The Rubber Tappers of Sao Bernardo, Brazil: Struggling Still in the Memory of Chico Mendes – Photo Essay and Report

Seringal Sao Bernardo, in the state of Acre in Brazil’s Western Amazon, is a settlement of seringuieros – rubber tappers – who have lived on their piece of forested land since before they were freed from plantation serfdom in the 1970’s.

Source: Climate Connections

“The seringuiero movement in the 1970s and 1980s was a beautiful movement. That movement gave us the extractive reserves, and won recognition for the rubber tappers. And it was a sad movement, too, because many of our leaders were murdered.  But the difficulty of that movement was nothing, compared to what we are facing today, with green capitalism” — Osmarino Amancio Rodriguez

Seringal Sao Bernardo, in the state of Acre in Brazil’s Western Amazon, is a settlement of seringuieros – rubber tappers – who have lived on their piece of forested land since before they were freed from plantation serfdom in the 1970’s. Their place is in the thin edge of the forest, in the buffer zone bordering the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve – an area of a million hectares where the seringuieros, alongside Chico Mendes himself, fought to maintain a piece of jungle where they could make a living collecting rubber. After Chico Mendes was killed in 1988, the seringuieros won millions of hectares of extractive reserves, protected by government decree. Their struggle for protected forest land became known throughout the world. But it never ceased being a struggle.

When national agrarian reform laws broke up the rubber plantations in Acre, barely two generations ago, the people of Seringal Sao Bernardo were freed from bonded labor, but forgotten in the forest. Their claim to the piece of land they called home was never recognized. For decades, they remained invisible, and survived on their own. Illiterate, they do not count the years, and so have no clear notion of how long they’ve been here. They have no school, no health center, no potable water, no electricity. But they have their land, and their livelihood, and with it, their dignity.

Just last year, a title to the land appeared, in the possession of a local man who also owns a lot of other extensive properties. Having secured the right to the land, he leased it to El Triunfo, the region’s largest timber company.

When workers from El Triunfo discovered the settlement of Seringal Sao Bernardo, they were, according to the community, taken by surprise. On paper, this was empty land.

This is not the first time a community has been discovered in this way.

Regardless, the company began widening the dirt road that reaches here from the state highway, tearing out a swath of forest, putting in timber bridges, and then cutting trees by the truckload and sending them downriver toward Rio Branco, the state capital.

After they were discovered, the seringuieros of Sao Bernardo filed a complaint with the Ministerio Publico – the equivalent of the Public Defender in the U.S., but for collective grievances. This was their land, they said, and the company had no right to widen the road, or to destroy the river, or to log. Further, they said, El Triunfo was taking wood illegally from inside the Reserve.

With no rights to their land, no assets to their name, and no history, as far as the state was concerned, the seringuieros of Sao Bernardo were still ready to start a fight to protect their bit of jungle.

The owner of the land came back with a threat: either you allow El Triunfo to take the wood, or you move.

Now, the fate of Seringal Sao Bernardo is in the hands of the Ministerio Publico, and the law, and the many forces from far beyond this dusty settlement that determine who has the right to make a living from the Amazon and who doesn’t.

I traveled to Seringal Sao Bernardo in the back of a truck on the dusty red dirt road that El Triunfo had cut into the forest, accompanied by Osmarino Amancio Rodriguez, a social movement leader, and Larissa Packer, a human rights lawyer. It was a Thursday, and a judge from the Ministerio Publico was going to meet with the community, to gather testimonies toward settling the land dispute. Osmarino and Larissa would be there to witness, and advise. I would be there to take photographs.

On the hard bench in the back of the truck careening over newly cut logging roads, shooting snapshots of the red dust rising into stands of renegade trees, I couldn’t imagine that anyone would possibly care about the fate of a small community of seringuieros, descended from plantation slaves, asking for a small piece of jungle to live on. There are too many demands on the jungle already. And there are too many bigger problems, here and beyond.

This is not the first such community I’ve visited. And yet, for all these reasons, it is good, and better than good, to visit this community, and to know of their struggle.

We arrived early, before the judge and her entourage – she would be accompanied, it turned out, by armed security agents from two of Brazil’s environmental enforcement agencies. Our early arrival would allow time for Osmarino to hear the community’s concerns, and to brace them with strategies for the meeting.

Osmarino is short and stocky and balding, with a trimmed mustache, and his shirt unbuttoned to the sternum. From the moment he climbed in the truck he was making pronouncements in all directions, his hands waving in the air. He is the kind of organizer who never stops talking, except to listen to those his words are aimed at helping; his exhortations are just shy of bullying. He came up in the movement with Chico Mendes, and he remembers those days well.

“The seringuiero movement in the 1970s and 1980s was a beautiful movement,” Osmarino says. “That movement gave us the extractive reserves, and won recognition for the rubber tappers. And it was a sad movement, too, because many of our leaders were murdered.”

Osmarino himself has survived at least five attempts on his life. Once, his house was riddled with machine gun fire. In the past decade, thousands of Brazilian social movement leaders have succumbed to violence. Somehow, this one has survived.

