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Climate ChangeHow Indigenous People Are Restoring Brazil’s Atlantic Forest

How Indigenous People Are Restoring Brazil’s Atlantic Forest

It was 2016 when Jurandir Jekupe noticed the bees were gone.

Their nests were once common in Yvy Porã, the Guarani Mbya village where Jekupe grew up and still lives. But now the uruçu, a species known for its honey, had all but vanished, and sightings of the jataí, a species sacred to the Guarani Mbya, were rare.

“Bees are very sensitive,” says Jekupe, a frontrunner in his Indigenous community. “They’re like a thermometer for the forest. In the event that they disappear, you realize there’s something fallacious.”

Yvy Porã is certainly one of six villages that make up the Jaraguá Indigenous Territory. It lies just 12 miles northwest of downtown São Paulo and is surrounded by the concrete of working-class neighborhoods. But this small forested area is an element of a much larger whole — Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, a website that covers almost 35,000 square miles, running along greater than 1,800 miles of the Atlantic Coast, sweeping across 17 Brazilian states, and dipping into Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

Logging of this forest — still considered the second largest rainforest in Brazil — began within the early 16th century as land was cleared for timber and mines after which, within the 19th century, for coffee plantations, beef, sugar, firewood, and charcoal. Today, developers proceed to clear the Atlantic Forest for housing, because the populations of São Paulo — currently home to 12.4 million people — and Rio de Janeiro explode.

Indigenous peoples in Brazil are widely considered land protectors, and a latest study of the Atlantic Forest confirms it.

Because the forest has fallen, so have populations of native bees. And without the pollination they supply, the forest that is still — in places like Yvy Porã — has struggled to survive.

So the Guarani Mbya decided to do something about it.

A nomadic people, they often travel to other villages throughout the forest, visiting family and exchanging information. On a visit in 2016, residents of Yvy Porã learned that villagers within the state of Espírito Santo, which had also lost its native bees, had began buying bees, raising them in picket hives, and reintroducing them to their land. The Guarani Mbya decided to bring the concept back with them to São Paulo.

And it worked.

Based on a study published within the journal Ecological Applications, the restoration and conservation of tropical forests in Brazil relies on plant species that depend on bees for pollination. While looking specifically on the Atlantic Forest, the researchers concluded that conserving bee populations must be a priority for forest restoration.

“There’s a difference now,” says Márcio Mendonça Boggarim, chief of Yvy Porã and its head beekeeper. “The bees are thriving and the plants now we have been reintroducing to our land have been doing higher, growing more.”

Left: Jurandir Jekupe of the Guarani Mbya tends to a beehive in the village of Yvy Porã in the Atlantic Forest. Right: An uruçu stingless bee in one of 110 beehives in Yvy Porã.

Left: Jurandir Jekupe of the Guarani Mbya tends to a beehive within the village of Yvy Porã within the Atlantic Forest. Right: An uruçu stingless bee in certainly one of 110 beehives in Yvy Porã.
Jill Langlois

Each the trees and the bees, it turned out, needed a hand from the individuals who lived amongst them and had a deep connection to their land.

Indigenous peoples across Brazil are widely considered land protectors, and a latest study of those living within the Atlantic Forest confirms it. Not only do Indigenous peoples beat back against further attempts at deforestation, the study found, in addition they initiate projects to revive biomes just like the Atlantic Forest, including the reintroduction of native bees and the planting of trees and other vegetation that were way back worn out by outsiders.

But like many other Indigenous groups living within the Atlantic Forest, the Guarani Mbya are working at an obstacle. They lack financial support from outside their community and, most significantly, from the federal government, which has yet to grant them tenure to the whole thing of their land, which on the Jaraguá Indigenous Territory covers some 1,315 acres. And without this official recognition, their efforts to lift money for restoration efforts are less effective than they may very well be, leaving the Atlantic Forest vulnerable to much more loss.

Added to the World Heritage List by UNESCO in 1999, the South-East reserves of the Atlantic Forest — and other parts of this biome — are home to well-known species like jaguars, sloths, golden lion tamarins, and toucans, along with lesser-known species like thin-spined porcupines and Bocaina treefrogs. Based on the World Wildlife Fund, one hectare of Atlantic Forest can support 450 species of trees. Of its 20,000 vascular plant species, about 8,000 are endemic, meaning they occur nowhere else on the planet.

“The Atlantic Forest has also been largely neglected in the case of Indigenous peoples,” says a researcher.

While an estimated 83 percent of the Amazon rainforest, which commonly makes headlines for its rampant deforestation, remains to be intact, only about 12 percent of the Atlantic Forest stays standing. It’s a percentage that worries scientists.

Most experts recommend maintaining 30 percent of forest cover to take care of biodiversity, says Rayna Benzeev, a postdoctoral research fellow on the University of California, Berkeley, who studies the restoration of tropical forests, with an emphasis on the Atlantic Forest. Once forest cover dips below that threshold, wildlife are liable to disappearing.

Worldwide, Indigenous communities are increasingly seen as one of the best protectors of forests. Based on the World Resources Institute, lands under Indigenous control within the Amazon suffer less deforestation than those outside Indigenous control and so are inclined to be net carbon sinks, moderately than net carbon sources. And environmentalists increasingly acknowledge that forest communities often make higher custodians of their forests than do formally protected national parks.

