CESE and COIAB host debate about “Accounting and the challenges to sustainability for indigenous organizations in the Amazon”

Traditional groups and populations such as quilombolas, family farmers and indigenous people, have a collective way of life that is natural to their existence.  They have their own form of social organization. However, the state does not recognize this collectivity as sufficient for certain areas, such as administering specific resources, functioning as an organization or in the official representation of a group.  It is necessary to formalize an association, to bureaucratize.   And thus to make everything more difficult.

This was one of the premises that guided the debate between representatives of indigenous peoples and their associations, and accountants, that CESE hosted in May, in partnership with the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (Coordenação das Organizações Indígenas da Amazônia Brasileira: COIAB). The Roundtable Conversation “Accounting and the challenges to sustainability for indigenous organizations in the Amazon” was part of the project Strengthening Indigenous Organizations of the Legal Amazon, supported by the Institute for Climate and Society (Instituto Clima e Sociedade: ICS) and the Ford Foundation.

Legal expert and lawyer Carlos Marés was one of the invitees. He criticized the current legislation for organizations, associations, cooperatives etc., and particularly the bureaucracy demanded of this sector.  “This is a problem, even for organizations made up of white people, who organize themselves in this way.  Before the 1988 Constitution, the complaints of some indigenous people touched on precisely this need to defend rights without the requirement for association.”

He argued that an organization works much more effectively according to its own collective nature. “A group of peasant workers who work in solidarity with each other, even if they are working to produce something, to sell something, to go to market, they have much more effective means of organization than a cooperative, than a ‘civil’ society, because they act collectively. They are involved in a collective action.  So, to put rules around this – ‘how many hours will the tractor be harvesting?’; ‘how do you organize a group to pick beans?’; ‘how many people per family have to go and pick beans?’ – the bureaucratization of the system hampers this social organization.  That’s where our difficulties come from,” he declared.

A formal organization, capable of enjoying its rights under the law, requires its members to comply with administrative, accounting and tax procedures. For example, it has to have an updated constitution and keep organized accounts as a condition for operating.  Managing funds was one of the delicate issues Professor Marés cited in his speech as an example of cases where some of these issues are not complied with.

“The great drama is that if you don’t comply, the bank doesn’t allow you to access your account.  The money is blocked.  The association is not sufficiently well organized to access its money, so the bank freezes the account. I think we may need to consider some kind of legislative and institutional alternative to facilitate the lives of these organizations, which work for the people on the ground.  So they aren’t just a hindrance, but a real solution,” he noted.


Roundtable Conversation “Accounting and the challenges to sustainability for indigenous organizations in the Amazon”

One issue addressed during the debates was a relaxation of the demands imposed on indigenous organizations, from the drafting of grant funding proposals to the presentation of accounts (including the different accounting requirements of different funders, something that further hinders the process) and whether we should consider alternative ways of defining these types of organization, with some that are subject to more rigorous auditing and others that are not, etc.

Other invitees participated in the roundtable conversation, including COIAB’s accountant and lawyer Samuel Miranda.  Prior to the meeting, CESE sent out a questionnaire to 40 accountants with experience of working with indigenous organizations, asking them, among other things, to map the challenges and opportunities identified in their work with original peoples.

They were also invited to provide suggestions for these organizations. These included: projects that, from an accounting point of view, guarantee core costs; partnerships with universities and teaching institutions that focus on management and accountancy; and the need for training in these areas.

Four years ago, CESE ran a project in partnership with COIAB and DH Advocacy (DH Advocacia) aimed at strengthening indigenous organizations, particularly those in local COIAB bases. So far, 73 organizations have had projects supported and have participated in legal training regarding the compliance requirements for an organization to continue operating, and another dialogue session focused on what, to them, is a strong organization.

Vinicius Benites Alves, CESE Projects and Training Advisor, explained that during that project, challenges and opportunities were encountered which related to indigenous organizations on the ground. “This conversation is to help us understand these points and to map recommendations, so that together we can think about new challenges,” he declared.