Forest Stumps

An Activist’s Bulletproof Vest May
Save Neither Her Nor the Amazon

‘They’re going to kill me.’ Nilcilene Miguel de Lima, who heads a group of small producers deep in Brazil’s Amazonas State, sounds pragmatic when speaking about how she expects her life to end. Given Brazil’s sad record protecting the lives of activists in the region, her words have a sobering, prophetic ring to them. She also sounds undaunted, despite the already many attempts on her life.
Wearing a bullefproof vest 24/7 and having a personal security detail, Nilce’s determined to defend the people of her village, Lábrea. She’ll need lots of luck, better than many like Chico Mendes, the legendary rubber-tapper leader born in Acre State like her and assassinated in 1988, and environmentalists João Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and wife Maria do Espírito Santo, ambushed and killed a year ago next May.
Those who contracted their killers remain for the most part at large. Along with the world’s greatest flora and fauna diversity and its largest rainforest, the Amazon is littered with the bodies of many who stood up to illegal loggers, land grabbers, big landowners and drug traffickers. So the odds are not particularly stacked on her favor.
Neither they are on the side of preservationists and those who advocate for the estimated 20 million people who make the jungle their homes, at least until their lands are taken, cleared and put up for big-scale bovine pastures. Often, it seems that many who fight such native communities are within the Brazilian government. Or at least, the country’s most powerful elites.
At a moment notice, Nilse may decide that she, and those she represents, can’t win this war, and may just walk away. For despite being the Amazon cause’s most visible and vocal public figure in Brazil at the moment, as she risks her life to bring the issue of deforestation and the de-facto large-scale eviction of its indigenous peoples, she’s in no hurry to die and knows that she can’t survive without help.
But it’s been a lopsided battle, as even the administration of President Rousseff has failed to prevent an onslaught of initiatives aimed at relaxing environmental protection regulations. That includes a controversial revision of the country’s Forest Code, which critics say, will help logging developers to crush small communities, and may further erode the entire basin’s delicate ecosystem.

It’s not just the bodies of activists or simply poor laborers that are piling up in river streams of the Amazon. It’s also the pride of Brazilians on their arguably greatest natural asset. Thus, while deforestation has been lowered to record levels in the past couple of years, an ill-advised, on again, off again, construction of a mega hydroelectric dam may all but erase their benefits.
Even state-run Petrobras, one of the world’s biggest oil companies, has been increasing its exploratory efforts in the region. Though they’ve been all but unsuccessful so far, the intense use of heavy machinery at numerous large projects have become yet another source of pollution, resident dispossession and risk to the environmental balance.

Another emergent public advocate for the Amazon is Rafaela D’Amico, Brazil’s youngest national park director. In what many thought at first was just another rhetorical figure, she promised to gear her department to an open war on drug gangs, on so-called logging mafia and on illegal fishing in the region. And, despite limited power, she did achieve some impressive results.
That’s what a new Thomas Wartmann documentary, Raids in the Amazon, shows, by focusing on the work done at Campos Amazônicos National Park. There, D’Amico’s efforts to impose the rule of law have been bearing fruits in a relatively short period of time, as illegal fishing has declined and no new mines have been opened. But she and her small team, are up to a much more powerful opponent and she often winds up fining people who actually can’t afford to pay up.
That’s because she’s fighting an enemy, for the most part, hidden behind those hired to occupy or clear the land. They exert control over the poor families that live off the land, and are rarely betrayed by them. And so is the reality for the many players interacting and pursuing their own, often illegal, interests in the vastness of the Amazon. At the end of the day, Brazil continues to lack an effective national policy to deal with such complexity.
Thus the indigenous peoples are under the charge of Funai, an old bureaucracy within the government, that has grown much too slower in relation to the challenges of reserve land demarcation in the Amazon, for example. Then there’s the exploration of the forest soil, largely controlled by multinationals and deeply unregulated.
Illegal mining projects and unsanitary settlements have been such a long-term feature in the region, with absolute disregard for even the most basic social and labor laws, that over time they have created a new slavery model, one that workers are captive for life of their contractors. Even those who escaped haven’t gone too far and now make a living as prostitutes, drug traffickers and hired guns.

Brazil’s energy needs can also be portrayed as a formidable adversary to the preservation of the diversity of the Amazon Rainforest, which either exists as a whole, or tends to collapse faster than most tropical forests, whenever crucial elements are depleted. The planned mammoth Monte Bello dam is only the biggest of such projects that threaten to disrupt such balance.
There are others in the works, as large segments of the government see the use of Brazil’s rich hydro resources as a viable, and cheap, alternative to produce energy. They’re, of course, only partially right about that. It’s not the what, but the how much that counts, and many studies point to better ways to going about it, building hydroelectric plans in a much smaller scale, for example, and so on.
Also, as it becomes more feasible (fashionable?) to tour the jungle, relatively safely and comfortably, there’s a dangerous increase in the number of safaris throughout the mighty Amazon and its effluents, which represents an unacceptable threat to many tribes still unknown, that live nearby. A non carefully-planned first encounter with such tribes could be catastrophic to all parts.
Difficult access to them has also been a challenge for anthropologists and scientists, who need to establish contact and determine the best way of protecting their lifestyle and subsistence. Unfortunately, many an academic discussion has been reduced to parochial disputes that have all but the best interests of the indigenous peoples at heart.
Finally, illiteracy, lack of medical care, exploitation, even drug and alcohol addiction have been creeping in through the local communities, as they struggle to find sustainable means to replace their ancient, but no longer practical, foraging and hunting way of life. Technological progress may be their greater enemy too, and many tribes will be extinct before we even get a chance to meet them.

The work of Nilse, D’Amico and others is valuable because it places recognizable faces into a problem most Brazilians down south would rather ignore, as they’re not directly affect by it. In fact, these two out of the ordinary women represent two important fundaments of any long-term solution to the survival of the Amazon forest.
One, a native, who speaks the language of the settlers but has the courage to fight way more powerful interests, in the name of human dignity. The other, representing the most progressive wing of the government, one that’s using the power of the law, with the muscle to enforce it, to guarantee an even playing field, But for as much as they may fight, they need desperate help.
More, the complexity of the issue can’t be solved only by the rural community directly affected by it, and those low-level government officials in charge of carrying the law to the front battle. There needs to be also a regulatory framework, a coordinated effort, funding equivalent to the illegal projects that it’d be designed to fight, and a lot of awareness of the Brazilian people.
Because, ultimately, the whole society has to be involved, if a solution is to be found to prevent the deforestation of the Amazon and the extinction of the humans, animals and flora living in there. So future generations can benefit from such an immense and still under-discovered continental-size wilderness, Brazilians need to take charge of it right now.
Someone will have to assume responsibility for the spilled blood of a Chico Mendes, of a João Cláudio e Maria, and so many other martyrs of the cause of the Amazon. Such a mystical country, infused in so many religions, it’s simply not possible to believe that so few have a similar fervor for the fate of the ‘world’s lungs,’ down here on earth and within their own borders. And beyond.
The Amazon forest is bordered by 11 South and Central American countries. But it’s Brazil, with its long-sought dream of ascendancy to the condition of a world leader, that has to be the one setting the priorities that will carry the whole continent, and this planet, to another level. It’ll all be worthwhile. So Nilse can grow old and have many children and then they will have children of their own too.
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