Special Coverage

Threatened Countryside: who are the geraizeiros protecting the land

Traditionalist rural population resists expansion of monoculture and mining in defense of the Cerrado

Translated by: Ítalo Piva

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo |
Geraizeiro Valdir Gouveia feels like corporations see his community as a barrier to their expansion - Vanessa Nicolav

In the north parts of the state of Minas Gerais, north of the capital Belo Horizonte and south of the border with the state of Bahia, sits the Vale das Cancelas Territory. In it, reside the geraizeiros, a native population of the Gerais, who are of mixed black, indigenous and European descenants. They inhabit the entire region, its high and low parts, known as chapadas and grotas.

The family of 81 year old Adelina Xavier de Moraes, better known as Dona Adelina, is one of 1,800 rural families spread over 73 communities spanning the territory, located between the municipalities of Grão Mogol, Padre Carvalho and Josenópolis.

Dona Adelina has never left her place of birth, nor does she intend to. In those lands her hands have already laid her mother, husband and son to rest. She also brought about 100 children to life in her work as a midwife. During all this time, her hands cultivated food from the earth, in harmony with nature in the cerrado, or highlands.

In the same way, Maria de Lurdes Soares Santos, 75, still cultivates the garden she learned to care for as a child.

“I am a geraizeira till the end. I don't deny my origings, no. Being a geraizeira, I live here, I was born here, I grew up here, I never moved. Today, it has changed a lot. Today it's all just eucalypti and pine. At first, no, it was just native bush. We walked in the woods, tore our legs, rode horses, woke up singing, dancing”.

Both the story of Dona Maria de Lurdes and that of Dona Adelina relate to the initial settlement erected by the geraizeiros in vacant lands in the north of Minas Gerais and to the land conflicts intrinsic to this process, such as the expansion by eucalyptus and pine monoculture since the 1970s, as well as that of export commodities such as iron ore. All are activities that rely on government stimulus for their development.

On the other end, in contrast to this model of intensive production, the geraizeiros claim ownership of the territory, which they see as the only way to stop the advancement of large scale agribusiness and preserve the cerrado, the land where they were born, and where their entire culture developed.

Official demarcation of the territory

In 2015, as a first step towards official land regulation, the farmers themselves demarcated the Traditional Geraizeiro Territory of Vale das Cancelas, comprising of 73 communities spread over an area of 228 hectares, divided into three territorial nuclei: Lamarão, Tingui and Josenópolis.

Three years later, the geraizeiros were recognized as a Traditionalist Community, protected by law, and obtained the Certificate of Self-Determination issued by the State Commission of Sustainable Development of Native Peoples and Traditional Communities(Cepct-MG).

With that, they were given the right to prior, free and informed consultation about undertakings that may affect their assets and land rights, in accordance with 169th Convention of the International Labor Organization. Although it has been ratified by Brazil, in practice the legislation has been disrespected and has not prevented companies from advancing onto such lands without consulting local communities.

Adair Pereira de Almeida, a geraizeiro leader, told Brasil de Fato that "all these companies disrespect the geraizeiro people and our lands, which they invaded".

"They say that we are land invaders. We are not invaders of anyone's property, because this is our territory. They invaded it," says Almeida. He points out that, in the process of land regulation, the life of the community “has been nothing but struggle for a long time’.

"We want a demarcated geraizeiro territory. It is the duty of the State government to protect the traditionalist populations. The only way to win is to demarcate our territory. We have been demanding this from the authorities”.

Within the regulation process, one of the stages is the creation of anthropological reports, with the aim of recognizing the territorial identity with which these communities have expanded over the last 150 years.

The objective of this is to prove that geraizeiros are in fact a native population of that region, therefore entitled to intrinsic legal rights, such as land demarcation. Almeida claims that these reports are made by specialists from universities, considered “impartial” by the local population.

“We want the university to do what the government does not, because the university is able to bring anthropologists, geographers, sociologists to talk to us and understand our relationship with this territory, how we live here, they will produce anthropological reports, assist in land regulation”, he says.

Geraizeira identity

Part of this process involves determining what it means to be a geraizeiro, explains Mônica Nogueira, an anthropologist at the University of Brasília (UnB), and author of the article, Gerais inside and out: identity and territoriality among Geraizeiros of northern Minas Gerais.

“The geraizeiro way of life is based on caring for these lands, on the recognition of their potential, but also marked by a deep respect, by an identification with these lands to the point that they become intrinsically linked to the territory they inhabit”, says Nogueira.

Historically, the geraizeiros settled in areas at the edges of the cerrado, where it begins to mix with the caatinga (semi arid lowlands found mainly in northeastern Brazil). They developed a way of life adapted to this environment, described as a mosaic of landscapes, from the driest areas to those with the thickest trees.

