In western Brazil's Amazon, the very people tasked with looking after the world's greatest rainforest are themselves wondering if they have a future.
"We are just trying to survive," said Cleyton de Oliveira, 24. De Oliveira lives in one of the special areas called extractive reserves that were pioneered in the 1980s by environmentalist and union leader Francisco "Chico" Mendes as a way of putting small producers in charge of the forest. The idea was to allow modest communities to farm in a sustainable manner. That way the poor had an opportunity to make a living and to own land, while their presence would keep the giant ranches and plantations encroaching constantly on the Amazon at bay. Mendes was murdered by a rancher in 1988 but not before his groundbreaking idea had taken root, part of a legacy that made him a national hero.
Three decades later, there are 90 such reserves across Brazil, covering 96,500 square miles (250,000 km2), including two created in 2008 in the western state of Amazonas, called Ituxi and Medio Purus - huge territories home to just 6,600 people in total. They are the descendants of workers employed in slavery-like conditions as rubber tappers in the 20th century before extractive reserves gave the poor a chance to build new, freer futures.
"We had to fight for years to get them, getting a lot of threats," said Silverio Barros Maciel, an Ituxi reserve community leader. But today, with almost no government support and ever growing pressure from ranchers who want their lands, the forest farmers say that clock is turning back. In the two Amazonas reserves, farmers harvest Brazil nuts, acai, fish and other produce on a modest scale. The creation of the reserves "meant freedom," says Medio Purus leader Jose Maria de Oliveira. It also meant another line of defense for the Amazon rainforest, putting locals in charge of making sure that exploitation of the natural resources is sustainable and preventing big companies from grabbing land.
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