World Rainforest Movement

Brazil: Communities hit by monoculture eucalyptus plantations exchange experiences in Minas Gerais

On 19 and 20 March this year, peasant, indigenous and quilombola* communities and movements from the States of Espirito Santo and Bahia who are fighting to get back their territory invaded by monoculture eucalyptus plantation companies, paid a visit to Raiz and Vereda Funda in the locality of Rio Pardo in the north of Minas Gerais, in solidarity and to exchange experiences with these two communities struggling to regain their traditional territory. 

Over 30 years ago the northern region of Minas Gerais was taken over by companies exploiting monoculture eucalyptus plantations for charcoal, the energy source used in the production of iron and steel in the scores of metal works located in the State. The invasion of eucalyptus trees was devastating. The companies managed to plant over one million hectares of eucalyptus, forming one of the world’s largest continuous tract of plantations of this monoculture.

The companies were mainly interested in the flat lands known as ‘chapadas.’ These lands were used by the traditional communities of the region, called ‘geraizeiras’, to graze their cattle and to gather innumerable fruit and medicinal plants from the ‘cerrado’ (savannah). As a result the communities were trapped in the valleys and their streams and springs dried up. They were deprived of their freedom to come and go over their own territory and are even being criminalized every time they try to gather firewood in the ‘chapadas.’ The companies’ big promise had been employment. But in the locality of Rio Pardo de Minas, the over 90 thousand hectares of eucalyptus gave rise to fewer jobs than the artisan production of ‘caña’ (alcoholic drink produced from sugar cane) which provided 1,150 jobs and only covered 2,500 hectares. It should be borne in mind that the employment generated by monoculture eucalyptus plantations very often is degrading, with work carried out under appalling conditions, jeopardizing the workers’ health and quality of life. 

Motivated by the networking and meetings promoted over the last 10 years by the Alert against the Green Desert Network – a network gathering communities opposed to monoculture eucalyptus plantations who are struggling to regain their territories – various communities from the north of Minas Gerais started to organize themselves to achieve this goal. Two of the communities that are struggling are Vereda Funda and Raíz.

The first to recover their territory in the region were the 130 families from Vereda Funda. This territory covers 5 thousand hectares of collectively used ‘chapada,’ which had been rented out by the state government of Minas Gerais to the Florestaminas Company. Following expiry of the contract and inspired by the struggle of the Tupiniquim and Guarani indigenous people from Espírito Santo, in 2005 the community recovered an area of 5 thousand hectares with the support of Via Campesina.

After much struggle, confrontation and persecution, the community achieved definitive control of the area which the state of Minas Gerais is presently transferring to INCRA- a federal institution for agrarian reform – in order to set up an agro-extractivist settlement.  Within the settlement each family will have its own area to plant and there will also be collective areas for agro-extractivist production and for cattle-grazing. The community, with the support of the Rio Pardo de Minas rural workers’ trade union and the Centre for Alternative Agriculture of Minas Gerais, drew up a plan for reoccupation of the territory and a map, with some areas corresponding to environmental rehabilitation of the cerrado and others for crop growing.  Embrapa Cerrados is contributing with studies in the community towards this purpose. Regaining the territory gave new encouragement to the community, particularly to the older members as, on removing the eucalyptus plantations, the springs are flowing again and wildlife is returning.  Furthermore, the community re-conquered a fundamental right: its freedom.

At the Vereda Funda community centre, the visitors were shown a pilot scheme for an agro-forestry system and then were taken on a field visit to a farm with corn, bean, cassava and other crops growing on a piece of land that had been planted with eucalyptus. In this area they want to plant various crops together in an agro-ecological way, replacing the chemical monoculture eucalyptus plantation. They were also shown an agro-industry making jams, where a group of women work thus generating more income and labour.

The Vereda Funda community served as a mirror for other struggles for land. For example, the Raiz community, that was also visited. In the 80s this community comprising 40 families underwent expropriation of 3,600 hectares of their traditional territory for eucalyptus exploitation and the land is presently in the hands of the Replasa company. The monoculture eucalyptus plantation depleted the valley’s water resources, forcing the families to move up to the ‘chapada’ in order to find adequate land for their crops. However the company occupied the whole ‘chapada’ trapping the families in the valleys. During the struggle, the community discovered that the company considered that the valleys they inhabited was its legal reservation. This made them even more aware that if they did not adopt a strong stand they would also be evicted from that area and outraged with this discovery, decided to start struggling to regain their territory.  

With the help of the elders, the community of Raiz started to demarcate the community area, resulting in a map. According to this map the community had lost close on 3,600 hectares to Replasa. Immediately, the community got mobilized and made public the self-demarcation of its territory, once again following the example of the Tupiniquim and Guarani indigenous people of Espirito Santo and of the community of Vereda Funda. Subsequently, they stopped the company’s machines from pulling up the tree-trunks of native cerrado trees to plant eucalyptus. Later, in December 2009 with the support of Via Campesina, the community finally recovered its traditional territory with the construction of a camp, resisting eviction up to the present although there is an eviction resolution threatening its continuity on the site.

According to the participants, this exchange and supportive visit was very important in strengthening and encouraging the struggles, both of Raiz and of Vereda Funda and also those of the communities and movements of Espirito Santo and Bahia. And there are many struggles. Only in the locality of Rio Pardo there are at least 18 disputes involving eucalyptus companies!

For those who inhabit regions where encroachment by eucalyptus is at an initial phase, such as in some parts of Bahia, the experience of the communities visited was an example for trying to avoid the same process in these regions. The communities of Minas Gerais also gave a practical lesson on the importance of resistance, in particular that of Raiz which is presently seriously threatened with eviction from the area they have regained.  A noteworthy aspect was that of the strength of women who are actively participating in the struggle. Additionally, an important aspect is the planting of food crops to replace eucalyptus as well as the various experiences aimed at implementing agro-ecological practices.

At the end of the meeting, following a fairly positive assessment by all the participants, those present proposed that these exchanges should be continued as an essential element in encouraging, socializing and strengthening the struggle in different states.  Furthermore, the participants showed great interest in continuing to organize themselves on different fronts such as fostering knowledge and exchange on reforesting with native trees, the promotion of agro-ecology, political and ideological training and joint and mutual support in concrete struggles against the expansion of monoculture eucalyptus plantations and in favour of regaining the territories of the quilombolas, indigenous, geraizeiros and peasant farming people.

By: Winnie Overbeek, Alert against the Green Desert Network and Cepedes/BA, 23 March 2010

*Quilombolas: the descendents of slaves that escaped from slave plantations that existed in Brazil until abolition in 1888