“But the difficulty of that movement was nothing,” Osmarino says, “compared to what we are facing today, with green capitalism.”

The meeting with the Ministerio Publico would take place in a simple house of boards and thatch set in the heart of the colocacao, the cleared bit of land that serves as the dwelling place in a seringuiero village. The house is on stilts, raised off the jungle floor; it is filled with children, and adults. The oldest here may be fifty; probably they don’t get much older. It is said that the age of the poor is not measured in years.

Before the meeting with the Ministerio Publico, when the Environmental Police and everyone had arrived, there was a meal. Beans, rice, manioca, and big stewpots of chicken – wings, backs, thighs and gizzards – set out on a rough table for everyone. We all ate, and talked, congenially. I have no photos of this – the food, or the people eating – because it would have been rude, or strange, to shoot photographs during the meal. I mention it because their feeding us, generously, from what they raised, is significant to who they are. The first thing the poor do, naturally, is to give of what they have created. This sounds sentimental, but it is also true.

Professor Elder Andrade de Paula teaches at the Universidade Federal do Acre. He has written many papers about Chico Mendes, focused on the ways in which the heroic figure of Mendes is used to justify, and to mask, precisely the kind of exploitation that the real Chico Mendes died fighting. The night of this meeting, when we returned to Rio Branco, Osmarino would sit uncomfortably onstage in a university auditorium with Professor Elder.

The awkward seringuiero, his shirt unbuttoned to the sternum before an audience of college kids, nodded passionately at the professor’s assessments.

“The new phase of exploitation of the Amazon is extremely difficult to confront,” Professor Elder said that night, “because it is carried out not by a single government or corporation, let alone by rubber barons practicing primitive accumulation, but by a complex web of multilateral and national development banks, hedge funds, extractive industries, government programs, foreign aid, and all the rest…”

The struggle of rural people, like the seringuieros of Sao Bernardo, is compounded now by the No Burn law – a state policy that prohibits families in Brazil’s Amazonian states from burning, and thereby, from planting. This is part of the state’s scheme of Payment for Environmental Services: they protect the forest by paying forest people not to burn, or cut, or harvest. In exchange, the government gives them what it calls the ‘bolsa verde’ – 100 Reales a month, to pay for their subsistence. But, the bolsa verde is not enough. Cooking gas alone can cost 50 Reales a month.

When it comes up in conversation, Osmarino rages, throwing his fists at the air. “A bolsa familiar, bolsa floresta, nao es sustentavel!” This state support is not sustainable!

“Sustainable” is a word that draws much fire here. Since Chico Mendes, Acre has transformed itself into the Amazon’s Sustainable Development state. El Triunfo practices sustainable forest management; its timber is certified as sustainably harvested by the Forest Stewardship Council. Everything here is sustainable, and ecological, and green. Yet, driving the three hours from Rio Branco to Seringal Sao Bernardo, the highway passes exclusively through cattle ranches and sugarcane fields. Outside of the Extractive Reserves, there appears to be no forest left.

Clearly, this is why the state, under international pressure, is paying the seringuieros to leave the forest alone. Payments for Environmental Services, backed by environmental policing, may have stopped some families from planting; but the timber trucks are taking out trees as fast as ever.

Larissa Packer, twenty-six years old and a lawyer from Curitiba who has worked with the Movimento Sem Terra, (the Landless Workers Movement) can talk to you for hours about the dilemmas of new commodity markets and green capitalism.

“Payment for Environmental Services,” she says, “posits that the actions of nature – the water cycle, the carbon cycle, the pollination of flowers by bees – are commodities, subject to the law of the market. In essence, such an approach implies the natural enclosure of these ‘services,’ and, when encoded in legal norms and property rights, the actual enclosure of the natural areas – forests, watersheds, wetlands – that ‘provide’ these ‘services.’ Such an approach is akin to the continued enslavement of nature.”

Larissa is picking up and moving to Acre from her home on the Atlantic coast to work on cases like the one in Seringal Sao Bernardo. When I ask her why, she says, “This is where it’s the worst.”

As its first attempt to resolve the land dispute, the state has offered a new home to the seringuieros of Sao Bernardo: 75 hectares of cleared land, in another part of Acre. But they don’t want to move.

Four hundred hectares of rubber trees, or 75 hectares of cleared land. What would you do?

One group from here has already accepted the deal, and been moved. A woman from Sao Bernardo – one of the women who prepared our lunch of beans and manioc and chicken gizzards – tells us that she has visited them, and they are starving.

“They have nothing,” she says. “They will die there.”

It is clear from her tone that dying of hunger on a piece of state land, away from the life of generations past, is different from dying here, of hard work and privation. The difference is immeasurable, and therefore unspeakable.

Osmarino concurs. “We’ve seen it too many times,” he says. “They will promise you everything – school, health center, everything. But once you’re there, you won’t see any of it.”

Like the signature scars in the rubber tree from which the living latex sap drips, you can see on the faces of the seringuieros of Seringal Sao Bernardo the history of their deprivations.

Looking closer, you can perhaps see something of their future as well.