All shades of green
“I was born and raised here in Buriti. My father also lived here in the same conditions. I don’t feel like leaving. I love this place. I feel happy living here, seeing the number of fruits in the Cerrado, the hunting, the water… I have a fairly good area of preserved Cerrado. I’ve got some bacury trees… good fruit! Everything from this tree is useful. The seed has rich oil; we make soap with it. The wood is very good – “cool” wood that helps to keep water in the ground. If I turn my back, people will come and destroy everything. If I move out, all this will be finished. They will cut the forest down, the soil will be left without protection, headwaters and rivers will dry up.”
These are the words of Vicente de Paula who lives in the city of Buriti, in the Lower Parnaíba region of Maranhão state. They express the feelings of thousands of other men and women, who were born, and lived for decades off family farming and extractivism, in the vast, diverse, and rich region between southern Pará state, northern Tocantins and Maranhão states. It is a place of many shades of green, where the Amazon Forest meets the Cerrado, meets the palm trees, and then becomes Caatinga.
Beginning of the end
Vicente de Paula and people living in hundreds of communities could not even imagine that right near them, under the forest, lay the world’s largest high iron content ore reserves. In addition, there is gold, tin, bauxite (aluminum), manganese, nickel, copper, and other rare minerals. This “discovery” would mobilize the federal government and many other partners to implement the Grande Carajás Program, thus called in homage to the Serra dos Carajás, where it was first implemented in the 1980s.
Since then, the diversity of biomes, the many shades of green that were the natural richness of this vast region have been transformed and replaced by brownish mineral soot, and the dull landscape of pastures and large soybean and eucalyptus farms.
What has value – for Vicente de Paula, for the ten Indigenous peoples who still live in the region, for the babassu nut women pickers, riverside dwellers, Quilombolas, extractivists, people who have been forgotten by public authorities, but face life with courage – is the land, plants, animals, clean water, and the tranquil life they used to have.
In a short period, this reality has completely changed. Consolidation of this ambitious project required building heavy infrastructure that included the Tucuruí hydroelectric power plant and the Carajás railway, which covers almost 1,000 km up to the Ponta de Madeira port, in São Luis. These projects destroyed hundreds of hectares of the Amazon Forest and Cerrado. Then, the construction of metalworking industries took place, industrial areas to produce pig iron, in addition to complementary programs that brought in agribusiness with cattle, soybean, and eucalyptus to replace the old natural landscape.
Illusion of progress
At first people were excited with all the publicity: progress was arriving, thousands of jobs would be created, and communities’ life would finally improve. But pretty soon the promises proved to be mere illusion. Entire communities were displaced, causing social destructuring, swollen cities, violence, accidents along the railway, and slave-like work in charcoal kilns. The timber industry and charcoal production deforested huge areas. Charcoal is an indispensable element used to transform ore into pig iron – the raw material to make steel. Some of the consequences brought about by the implementation of this large project are damages to the water table, river and air pollution, and desertification.
Alike Vicente de Paula, hundreds of families were threatened, persecuted, suffered violence and reprisals. Many lost their traditional way of life. Nothing got better for them, just the contratry.
However, some people resist; they insist on staying in their territories, struggling for improvements in the affected areas, fighting for their rights.
Hope that transforms
“With the Carajás Forum’s help and the project supported by the CASA Fund, I managed to remain here, on my land,” said Vicente de Paula. “I could resist a lot of pressure to sell out. The funding arrived just in time. I was desperate, in a difficult situation, almost leaving… Many friends and neighbors could not resist the pressure and sold out. The money they received didn’t go very far. It was just an illusion. They were left without land, without a place to live, without means to work. Money doesn’t solve the problem. The project gave us a new boost. We reforested with bacury trees. The seedlings grow strong; it’s easy to replant them. In no time we’ll have a lot of fruits and animals. The river is now protected and will have more headwaters.”
Created in the mid-1990s to take into account the local complexity, the Carajás Forum is today an important CASA Fund’s partner, indicating communities and projects in need of support and with potential impact on the local reality.
From being supported to become an Advisory Board member
The CASA Fund supported the Carajás Forum before partnering with it. In that period, they mostly needed support to get organized. The CASA Fund helped keep the network alive and active, which enabled them to accompany the implementation of large developmentist programs and their impacts on the region, such as the installed infrastructure and the advance of monoculture. The Fund also helped the Carajás Forum to gather information in impacted local communities, to disseminate it, and to seek the empowerment of those communities.
In 2005, Maranhão state became a priority for funding from the CASA Fund’s specific program for regions affected by the soybean advance. Funds for this program came from a pool of Dutch foundations (Doen, Cordaid, and Solidaridad), Blue Moon Fund, and the Global Greengrants Fund. In Maranhão, the focus was on the Lower Parnaíba where agricultural expansion, with soybean and eucalyptus (which is used as fuel in the metalworking industries’ blast furnaces), as well as the introduction of the sugarcane crops, threaten what is left of the palm trees, and the Cerrado and Caatinga areas.
Unity to seek for solutions
Mayron Regis, from São Luis, Maranhão state, is a journalist. Since 2001, he has been a member of the Carajás Forum, maintaining close ties with communities in the region. He talked to us about his trajectory and work:
“Several issues led me to this pathway, such as a political perspective that implied raising questions, a concern about how to influence the reality in Maranhão (where wealth sharply contrasts with extreme poverty) and about how to improve living conditions in the communities. To achieve this, it was important to publicize these realities, write articles, promote political networking, and develop specific projects.
“Thus, the partnership with the CASA Fund began, with the Carajás Forum indicating projects in the region based on the relations established with groups, individuals, and communities, and knowing the local context and reality. There were also urgent problems to tackle – such as deforestation, loss of natural heritage, threats against family farming, and intimidation against people who had chosen to remain in the countryside – always seeking to achieve economic feasibility for the families.
Ten years of partnership
“The CASA Fund has been key in these ten years of partnership, supporting over 20 projects in the area through the Carajás Forum. Without this fundamental support our work wouldn’t have advanced this far, it would be lame.”
Projects approved for this region include actions against deforestation in Indigenous areas, workshops, gatherings, capacity building of communities in agroforestry, reforestation, economic processing of Cerrado fruits, a fight against slave work, as well as actions against mining that has ripped the heart out of this land.
All of this so all shades of green may return to this beautiful landscape.
|Text by: Angela Pappiani – Journalist, cultural producer at Ikore and CASA’s advisor since its foundation.
English translation by Jones de Freitas.