- Sustainable farming, mercury-free fishing and circular trade are among the strategies Amazon Indigenous peoples have been developing to survive in one of the most hostile states for Indigenous people in Brazil.
- Territorial and Environmental Management Plans (PGTAs) are one of the Indigenous-led tools for communities to create strategies to manage their natural resources and provide income for families in their territories.
- For long-term survival, these sustainable initiatives require investments, but previous experience has shown that a top-down approach is often counterproductive.
- But even as they achieve successes with various initiatives, monoculture agribusiness, illegal mining and land grabbing continue to threaten their livelihoods.
NOVO PARAÍSO, Brazil — Under the scorching sun and blue sky, the freshly weeded cassava fields offer no shade to hide in this piece of the Amazon Rainforest. It’s winter, time for planting. As the days go by, most in excess of 30° Celsius (86° Fahrenheit), heavy rains to come will make the seeds sprout.
The cassava crops through which Maria Loreta Pascoal now walks are the livelihood of the Indigenous community of Novo Paraíso, where she has been the tuxaua, or chief, since being elected in late 2022. “All of us in the community are farmers,” Pascoal tells Mongabay. “This is how we cultivate our subsistence.”
Life in Novo Paraíso, located in the Manoá-Pium Indigenous Territory in the Brazilian state of Roraima, relies heavily on the production and trade of cassava flour. Some nine months from today, the cassava plants that now barely scrape the tuxaua’s heels will be ready for harvesting and handling.
Demarcated and homologated, or officially recognized by presidential decree, in 1982, Manoá-Pium covers an area of less than 44,000 hectares (109,000 acres). It’s home to seven communities with a combined population of more than 3,900 people, all of whom depend on family farming.
On the hour-long drive from Boa Vista, capital of Roraima, to Novo Paraíso, changes in the landscape are striking. Most of the preserved areas along the road are covered by the lavrado, a savanna-like vegetation. Pascoal’s community, however, is an exception: It’s coated in tall, thick, dark-green trees — what you’d imagine on hearing the word “rainforest.”
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However, the most distinct variations are perceptible when crossing monocultures. Besides the visible contrast between the homogenous farms and the vibrant forest, differences in the temperature and air quality are palpable: The air is dry and the heat feels arid on the skin when driving alongside the monocultures.
Like other Indigenous lands in Roraima, Manoá-Piuam was demarcated in what’s known in the state as an island format. Rather than being composed of a large, contiguous swath of territory, these lands are small and encompass only a few communities, separated from one another and surrounded by monoculture plantations.
A couple of decades ago, acacia plantations were the region’s leading cause of land conflicts, silting up rivers and streams and contaminating the air and the land with pesticides. Today, most of the monocultures in the Serra da Lua region, where the Manoá-Pium Indigenous Territory is located, are either soy or corn.
“The savanna-like vegetation that covers most of the region favors the cultivation of grains,” Lúcio Keury Galdino, a geography professor at the Federal University of Roraima and author of three books on the geohistory of the state, tells Mongabay. “The expansion of agricultural borders brings incalculable negative impacts to the Indigenous communities in the region.”
Residents struggle with these impacts in the Tabalascada Indigenous Territory, 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Novo Paraíso but also in the Serra da Lua region.
“We see the planes spraying pesticides over there, on the other side,” Andreia Machado, president of the local farmers’ association, tells Mongabay. “We can smell it. It’s in the air we breathe. It gives you headaches and nausea, even though you’re not sick. Sometimes, I’m here eating, and there’s a plane flying over our heads.”
At first, all Machado could see was that the “neighbors” were deforesting a large area. “I believe no one in the community knew what exactly was happening there at the time, but when we got a better look, we saw they had already started planting soy and corn,” she says. Now, she says, she’s worried about future impacts. “We don’t know what they are using, but we know the wind and the rain will bring all of it into our lands and will affect us.”
Monocultures, however, aren’t the only issue afflicting island-demarcated territories. Contrary to the notion popular among right-wing factions in Brazil that “there is too much land for too few indians,” the population growth in these Indigenous communities in the past decades has made both farming and protected lands a scarce resource.
“Around 2005, when our territory was demarcated, we only had a few families, so the land was enough to provide for all of our needs,” Aldenísio Pereira da Silva, a teacher of Indigenous education at Tabalascada, tells Mongabay.
Communities like Tabalascada and Novo Paraíso have been fighting to expand their territories, aiming for the constitutional right to the land and natural resources necessary for both their physical and cultural survival.
Conceiving the future
But the Indigenous communities of Roraima have no time to lose. For these peoples, who have suffered centuries of oppression, the search for sustainable solutions has always been a matter of survival.
“We need to preserve our forests because they are important for our Indigenous culture,” Pascoal says. As she sips her coffee outside the house, the loud roar of groups of guariba monkeys swinging atop nearby trees fills the air.
