Water people, waterless people
What does Dona Neuza have in common with Dona Edil, Daniel, Cleide, and thousands of other people who live in the Pantanal region in Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul states, and in contiguous parts of Bolivia and Paraguay?
All of them share life, dreams, and challenges in an ecosystem of rare beauty and great vulnerability. All of them led a relatively sedate life, eking out their subsistence from the lush and generous nature until drastic changes in land occupation took place in the second half of the 20th and early 21st centuries. These changes began to rapidly affect this equilibrium.
Pantanal land prices increased and provoked the greed of farmers. Mining companies occupied large areas, transforming green hills into huge piles of extracted minerals to be shipped to ports on railway freight cars or river barges. Tourism also discovered this region and many of its initiatives proved to be predatory, and highly damaging to the local population and ecosystem.
Invisible communities, guardians of our heritage
“I got to know the Pantanal as a researcher. Up to a certain point, I only saw data, the research numbers; but then I began to see the social and political dynamics of this vulnerable ecosystem. I met the invisible inhabitants who endured all kinds of pressure, living in poverty and without perspectives. And then I realized these people were looking after resources in priority areas; they were indeed responsible for that region’s incalculable cultural, historical, and natural heritage.”
André Siqueira, Executive Director of Ecology and Action (ECOA), has been a partner of the CASA Fund since its inception. He talks about his involvement with the socioenvironmental cause and the importance of ECOA’s contribution to create a Fund that directly supported local populations – a key instrument to protect this large region.
A true partnership, concrete and inspiring
“The history of the partnership between the CASA Fund and associations representing Pantanal traditional communities is real, concrete, and inspiring. CASA Fund-supported actions in the Pantanal have changed the socioenvironmental and economic realities of some of the country’s most vulnerable groups. The joint work was initiated in 2000, with ECOA-supported networking in the territory. This nongovernment organization has worked for over 20 years in the region, where vulnerable and invisible groups obtained for the first time access to funds that helped to strengthen their collective – a kind of work that other funders found it difficult to support.”
Dona Neusa, of the Miranda Artisan Fishers Association, summarizes in a few words the drama of fishers and extractivists who live in dozens of communities along riverbanks.
“Here we struggle on all fronts, darling! We catch the fish, we fish for the bait, we plant, we make preserves, we welcome tourists… The women are in charge of the hardest tasks. They leave home very early and work all day in waist-high water. These are older women, mostly 45, 50, and 60 years old. It’s very hard to manage everything because when we get back home after 10 hours in the water all the household chores are waiting for us: clean up, put the house in order, look after the laundry, do the cooking. We realize that we have nothing else left but our will power.
“But we look back and see that the situation has improved, and improved a lot! We have had many victories. And this happened because we got support from the CASA Fund since the beginning, since the time there was no Association. With this support, we managed to get our first impermeable overalls to work in the water. This protected people from diseases, and snake bites. The Fund also supported our work to improve the management of live baits. Before this, the baits used to die in large numbers. Later, we got funds for processing fruits, especially bocaiúva (Acrocomia aculeata) that grows in this region. And with this funding we managed, through the Association, to link up with other groups, to get to know other associations from the region, meet other partners, and get other support. Of course, there is still a lot to do, and we still need a lot of help. But for sure, we’ve already won.”
No water and no air to breath
Alongside populations that live off the rivers, the nearby Antônio Maria Coelho community faces another reality: an absolute lack of water, destruction of forests, expulsion from the land, and disease-bearing pollutants.
“I was born here in Antônio Maria Coelho, a beautiful place, at the foot of the mountain, with lots of streams, and many native fruits. My family moved to the city, but I returned when I was 17. Life in the city was very hard. That’s why my husband and I came back. In the family farm, we had everything nature offers. We grew our food and picked the fruits. We managed to live well. We used to have fruits everywhere. Then, everything began to change… It changed radically; we went from paradise to hell.
“In the view of powerful people, this was a place for the sole exploitation of large companies, the mining corporations that extract iron. Vale and five other companies built ports, large plants, and railways to transport the mineral. They didn’t want other people living here, no fruits, no medicinal plants…It was to be only the iron. Everything began to be destroyed; the place was completely transformed…”
Edil, as Edeltrudes Correa de Oliveira is known, is the president of the Antônio Maria Coelho Residents Association. She talks about the community’s astonishment and indignation at the changes. We felt like reacting, but at the same time we had no confidence we could really change anything. We were invisible people, without a voice.
“The community became stronger, started to be noticed and heard!”
“The authorities didn’t want to listen to us…it was very hard. But, if we didn’t look for ways of surviving, what would happen to us? Today we have no water. The streams all dried up because of the wells drilled by the companies to get water to wash the mineral, while we went without drinking water! We have to rely on water trucks. This is tragic. People have to know this can happen. In addition, there is disease and death caused by pollution.”
Feeling indignant and confronted by this dilemma, the community got together in search of ways out.
“Then we decided to get down to it. With the help of ECOA and the CASA Fund, we managed to formalize the Association – although we didn’t understand much about bureaucratic procedures. Without this initial help that we needed so much at the very beginning, we wouldn’t have gotten what we have today.”
With the Association, the community was strengthened, began to exist, to be listened to! They started to be invited to public hearings, gatherings, and meetings; other partners came by, other projects were proposed that directly or indirectly benefited the whole community.
“Today we have the community kitchen equipped with CASA Fund support. With help from other partners, we are chasing our dreams of improving our lives. Women used to have no perspective, now we are generating income with the bocaiúva palm tree that only grows in this region. From the bocaiúva nuts we get flour, pulp, sweets, and oil. Men joined our struggle and are important companions. Some battles we have won, such as getting the SEBRAE seal for our products. In other struggles, we are making headway to victory, as in the fight for access to water.”
Empowerment is the only path to real and lasting change
More than supporting a specific project, the CASA Fund strategy is to combine resources to achieve broader results, influencing governments, and other partners and funders working in the region. The only road to actual and lasting change is to empower communities and strengthen local organizations to resist threats and defend their right to a decent life.
Women live bait collectors, Indigenous women, artisan women, the frontier teachers’ collective, solar panels, radio communicators, production of informational materials, capacity building workshops, associations, and registration at the notary public – the CASA Fund directly supported around 80 projects on the Brazilian Pantanal border in the 2000-2015 period (the support began even before the Association was legalized). This created a large network of communities linked around their ideals and needs. As the CASA Fund is focused on large ecosystems, we have supported another 50 projects in neighboring countries – Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina – that form the large Paraguay-Paraná Basin.
In addition to protecting South American humid systems, this strategy of uniting forces has been able to challenge large projects with highly destructive potential, such as the Paraguay-Paraná Waterway. Since 1994, the resistance put up by this broad alliance has helped in protecting this marvelous region. This network operates in an organic way, mobilizing energies, skills, other resources, supporters, and knowledge to solve problems and to develop solutions.
|Text by: Angela Pappiani – Journalist, cultural producer at Ikore and CASA’s advisor since its foundation.
English translation by Jones de Freitas.