Strengthening Grassroots Organizations in the Amazon: A Pathway to a Better Living
April 5, 2023
When I first started writing this blog, I visited the YouTube channels of three main media outlets in Brazil (UOL, Folha de São Paulo, and CNN) and typed in “Amazônia” (that’s how “Amazon” is referred to in Portuguese) to check out some of the most recent news about the region. I found videos about the Amazon Fund, the genocide against the Yanomami people, and the surge in deforestation. It came as no surprise to me that most of these videos depicted white men from other Brazilian regions speaking about these topics.
This is not a new trend, nor is it exclusive to journalism. Discussions about the Amazon rainforest are of the utmost importance for the climate change debate and for humankind as a whole, but they frequently fail to include those who actually live in the Amazon region. Young people from underprivileged neighborhoods in the state of Pará, riverside dwellers from the state of Amazonas, or workers in the extractive industry in the state of Acre, where have they been while journalists record such news reports? They know more about the territories and are also most affected by the consequences of the climate crisis and destructive activities imposed upon the region; however, their stories and points of view are often marginalized.
It is important to listen to those who are leading the defense of the Amazon. For this reason, we have asked some questions to Purpose’s partner organizations, reflecting on what we have learned from them in the past few years.
How can the knowledge from traditional communities pave the way for protecting the Amazon?
“Knowledge from traditional communities is the only possible way to protect the Amazon – both because it has been carefully handcrafted by the ancestors of this population, and also because the conservation of life in the Amazon is part of their cultural heritage, which has enabled the existence of the forest until today. When Marina Silva—a riverside dweller woman, a former worker in the extractive industry and a seringueira (rubber worker)—became the Minister of Environment in 2003, only then did the country adopt the most effective public policies in history to fight deforestation. It is no coincidence: actual strategies to protect the territory are born in the heart of the Amazon region—from the people who live their lives according to natural cycles, people who plant, harvest and irrigate, people whose past and future belong to this land. Their vision, knowledge and intelligence enable measures and actions that can handle, on one hand, the greatness and complexity of the nourishing, growing life networks; and, on the other hand, the criminal networks involving from politicians to businesspeople, and also cops, experts, hired guns. The destruction of the Amazon, after all, doesn’t happen only in a symbolic plan, but in the territory where life resists, that is, in this population, in its identity, knowledge, and struggles. With our project Filhas da Mãe do Fogo (roughly “Daughters of the Mother of Fire”) for example, our organization Observatório do Marajó works with groups of women from traditional riverside and quilombo communities to strengthen traditional practices and controlled burns management. The project has formed three groups of volunteer firefighters with representatives of some of the cities which have seen the number of fires double down under the Bolsonaro administration” – Observatório do Marajó
Why is it important to listen to the voices of the underprivileged youth in the state of Pará in the fight against the climate crisis?
“The Amazon did not evolve by chance. It is the way it is because of the amazonids, the traditional peoples, and how they shaped their way of living, even in urban areas. If we stop and pay attention to it, we will realize we have been invaded and plundered non-stop, both in our territory and in our minds. They take our seeds and dismiss our struggles. We have to solve small and big problems on a daily basis, due to such plundering and violence. We are not devastating the forest, nor do we have the biggest responsibility for the climate crisis, but the way we live and face it might be an already tested pathway to finding long-term solutions. We are tired of outside solutions; they don’t work and are nothing but a waste of resources and raw materials, that is, they eventually become new problems, caused by lack of proper dialogue. Who can talk about something better than we talk about our home?” – Gueto Hub
What can the experience and know-how of black populations from the state of Amapá teach us about fighting the climate crisis?
“Amapá is still a “forgotten” state in the country, in many aspects. Because of that, its population had to create alternatives to fight for their rights; on top of that, black people, who currently account for 65% of the population in Amapá. Black people, in Amapá, fight the climate crisis on a daily basis, whether fighting for their territory, demanding proper drinking water and energy sources, or using family farming and extractivism as a means to have food security and keep the forest standing. Most of this fight, however, happens in their struggle to make sure the youth has permanent access to education. Every single person in Amapá believes the best way to prevent climate change is educating the next generations, because they will protect the territory and also encourage that fight in our society.” – Utopia Negra Amapaense
When we talk about protecting territories, why must amazonid women lead the conversation and make the decisions?
