Project Contributors: Giulia Pedone, Renato Gavazzi
The Amazon region has largely been perceived as a boundless territory with unlimited resources to exploit. Due to its low population density, it has been viewed as an “empty space” to be colonized and to be integrated into the national economic landscape, and thus as a key to Brazil’s progress as a “modern” nation. During the 1960s and the 70s, the military government promoted a media campaign to encourage private owners to invest in the Amazon region – the national slogan was “a land without men, for men without land”. This resulted in marginalized farmers from the poorest regions of Brazil moving into the Amazon rainforest in quest of a better life. Over the past 35 years, the forests of the state of Acre in the western Brazilian Amazon have also been adversely affected by large-scale Brazilian economic interests, backed by financial resources obtained from credit institutions and by Brazilian government incentives for the establishment of large cattle ranches, the exploitation of hardwood, and agricultural activity. These incentives have led to considerable concentrations of private property, and serious conflicts have resulted from land takeovers, which have provoked confrontations between the “new owners of Acre” and the local indigenous populations and rubber extractors. This has led to a progressive loss of biodiversity and a scarcity of traditional sources of protein, which is evident in the increasingly deficient diet of the indigenous peoples in these areas.
After the process of legal allotment and demarcation of indigenous territories took place in the 1970s, three new professions developed among the Amazonian indigenous peoples in order to assist the local indigenous groups in managing their own territories: bilingual teachers, health workers, and Indigenous Agro-Forestry Agents (IAFAs). In the project “Training Program of Indigenous Agro-Forestry Agents of Acre”, indigenous peoples from seven different indigenous nations of Acre received training on the theory and practice of natural resource management, with the support and guidance of the NGOs Commisão Pró-Indio do Acre (CPI/Ac) and Associação do Movimento dos Agentes Agroflorestais Indígenas do Acre (AMAAI-Ac), in response to political demands from regional indigenous populations. The main issue for indigenous peoples returning to their native lands is how to be economically active, culturally relevant, and ecologically sustainable on their lands after being employed as labourers on rubber plantations and in agricultural operations. The project involves training related to agroforestry systems, the improvement of degraded areas, management of palm plantations, and techniques of livestock management. Awareness of environmental legislation and domestic policies related to demarcation of indigenous territories is also a part of the training program.
The program operates on the belief that blending indigenous and modern technologies enhances the ecological sustainability of the indigenous territories. The Indigenous Agro-Forestry Agents act as “environmental educators” who work to revitalize the indigenous traditional ecological knowledge, to preserve and strengthen cultural diversity and establish a sense of identity and social cohesion. IAFAs receive a bilingual and intercultural education in their own native languages as well as Portuguese. The main results include enabling indigenous peoples in the region to manage and conserve their demarcated territories by instilling the capacity to develop alternatives for the sustainable management of their environment. Project success is shown by the number of trained IAFAs, which increased from 15 in 1996 to currently 126, originating from 11 indigenous areas. In addition, the IAFA training has become a working model that has been replicated in other Brazilian states.
Future challenges for indigenous peoples of Acre include finding adequate and endogenous solutions to manage their territories in harmony with their cosmovision and their perspectives on the life they want to live; and building a relationship with the national society based on equal interchange and mutual collaboration. In the words of one Indigenous Agro-Forestry Agent: ‘We are indigenous environmental educators… The forests are the greatest wealth that our land, our state, our country has. We hold meetings, we discuss, we teach, and we guide our relatives on environmental management. We are concerned with the destruction of the planet and we want our forests to stay standing, giving us the strength that we need during our short lives.’