$3 Million and an Official Apology: Brazil’s Ashaninka Get Unprecedented Compensation for Deforestation on Their Land
By Naira Hofmeister, Translated by Matt Rinaldi
- An unprecedented court settlement guaranteed reparations to the Ashaninka people of the state of Acre, in the Brazilian Amazon, whose lands were deforested in the 1980s to supply the European furniture industry. The logging company penalized was owned by the family of the current governor of Acre, Gladson Cameli.
- The conflict was resolved through mediation from the Prosecutor General of the Republic, Augusto Aras, after the case had circulated in the courts with no resolution for 20 years.
- The indigenous people only agreed with the negotiation because it included an official apology and a recognition of their "enormous importance as guardians" of the Amazon.
Celebration of the Ashaninka people in the Kampa of the Amônia River Indigenous Reserve, by the Peruvian border. Arison Jardim / The Ashaninka of the Amônia River Association
Far from the Brazil nut trees that shape the landscape of the Kampa do Rio Amônia Indigenous Reserve in the western tip of the state of Acre, the Ashaninka people realized their most important victory since the federal government first recognized their territory in 1992. On April 1, 2020, the Prosecutor General of the Republic, Augusto Aras, signed an unprecedented settlement that guaranteed reparations for crimes committed almost 40 years ago. The agreement gives this indigenous community the right to compensation of R$ 14 million (nearly US$ 3 million) with an official apology from the criminal offenders.
Their crime: cutting down of thousands of mahogany, cedar and other tree species to supply the European furniture industry from 1981 to 1987. The devastation struck a quarter of the area that currently comprises the indigenous reserve. Francisco Piyãko, the Ashaninka leader, was an adolescent at the time of the logging invasion. "What matters to us is what this agreement represents for the Ashaninka cause and how it can have repercussions in affirming the rights and values of the indigenous peoples in a broader sense," explained Piyãko to Mongabay.
A Two-Decade Dispute
The Amônia River in the state of Acre. It crosses the indigenous reservation named for it, which is home to the Ashaninka in Brazil. Diego Gurgel / Government of Acre
The settlement marks the end of a legal dispute that started in 1996, when the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) brought a Public Civil Action against lumber companies owned by the powerful Cameli family. The same family as the current governor of Acre, Gladson Cameli, and his uncle, Orleir Cameli, who was also governor from 1994 to 1998.
The Ashaninka prevailed in their initial court case, in appeals courts and also in the Superior Court of Justice (the highest appellate court in Brazil for non-constitutional questions). But as soon the case reached the federal Supreme Court in 2011, it stalled.
At an impasse, an extrajudicial settlement was imposed, but it took a year of regular negotiations until both sides accepted the terms of the agreement. "It was a great challenge for everyone, because the negotiation involved large sums and constitutional questions. It required a lot of study, partners and various public authorities to analyze each detail," observes Antônio Rodrigo, attorney for the Ashaninka.
"This is the first time in the history of Brazilian law that something like this happened. I'm so proud. It was hard, but wonderful," he summarizes.
According to a notification posted on the Federal Public Ministry's website, which qualified the result of the negotiation as "historic," Augusto Aras celebrated the enforcement of the constitution, "appreciating that the indigenous people have the guaranteed right to a decent life, to choose their own destiny and take part in political decisions."
"With this agreement, there is a feeling that we are building a new moment of peace, harmony and, above all, understanding that wounds exist to be healed, not perpetuated," Aras concludes.
One of the defendants in the case, Abrahão Cândido da Silva, was excluded from the settlement and still faces charges for the deforestation and invasion of the indigenous land. The case is on the federal Supreme Court docket for April. In this case, the Supreme Court ministers will decide not only whether to convict the remaining defendant, but also if there is a statute of limitations for claiming compensation for an environmental crime.
The federal Public Ministry maintains that this environmental damage is indefeasible, meaning it cannot be overturned, as it falls under the "right to life," and that determining a statute of limitations would deny future generations the right to fight for a healthy environment. That thesis was accepted by the Superior Court of Justice, and the Supreme Court review of their decision will take on a status of general repercussion — or, in other words, the ruling will apply to all cases from this point on.
"This definition will affect hundreds of thousands of cases. To give three recent examples of massive environmental crimes that took place in Brazil: we have Mariana, Brumadinho and, last year, the oil spill in Brazilian waters," asserts the attorney Rodrigo.
Acknowledgement of Guilt Was Decisive
Francico Piyãko in a celebration of the Ashaninka people. Arison Jardim / The Ashaninka of the Amônia River Associatio
The R$ 14 million will be paid to the indigenous people in installments over a period of five years. The ultimate beneficiaries of the compensation will be decided annually at an Ashaninka assembly, but it is required to be applied to projects "in defense of the community itself, the Amazon, the indigenous peoples and the peoples of the forest."
"Our resources will go to maintaining and bringing back our values. We are calling for this region to be increasingly respected and valued, for its products to be placed on the market with added value, which will, in turn, serve to guarantee sustainability. This is what are going to do: we are not going to stop," promises Francisco Piyãko, whose father, Antônio Piyãko, was the man responsible for reporting the invasion to the world through an open letter published in 1991.
On top of the damages paid to the Ashaninka, the logging companies will also have to pay R$6 million (US$1.2 million) to the Human Rights Defense Fund as compensation for the harm caused to society as a whole.
Still, for the Ashaninka, the high point of the settlement with the logging companies was the official apology, contained in the agreement signed by all parties.
"In the face of all the facts narrated and discussed at length for years in the Courts, (the logging companies) formally extend an official apology to the Ashaninka Community of the Amônia River for all the ills caused, respectfully recognizing the enormous importance of the Ashaninka people as guardians of the forest, dutiful in the preservation of the environment and in the conservation and dissemination of their customs and culture," the settlement states.
"If there had been no acknowledgement of guilt, the indigenous people would not have taken the deal," asserts Rodrigo, attorney for the Ashaninka.
According to Piyãko, this moral reparation transcends the financial settlement, symbolizing a victory for all the traditional peoples of Brazil and the world for the usurpation of their lands and traditional ways of life.
"Many indigenous communities have to see themselves in this acknowledgement, because there are things that cannot be paid in money," comments the Ashaninka leader. "Our intention is for this official apology to be the recognition of an error committed and (a promise) that, from this point on, it will be repeated no longer. And let it serve as a reference for other companies, because some laws and rights must be regarded and respected."
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
By Katy Neusteter
The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water — and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
Public Health<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyNDY3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkxMTkwNn0.pyP14Bg1WvcUvF_xUGgYVu8PS7Lu49Huzc3PXGvATi4/img.jpg?width=980" id="8e577" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1efb3445f5c445e47d5937a72343c012" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3000" data-height="2302" />
Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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