Since becoming the tuxaua of Novo Paraíso, she’s taken on the job of warning the community about the risks of deforesting new areas for farming. “We have more than enough capoeiras [areas that have already been cleared for planting], which we can reuse for cultivation. By employing them alternately, we will have great harvests that don’t need any chemical additives for decades to come,” she says while pointing to the heaps of decomposing corn, cassava and other organic matter that will enrich the soil.
Demarcated Indigenous territories are the least deforested areas in the Brazilian Amazon. According to a study published in Nature Sustainability, these protected territories accounted for only 5% of net forest loss between 2000 and 2021, even though they contain more than half of the region’s forest.
In Roraima, the Brazilian state with the highest percentage of Indigenous people in its population, 46% of the area lies within demarcated Indigenous lands. Protecting and managing these territories is an ongoing effort, for which the Indigenous communities of the state developed the Territorial and Environmental Management Plans (PGTAs).
Conceived by the Indigenous Council of Roraima (CIR) in the early 2000s, when significant Indigenous lands like Raposa Serra do Sol were demarcated after decades of conflict, PGTAs were born from communities’ needs to create strategies to manage the natural resources of the newly secured territories.
“For us, Indigenous people, a PGTA works as a life plan,” Genisvan da Silva, an Indigenous Macuxi and geographic information systems expert at CIR, tells Mongabay. “It is devised to last 20, 30, 50 years. That is how we conceive our future, and that of our territories.”
Before any PGTA is created, Silva says, the community diagnoses its demands and potentials through a collective ethno-mapping process. “Together, the residents will define sacred, productive and preservation areas within the territory,” Silva says. “Each community then elects its main economic activity for the years ahead.”
In Novo Paraíso, the activity elected was cassava flour production. Once roasted and bagged, the flour produced in the community is sold in nearby communities and markets in Boa Vista, where it fetches 8 reais ($1.60) a liter, or about 77 U.S. cents a pint.
“For us, the PGTA is like a mother who will provide support for the other projects in the community,” Pascoal says. “As of today, we have cattle, fish farming and medicinal garden projects that are at a standstill. It is the income from selling cassava flour that will allow us to resume all of them.”
While for Novo Paraíso this is still a mid-to-long-term goal, the community of Tabalascada has already reached another level of circularity. Nearly all that is produced by the residents, from crops to poultry and fish, is traded and consumed within the community. Last year, the residents even created a WhatsApp group to sell and buy goods.
A history of resilience and adaptability
Despite achieving success in some initiatives, Indigenous people in Roraima face several challenges. The circular trade in Tabalascada, for instance, may be threatened in the near future. As the population grows, there’s a fear that there will be no room to expand production according to Indigenous traditional ways.
Roraima’s Indigenous peoples also suffer from land grabbing and from a model of territorial domination and exploitation that has prevailed in the region since the 18th century, according to Galdino. “Roraima has always been a coveted territory. It was coveted in the past, and it is coveted in the present,” he says.
Illegal mining has become a more urgent threat in recent decades. Present in the state at least since the 1980s, when it was denounced by the Indigenous leader Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, illegal mining has grown exponentially. In 2022 alone, the last year of Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency, illegal mining in the Yanomami Indigenous territory grew by 54%.
Machado says she can recall when the first signs of contamination started to appear in the community of Tabalascada, long before the first studies came to light. “In the past, the fish we caught early in the morning were still good by noon. Now, between catching the fish and bringing them home, they already start to rot,” she says.
Fish, alongside cassava flour, is a staple of the local diet. The community needed an alternative.
Since 2017, Machado and her husband, Deodato Leocadio da Silva Filho, along with five other members of the farmers’ association, have been cultivating fish in a pond behind the couple’s house. “The pond, which was actually excavated by my father in 2009, sits in an area where there is a small headspring,” Silva tells Mongabay.
He says it’s been a years-long learning process to get the fish farming to where it is today. “The first time we tried to raise fish, we put more than 2,000 fry in the pond, and almost all of them died from lack of space,” Silva says.
Today, not only is fish farming an answer to the problem of how to eat healthy fish, it’s also become a source of income for the family.
Profits, however, have never been the main goal of this endeavor. “Our focus is on feeding our family and the community,” Silva says. On the table where breakfast is served, an insulated box preserves the fish caught the afternoon before. In a few minutes, Tabalascada’s tuxaua will arrive to collect them — a contribution for the community’s mothers’ day lunch.
As Silva prepares coffee in the dark kitchen, illuminated by a single feeble lamp, the heavy rain outside darkens the morning sky. It’s almost loud enough to drown out the sounds of the family’s dogs, hens and pigs. He and Machado say they remember when the pond lay empty, a time when the family was most in need of food.