In Almeida's words, to be a geraizeiro is “to have freedom”, just like his ancestors who “planted a garden wherever they wanted”.

Another aspect of the freedom desired by the geraizeiros also relates to their ancestors, who "raised cattle wherever they wanted, let the cattle roam free".

Raising cattle “on the loose”, without fences, is one of the main characteristics of the geraizeiro culture and how they administer the environment around them.

For Mônica Nogueira, it is not by chance that the geraizeiros feel cornered by the expansion of eucalyptus monoculture in their territory. “They are referring to when the cattle have to be confined. This says a lot about the strong presence of cattle raising in their way of life”, says the anthropologist.

In addition to raising cattle freely, the geraizeiros practice extractivism, where they take from nature the resources that are available, but always respect the cycles and limits of the land. An example is the mangaba harvest: they only collect fruit that has already fallen to the ground.

In unison with extractivism, the geraizeiros maintain a diversified, small-scale agricultural production, in contrast to the large-scale and pasteurized production of eucalyptus, carried out by big companies. An example of this is the 33-year-old plantation of Maria das Dores Ferreira, in the community of Lamarão.

In an area of eight hectares, surrounded by eucalyptus and a mega mining project, Dôra, as she is also known, cultivates a diversity of fruits, vegetables, and animals: lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, carrot, gherkin, pumpkin, zucchini, passion fruit, watermelon and mangaba, among others.

“It is good, because it has a lot of fruit. We eat, the birds eat, the animals eat. I keep myself fed, with healthy food, and animals too. Now, at this time there are mangaba, cagaita, jatobá, milk fruit, rufão. Guariroba will also arrive soon. There's only good stuff”, celebrates Dôra.

For anthropologist Mônica Nogueira, what characterizes the geraizeiros "is this deep identification with the land, this sense of autonomy in the production of their own food, of their own life, this capacity for real immersion into the environment that puts you on another level of knowledge about what goes on, to the point of knowing how to best live with it, how to handle it in a more respectful way”.

In this sense, in reaffirming themselves as geraizeiros, this traditionalist population also positions itself as defenders of the cerrado, since their own identity is intertwined with this ecosystem.

Lack of State assistance

A common account among the farmers is the lack of assistance from the State for the development of agricultural production, such as financing the purchase of equipment, technical courses to improve planting and harvesting, construction of roads and even electricity and running water for some houses.

According to the geraizeiro Valdir Gouveia, programs like the National Rural Housing Program, for example, have not yet reached the communities in Vale das Cancelas. The purpose of the project is to provide access to decent housing in the countryside.

As one of their main demands, Gouveia, like all geraizeiros, goes back to the issue of land demarcation, necessary in order to guarantee that their other rights are respected .

“The document we have can’t be used to take loans at the bank. There is an urgent need to demarcate our territory so that we are free from these company people, who think that the land is theirs, we are the traditional, ancestral families, seventh generation, we’ve been here for more than a century and a half”, he says.

Likewise, Maria das Dores Ferreira expects someone to “see things from the perspective of rural producers”.

"We very much hope that people up there can see that we also have value, not just the companies," she says.

“It would be too good if we could get financing, if we had more technicians to be able to help us understand what is wrong, help us to develop solutions when things go wrong. Someone to look at our side of the issue. But in truth, the people that should be looking out for us do not. It’s as if we have no value", she laments.

Agroecology as a solution

“Being a farmer is a source of pride for me, because farmers live with nature, with the cerrado, producing sustainably. The farmer respects everything. The geraizeiro does not cut down the forest, he plants it, he depends on the cerrado", explains Adair Pereira de Almeida.

Geraizeiro farming is based on the agroecological way: without use of pesticides, respect for the limitations of the land, without exhausting its capacity to produce, diversified, in contrast to large scale commodities producers.

For geographer Sandra Helena Gonçalves Costa, a professor at the Federal Institute of Education Science and Technology of Bahia, recognizing the geraizeiros as citizens with rights, and to stimulate the development of the geraizeiro production method, is precisely what is needed to provide an alternative to the agribusiness production method, which has already deforested 50% of the Cerrado.

For Costa, it is necessary to reject this kind of production, "it only consolidates Brazil's position in the international labor market as a supplier of raw materials, commodities, which does not stimulate any technological advancement".

What is at stake are the interests of large corporations, such as the producers of cellulose and paper, of coal for the steel industry, of foreign mining companies.

In his words, “the world can no longer sustain capitalism, unhinged consumption. You can't live in that model anymore. There are other ways of developing the land, of dealing with the land, of producing, of having a relationship with the land”.

Edited by: Leandro Melito