Life on the Amazon Frontier: The Fight for the Riozinho do Anfrizio

A group of Amazonian "forest peasants" work to preserve their way of life against outsiders' vision of progress.

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Brazil, like most of the world, spent the last half century bringing “development” to rural parts of the country, which meant facing a stark question: Do certain peoples’ livelihoods, and even lives, come as the price of progress? In the Amazon, the life of Herculano Camilo de Oliveira Filho Jr., or “Loro” (Blondie) as he is known, is itself an answer to that question: a resounding “no.”

On a busy Friday afternoon, the equatorial sun beating down with the intensity of the late afternoon, Loro and I sat in the courtyard of the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), the bustle making it too loud to use an inside room. ISA is a Brazilian environmental non-profit with a satellite operation in the little city of Altamira, once a backwater of Pará – an eastern Amazonian state. The office teemed with people using the two-way radio and weighing blocks of natural rubber, lawyers rushing to meetings. Here on a Fulbright research grant, I wanted to ask Loro a simple question: Why he lives in the forest?

Loro was born and raised on an Amazonian creek, surrounded by a vast rainforest, a hundred miles from the closest city and, as he puts it, unrecognized by the state. Now 30 years old, he grew up with no schools, no electricity outside battery powered stereos, and the closest health services days away, paddling a canoe to the health post in indigenous territory. They lived on what they grew, hunted or gathered. For things from the city his father, and before that his grandfather, tapped rubber and collected forest products to trade with passing traders.

Loro still lives on that little creek in the midst of vast forests, and his community still produces forest products. That they would still be living on the Riozinho do Anfrizio today was far from guaranteed. Staying was a fight – a frontier battle, – a story that reflects the stories of many Amazonian communities.

 

Battle for the Riozinho

In 1970, in the midst of drought in Brazil’s arid Northeast and crippling poverty nation-wide, the military dictatorship decided to open up the Amazon to colonization in hopes of relieving political and economic pressure.

With support from international development institutions, the government began building a set of roads to cut into the forest, the largest of which was the Trans-Amazon highway, intended to go from the coast to near the Western border of Brazil and Peru. Along with road building the government started a land reform program. Rural and urban people streamed into the newly opened roads not only to find next-to-no government support, but also that their issued land claims were generally lines on paper with little bearing on the ground. It was a wild frontier.

Of course, too, the land was not empty. The roads cut across indigenous people’s territories, many of whom were uncontacted. Atrocities ensued. Along the parts of rivers and creeks that the indigenous did not occupy, generally there were communities of peoples who had come a generation or two earlier, mostly from Brazil’s Northeast as well, to tap rubber.

Natural rubber was once exclusively collected from dispersed, wild trees in the Amazon. The rubber booms of the early 20th century brought the first major wave of colonists to the Amazon. Loro’s grandparents were among those who came to the Riozinho do Anfrizio to tap rubber.

The Riozinho is a tributary of the Iriri, which is a tributary of the Xingu River – an enormous body of water that flows into the Amazon River. The TransAmazon Highway runs parallel, some fifty miles from the Riozinho, and connects to Altamira, the closest big city. The highway turned Altamira, originally a small Jesuit mission on the Xingu River, into a frontier boomtown.

But the Riozinho, far up river from Altamira and far enough overland from the Transamazon, didn’t face the pressures of the frontier for some time. Unrecognized by the state, life was hard. Loro can remember by name nine children that died while he was growing up. But, he also remembers that time very fondly – namely that from Christmas celebrations to sharing game meat, community was everything.

It was 1999, and Loro was 13, when he remembers first hearing about the outsiders. Up in the headwaters of the Riozinho, someone had opened up a clearing in the forest. Soon, loggers were timbering closer to the river, and many outsiders started traveling up and down the creek, carrying pistols. These outsiders, as Loro puts it, encouraged locals to help them cut timber and steal land, the foreigners giving people merchandise from the city and guns, but rarely the money they promised.

Loro remembered taking a canoe to a creek where they had fished his whole life. There was a large sign reading: “Entry prohibited by all.” He recalled watching his father lower his head in between his knees and weep. One day the family returned to their homestead with some neighbors and an outsider, a pistol in his belt, waiting in their house. That time it was all talk. The attempts to scare Herculano Filho Sr., Loro’s father, off his land did not work. Others took small amounts of money and left, and others still were driven off at gunpoint.