“Our organization Rede Jandyras, named after the Tupi word for “honeybee”, was created to increase the participation of women in discussions about and actions against climate change in the Amazon. We all know that women are the main caregivers and also the most responsible for the livelihood of their families and communities; this deepens their knowledge about natural resources and the importance of conserving them. Being so, those women’s approach towards protecting the environment is unique, because it values the conservation of biodiversity and traditional lifestyles. However, women have been historically marginalized and excluded from decision-making processes. Because of that, strengthening the leadership of amazonid women to protect their territories is essential when managing natural resources and standing up for their rights”. – Rede Jandyras
OUR EXPERIENCE IN THE AMAZON
Since 2021, Purpose Climate Lab has expanded its portfolio of projects in the Amazon region. We started by seeking a better understanding of how the local civil society worked and which challenges it had to overcome to act more effectively. The Amazon is at the epicenter of urgent climate emergency challenges and potential critical solutions; however, local organizations have historically played a marginal role in the climate movement. This is reflected in the limited access to resources by such organizations, the lack of local players taking part in the development of campaigns about the Amazon, and the creation and distribution of narratives about the Amazon without any focus on the Amazonian peoples and their experiences.
Despite playing a fundamental role, local organizations often have little to no access to resources that would enable them to develop and expand the work they do. Because of this, since 2021, we have developed projects that allow these organizations to use our structure so that they can propose and lead campaigns and actions to improve climate justice from a local perspective.
It is easy to speak about the importance of strengthening the capacity of grassroots organizations in the Amazon. They know their territories and challenges better than anyone, listen closely to the people living there and carry with them the local memory and history. Therefore, they know what has to be changed and how. Memory, identity, science, data – it’s all there, but we must listen to them and acknowledge it. Supporting and strengthening their capacity is an evident pathway to finding solutions that promote the well-being of the Amazon and all of Brazil.
Showing is better than telling, for sure. So below, you will find some of the campaigns and projects made possible by the methodological and financial support of our Climate Lab, spearheaded by our partner organizations – that have become our friends:
Research in the states of Pará and Amapá
Last year was a unique year for Amazon research, with several public opinion surveys conducted to understand the region’s relationship with the general elections in Brazil and to discover the best strategies for civil society organizations. However, when we met our partners Cojovem, Comitê Chico Mendes, Instituto Mapinguari, and Observatório do Marajó in March, they told us clearly that they did not believe those surveys offered an accurate picture of the reality faced by the many territories and inhabitants of the Amazon region. Would the results of large national surveys be applicable to young people living in the Extractive Reserve Chico Mendes or family farmers in Amapá?
We then encouraged these organizations to conduct their own research. After all, who could better investigate those audiences and territories than those who already knew them and were devoted to working with them?
Speak Up, Youth
Within the scope of their Projeto Rebujo—a project named after the word in Portuguese for the movement fish make to revolve muddy riverbeds—the Cojovem cooperative conducted some research to find out which are the barriers and opportunities for the youth to act as citizens in the Amazon territories in the state of Pará. It became clear, for example, how the participation of the youth is affected by their lack of hope in their present and future, as well as how the youth is expected to act politically only by voting, but not by occupying spaces which would allow them to elaborate and make decisions about public policies. Besides that, the marginalization and stigmatization of the amazonid identity take the youth away from belonging to their own territory and culture, and, therefore, from acting politically. Based on their research, Cojovem organized a youth meeting in which they created the Agenda of Public Policies, Projects and Programs for the Youth in Pará (in Portuguese).
Agroecology on a Plate
Instituto Mapinguari, an institute named after a mythical Amazonian creature, carried out some research to find out the best way to mobilize the people of Amapá to stand for PEAPOS—acronym in Portuguese for the State Policy on Agroecology, Organic Production and Sociobiodiversity. With that research, they proved this policy is still widely unknown, and discovered, for example, some engaging topics to mobilize for that cause, such as the access to healthy, nutritious food, originated from local sociobiodiversity; the access, through radio, to information about rural technical assistance; and information groups about agroecology in social media and messaging apps. Based on that research, the institute has launched this March the campaign Agroecologia no Prato (roughly “Agroecology on a Plate”), which will bring the discussion about PEAPOS to the public arena, and add traditional, indigenous and quilombo communities to this conversation.
Bosque School standing in Bailique
In 2022, the organization Associação Gira Mundo—whose name means “globetrotter”, in Portuguese—developed the campaign Bosque Firme no Bailique (roughly “Bosque School standing in Bailique”), to press the candidates for governor of Amapá to fully rebuild Escola Bosque, a school in the Bailique Islands, and recover its original educational model, which focused on sustainable education and the valorization of local, traditional knowledge.
