Young Environmentalists’ Acre of Hope
09 Jun 2010
An international youth group travelled to Acre in Brazil, to give a voice to some of the initiatives helping to protect the Amazon rainforest
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An international youth group travelled to Acre in Brazil, to give a voice to some of the initiatives helping to protect the Amazon rainforest and its people.
Hidden away in the most western part of Brazil is the mysterious and mesmerising state of Acre. Considered one of the most progressive regions in the country, it is a place offering hope for the future of the Amazon rainforest.
Inspired to find out more, a group of six young people, including myself, set off from Europe in March. Representing five different nationalities, we were passionate about helping to tell the stories of the region and contribute positively to such a fundamental area of our planet.
In the late 1980s, Acre’s people were shaken by the news of the death of Chico Mendes, a community rubber tapper and activist. A family man from a small town in Brazil, Chico fought against corruption, greed-driven landowners and the destruction of the forest. He gave birth to a social movement, created a workers’ union, instigated numerous blockades and not only brought change to the lives of the locals, but hope for the forest.
Chico is still celebrated in Acre to this day; placards, t-shirts and various graffiti images of him are visible throughout the region’s capital, Rio Branco. But can the hope he generated still flourish today?
What we encountered on our journey was a place full of utmost complexity. It is a state embroiled in internal combat between NGOs and petroleum companies, indigenous peoples and government-led development plans, and intensive cattle farming and the emergence of heart-led agro-forestry initiatives.
We met with Malu, a Peruvian working for Comissao Pro-Indio (CPI), an NGO dedicated to the protection of indigenous groups within the state, who revealed: “It’s now almost impossible for an NGO to hold a multinational accountable. As soon as we report them to local government and the company is approached, a simple bribe is then exchanged and the accusation loses all momentum.”
However, even in a country gripped by multinationals, foreign interests and susceptible politicians, points of light and optimism are everywhere.
Agro-forestry — integrating forestry with crop and/or livestock farming — is the fastest growing and most sustainable agricultural movement to hit Brazil in its history, according to GTA Acre, the Workers’ Union Party in the region. “The answer is obvious,” explains Marcos, an agro-forestry farmer with a three-acre smallholding: “We are desperate not only to live self-sufficiently, but also to give something back to the land that has nurtured us. I haven’t been farming long but I feel good doing it and nature responds with equal commitment in the form of many fruits and vegetables”.
It is this concept of giving something back to the land that could truly benefit the security of the rainforest for years to come. Marinelson Brilhante, who has been an agro-forestry farmer for almost ten years, says: “Everything is related. The yellow butterflies you see need the Assai nectar to survive and similarly the Assai needs the shade of a mahogany tree to flourish to its full potential. As soon as these delicate balances become manipulated, the future for all these wonderful forests is unknown. Cattle ranchers and oil extractors do not understand the needs of the forest. If they did, they wouldn’t be cutting it down”
There is also hope on the horizon for indigenous communities. Malu describes the work that the CPI are doing at their indigenous training centre, where they welcome shaman from various groups to come and learn new ways of preserving land and natural resources, as well as exchanging stories and experiences with others: “It is obvious one indigenous community has little resources or power to combat the problems of 21st century developing Brazil, but together they just might stand a chance. CPI can help establish that conversation space.”
In terms of the political sector, Brazil may soon experience a shift in its political direction when President Lula da Silva’s term comes to an end. Marina Silva, once his environment minister, is now representing the Green Party and running for the presidential candidacy herself. An indigenous Amazonian born in Acre, her childhood was spent extracting rubber. A lifetime supporter of rainforest communities, she is regarded by the Brazilian press as an ‘Amazon legend’ .
Marina’s campaign theme is that Brazil has a moral responsibility to become a high-tech, low-carbon economy as an example to other developing countries. She may lack the support needed to win the election compared with other candidates, but she has, nevertheless, considerable backing from environmentalists around the world, who see her as a good investment for the future of Brazil.
Meanwhile, government official, Alex Felinto, who has been working on local agro-forestry projects in the region for many years, reflects on the history of the campaign to protect the forest.
“Chico Mendes brought a movement, where people would unite for the Earth. Without him people no longer seem to know what to unite for, as there are so many different NGOs and movements already existing… If they all could unite under one larger movement however, the positive progress that could take place would be incredible.”
Such a movement is in the hands of the younger generations. What has been clear from my time here and my conversations with the local community, is that young people all over the globe, can now start to make a difference in shaping a more positive future. We saw how the choices we make as a society today, will echo in the Amazon tomorrow. Agro-forestry and the work of CPI can’t save the Amazon alone, but together we stand a chance.
Matthew Pike is a 19 year-old student from Sweden. He writes a blog at: www.matthewpike.wordpress.com
Youth group en route to an
indigenous community via the River Acre
Photo: Copyright Stuart Dow
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