All along the Xingu River at that time land-grabbers were forcing these old rubber-tapping communities off their lands, as stealing indigenous land had become legally difficult by the 1990s. The land-grabbers were burning peoples’ houses, cutting down the forest, selling the most valuable timber –mahogany – and raising cattle. Loggers were opening the way for ranchers to move onto the Riozinho.

At that time, Loro explained, plenty of Brazilians thought his kind of people needed to move to cities or raise cattle to improve their condition, and the fact that they did not meant they were lazy.

But Herculano Filho Sr. believed he had a right to his land, despite the gunmen patrolling the creek. Representatives of the Catholic dioceses, committed to social justice, had already starting working with Filho to organize the community, and they brought with them the support of international environmental NGOs.

Tapping rubber latex. Photo by Gabe

A decade earlier rubber tappers in the far Western sate of Acre had organized with environmentalists to fight for rights to the forest. A fight culminating in the 1989 assassination of leader, Chico Mendes, the National Council of Rubber Tappers created the first Extractive Reserve – a park where non-timber forest product collectors, such as rubber tappers, have tenure to large territories. The struggle articulated the Brazilian rubber tappers’ movement together with the international environmental community.

That was why, in the early 2000s, my father, Steve Schwartzman, director of Tropical Forest Policy for the Environmental Defense Fund, was traveling with the organizer from the dioceses to assist Filho. My father helped secure grant dollars to support the work there, including for what Filho identified as their first most important need: a boat with a motor.

In 2004, the Association of the Riozinho do Anfrizio working with the dioceses and the Instituto Socioambiental, pressured the Brazilian congress to recognize the territory as an Extractive Reserve. The Brazilian military set up a base on the Riozinho and went to work clearing out the loggers and land grabbers, and they established a medical clinic and a school. It was there at the base that Loro learned to read and write.

 

The Future and Loro

These days Loro works for the Association of the Extractive Reserve of the Riozinho do Anfrizio. He is studying to become a schoolteacher in the Reserve, and he is a researcher with a program run by the Instituto Socioambiental, which is still very active in the region. And Loro collects Brazil nuts and copaiba oil (used for cosmetics) to generate other income.

He says that he’s never wanted to move to the city. Like many people I have talked with from the Reserve, he loves living there. He loves the cooler climate of the forest. He loves fishing and collecting forest products and living with family and knowing his neighbors. Importantly, he also pointed out that he didn’t used to know how to survive in a city – to get a job, to pay bills. But now, he says, “These days I know how to make money and live in a city, but the thing is – I don’t want to. And, I need to stay in my community as an example to other young people.”

Today there are schools on the Riozinho. There is a health station with a nurse and a landing strip for small planes. And most of the households now have small engines for their canoes and generators or solar panels to run televisions at night, and communicate using radios. The world changed drastically in the span of a decade.

Of those changes, what seems to make Loro and many others the happiest is the ability to live the lives they want – dignified, with basic health and welfare services – but in the place their families have been for generations.

Furthermore, Loro and many of the community leaders see themselves as integral parts of a forest conservation movement. Echoing other Brazilian environmentalists, Loro says, “We know that where there are riberinhos (forest peasants), like us, and indigenous peoples, there are forests.” This identity as defenders of the forest, Loro says, also brings a certain pride to people in his community, combatting a still popular image that the riberinho is lazy and chooses poverty.

The fight on the Riozinho is far from over. In recent years illegal loggers have returned and continue, each year, to encroach closer to the creek’s edge, facing little police response.

Across Brazil’s eastern Amazon region, from the 1970s to the present, stories like that of the Riozinho do Anfrizio have been common. Whether indigenous communities, or the Trans-Amazon Highway colonists, the stories of “development” and progress have been filled with strife and conflict. At this point, much of the frontier is legally settled. Places have been designated as indigenous territory, or reserves, or sold for cattle and soy farming. The questions that remain are what the future looks like for places like the Riozinho or indigenous territories as surrounding forests are logged and turned to pasture or cropland.

 

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