(Gilberto, member of the quilombola community of Cocalinho, Maranhão state)
The Cocalinho quilombola community is located in eastern Maranhão State, 500 km from its capital, São Luís, and 44 km from the seat of the municipality of Parnarama (MA State), close to the Piauí State border. There live 180 families, self-declared “quilombola people” and recognized as such by the Palmares Cultural Foundation [Fundação Cultural Palmares] in 2014. The territory is also home to the Quilombo Guerreiro community and its 80 families, all of whom share in collective use of the land. According to accounts by the quilombola families, the territorial formation of the community dates back to the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, and started with the arrival of groups fleeing the drought in Ceará and Piauí States, and settling in these areas upon arriving to Maranhão state.
During some time, the group had to roam the territory and to pay taxes to landowners to cultivate their crops, while also facing water shortages. Afterwards, people then settled on the lands that today constitute the quilombola communities of Cocalinho and Guerreiro. These communities were once more widely connected to the quilombola communities of Tanque da Rodagem and São João, in the municipality neighboring Matões, forming a large, collective quilombola territory. Zé de Emília, from the Cândidos family, was the first to arrive, in 1916. The name Cocalinho stems from the babassu palm trees. Amidst these trees, the quilombola people established family roots and constituted themselves as a territory on sacred ground, rich in biodiversity and abundant in water, fed by the hydrographic basins of the Parnaíba and Itapecuru rivers.
Translation note: Quilombola communities descend from African people who were enslaved in Brazil during Portuguese colonization and the empire period. Resisting the exploitation, they founded communities called “quilombos”.
In the 1980s cattle ranchers arrived in this territory, a transitional area between the Cerrado and Amazon regions comprising substantial state-owned land. This increased land grabbing and changed the existing territorial conformation, generating intense conflict with the quilombola communities in the process. The land grabbing process fragmented the territory shared by the families of Cocalinho, Guerreiro, Tanque da Rodagem, and São João, causing it to become surrounded by agribusiness enterprises and crosscut by farms. The fragmentation of the land disrupted unity between the communities, formerly fostered by the freedom of movement and access to common areas used for fishing, harvesting the forest, and agriculture, thus reducing the conditions of permanence in the territory.
The territory has since become a space of resistance and conservation of sociobiodiversity, waters, and forests, where the quilombola people reproduce their traditional livelihood, culture, and crops.
The families report that since 1982, there arrived people from Pernambuco State in a large area called Fazenda Crimeia, where many families lived. From then on, the processes of displacement intensified, as was the case with the communities of Brejinho, Bebedouro, and Cabeceira, expropriated from their territory – which later became Normasa farm land. Within this farm are ancestral burial grounds that displaced families were forced to leave behind. In addition to encroaching cattle ranching, the community also faces invasion threats from soy farming and eucalyptus plantations.
Since 2002, if not earlier, another process of land grabbing has been carried out by the so-called owners of Canabrava I farm, totaling an area of 8,194 hectares. In 2009, this farm was sold to Suzano Papel e Celulose S/A group for R$9,833,130.00. Since then, there has been an increase in the number of environmental crimes and rights violations, as was the case with the community’s ancestral cemetery, converted by the company into an eucalyptus field, obliging the community to bury its dead elsewhere.
As charcoal plants began operating in the region, more areas of the Cerrado have been devastated by correntão [“big chain” attached to tractors in order to suppress vegetation] methods in order to pave way for eucalyptus monocultures. Faced with devastation, members of the communities are forced to hike further to the plateau where they collect the fruits of the Cerrado region and the bark of native plants, along with seeds and leaves, which are then used by the women for the preparation of traditional medicines. One of the guardians of this ancestral knowledge, the quilombola Maria da Cruz tells us about her ties to the territory:
The women face a long road to the babassu palm groves entrapped by Suzano’s eucalyptus plantations. Once the babassu coconuts are harvested, the women travel along steep slopes, carrying their loads to the road. From there, they pay 150-200 Brazilian Reais to have their goods transported to their homes. The women then join together to process all the coconut: breaking each shell with an axe, so that the oil and the meal can be extracted and used on cakes, crackers, and porridges to feed their families. Part of this production, along with other crops grown and extracted from the Cerrado plateaus, is sold at street markets and points of sale in the city of Parnarama. These places of commerce were heavily impacted by the coronavirus pandemic (COVID 19), aggravating the community’s means of generating income.