Because of that, they often give out the fish for free. “We know the people in our community, and we know their financial situation,” Silva says. “Many of those who come for the fish can’t really afford to pay for it.”
Galdino says such a display of solidarity is characteristic of the Indigenous economy in communities across Roraima. “What happens in Tabalascada also happens elsewhere in the state. There is a sense that can be well described by the African word Ubuntu: I am because you are,” he says. “This solidarity chain, which pervades their family and collective farming, as well as the barter that still exists in some communities, is what differentiates the Indigenous economy from that experienced by our capitalist society.”
Yet, the two economic systems don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
A study by World Resources Institute (WRI) Brazil found that adopting bioeconomic models that replicate productive arrangements already existing within Indigenous communities could be highly profitable for the Amazon. By 2050, these models could increase the region’s GDP by 40 billion reais ($8 billion) and create 312,000 new jobs.
Adopting so many changes, however, will require heavy investment. According to the WRI study, Brazil would have to invest the equivalent of 1.8% percent of its annual GDP, which by 2050 would amount to 2.56 trillion reais ($517 billion).
Communities need support — but of the right kind
Subsidizing the sustainable development of the Amazon and its peoples was one of then-president-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s promises when addressing the international community at the COP27 climate summit in Egypt in November 2022. “Brazil is back,” Lula said at the event, less than two months before taking office. By then, he had already pledged to tackle the climate crisis as the central policy of his agenda, alongside Indigenous issues.
Since becoming president, his third term, Lula has created a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, appointed an Indigenous woman to head Funai, the federal agency for Indigenous affairs, reinstituted the National Policy for Territorial and Environmental Management of Indigenous Lands, and resumed the demarcation of Indigenous territories, which Bolsonaro had outright refused to do. More recently, Lula has met with presidents of the other Amazonian countries in an effort to forge unified policies for the development of a sustainable and socially responsible economy in the region.
But Lula faces challenges in negotiating with the conservative-led Congress. Lawmakers have weakened both the ministries of environment and of Indigenous peoples, and advanced a bill aimed at restricting the legal recognition of Indigenous territories throughout the country.
For Enock Taurepang, vice coordinator of the Indigenous Council of Roraima, the Indigenous movement’s newly occupied political spaces are certainly a significant achievement. Yet the lack of political outreach to the communities and accommodation of their demands remains an obstacle to be overcome.
“The people who are actually creating change inside our territories are not people you will find at large summits. You will find them farming their lands or making their craftwork under the shade of a tree,” Enock tells Mongabay.
“In order to empower them, we must strengthen the initiatives that already exist in our territories rather than bring something completely new that will impose changes to our traditional ways of life. Our communities don’t need crumbs, what they need are real opportunities,” he says.
As intuitive as that might sound, however, past experience has shown that this is far from the reality of how public agencies have behaved.
In the Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous Territory, a seedbank created in 2019 to protect traditional seeds from extinction experienced it firsthand. For the past three and a half years, residents of the territory’s Willimon community have been collecting and multiplying the variants of seeds used by generations before them.
The seedbank isn’t a single physical space, as the kind of sterile, clearly compartmentalized vault that the word typically conjures. In Willimon, the bank is alive: In every home, dozens of plastic bottles are filled to the top with beans, corn and other grains. Inside them, ashes help keep pests away. When planting season arrives, the community helps each farmer prepare land, exchange seed variants, and joke about who’s the best grower.
About a year ago, the community was approached by the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), which falls under the Ministry of Agriculture, with a project aimed at supporting the seedbank.
But Embrapa never went through the official consultation processes, says Amarildo Mota, the former coordinator of the seedbank. It ended up offering alien seeds to the community — much like the invasive grains that endangered the traditional ones in the first place.
“The day they arrived with the project, we denied their entrance,” Mota tells Mongabay. “How does one try to strengthen a traditional seedbank by inserting foreign seeds? If we accepted, we would be killing our own efforts.”
Only then did Embrapa sit with the community and listen to what they needed to keep the seedbank alive. “Now, instead of the alien seeds, Embrapa has offered to build the hut that will house the seedbank and to hire two Indigenous agronomy technicians to help run it,” Mota says.
“When we defend our territories and resources, we are preserving the planet as a whole,” says Taurepang from the Indigenous council. “This fight is not only our fight, of the Indigenous people, it is society’s as a whole. It is a fight of all people who respect nature and understand its fundamental role in life.”
What the past eight months have shown is that, even with a favorable government, winning this fight won’t be easy. For Indigenous teacher Aldenísio Silva, however, Brazil now has a unique chance to get a head start. “Now that we have managed to put our Indigenous representatives inside the government, the next four years will be key to consolidating our rights,” he says.
For tuxaua Maria Loreta Pascoal, that means investments in independence and self-sufficiency. “In the long run,” she says, “we hope that all the projects in our community can stand on their own two feet.”