Deni savor Amazon victory

Feature story - 6 August, 2003
After more than 18 years of campaigning, it's time to dance. The final line has been drawn protecting over 3.5 million hectares of Amazon rainforest, and now Brazilian indigenous people, called the Deni, celebrate the demarcation of their land.

Greenpeace volunteer with Deni children. The Brazilian indigenous peoples, the Deni, celebrate the completion of the demarcation of their land after more than 18 years of campaigning.

Those who helped the Deni in fighting to protect their territory--including activists from Greenpeace, the Missionary Indigenous Council (CIMI), and Native Amazon Operation (OPAN)--joined Brazilian authorities and journalists from around the world in the victory party. Organized by the Deni's patarahu (chiefs), the ceremony featured traditional songs and dance on the banks of the Xeruã River, in the village of Boiador.

The Deni demarcation will create an "ethno-environmental" corridor of more than 3,600,000 hectares of Amazon rainforest, linking eight indigenous lands. This corridor will ensure the exclusive use of forest resources by more than 2,400 individuals, including the Hi-mariman--an indigenous group numbering less than 200, who have had no contact with non-indigenous peoples.

Demarcating indigenous lands is an efficient method of protecting the Amazon rainforest, which is under threat from thousands of logging companies. The majority of these companies use illegal and predatory tactics like fires, cattle ranching and projects that ultimately open the heart of the Amazon to destruction. Satellite images of the Brazilian Amazon revealed increased deforestation. The Brazilian Government estimated that between August 2001 and August 2002, the equivalent of five million football fields were destroyed. This represented an increase of 40 percent in deforested areas in only one year, but it also revealed that indigenous lands were currently spared from this destruction.

After four years of working with the Deni to win the rights to their land, we are convinced that the preservation of the Amazon biodiversity, which is threatened by economic interests and 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.

History of Deni Demarcation

Since 1999, we have campaigned for the demarcation of the Deni land, an area of 1,530,000 hectares located in the valley between the Purus and Juruá rivers. At that time, we were investigating the purchase of 313,000 hectares of forest by the Malaysian logging giant WTK, who intended to explore the region to find timber to produce plywood for exports. WTK has a poor track record of disrespecting the law and indigenous people's rights. During field investigations, we discovered that half of the lands purchased by WTK--150,000 hectares--overlapped the Deni territory.

The Deni had begun their demarcation through official channels in 1985, but the process proved extremely slow. Now aware of the threat from WTK, they asked Greenpeace to assist in protecting their traditional land. At first, they tried to accelerate the official process of identification of the Deni boundaries in order to have their land demarcated by 2001. This process failed after becoming tied up in bureaucratic red tape, so the Deni chose to self-demarcate their land with our help.

"We will never leave our land," said Kubuvi Deni, one of the leaders. "We need this land to survive. We need to hunt and fish to have food. To do that, we need a lot of space."

Following the determination of the Deni, we contacted CIMI and OPAN--two Brazilian organizations with expertise in working with indigenous people in the Amazon--and, together, they developed a project to teach the Deni the necessary skills to recognize the borders of their land and take charge of the demarcation process. According to Ivar Busatto, from OPAN, "the fact that we were asked to help out other groups and to enter into a fight to give the Deni the recognition and rights they deserve, was extremely important."

In September 2001, the Deni began to self-demarcate their territory. The process included opening visible trails in the forest and placing signs to identify the indigenous land. Greenpeace sent 13 volunteers to the region and a helicopter to support the work. For over a month, the group worked under harsh conditions in the forest, until the Brazilian Ministry of Justice ordered the self-demarcation to stop and the non-governmental organisations to leave the area. The Deni refused to stop, and eventually after negotiation, their efforts were recognized. In October 2001, the Minister of Justice at that time, Jose Gregori, signed the Declaratory Act recognizing the rights and exclusive use of these lands for the Deni. In May 2003, the official demarcation finally started and the process has now been completed.

The Deni fight for the demarcation of their land is an example of determination of an indigenous people who took matters into their own hands. It is a live testimony in defense of keeping the Amazon resources in the hands of those who can better protect them: the traditional populations who live in the forest. It is something that deserves to be celebrated.