The Bailique Archipelago comprises 8 islands, and more than 50 communities in danger of disappearing due to climate changes and the environmental damages which directly affect the region. Besides dealing with problems such as reduced access to energy services and the advance of the oceans, the islands have witnessed their largest school collapse because of the constant soil erosion. The building is yet to be re-erected by the government. This school has been a revolutionary project in Amapá, aimed at rural communities, with its educational planning closely tied to traditional knowledge and to a creative, sustainable economy in the Amazon. With their campaign, Gira Mundo got more than 1,000 people to sign a petition delivered to elected governor Clécio Vieira, who signed a commitment letter to re-erect the school. Now, it will be rebuilt, for the benefit of more than 700 students in Bailique.
For Real: Tapajós Without Lies
The seven regions of the Lower Tapajós River basin, in the state of Pará, are often prone to be targeted by intentional disinformation, especially about large enterprises and the alleged blame of native peoples in crimes against nature. This network of fake news has come so far as to reach even those regions without full access to digital tools, energy services and internet connection. The City of Santarém Rural Workers Union (AMTR, for short, in Portuguese) has come together to fight it, mostly by reaching out to rural women, by amplifying the voices of young community leaders, and by spreading information about fake news, therefore raising awareness about its effects.
The challenge of providing reliable information to rural communities with little to no access to the internet is not a simple one. To find a solution, the team had to be creative and assertive. They invited seven women of distinct regions in the Lower Tapajós River basin to attend a two-day workshop, in which they created together a print newspaper, named Di Rocha: Tapajo´s sem Potoca (roughly “For Real: Tapajós Without Lies”). Each woman learned how to effectively share its content, and they managed to distribute more than 1,600 copies of the newspaper in several communities, villages and quilombos. In a year in which disinformation was used as a political weapon, they fought the lies about their territories by depicting those communities in a reliable, accessible manner, thus making people feel represented and engaged to pass information along their regions and beyond.
Stand up for Marajó
Abrace o Marajó (roughly “Embrace Marajó”) was a federal program created in 2020 by former Minister Damares Alves, during the Bolsonaro administration, in favor of the Marajó Island, in Pará. On paper, at least, it was intended to improve the Human Development Index (HDI) in the local municipalities; in reality, however, it came out as a strategy to give away the social and natural resources of the region to large landowners and businesspeople. More than a hundred lines of action were planned without any public participation.
In 2021, the organization Observatório do Marajó mobilized against the program and worked with other local institutions to share information about its real impacts, and filed complaints about it in the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Several of their actions brought a counternarrative to Embrace Marajó to the news, to the media and to the streets, telling about its actual consequences, i.e., the invasion of lands; the incentive to destructive fishing; a surge in the prices of local products, such as açaí berries; and violence against traditional communities.
From popular pressure on the Public Prosecutor’s Office, to a song titled “Abrace o Marajó mas não amam o Marajó” (roughly “Embrace Marajó, but They Don’t Love Marajó”), by Bart MC, and a lot of content production, the campaign managed to bring together 64 organizations against the program; promote two public hearings; be featured in the media, namely Rolling Stones and Carta Capital magazines, among other; and reach more than 3,000 people. The program Embrace Marajó is currently on hold, being revised by the current federal administration.
Quilombo up Yourselves, Brothers
Jacunday is a community in the Jambuaçu quilombo territory in the state of Pará. Education there, however, is not adapted to the reality of a quilombo. That means there is no room for creating and developing the sense of belonging to a quilombo community. As a result, the quilombolas (quilombo dwellers) don’t relate much to their history, culture and identity, which are crucial for the future of their community.
To address this issue, in 2021, organization Projeto Perpetuar created the campaign Aquilombaí Malungada (roughly “Quilombo up yourselves, brothers!”), which mobilized political leaders, civil society, and young educators in Jambuaçu and other territories to bring about a quilombo-oriented school education, bringing visibility to such a historically neglected agenda. They created a network of leaders concerned about this topic and established a partnership with the local school, using tools such as group conversations, content production and pororocas of wisdom, that is, “tidal bore waves” of shared information, combining both traditional and formal knowledge, feelings, and experiences.
If we keep on thinking about the Amazon from an outside perspective; listening about the region from people who don’t live there; ignoring that, besides the forest, we have 30 million people living in it; and repeating the behavior of colonizers, trying to save the Amazon without including those who live there in any eventual solutions; then we will not be able to find actual pathways to a model of socioeconomic development that can foster justice and promote the well-being of nature and its peoples, in the region and worldwide.
The concrete, honorable way to protect the Amazon is through getting to know and acknowledging what grassroots organizations have been building for years; listening to their stories; learning from their techniques; and allocating resources to strengthen them.
for Equity & Evidence