Amazon community prevails over loggers

Feature story - May 13, 2003
The Amazon rainforest is more than ancient trees and endangered species. It is home for millions of people and their way of life is often threatened by forest destruction. This was the case for the Deni Indians whose land was under threat by a foreign logging company. But the Deni fought back, determined to protect the forest they depend on and their unique culture. And now they have won.

After a long struggle the Deni Indians of the Brazilian Amazon will have their land demarcated by the government and protected from logging.

The Deni Indians live in a remote area of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, a community of little more than 600 people. They have had little contact with the outside world and their way of life - food, fishing, even religious beliefs - are all intricately linked to the forest that surrounds them.

But their community was threatened several years ago when a Malaysian logging company illegally purchased logging rights that overlapped with the Deni territory. Greenpeace made contact with the Deni and explained what was happening. Since then the Deni have been determined to protect their lands and now the government is marking the boundaries of their territory, legally recognising their land to keep out invaders and industrial development.

The threat to their lands

In 1999, a Greenpeace investigation uncovered that the Deni Indian land was under imminent threat from destruction by the Malaysian logging company, WTK.

WTK intended to start logging in the area to produce plywood. We discovered that a great part of the land purchased by WTK from the local Amazon patron Mario Moraes overlapped with the Deni territory. These indigenous lands had been illegally sold. During successive expeditions to the remote villages on the Cuniuá and Xeruã rivers in the south western part of the Brazilian Amazon, we were able to inform the Deni leaders about the invasion of their land by the Malaysian logging company.

The Deni were shocked. They had been suffering death and disease due to contacts with the colonisation fronts over the past 60 years, they could not understand how this latest problem could occur.

You see, the Deni first started the official demarcation process back in 1985. Demarcation is the constitutional recognition of their rights over their territory and the only way to guarantee the protection of the environment they depend on. But by 1999, official channels had failed the Deni and they asked us to help them fight for their demarcation.

Taking the process into their own hands

Early in 2001 Greenpeace returned to the Deni lands with a multi skilled team of anthropologists, indigenous issues experts, sociologists and agricultural engineers who worked directly with the Deni leaders from all eight villages preparing them to take charge of their demarcation. The Deni learned how to handle surveying equipment, such as theodolites, compasses and GPS (global satellite positioning systems), which enabled them to acquire a clear picture of the borders of their territory.

This so-called "self-demarcation" is not common. Usually the federal government sends in anthropologists, geographers, and inspectors who determine the range of an Indian community's lands, write reports and draw a map, submit their findings to FUNAI (the federal government agency in charge of indigenous issues in Brazil), and await the approval of the physical demarcation. Once approved, FUNAI contracts a company to go to the land and cut a six metre border through the jungle, marking the outer limits of the property. The Indians themselves are usually involved only on the periphery.

By September 2001 the Deni were ready to start the demarcation of their own lands.

Volunteers from Greenpeace and Brazilian indigenous organisations supplied technical and logistical support to the Deni as they marked their most vulnerable borders, cutting 53 km of trails through thick jungle, and 218 km along the banks of rivers and creeks. Along the routes, the Deni posted signs reading "Entry Prohibited. Deni Land."

A month after the beginning of the self-demarcation project, the Brazilian Minister of Justice published the Demarcation Decree, granting constitutional recognition of the Deni rights over their traditional territory.

Victory for the Deni

After a long struggle supported by Brazilian organisations including Greenpeace, the Deni Indians won the right to legally protect their lands from illegal logging and industrial practices. And now the Brazilian government is about to finish the demarcation project the Deni began.

Demarcation of the land will be identified by signs and stones declaring the area Deni land and by a visible border that will encompass over 1500 square kilometres of the Amazon. This marks the area legally as Deni thus protecting it from invaders including loggers and other industrial development. The process, which has just begun, is expected to take 80 days.

"We have been working in partnership with the Deni for four years to protect their land and their traditional lifestyle," said Nilo D'Avila, Greenpeace Amazon campaigner, who was in the Deni area following the beginning of the official demarcation process. "We are convinced that the preservation of the Amazon biodiversity, which is threatened by economic interests and by an unsustainable pattern of consumption, will only be guaranteed if it is done in partnership with the people who take care of the Amazon forest as their homeland".

If all the indigenous lands in the Brazilian Amazon were demarcated, almost 20 percent of the forest area would be under legal protection. "The Deni demarcation is an historical step for all those who fight to reverse the trend of destruction of the natural heritage through working with traditional communities and the enforcement of law," said Nilo.

More to come

In July we will travel back to the Deni territory to witness the completion of the Deni demarcation and celebrate this incredible victory with them. Join us then for updates, images and stories from the Deni land to celebrate their achievement and take action for the protection of the Amazon.

The story in pictures

View the Deni slide show to see images from their remote territory in the Amazon and witness their incredible struggle.