SÃO PAULO, Brazil – It’s a huge no-man’s land, where the only limits are the boundaries between municipalities and states.
In the Amazon region, the indigenous tribes, who have lived there for centuries, don’t own their lands.
People living close to rivers – the ribeirinhos – and the so-called quilombolas (slaves’ descendants) are seeing their lands exploited because they don’t have official paperwork declaring them property owners.
The lack of documents makes it easy for criminals to commandeer the indigenous’ property, leading to the tribes’ expulsion from their residences and to the exploitation of their natural habitats – in many cases the forest.
But the New Social Cartography of the Amazon program has helped in the fight to keep the indigenous from losing their hallowed grounds.
By using GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers, researchers from universities are putting the indigenous on the map by including their territories on topographical documents.
The drawing of each meter of their properties is the first step for those populations to request documents formally recognizing them as land owners.
“With the map, they have a political resource to be recognized in the municipal, state and federal spheres,” says Federal University of Paraná’s José Carlos Vandresen, a social researcher for the program, which is supported by the National Counsel of Technological and Scientific Development (CNPq).
At least 4.5 million families nationwide, totaling about 25 million people, form the so-called traditional people and communities – indigenous people, quilombolas, rubber tappers, chestnut extractors and babassu-coconut breaker women, among others, according to anthropologist Wagner Berno de Almeida.
With the help of other researchers and representatives from those populations, Berno de Almeida led the Ministry of Social Development to create a National Committee for the Sustainable Development of Traditional Communities in 2004.
Three years later, the federal decree 6,040 issued on Feb. 7, 2007 established the National Policy for the Sustainable Development of Traditional Peoples and Communities. The initiative recognizes the social and cultural organization of those populations and ensures them the right to a home, access to health care and an education, and inclusion in social programs like the Bolsa Família.
Registration via satellite
In 2005, Berno de Almeida coordinated the creation of the New Social Cartography of Amazon programs conducted by researchers from the Federal University of Amazonas (UFAM).
Since then, the initiative has provided advisors for indigenous communities who want their territories officially defined.
When those communities ask for help, the researchers ask local social agents to carry out the mapping process by using GPS devices.
The project owns 80 GPS receivers but also has additional units on loan from universities. Still, some residents involved in creating the map buy their own GPS device and other equipment.
Agents trained by New Social Cartography of the Amazon’s researchers also collect the inhabitants’ testimonies about the community’s history, its defining landmarks and areas that are most problematic.
The interviews enable agents to chart rivers that divide territories, stone paths and even coal-fired ovens found in some stretches of land.
They use this information to produce sketches of the region before traversing the area to record on GPS devices the locations of the landmarks identified by residents.
The data are stored in geographic information software. Next, New Cartography’s researchers receive the GPS points and geo-reference them in the map, inserting drawings and reproductions of symbols indicating places used for celebrations or religious rituals or that may have historical significance.
Information such as the location of the nearest supporting organizations – women’s groups, NGOs, churches and schools – in addition to farming zones, areas allocated for resource exploitation, deforested zones and sites where crimes or death threats were reported also are included on the map.
Each map is complemented by a brochure that includes interviews with natives talking about the land. Since 2005, New Social Cartography of the Amazon representatives have issued more than 120 brochures about indigenous land.
“The maps reveal the social, historic and cultural diversity that makes these communities unique,” Vandresen says.
Maria de Jesus Ferreira Bringelo, a 60-year-old known as Dona Dijé, is a member of the Monte Alegre quilombo, from São Luiz Gonzaga, in the northeastern state of Maranhão. She said her community used to attract university students and researchers interested in studying her culture, but the results were never shared with the local population.
The Federal Government is analyzing data by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics’ (IBGE) 2010 Census to determine the number of inhabitants from traditional communities, Vandresen adds.
While waiting for the official figures, the researchers are trying to create the New Cartography Institute, which will be located at UFAM.
The current program is funded by the Ford Foundation, CNPq, federal and state universities and state-owned research centers. With the institute, the project may receive more resources, allowing for the creation of more maps for more communities.
New Social Cartography of the Amazon’s main goal is enabling those populations to preserve traditional habits and ensure they have access to enough resources so they don’t have to migrate to the large cities.
This is the motto of the babassu-coconut breaker women from the Amazon who support their families by working in the extraction of the nut and using 100% of the fruit as a raw material.
With the coconut shell, they produce coal, but they use the nut, oil and pulp to make porridge.
The babassu-coconut breakers have fought for land ownership since the 1970s, when the government of Maranhão began to distribute public lands to cattle raisers, says Dona Dijé, a representative of the Monte Alegre quilombo in the Babassu-Coconut Breakers Interstate Movement (MIQCB).
“Countryside men and women were replaced by bulls,” she adds.
The MIQCB was created in 1991 by babassu-coconut breakers from four Amazon’s states: Piauí, Pará, Tocantins and Maranhão.
“We’re people and we want our land,” Dijé says. “We have our own way of making tea, blessing a child, taking care of the chickens and farming. We don’t want to lose our ancestral land.”
Under the New Social Cartography of the Amazon, some communities of breakers have been granted free access to babassu by the local government. In some municipalities of the region, it’s forbidden to cut down the plant.
Local governments gave the babassu breakers priority in the use of the fruit because their extraction process is considered sustainable.
And indigenous tribes from other parts of Brazil also have scored important victories.
In Paraná, the state law 15.673/2007 recognizes the right to land for the so-called faxinalenses – rural communities living under the campesinato system, in which they share everything from animals to crop production.
The government of Paraná estimates that 40,000 living in those areas have already benefited from the project.
And the quilombolas who were displaced due to the building of the Alcântara Launch Center in the state of Maranhão also have succeeded in getting their lands regulated.
“Communities like ours are invisible,” Dijé says. “But we’re here and we’re part of this society.”