The encroachment of the agricultural frontier in the Matopiba region deepened the socio-environmental distress, especially after the arrival of producers from Rio Grande do Sul and São Paulo states, as well as from Paraguay, all of whom are invested in soy production. Within this context, there has been an increase in deforestation, forest fires, and the use of pesticides, which poison the land, water, plants, food sources, and animals.
Trail of destruction
Since 2009, agribusiness’ fires originating in eucalyptus monocultures and livestock pastures – and encroaching into the territory, have been repeatedly responsible for destroying sociobiodiversity. The recurrence of fires within such a brief timeframe has caused the deforestation of the plateau regions, and made it impossible for the recovery of natural pastures and several native trees, which feed animals and traditional communities.
For years, the communities have been denouncing these attacks against the quilombola communities of Cocalinho and Guerreiro, in the municipality of Parnarama, and of Tanque da Rodagem and São João, in the municipality of Matões. In November 2014, the Pastoral Land Commission [Comissão Pastoral da Terra] of Maranhão state, made a public statement that brought to light the criminal actions of Suzano Papel e Celulose S/A. The counterfires started by the company to protect itself from fire outbreaks often advances onto peasant crops.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, agribusiness did not go into quarantine. In 2020, following a bout of fresh deforestation, Canabrava farm, a property leased since 2019 by the Suzano Celulose company for soy production, started a fire that reached cultivated areas, woods, plateaus, and forests within the community. The Normasa farm has expanded its territory by creating new areas for soy and corn production, and has employed the correntão method to uproot native trees such as pequizeiros, pau d’arco, cedar, jatobá, babassu palms, buritizeiros, and fruit trees cultivated by the families such as mango, cashew, and tamarind. Once the trees were brought down, the farm used heavy equipment to remove remaining stumps and gather the wood into windrows to facilitate burning down the area.
CPT Nacional. Nota Publica: O contrafogo da Suzano Papel e Celulose Ltda no território de comunidades quilombolas do leste maranhense [Public Letter: The conter fire started by Suzano Papel e Celulose Ltda in the territory of quilombola communities of eastern Maranhão state].
De Olho nos Ruralistas. Fogo em fazenda de eucalipto e soja ameaça comunidade quilombola no Maranhão [Fire outbreak at eucaliptus and soy enterprise threatens quilombola community in Maranhão state]. September 2020.
Furthermore, the vulnerability of the quilombola peoples is aggravated by the production of eucalyptus stock by Suzano, which supplies potteries in Teresina, State of Piaui, and Timon, State of Maranhão, and by the creation of new areas for soy cultivation by enterprises not yet identified by the local communities. Furthermore, there is the issue of poisoning by pesticides, which are sprayed by airplanes on nearby soy crops, and make their way into the homes and sites of traditional extractivism and fishing ponds within the communities. During the spraying period, and for several days thereafter, air within the communities is heavy with the odor of poison.
The presence of the “sojeiros” [soy farmers] has also been destroying the dirt roads used by the community to access the Parnarama headquarters and neighboring communities. A surge in the flow of trucks loaded with soy and eucalyptus crops leaving Canabrava farm destroy the dirt roads and compete for space with local vehicles, small cars and motorcycles, at times causing serious accidents. There is also the constant disruption of secondary roads which are piled with dirt mounds and wood debris in order to impede the access of local residents to fruit collection areas and fishing dams.
In late August and early September 2020, fires that started on nearby farms catering to agribusiness spread to the Cocalinho territory. The fire reached the Cerrado fields populated by trees such as cashew, cajá, pequi, marfim, jatobá, inharé, tingui, sapucaia, jatobá de vaqueiro, açoita cavalo, manacunã, taboca, and buriti. Fires seriously reduced the flowering of guabiraba trees, which takes place in late October and is an important food source for bees. In a terrifying manner, the fire’s flames encroached on the local homes, destroying cassava and corn crops, land that was ready for cultivation, and a cashew farm. As a result, the sale of food for the Food Acquisition Program (Programa de Aquisição de Alimentos, PAA) by 18 local families was impaired. The production of artisanal crafts made of vines and plant fibers, such as kibanes, baskets, sieves, balaios, and brooms, was also impaired, as their raw materials come from the Cerrado fields.
The impact of the fires was compounded by the series of conflicts, repeated violations of rights, evictions, and threats to the community’s livelihood, the effects of which should be viewed in the short, medium, and long terms. The smoke has increased the incidence of respiratory diseases, particularly affecting children and elderly ones who suffer from heart disease. There are also reports of recurring headaches in adults. These violent acts are detrimental to people’s psychological health, for the tensions in the territory force them to live in a constant state of vigilance to ensure that the fire does not reach their homes.
Despite the severity of these threats to the community, there has been no support from the municipal, state, or federal governments in fighting the fires that afflicted the territory. During the last fire outbreaks, in August and September of 2020, the community was assisted by partner organizations, which joined in a broad mobilization, broadcasting updates on the fire’s advance on social media. As a result of this public campaign a team from the Fire Department was deployed to the scene, but came short in meeting the community’s requirements.
Jornal Pequeno. Incêndio coloca em risco território quilombola no município de Parnarama no Maranhão [Fire outbreak puts quilombola territory at risk in the municipality of Parnarama, Maranhão state]. September 2020.
Denial of territorial rights
The process of land recognition and regularization by Incra [Brazil’s National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform] has been long and violent. In 2014, the communities of Guerreiro and Cocalinho were recognized as quilombola by the Palmares Cultural Foundation. In March 2016, a petition was filed with Incra’s Quilombola Division to kickstart the land titling process. However, to date, Incra has made no progress on the Technical Report on Identification and Delimitation (Relatório Técnico de Identificação e Delimitação, RTID), having only notified federal agencies about the existence of the titling request. Starting in 2009, with the arrival of Suzano Papel e Celulose, the quilombola communities of Cocalinho, Guerreiro, Tanque da Rodagem, and São João have been the targets of repeated repossession suits by the company.
In 2010, Orlando Costa, a cattle rancher, also filed a repossession of property suit against the quilombola communities. The proceeding was initiated under state jurisdiction, in the District of Parnarama, however in 2019, after a motion request by CPT/MA [Comissão Pastoral da Terra, Maranhão], it is currently being reviewed by the Federal Court system, pending the investigation phase. Incra’s ineffectiveness is the major liability to protection of the quilombola communities, for completion of the RTID would in the very least protect the territory from the threats of repossession.
Report by the Legal Department of CPT Maranhão (2019, in print).
Process No. 1001860-39.2019.4.01.3702. See Jusbrasil. Page 979 of Diário de Justiça do Estado do Maranhão (DJMA) dated December 4, 2018.
To strengthen their struggle, women, men, youth, and children organize and work in concert with Guerreiras da Resistência group, local production initiatives, the Quilombola Movement of Maranhão (Movimento Quilombola do Maranhão, MOQUIBOM), the Pastoral Land Commission, the National Network of Quilombos (Articulação Nacional de Quilombos, ANQ), the Web of Traditional Peoples and Communities of Maranhão [Teia dos Povos and Comunidades Tradicionais do Maranhão], and the Campaign in Defense of the Cerrado Region [Campanha em Defesa do Cerrado]. The community of Cocalinho is also engaged in the fight against environmental racism and other territorial conflicts, working with the Public Defender’s Office and federal prosecutors to denounce such situations, as well as partaking in live Internet events promoted by partner organizations. The community is also part of several other national campaigns, such as the Permanent Campaign Against Pesticides [Campanha Permanente de Combate aos Agrotóxicos].
The community carries on the preservation of ancestral knowledge and practices, and actively partakes in initiatives to strengthen its cultural identity, autonomy, organization, and resistance in defense of “Well Living”. Cultural values are strengthened through music and dance, such as Lili and Quadrilha Junina, and through traditional play such as Caretas and Baião, but also invigorated through songs that promote the value of labor and appreciation for the work of benzedeiras and benzedeiros (women and men that have spiritual knowledge on how to cure diseases and other evil).
Resistance is also manifested in the conservation of the territory and in the defense of the peoples’ food sovereignty, by promoting the preservation of native seeds, and maintaining the ancestral cooking practices that employ ash and smokehouse techniques. Furthermore, the community is engaged in the development of its own strategy of popular communication, which would assist in denouncing acts of violence and announcing periods of plentiful crops. Another key action carried out by the families in the community is the ongoing monitoring of the territory. The communal work strengthened by collective initiatives fosters solidarity and assists in the fight against the fires.
CIMI [Indigenous Missionary Council]. Encontro de povos e comunidades do Maranhão ocorre em comunidade invadida pela Suzano [Meeting of peoples and communities from Maranhão takes place in territory invaded by Suzano. December 2017.
Leandro dos Santos, quilombola community leader of Cocalinho territory, located in Parnarama, Maranhão, and “comunicador popular” [popular communicator], wrote this case with the assistance of Comissão Pastoral da Terra/MA.