One of the biggest challenges facing Indigenous and traditional communities fighting to defend their territories around the world is a lack of recognized maps and physical markers demarcating the boundaries of their rightful land. While no ironclad protection, the production of official maps and clear territorial markers that communities, governments, courts and extractive corporations can agree upon is one of the most important tools outside allies can help provide to curtail destructive encroachment of ancestral lands.
This is a story of direct support from afar facilitating successful efforts of a frontline community in Brazil’s Amazon to demarcate their own traditional lands under siege by outside forces.
Community members hand-painted dozens of plaques, which were then posted for miles along the boundary of their established traditional territory. (image: Ailén Vega)
Montanha-Mangabal is a riverside community made up of 101 families whose territory extends nearly 50 miles along the Tapajós River in the Brazilian Amazon. Originally descended from migrant rubber tappers, the river-dwellers of Montanha-Mangabal have occupied their current territory for eight generations—a total of 140 years. The families of the Montanha-Mangabal community depend on the Tapajós River and the surrounding rainforest as the basis for their subsistence livelihoods and this biologically rich, intact ecosystem, some of the best forest remaining in the region, is central to their identity as traditional occupants of this land.
In 2006, the community was recognized by the federal government as the first “traditional riverine” community in Brazil. This designation extends legal protections and territorial rights to communities with distinct forms of social organization, traditional knowledge and subsistence practices that occupy and rely upon a territory and its natural resources for their survival.
Despite these formal protections, the territory of Montanha-Mangabal has proven increasingly vulnerable to land grabs, especially from illegal loggers and wildcat miners. After years of fighting for their territorial rights, Montanha-Mangabal was declared an Agro-extractive Settlement Project (PAE) in 2013 by Brazil’s National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA). Shortly after though, the Jatobá hydroelectric dam was announced, one of three dams proposed to be constructed on the Tapajós River. Planned to be constructed in the middle of Montanha-Mangabal’s territory, the Jatobá dam would directly affect the community’s traditional means of survival, flooding nearby lands, polluting the river, and causing the decimation of local fish and game populations.
“This river is my mom, it’s my father, it’s as if all my family members were here,” says Pedro Braga, a community member who lives in the local village of Sapucaia. The residents of these riverside villages find it impossible to separate their identities and way of life from the Tapajós River and the Amazonian rainforest. The river and forest are a source of food and shelter, and both the Tapajós and the forest hold many memories, from community members’ parents’ work as rubber-tappers to confrontations with jaguars. In this sense, the auto-demarcation is not only necessary for the community’s physical survival but also for the survival of their collective histories. It is with these reasons in mind that community members risk their lives to secure their territory.
Neighboring Indigenous groups joined forces withriverside villagers to install markers demarcating traditional lands to fend off wildcat miners and illegal loggers. (image: Ailén Vega)
Seu Chico Catitu, recognized as one of the best forest guides in the region, stated during the closing of the first phase of the demarcation process, “We did the auto-demarcation so that they [land grabbers] would know where their territory ends and where ours begins because there are always those people saying, ‘I don’t know where my territory is and where yours is.’ So I believe that after today, they will know that they cannot come into our territory.”
Though unlikely allies at first, Montanha-Mangabal community members have teamed up with nearby Amazonian Indigenous communities including the Munduruku, Kayabí and Apiaka peoples and have been actively protesting with them shoulder to shoulder against the construction of the hydroelectric dams. In fact, they participated in the Munduruku’s auto-demarcation of Sawré Muybu—a critical part of the Munduruku’s resistance campaign that ultimately led to the suspension of the São Luiz do Tapajós dam.
The Munduruku people felt indebted to the Montanha-Mangabal community and have offered their direct assistance in the auto-demarcation of Montanha-Mangabal’s territory.
As Chief Juarez from the village of Sawré Muybu stated, “There is only one land and we are only one community. If you sink, we sink with you.”
The auto-demarcation is not only a way to control territory for the traditional riverside villages, it is also a space for these communities and Indigenous communities to exchange strategies for securing territorial grounds and for exchanging experiences of resisting the hydroelectric damming projects and illegal logging and mining on traditional lands. This is of particular importance since the viability studies for the proposed Jatobá dam were approved in January 2018. The planned site is in the middle of the community of Montanha-Mangabal.
The objective of the auto-demarcation is to promote the recognition, surveillance and protection of the border areas of Montanha-Mangabal’s territory by identifying areas of illegal invasion and making the territorial limits clearly visible to illicit loggers and miners. In addition to auto-demarcation being a physical process of demarcating the territorial boundaries, it is foremost a political act. It stands as an expression of the community’s determination to combat the myriad threats to their land and traditional way of life.
The 101 families of the Montanha-Mangabal community have lived off the Tapajos River and nearby forest for nearly 150 years. (image: Ailén Vega)
The Community Action Grant through Rainforest Action Network supported the most labor and resource-intensive part of the demarcation plan, which covers the vulnerable western boundary of the territory (running one mile to the east of the Trans-Amazonian Highway). This required three week-long trips hiking through dense rainforest to clear a path and mark the territorial boundary with hand-painted plaques.
Other Indigenous groups in the Tapajós region (including Kaxuyana, Tiriyó, Xeréu, Wai Wai, Txikyana and Apiaká peoples) also participated in Montanha-Mangabal’s auto-demarcation, further strengthening regional alliances. Their transportation and food were supported through these funds and some of their communities are considering organizing their own auto-demarcation efforts in the future as well.
Financial support for the auto-demarcation also resulted in a proliferation of articles and videos in international and national media sites, including a BBC story and an in-depth article on Mongabay. With this media presence, the community has reported a decrease in the number of threats it has received.