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RIGHTS-BRAZIL: Pantanal Indians Threatened by Deforestation

Mario Osava* - Tierramérica

CAMPO GRANDE, Brazil, Feb 9 2008 (IPS) - The indigenous peoples of the central-western Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul do not look like the tribes portrayed in film, decked out in colourful clothing and adornments and depending on their natural surroundings to survive in the Amazon jungle. But some of their problems are similar to their Amazonian counterparts, and in some cases even more serious.

Land cleared for soybeans in Pantanal. Credit: Alcides Faria/Ecologia e Ação

Land cleared for soybeans in Pantanal. Credit: Alcides Faria/Ecologia e Ação

The problems that stand out are the lack of land to grow crops and the destruction of the environment.

The few communities lucky enough to have forest land face the threat of losing it. That is the case of those who live in the Mato Grosso Pantanal, a vast wetland ecosystem whose preservation is among Brazil’s foremost environmental concerns, although the Amazon jungle tends to draw most of the attention.

Forests in the settlement area of the Kadiweu are logged to feed the growing demand of the steel mill in Corumbá, in the heart of the Pantanal, said Alessandro Menezes, head of Ecology and Action, a local non-governmental organisation, in an interview with Tierramérica.

The MMX company, which since 2007 has been producing steel or pig iron in Corumbá, has already faced a ban for using illegal plant-based charcoal, but continues to operate under a temporary judicial order.

The environmental authorities have twice seized the charcoal coming from the native forests that is destined for the steel mill.

Before building the plant, MMX had signed an agreement with the Attorney General&#39s Office and the state government to acquire coal only from reforested areas, not virgin forests. For violating the agreement several times, the company was fined one million reais (560,000 dollars).

The needs of the Corumbá iron and steel complex, made up of four large companies, far outstrip the available plant-based charcoal that can be produced by nearby plantation forestry initiatives, says Sonia Hess, professor at the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul.

As a result, nearly 3,500 tons of native trees are turned into charcoal each day.

Furthermore, the environmental authorities state that native Mato Grosso forests also supply the steel mills in neighbouring Minas Gerais state. This industrial sector is known for having devastated extensive tracts of forest in that southern state and repeating the damage in the eastern Amazon, related to the exploitation of immense reserves of iron ore in Sierra de Carajás, in the northern state of Pará.

The charcoal producers are taking advantage of the fact that part of the Kadiweu territory "is in litigation, still occupied by large landowners," despite recognition that it is indigenous land, said Menezes. Also under threat are areas of another native community of the Pantanal, the Terena people, he added.

In Taunay, one of the Terena areas, deforestation has accelerated recently because of the possibility of the future delineation and handover of land to indigenous communities, said Lisio Lili, a Terena Indian and former local leader of the National Indigenous Foundation. Charcoal and cattle are the interests driving the destruction of the forests, he said.

"We are drawing up a map of the indigenous communities of the Pantanal" in order to record their history and paint a picture of their current conditions, and to get a clear picture of threats like deforestation and the advances of monoculture farming, as well as to study possibilities for future productive and educational projects, Lili told Tierramérica.

The environmentalists "are our allies," he stressed.

The defence of the Pantanal is among the priorities of the leftist administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. This wetland area, which extends into Bolivia and Paraguay, holds vast biological diversity and is an eco-tourism destination.

In the 1980s, a number of international campaigns were carried out to protect its wildlife, especially the "jacaré" (Caiman yacare), a species of alligator that has been overexploited to harvest its skin for export.

The Pantanal wildlife is also threatened by a channel to connect the Paraguay and Paraná rivers, and by the expansion of crops like soybeans and sugarcane, notes Menezes.

Expanding the channel – increasingly important for exporting steel and farm products through Paraguay and the River Plate – requires megaprojects that would alter the flows of the watershed and throw the Pantanal ecosystem into chaos, environmentalists fear.

In other parts of Mato Grosso do Sul, which is home to Brazil&#39s second largest indigenous population after Amazonas state, the problems are different. The Guaraní, who represent 60 percent of the nearly 65,000 Indians in the state, are fighting desperately to expand their formal land titles, even if the areas are completely deforested.

Unlike the Kadiweu, whose nearly 2,000 members have a reserve of 538,536 hectares, the Guaraní – especially the Kaiwoá branch, the most numerous in Mato Grosso do Sul – live in "confinement", according to anthropologists.

In Dourados, a district rich in agriculture, more than 12,000 indigenous peoples live on just 3,500 hectares of land, with no forest cover – a complex situation for a community with nomadic forest traditions.

Because the land is insufficient to sustain them, many work for wages, mostly as sugarcane cutters. The desperation is seen as one of the reasons underlying the high murder and suicide rates among the Kaiwoá.

(*Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent. Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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