World Environment Day: The Cerrado exists because its people resist

When Aliene Barbosa e Silva talks about “resist to exist” she makes a point of emphasizing that there is no poetry in this.  Her life, the existence of the Aparecida do Oeste Community in which she lives, and the lives of so many others located on the banks of the Arrojado River in Correntina, directly depend on the fight against Brazil’s current development model.

“Here, in the west, the only areas that are still standing are those of the pasture and grazer communities, and other traditional peoples.  We have faced down gunmen, we have been threatened with weapons. Our resistance is for survival itself. There’s nothing pretty about this.  This is to preserve our community, in memory of our ancestors, who’ve always been here,” she declared.

One of the most frequent and violent conflicts Aliene cites are those against land-grabbers. The Aparecida do Oeste Community is located about 20 km from Correntina and the Arrojado River cuts through the whole community.  When land-grabbers arrive, they don’t only take lands, but also water.  She says that without the river, there would be no family farming, no pasture and grazer communities, no herds, no food, no fishing.

But this is not about one conflict alone. “We are harassed every day.  By agribusiness, but dam-building entrepreneurs are also arriving now, offering us money to give up our lands.  They want to install small hydroelectric plants along the entire river.  There are solar and wind energy parks. There are conflicts for land, for water, for territory.  It’s always happening somewhere, when it’s not in one community, it’s in another,” she said.

Aliene also denounced the work of the government in relation to this situation, in particular the State government. “These projects find very flexible laws in Bahia. The government hasn’t made land legislation for traditional pasture and grazer communities or for other communities, but it issues excessive water withdrawal grants, for both surface and groundwater.  Vegetation suppression authorization is huge, here in the Correntina region and across the west,” she said.

She added, “small family farmers are directly affected.  Everything from our Cerrado goes to benefit half a dozen monoculture farmers.  How is it, if Correntina is a city rich in grains, in soybeans, that we pay BRL 12.00 for a can of oil? Families don’t see any benefit.  Schools are low quality, health centres don’t work, there is a lack of medicines.  We are going hungry.  I work in a school where the only meal some pupils eat is a school meal”.


MATOPIBA and privatization

Correntina is in the agricultural frontier known as MATOPIBA, which covers the areas of the Cerrado in the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia. Luciana Khoury, Prosecutor for Regional Environmental Justice in Paulo Afonso, explains that one of the region’s characteristics is its important water sources and great flora and fauna biodiversity, with very significant species.

“Agricultural enterprises have come to this region to work on the ‘development’ model that Brazil encourages – with livestock confinement systems and grain production for export and animal feed.  This form of agriculture exploits large areas using monoculture, which demands a lot of water. There have been conflicts in the region precisely because of these situations that demand great quantities of water for the enterprises and that use pesticides,” she noted.

These development models do not recognize the existence of traditional communities. And the state operates in favour of small business groups, from the non-regularization of lands to the relaxation of legislation. “We’ve suffered a number of setbacks in Bahia and in other states. Here we’ve had exemption from environmental licensing for all agrosilvopastoral (livestock, farming and forest) activities.  We’ve filed lawsuits for a return to licensing because this is having a huge impact. We’ve had a favourable sentence from Federal Justice, but we’re still waiting for the decision from the court of second instance. In the meantime, enterprises of all sizes carry on working with automatic, electronic licensing.  Controls on environmental impacts in Bahia and Brazil are being relaxed. This runs contrary to what should happen. The pandemic, disease, climate issues, all make this clear.”

Over the last four years, the logic for the privatization of water has permeated public machinery very aggressively. In 2021, the Supreme Federal Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal: STF) decreed that the new legal framework for basic sanitation (Law 14026), sanctioned in 2020 by the federal government, was constitutional.   The change allows the private sector to participate in bidding processes to provide sanitation, and water treatment and distribution services.

Luciana also cited Draft Bill 4546 of 2021 which, among other things, provides an instrument for the non-gratuitous granting of water through which the owners of dams would be able to sell the water from their enterprises exclusively.  Another example she described refers to the opening up of capital from the Bahia Water and Sanitation Company (Empresa Baiana de Águas e Saneamento: EMBASA) for Public-Private Partnerships, recently approved by the Legislative Assembly of Bahia.

The traditional peoples and communities of the Cerrado, of the Amazon, of the Pantanal, keep the biomes alive through their good living.  Their ways of life naturally relate to the environment and are consequently essential for its preservation.  Their existence is so important that it also reverberates in urban areas.  “The city dines on what the farmer plants,” Aliene reminded us.

“We are essential.  We need to provide continuity to what our ancestors have left us. We are placing children and young people on the plains, to feel the forest, the Cerrado, the water sources.  To live their lives well. There is a constant struggle by the communities against this development model, which is all planned over there, by half a dozen people mad for capital,” she declared.


CESE and socio-environmental and climate justice

Because it understands that traditional peoples and communities, indigenous people, pasture and grazer communities, riverside dwellers from the Cerrado, and so many others, are essential for the resistance of the biomes, CESE has always supported their struggles and ways of life. And because it understands that there is no life in the countryside, in the cities, in the rivers, or in the forest, without an environment in equilibrium, CESE has challenged itself to draft an Institutional Policy for Socio-environmental and Climate Justice.

This document is aimed at guiding the work of its team and of the organization as a whole, in order to steer important discussions on the theme of climate change, to contribute to maintaining the socio-biodiversity of the biomes and to carry on walking alongside these peoples and communities, in the defence of the waters, of the land, and of the territories.  The policy will be launched this month, in recognition of World Environment Day, celebrated on 5 June.

Aliene Barbosa e Silva is a member of the Tarto Pasture and Grazer Community Association (Associação de Fundo e Fecho de Pasto de Tarto) in Correntina.

Luciana Khoury works in socio-environmentalism and is a Prosecutor for Regional Environmental Justice in Paulo Afonso, Bahia.  For 19 years she coordinated the Department of Public Prosecutions’ Centre for the Defence of the São Francisco and she now coordinates the Bahia Forum to Combat Pesticides and Genetically Modified Crops and for Agroecology (Fórum Baiano de Combate aos Agrotóxicos e Trangênicos e pela Agroecologia).