XINGU RESEX, Brazil – On a blazing recent Amazonian afternoon, with the peak of the day’s heat beating down, Lindolfo Silva de Oliveira Filho, 68 – known as “Senhor Lindolfo” – unloaded a burlap sack full of Brazil nuts onto a scale. He took note of the weight, and then shifted the sack to one side. Lindolfo is a cantineiro, a manager of his community’s trading post at Baliza, located on a massive tract of land in Para state, in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.
Here, a network of tight-knit families of rubber-tappers live scattered along the banks of the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon and the lifeblood to thousands of indigenous and forest-dwelling communities.
This land falls within the Xingu Extractive Reserve. A federally-protected 303,000 hectare ecological reserve, the so-called “Xingu Resex” was created in 2008 to provide a means for ribeirinhos (river people) who have lived off its natural wealth for generations to sustainably continue their way of life. Mining and logging is prohibited, as is professional hunting. A resex is essentially a national park, but with people living in it – a radical concept to many conservationists at the time of its inception. It wasn’t until ribeirinhos were recognized as “traditional people” (communities whose survival and history is intimately tied to their environment) that they were granted rights to their land.
Reserves such as the one in which Lindolfo lives now cover 3.4 million hectares of land in Brazil, almost all of it in the Amazon. It is an immense area larger than the state of Maryland. Some experts argue that Brazil’s protected areas offer an alternative approach to the current trend of, as well as a crucial buffer against, continued wildcat deforestation, mining and land theft eating up the Amazonian rainforest. (There are currently 53 resex tracts of land across the country).
Deforestation has spiked in Brazil (up 29 percent this last year according to Brazil’s National Space Research Institute [INPE]) and a number of massive development projects, such as the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, completed in 2015, have caused wide-ranging social and environmental damage. Impacts include severely depleted fish stocks and a sharp spike in alcoholism, malnutrition and illness among indigenous communities in its “impact zone.”
Innovations such as extractive reserves like Xingu Resex are a step in the right direction, says Augusto Postigo. Postigo, 43, is an anthropologist at the Brazil-based nonprofit Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA). The Institute has a regional office in the nearby Amazonian boomtown of Altamira, where Postigo has been working with communities over the last five years. He knows the ribeirinhos well. He regularly spends weeks at a time in the field, going house-to-house by boat to keep up to date with them.
A typical ribeirnho house constructed from mud, sticks and dried palm fronds, known as “pao a pique.” Photo by Maximo Anderson for Mongabay
Postigo explains that the project of helping the extractive reserves in the Xingu region to sell their forest products is about elevating the community’s standard of living. But it is also about encouraging their political organization as a group with a rich history in the region.
“Ribeirinhos were [traditionally] totally forgotten and not even recognized by the state,” Postigo said in an interview. “They would seldom come to the city because they didn’t have transport, they didn’t have schools. The state didn’t go there and they didn’t go [to the city].”
Then between 2000-2004, Postigo explains that there were massive incursions from loggers and miners, and as a result, many ribeirinhos were bought out or expelled from their lands since there was little safety, nor any alternatives for them to continue their way of life. But since the reserve was formed, they can stay on their land and the idea of the ribeirinho has acquired a new meaning. The term is now a marker of dignity, not a pejorative word, as it used to be. It is now used with pride.
A turbulent history
Until the Resex reserves were created, violence, or the threat of violence, was a big part of daily life.
“Today we can sleep at ease,” Daniel Costa do Nascimento, a fervent young ribeirinho of twenty-six, said. “Before, we weren’t sure if we’d wake up the next day.” Nascimento has started a turtle sanctuary in a personal effort to help conserve the population.
Before the Resex was created in 2008, he explained, his family had been threatened multiple times by gunmen who wanted to steal their land. “They would arrive at your doorstep and say: ‘I want to buy your land.’ If you said, ‘No I don’t want to sell,’ they would say, ‘OK then your widow will sell it to us.’ We were really scared.”
The history of environmentalism and land tenure in Brazil has long been a brutal one. Extractive reserves were borne out of a political struggle during the 1980s led by the charismatic unionist and rubber tapper, Chico Mendez. It eventually cost him his life when he was assassinated by ranchers who disputed his claims to land in 1988.
The first Resex created in the state of Para also came about because of an act of violence, due to public pressure following the 2005 assassination of the American nun and activist, Dorothy Stang, who had campaigned for years on behalf of local people’s land rights and against illegal logging. This legacy continues to haunt this region.
On October 13, 2016, the environmental secretary of Altamira, Luiz Alberto Araujo, 54 – an official who had become known for holding illegal timber operations to account – was shot dead in front of his family by two men riding a motorbike. There is an ongoing investigation into his murder.
Despite the dangers and challenges, many continue to push forward.
Senhor Lindolfo’s community is the newest of the three reserves in the Para region, and it is still finding its feet. But its ribeirinhos have already overcome a major hurdle: they now have a legal title to land they have lived off for generations, and possess a newfound respect for their own identity as “river people.” In defiance of the Brazilian Amazon’s gloomy trends, the forest in Xingu Resex remains intact, and its inhabitants are at ease now that their land is protected.
“The Resex is a blessing,” said Danielson Maranao Vineo 79, who worked as a rubber tapper there for 30 years. “We can stay here as long as we want. We have the rights to plant a crop year-round; we have a right to the riverside. What more could we ask for?”