Amazonia: Where All Life Matters

They came from the deepest forest, gathered at the two harbors of Porto Velho in Rondônia and Belém in Pará and finally reached the center of Amazonia, Manaus. They came together to celebrate the 20th anniversary at the annual conference of the Conselho Nacional dos Seringueiros (CNS), organization of the famous Chico Mendes that until today is fighting for the rights of the rubber tappers and traditional populations of the rainforest. More than 350 representatives of the Amazon’s reserves met to take stock and unite to rise to the existing and new challenges ahead.

Much has happened in those last 20 years. When Chico and his companions founded the CNS under military rule in 1985, nobody thought about sustainable development. When he was assassinated in 1988, there didn’t exist a single extractivist reserve in the Amazon; in fact, the idea itself was revolutionary and met with fierce resistance.

Chico was the first to promote Extractivist Reserves (RESEX). In these reserves small communities live and work collectively according to a well designed plan of use and extract the forest’s resources sustainably and without harm to the environment. The land remains property of the union, however, its use is defined by an association of local communities and government agencies. The RESEX offer a variety of products including rubber, coco and other nuts, the açai fruit, alternative medicine, fish and beautiful handicraft made of seeds, left-over wood and other natural material. The profits go directly back to the communities.

Today, about a third of the Amazon has been declared protection area, most of it indigenous reserves. Moreover, 19 extractivist reserves and 14 marine reserves have gained legal status, their number constantly increasing. Atanagildo “Gatão” Matos, one of the early activists, is happy to see more and more communities organize themselves independently to protect their land and work collectively and sustainably. The reserves have become an integral part of the Brazilian government’s Amazon policy: the annual conference in Manaus 2005 welcomed among others the governor of the state of Amazonas as well as the Minister of the Environment, Marina Silva.

Thus, there is reason to celebrate in Manaus. Gatão stands with tears in his eyes when his companions announce that in 2005, two decades after he began to fight for the creation of protection areas, his own home community was finally granted reserve status. Dona Raimunda, the grand lady of the movement, is happy to see her work of years bear fruit and women strengthened and confident to fight for their rights and participate in the process.

Joy is not all that you see at the event, however. It is mixed with rage and sorrow. The world saw Chico Mendes and Sister Dorothy murdered brutally because they lived and worked for the preservation of the rainforest. The world didn’t see the more than 700 others die; die because they believed in a sustainable way of living with nature; die because they believed in our responsibility to the community and future generations. They had neither international fame nor a foreign passport. But here, they know them, they know their pain, their strength and their courage. To this day, activists are being threatened, persecuted and killed. The black list of big farmers, soy producers and their “pistoleiros” contains hundreds of names. Three weeks after the conference, on Christmas day, another name was crossed off the list. João Batista died in Rondônia with four bullets in his chest; the police have yet to start investigations. Rondônia is the state with the highest clearcutting rate in Brazil.

There is still a long way to go. It is not only the wood workers that pursue the destruction of the rainforest. A whole industry is profiting from the radical exploitation. After the trees are cut and sold, the meat industry takes over the land to raise its cattle. When all is grazed and the ranchers move on, the soy farmers finally exhaust the soil. After that there isn’t much left that could grow on this land. It is hard to imagine that once there has been thick forest with millions of insects, birds, wild cats and other species, some of which we haven’t even discovered yet and might never know. In numbers it looks like this:

In 2004, 27,200km2 forest were clearcut (about 4.5 million football fields), much of it illegally. This is the second highest deforestation rate in the history of Brazil. And there is more: Mega projects such as hydro dams and the transamazonian highway seldom consider social or environmental aspects and threaten communities, wildlife and the forest.

Even those living in the already created reserves have to defend themselves continuously against illegal invasions, the state authorities react slowly, if ever. The northern state Pará is still in the hands of big land owners, its justice system corrupt and a life easily lost.
Challenges are also encountered within the reserves. Many lack adequate schools and access to health care and communities have difficulties with market access, administration and budgets. Not a few have to work in small huts without electricity, let alone luxury items such as computers, etc.

Thus, apart from joy, pride, hope and memory the conference is full of mainly this: things to do! The participants learn about biopiracy and bioprospection and develop a strategy to confront the issue in the reserves. They work on petitions, make suggestions and claim rights. There is a lot of text and information that wants to be processed, in many cases by people that barely know how to read and write. It would be an impossible task, were it not for the CNS leaders who have an amazing ability to combine urban brainstorming with amazonian tradition and culture. Like nobody else Gatão knows how to translate complex issues into the language of his people. “Hey folks, this is a topic that’s difficult for all of us, let’s pay some real attention. I want you to go get all the stray cats, sit down and focus.”

Dona Raimunda gets up in front of the crowd and sings the songs that they all have in their hearts: “This is a hard struggle, but it’s our struggle and together we will prevail!” They dance, they sing, they clap their hands and tell jokes to the audience. I have never worked so productively and had so much fun at the same time.

20 years of CNS also mean 20 years of convincing outsiders that Amazonia’s people are not poor, uneducated farmers that have no idea what development and politics are all about. They know very well, if not best of all, what is good for the communities and the forest they live in. They don’t need our sympathy and pittances; they deserve our respect, recognition and our support to continue the service they have been providing Brazil and the rest of the world: they protect and preserve this wonderful, unique source of life called the Amazon Rainforest.

For more information on CNS (Portuguese):

JULIA KENDLBACHER can be reached: