Could Indigenous communities in Brazil hold key to climate justice?

Across the Amazon, Indigenous residents are developing sustainable economies centred on local production.

Indigenous community member Telma Macuxi offers caxiri to a community member who is helping work her land in Brazil's Amazon
Telma Macuxi offers caxiri to a community member who is helping work her land in the Willimon community in Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous territory, Brazil [Amanda Magnani/Al Jazeera]

This article was supported by the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Journalism Fund.

Boa Vista, Brazil – Under the scorching late-morning Amazon sun, dozens of people begin to approach from all corners of the woods, farming gear slung over their shoulders.

As tradition dictates, residents of the Willimon community in the Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous territory of Brazil’s Roraima state are coming together to help fellow farmers plough their land.

Despite the blue skies and high temperatures, it is winter, which means rainy season in the Amazon – so it is time for planting. Today, the men and women of this community are helping Telma Macuxi clear her land.

“I work as an Indigenous health agent [for] the Willimon community, but it is these crops that will provide for my household,” Macuxi told Al Jazeera. “I have a big family, and the salary I receive for my work is mostly used for the things we don’t produce: salt, sugar, clothes.”

Spanning nearly 1.75 million hectares (4.3 million acres), Raposa Serra do Sol is among the largest Indigenous territories in Brazil. After decades of land conflict, its boundaries were formally demarcated in 2005.

Throughout the day, neighbours and friends help Macuxi and her husband prepare the field. The couple offers community members warm meals and caxiri, a traditional drink made of fermented cassava.

The food produced here will not only feed Macuxi’s family, but also support the entire community: “We contribute to events and celebrations, and we also share the crops with other families who may not have as much,” she said.

Telma Macuxi and her husband pose in front of their field in Brazil
Telma Macuxi and her husband pose in front of their field in the Willimon community [Amanda Magnani/Al Jazeera]

Collective plans

This stance is not exclusive to communities in Raposa Serra do Sol.

The Indigenous economy across the Brazilian Amazon is defined by concepts of justice and sharing, acknowledging the various social roles played by community members, and the interconnectedness of local territories and biodiversity.

As the least-deforested areas of the Amazon, Indigenous lands are crucial for keeping global warming below the critical 1.5C threshold.

According to a recent academic study, Indigenous territories and protected areas accounted for only five percent of net forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon between 2000 and 2021. This is largely due to Indigenous peoples’ inherent devotion to preserving the environment for future generations.

In Roraima, this drive translates into long-term collective plans, wherein each community identifies sacred zones and production areas.

“Our goal is to manage our territories and their natural resources in accordance with our traditional knowledge,” Sineia do Vale, national coordinator for Brazil’s Indigenous Committee on Climate Change, told Al Jazeera.

More recently, she said, climate justice has become central to this process: “We don’t believe climate justice can be addressed detached from the management of our territories, as it pervades social and cultural issues, including income-generation alternatives that respect our ways of life.”

While such a vision might seem far-fetched in a capitalist world, a recent study (PDF) by the World Resources Institute Brasil suggests otherwise, indicating that an economy derived from the Indigenous experience is not only feasible, but lucrative.

Researchers found that adopting bioeconomic models based on the replication and expansion of arrangements that already exist in Indigenous territories could increase the Brazilian Amazon economy’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 40 billion reals ($8.4bn), create 312,000 jobs and increase the forest’s carbon stock by 19 percent.

This model would also make the region more resilient to economic crises.

“Under financial capitalism, vulnerable groups often suffer from the effects of abstract economic variables, which often escape their comprehension,” Wesley Matheus, a consultant for the World Bank, told Al Jazeera.

“Thus, economic systems that are to a certain extent dissociated from these variables and are instead integrated to the social-environmental dynamics of a given context tend to be more resilient to possible shocks in the financial market.”

Residents of the Willimon community in Brazil gather to help clear out the land of Telma Macuxi
Residents of the Willimon community gather to help clear out Macuxi’s land [Amanda Magnani/Al Jazeera]

Ecological protection

In communities such as Brazil’s Tabalascada, which houses around 1,000 people over 5,260 hectares (13,000 acres), this is already a reality. Its economy is circular and sustainable.

“Nowadays, nearly everything produced in our territory is commercialised and consumed within the community,” Chief Cesar Wapichana told Al Jazeera.

Since 2010, the community has been home to the Association of Indigenous Producers of Tabalascada. Members’ activities include agriculture, flour manufacturing and animal husbandry.

Last year, residents of the community created a WhatsApp group to promote the sale and trade of goods produced locally.

“A while back, we had to drive to the city to sell our products or pay someone to deliver them,” Wapichana said. “It was more complicated and expensive. Today, everything that is advertised in the WhatsApp group is sold almost immediately.”

The money flowing within the community has helped small businesses, such as snack bars and bodegas, while also stimulating producers who are at the core of the economic system. And because their trade depends heavily on local ecosystems, the circular economy of Tabalascada has also furthered ecological protection.

“We really do have a robust economy inside our territory,” Wapichana said. “That has brought growth for the entire community – always with preservation at the forefront of our minds.”

An area of preservation of the lavrado, traditional vegetation of the region where Tabalascada is located in Brazil
An area of preservation in the region where Tabalascada is located [Amanda Magnani/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera