shot up by 29 percent last year compared to 2015, according to Brazil’s National Space Research Institute.

At this rate, environmentalists say the government will not be able to meet its goal of net zero deforestation in the Amazon by 2030.

Forests controlled by indigenous people, in contrast, are among the best protected in Brazil, Luciano Evaristo, a senior official with the Brazilian government’s environmental enforcement agency, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

And demarcating land for indigenous communities is among the cheapest strategies for protecting the Amazon, he said.


But formal plans to allocate new lands for indigenous people have been on hold for months and indigenous leaders are concerned that political moves will put an end to their claims.

Lawmakers are planning a major transformation in Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the government agency that has sought to protect tribes by guaranteeing their land so they can preserve their cultures.

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