Brazil: A voice of reason in political chaos

Ashaninka want to build a better future for their region together with non-indigenous inhabitants

The Indian Community of the Ashaninka in the Brazilian state of Acre is threatened by the machinations of illegal loggers and drug traffickers from nearby Peru. With the training center "Yorenka Atame" the Indians, however, set an example for a peaceful life in an intact rainforest. The Ashaninka Benki Piyãko is the founder and leader of the project. Photo: © Eliane Fernandes Ferreira

Turmoil in the land of the Sugar Loaf Mountain: Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian President, was suspended – and one minister after another has to step down. Shortly before the Olympic Games, Rio de Janeiro had to publicly admit a severe financial crisis. Thus, it is all the more encouraging that the Ashaninka in western Brazil are planning to intensify their environmental commitment with a new project.

by Yvonne Bangert and Eliane Fernandes Ferreira

Brazil’s indigenous peoples policy could hardly be worse: The incumbent interim government is apparently unable to escape crisis mode. President Rousseff’s political future is uncertain, and one minister after the other has to step down due to allegations of corruption. Shortly before the beginning of the Olympic Games, Rio de Janeiro had to publicly admit a severe financial crisis – and the parliament lobby that is trying to weaken the rights of indigenous peoples by initiatives such as PEC 215 (amerika21) and to lever out land rights has grown stronger than ever before. The latest terrible news: Interim President Michel Temer is planning to make General Peter Nelli president of the Indian Agency FUNAI – a military man who is still close to the military dictatorship (1964 to 1985). He is also in favor of the PEC 215 plans, which will de facto override the status of protected Indian land in Brazil.

The state of Acre in western Brazil has a rich biodiversity – which the Ashaninka community is trying to preserve based on their sustainable concept of living. Photo: © Eliane Fernandes Ferreira

Nonetheless, our friends living on Ashaninka territory at the Rio Amônia in Brazil are admirably determined to keep up their concept of a peaceful and nature-friendly life, despite all the headwind.  (Recently, they celebrated the 24th anniversary of the recognition of their territory (Facebook).) Now, they are even planning to intensify their efforts to protect the environment. A new environmental project is supposed to be implemented by the Associação Ashaninka do Rio Amônia – with our longstanding partner Benki Piyãko as a coordinator.

This is what the project is all about:

The Ashaninka, who live along the Rio Amônia in Brazil, have been gaining experience in the areas of environmental policy and environmental protection for decades. Now, they are planning to step up their commitment and to extend their activities to the entire 300 communities of indigenous and non-indigenous people in the region of the upper Juruá River. The greater district, Marechal Thaumaturgo, covers an area of 7,744 km2 (making it ten times as large as Hamburg) and is located in the upper Juruá Basin in the state of Acre, along the border to Peru.

The people living there – indigenous people, former tappers (seringueiros), and non-indigenous inhabitants – are keeping up a self-sufficient lifestyle, living off the forest and practicing subsistence farming. The 300 villages, which are distributed over the entire district and connected through various rivers, are mostly only accessible by boat. Even though they are entirely dependent on their natural surroundings, there is an increase in environmental problems in the communities, due to lack of knowledge and lack of information. A specific problem is to be seen in illegal deforestation and increasing livestock, which in turn leads to further deforestation. The uncontrolled fires that occur from August to October lead to further environmental problems – as well as illegal hunting and fishing. Further, it would be necessary to raise awareness for the aspect of sustainable waste management in order not to pollute the soil and the water any more.

With the training center “Yorenka Atame”, the Asháninka want to set an example for a peaceful life in an intact rainforest. The project is supposed to provide indigenous and non-indigenous young people with information about sustainable ways to use natural resources. Photo: © Eliane Fernandes Ferreira

Thus, environmental education is important. Fortunately, it is also possible: For the people in Marechal Thaumaturgo, it is a great help to be able to rely on an experienced environmental activist, the Ashaninka Benki Piyãko. He knows how it’s done – as he was able to prove with his jungle school “Yorenka Atame” (Förderverein für bedrohte Völker) for years. But the Ashaninka are planning to address a lot more people with their environmental work, which is why they have to visit the settlements individually. The idea is to establish teams of trained environmental technicians who can inform the people about environmentally friendly techniques and their implementation. Their journey will take them across the many rivers of the district of Marechal Thaumaturgo: Bagé, Tejo, Arara, Juruá, Amônia and Breu. The direct person-to-person contact will enable a dialogue between the indigenous and the non-indigenous groups, laying the basis for discussions about pressing social, economic, and environmental problems. At the same time, this will help to overcome prejudices.

The Ashaninka are familiar with educational work.

The Ashaninka have been trying to protect their territory since the 1980s. Immediately after their territories were officially recognized by the government in 1992, they developed their own environmental management plan for the community. They knew that if they want to survive in their country on their own, they would have to protect the natural resources – and if they were able to extend their environmental protection projects to the adjacent areas, this would help to protect their land more sustainably. Also, this could help their neighbors in the vicinity of their territory. Thus, the “Yorenka Atame” center, which was established in the urban area of Marechal Thaumaturgo in 2007, aims to inform the neighbors of the Ashaninka about economic and environmentally friendly alternatives to deforestation.

At work: Benki Piyako and Dr. Eliane Ferreira Fernandes - STP’s Brazil-expert - have been working closely for years. Eliane Ferreira Fernandes visits the region regularly. Photo: private

The current environmental project, in which the Ashaninka visit the people directly in their communities, is to be seen as a logical continuation of the basic idea. The aim is to protect the environment and, thus, ensure a better life for all the inhabitants of the region. The chances are good, because the region is rich in biodiversity. To achieve this goal, the Ashaninka need financial support because the trips to the residents of Marechal Thaumaturgo cost a lot of money.

All of us can help the Ashaninka to implement their ideas and to help the inhabitants of the district of Marechal Thaumaturgo work towards a better life and future. For the general population of Marechal Thaumaturgo, eco-political awareness is extremely important in order to protect the diverse region of the upper Juruá River.

How to provide the Ashaninka with financial support:

Recipient: Förderverein für bedrohte Völker

IBAN: DE 89 2001 0020 0007 4002 01


Postbank Hamburg

Subject: Ashaninka

100% of your donation will be used in the scope of the project.

[The authors]

YVONNE BANGERT has been working for the Society for Threatened Peoples in Göttingen for more than 30 years – first as an editor of the magazine "pogrom" and the web pages, and since 2005 as the society’s expert on questions concerning indigenous peoples.

DR. ELIANE FERREIRA FERNANDES is the STP’s Brazil-expert. She has been working closely with the Ashaninka and other indigenous communities in Brazil. She visits the region regularly, and she also accompanied a delegation of the Ashaninka to the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015.

This article was first published in German on the blog of the Society for Threatened Peoples. (GfbV Blog) It was translated by Robert Kurth.