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Indigenous Rights

Indigenous Community Takes Forest Law into Own Hands

Pukobjê-Gavião community members in the Governador indigenous territory. Credit: Gilderlan Rodrigues – Courtesy of CIMI

RIO DE JANEIRO, Mar 5 2013 (IPS) - An indigenous community in Brazil has decided to single-handedly take action against illegal loggers who are moving into their territory in search of highly valued timber.

Indigenous lands in the Amazon rainforest, rich in precious hardwood species, have become a new target for illegal loggers, who use bribery and threats to ply their illicit trade.

The most recent episode occurred in late January in the Governador indigenous territory, located in the southwest of the state of Maranhão, near the city of Amarante and 900 km from the state capital, São Luís.

In this eastern corner of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, members of a Pukobjê-Gavião indigenous community seized four trucks and a tractor loaded with almost 20 cubic metres of ipê (Tabebuia chrysotricha) and sapucaia (genus Lecythis) logs.

“We got tired of denouncing what was going on and decided to matters into our own hands. We saw the trucks inside the reserve. What was going to happen if we didn’t do anything?” said chief Evandro Gavião from the village of Governador, one of the six Pukobjê-Gavião communities located within the indigenous territory of the same name.

The young community leader, only 24, spoke with IPS by telephone during a meeting with the chiefs of the other villages, where they discussing a plan for the monitoring and protection of the reserve.

Gavião stressed that the community first denounced illegal logging on its lands back in 2009. Located in the transitional area between the Amazon rainforest and the Cerrado tropical savannah biome, these lands are rich in coveted tropical timber species like ipê and sapucaia, aroeira (Schinus terebinthifolius), copaíba (Copaifera sp.) and cerejeira (género Amburana).

“But the trees are running out,” warned Gavião.

According to the Brazilian chapter of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), illegal logging is closely tied to highway construction and migration flows. Road access facilitates ever deeper entry into the rainforest.

Between September and November 2012, Interpol arrested 200 people in 12 Latin American countries in the first international operation against the illegal harvesting and sale of timber. The operation encompassed Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela, and resulted in the seizure of 50,000 cubic metres of wood, with a total value of some eight million dollars.

The inhabitants of the Governador indigenous territory are demanding the presence of the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the Brazilian government environmental agency IBAMA, and the Federal Police to guarantee the safety of the roughly 1,000 people living in the six villages.

“What we did was dangerous, but it was the only way to capture the attention of the responsible agencies,” said Gavião.

Since the seizure of the trucks, illegal logging has not stopped; the perpetrators have simply switched to a different route into the area.

“The feeling is that it could get worse, and that the threats we are suffering will continue. We already know that a price of 30,000 reais (over 15,000 dollars) has been put on the head of the chief of the village of Nova, to have him killed. But the Gavião people will not back down,” he declared.

The indigenous communities attribute the increase in threats and pressures to the redefinition of the borders of the reserve. A new demarcation of the Governador indigenous territory has been underway since 1999, in order to expand the original borders established in 1980.

The traditional land use by local indigenous communities was not respected when the limits of the reserve were first determined, which meant they were forced to leave their territory in order to access the natural resources they need to feed themselves and carry out their ritual practices, explained Rosimeire Diniz of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), a Catholic church organisation.

Parts of the territory traditionally used by the Pukobjê-Gavião were left outside the original demarcation and were occupied by cattle ranchers. For many years, the indigenous people’s relations with the ranchers were “more or less friendly,” but when they requested a revision of the limits of their territory, it sparked an upsurge in conflicts and violence, Diniz told IPS.

The Governador indigenous territory currently encompasses 42,000 hectares, which could expand to 80,000 hectares as a result of the new demarcation. According to Gavião, the current land area is not large enough, because it was “hastily” determined by the military regime in power at the time.

“The places where our ancestors fished and hunted are outside the indigenous land. They did not consult with the indigenous people to find out where they fished, where they hunted, where they planted crops. That’s why we have asked for a revision. We realise it can take a long time, but we have a responsibility to our people. That’s why we are fighting,” he said.

Illegal logging has been happening on indigenous lands since at least the 1980s, but the inhabitants of these lands were formerly unaware of it.

“Now it is much more visible. Using bribery, the loggers transferred the responsibility for these environmental crimes onto the indigenous people. The situation became intolerable, and the natives decided to take action to protect themselves. The logging was so blatant that the trucks were passing right through the villages,” said Diniz.

Fábio Teixeira, a Federal Police agent in Imperatriz, the second largest city in the state of Maranhão and roughly 100 km from Governador, told IPS that, over the years, illegal loggers have been relocating towards this part of the reserve and that there are currently at least seven large sawmills in the area.

“There has always been deforestation, but it used to be an isolated occurrence. However, after a major operation to combat deforestation in other locations, a lot of loggers moved towards Governador,” he said.

He added that a “highly conflictive” situation has developed, pitting the indigenous people against ranchers and loggers, who are banding together.

Teixeira reported that after the incident with the logging trucks, the residents of the small municipality of Amarante, a 20-minute drive from Governador, set up a barricade with fire and stones across the highway to keep the indigenous people from entering town, and security had to be reinforced with 20 federal agents and 30 military police officers.

“I didn’t know that the town was so heavily invested in illegal logging,” Teixeira admitted. “Its economy is based on the timber and livestock industries. Even the municipal authorities are implicated. I can’t give any details about our operations, but we will be stepping up control of the area,” he said.

In Teixera’s view, the action taken by the indigenous people was “an act of desperation” that could have turned into a “bloodbath”. Since then, “we have advised them to record anything they see as illegal activity within the reserve with photographs, since this will serve as evidence for an investigation,” he said.

* This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

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