Brazil's indigenous groups take reins of green projects

by Rafael Spuldar | @spuldar | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 17 July 2013 13:30 GMT

In an effort to curb deforestation and improve incomes, indigenous Brazilians are getting the chance to make more decisions about projects on their land

EKERUÁ, Brazil (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On the Araribá indigenous reservation, 200 miles away from Brazil’s largest city of Sao Paulo, 20 Terena people work from very early in the morning peeling and washing manioc under an improvised shed. The crop is a traditional one for the Terena, and now part of their hopes for making a living from the land in a sustainable way.

With support from Brazil’s indigenous foundation and the Sao Paulo state government, the Terena have taken part in workshops  to learn to handle and process manioc more efficiently. The long-term goal is to use the extra income to support agroforestry projects, in which crop agriculture co-exists with forests – just as it did for many Brazilian indigenous groups before the arrival of the Portuguese colonizers in 1500.

This project should enable the Terena to finance reforestation through their own economic activity, with no need for direct government funding, the normal source of support for reforestation efforts in Brazil, experts say.

The project – one the 500-member Terena community chose themselves in local assemblies – is just one of a range of similar projects now taking place in Brazil, aimed at building the capacity of the country’s indigenous groups to participate in managing their livelihoods and the forests their territories often include. The aim is to build their resilience to climate change, and help them support efforts to slow or reverse deforestation, a major contributor to global warming.

One of the latest is the Dedicated Grant Mechanism for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (DGM), funded by the Climate Investment Funds (CIF). In Brazil, the effort is being implemented by the World Bank.

Over five years, the DGM will invest $6.5 million in Brazil in a 5-year period, with two goals. The first is to empower indigenous people throughout Brazil and to strengthen their institutions, particularly to participate in REDD+, an effort aimed at “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.”


The second, more specifically, is to improve local capacity to sustainably manage natural resources in Brazil’s tropical savannah “Cerrado” region – South America’s second largest major ecosystem, located in Brazil’s central region and comprising 24 percent of the country’s territory.

According to Alberto Coelho Gomes Costa, the World Bank’s  Latin American senior social development specialist, the Cerrado is strategic in terms of environmental, economic and food security issues. The biologically rich region has significant carbon stocks, and is important to water cycles in the region.

But as agriculture expands in Brazil, the Cerrado has become even more threatened than the Amazon, and because it is less known it attracts less funding for protection, experts say.

“A significant proportion of forest burns in the Cerrado affect indigenous lands and traditional territories, especially in areas in contact with the Amazon”, said Gomes Costa. Altogether only about 10.5 percent of the Cerrado is protected, he said.

Under the DGM project, indigenous people are being consulted about what activities they would like to see financed on their land. A first meeting was held recently in the state of Mato Grosso’s capital of Cuiabá, and two more rounds are expected at Montes Claros (in Minas Gerais) and Imperatriz (in Maranhão) before a final meeting in Brasília.

According to Gomes Costa, the DGM is supposed to work in relation with Brazil’s own National Policy for Indigenous Environmental and Territorial Management (Política Nacional de Gestão Ambiental e Territorial de Terras Indígenas, or PNGATI), created in 2012 in order to guide all sustainability practices in indigenous areas.

The effort to improve manioc and forests at Araribá fits within that effort, and is supported by a program called Indigenous Environmental and Territorial Management Projects (Projetos de Gestão Ambiental e Territorial Indígena, or Gati), created by the National Indian Foundation (Fundação Nacional do Índio, or Funai), Brazil’s government branch in charge of monitoring and aiding indigenous peoples.

Through the Gati program, Funai aims to empower Brazilian indigenous groups so they can explore natural resources on their lands in a sustainable way and have financial returns without harming ecosystems.


Four days a week, the Terena from Ekeruá – one of the four Indian settlements in the Araribá reservation – spend the whole morning working on the manioc in order to sell it to buyers that come by truck around noon.

At first they gather the manioc harvested that day on all of Araribá’s four settlements. Later, under a shed, they peel, wash and cut the manioc root, then wait for the buyers to arrive. Araribá’s manioc production is 2,500 kilos a day, four days a week.

“Some (of the Terena) come here to work at 5 in the morning. Many of them are relatives of mine, like cousins and uncles”, said Lourenço de Camilo, 38, one of Ekeruá settlement’s leaders and a manioc planter since he was a child.

Work facilities are precarious right now in Araribá, which hampers earnings. The improvised shed in which manioc is worked is expected to be improved soon. More modern equipment to process the manioc are expected soon as well, bought with resources from Gati , including machines to peel, wash, cut and wrap the product, and to recycle the peel for animal feed.

“To sell the manioc already clean, cut and wrapped would add value to it. It raises the selling price and we earn more,” Lourenço said.

The revenue from planting manioc in Araribá – as well as other products planted on a smaller scale, such as mangoes and sweet potato – makes the Terena hopeful they also will have funds to finance on their own a more ambitious, more profitable and more sustainable project: a rubber tree forest.

Around 2,500 rubber seedlings are already growing at Ekeruá. The process of grafting and planting the trees is expected in September 2014. In seven years the rubber-trees will be ready for “bleeding,” which is having their sap extracted for producing rubber – an activity much more profitable than manioc.

The Terena from Ekeruá also will have the option of planting the rubber-trees with enough room between them so that other plants – such as manioc, fruit trees and medicinal herbs – can also grow. Such inter-cropping would be a form of agroforestry.

The rubber project, with its higher income, would also enable the Terena to finance reforestation through their own economic activity, with no need of direct government funding, which supports much current reforestation in Brazil.


Indigenous groups throughout Brazil decide where to apply Gati’s funds in local assemblies. In the case of Araribá’s Terena community, some members initially were reluctant to invest in a long-term project such as planting a rubber tree forest.

“Indians want to have it all right away, they don’t like to wait”, said the Ekeruá settlement’s chief, Jazone de Camilo, 78. “But the way I see it, it’s like our savings account. It’s something that will be a good income source many years from now.”

Funai’s Jaime Siqueira, the national coordinator of Gati, says Araribá’s experience is a good example of what the Gati programme can achieve, as the Terena now have gained good technical expertise to help them push forward their project.

 “In other reservations we see less accumulated experience” so progress has been slower, he said.

According to Siqueira, 32 indigenous areas have benefitted from the program since it started in 2011. Total investment is around 60,000,000 BRLs ($26.5 million), of which 40,000,000 BRL ($17.6) has come from Funai and 12,000,000 BRL ($5.3) from the Global Environment Fund (GEF). The rest comes from Brazil’s Ministry of Environment and by partner non-governmental organizations such as German-based GIZ and The Nature Conservancy from the US.

Gati’s regional bureaus are not only in the Amazon – where most of Brazil’s indigenous reservations are located – but also in other regions in the South, Southeast and Northeast, as well as the Cerrado.

Siqueira says the work done so far is an example of how broader PNGATI goals might be implemented.

Nevertheless, the Gati project has its critics. Some Terena at Araribá’s Ekeruá settlement complain of bureaucracy and of the long wait until they have the much-anticipated equipment to process their manioc more quickly and efficiently. De Camilo, the settlement’s chief, said Funai has long since announced the purchase of the machines and no more time should be wasted.

 “We need this equipment so we can earn our money”, he said.

Funai’s Dafran Macário, who works as Gati project’s coordinator in the Southeast region, says that purchases like this take a long time because of their complexity and because of the way the federal government functions. He says the equipment will arrive at Araribá by September this year.

Rafael Spuldar is a journalist based in Sao Paulo. This article is part of a series funded by the Climate Investment Funds.


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