As a part of a recent study published within the journal PNAS Nexus, Benzeev and her coauthors checked out 129 Indigenous lands within the Atlantic Forest. There, they found either less deforestation or increased reforestation where Indigenous people have formal rights to their land, compared with Indigenous communities that lack official rights to their land.

Source: Pinto & Voivodic, 2021.

Source: Pinto & Voivodic, 2021.
Yale Environment 360

Based on the study, annually after tenure was formalized, forest cover increased 0.77 percent compared with Indigenous territories that were untenured. It’s a finding that highlights the importance of granting formal land title to Indigenous communities within the forest.

“The Atlantic Forest has also been largely neglected in the case of Indigenous peoples,” says Benzeev, who carried out the study while receiving her PhD in environmental studies on the University of Colorado, Boulder. “But it can be crucial to recollect what number of Indigenous lands and peoples there are within the Atlantic Forest,” which can be home to the vast majority of Brazilians, most of whom live in large urban centers.

For the Guarani Mbya living on the Jaraguá Indigenous Territory, land tenure has long been a fancy and trying issue. On paper, the Indigenous group has tenure over just 4.2 acres of land, enough space for the 70 people living in Ytu, certainly one of six Guarani Mbya villages. The remainder of the 700 Guarani Mbya living on the territory, including those in Yvy Porã, occupy land for which they don’t yet have official tenure. Once land is under the tenure of Indigenous peoples in Brazil, the federal government is required by law to guard it. If outsiders try and invade and deforest the land, authorities are required by law to remove them, although those laws haven’t at all times been enforced, especially throughout the recent administration of Jair Bolsonaro, who served as president from 2019 to 2022.

For a long time, the Guarani Mbya have sought official tenure of their lands, but their petition has remained stalled.

The Guarani Mbya have, for a long time, sought official tenure for the just about 1,315 acres they already survive; the federal government addressed their request most recently in 2015. Their petition went through a lot of the required steps, but then, like many other petitions for land tenure in Brazil, it stalled. All it needs now’s a signature from President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and official registration.

During his election campaign, Lula, because the president is thought, promised to sign land tenure decrees for all 237 pending requests from Indigenous peoples, saying it was “an ethical commitment, an ethical commitment for individuals who are humanists, for individuals who defend Indigenous peoples.” His government has since said that tenure for the primary 13 Indigenous territories will probably be finalized by the top of this month; the Jaraguá Indigenous Territory isn’t amongst those territories.

Because the Guarani Mbya’s legal fight continues, so does their work to revive their piece of the Atlantic Forest. Some residents of the territory deal with removing invasive species from the forest: Coffee plants still run rampant on their land, displacing native species, and old plantations of eucalyptus have been causing problems too, sucking up an excessive amount of water and resulting in overly dry soil and erosion. The Guarani Mbya have been replacing these plants with native species like brazilwood, mate, and palmito juçara.

A river in the Atlantic Forest near Ubatuba, Brazil.

A river within the Atlantic Forest near Ubatuba, Brazil.
Octavio Campos Salles / Alamy Stock Photo

They’ve had to buy seedlings and saplings, Jekupe says, chuckling at one small tree recently planted next to a grouping of beehives. It still has a price tag hanging from its thin trunk. “Forty-five reais,” he says as he turns it over in his hand. “Who would have thought we might must pay for trees for our own land?”

Others work alongside Boggarim, the Yvy Porã chief, learning to look after the eight species of native bees he’s brought back to the village. The foot-tall picket boxes with corrugated tin roofs stand on poles among the many trees, each with a species-specific opening in its front where bees, all stingless, zip out and in. He has placed their 110 hives in groupings around Yvy Porã, a strategic plan to make certain the bees and the forest may also help one another equally.

“Protecting our territory, reforestation, raising native bees: It’s all one job,” says Boggarim. “We will’t consider them as individual tasks. Without one, we are able to’t have the others.”

Boggarim’s father and grandfather first taught him concerning the importance of the insect to the forest and their culture. The jataí’s wax, as an example, is was candles utilized in Guarani Mbya naming ceremonies and for making other sacred objects essential to their prayer houses. Now Boggarim passes that information to younger generations, together with what he’s learned from other beekeepers about monitor the insects and make certain they’re healthy and thriving.

“If we wish to save lots of the forest, we want the federal government to officially recognize that that is our land.”

Boggarim has helped bring bees into five villages on the Jaraguá Indigenous Territory and has plans for a sixth, and he’s desirous about how they will start producing and selling honey. It will not only provide local families with much needed income, but would also help them share their culture and the importance of the forest with people outside their community.

Already, the Guarani Mbya work with schools to offer educational tours on their land. But without tenure for all of their land, it’s been a struggle to get some projects off the bottom.

For instance, Jekupe explains, most of their projects require resources to be shipped in from out of state — their bees got here from the Guarani Mbya village in Espírito Santo, some 705 miles away, and a few of their plants got here from so far as Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s most southern state. Funding for these projects often comes from NGOs and government bodies, but within the absence of land tenure, some donors draw back from these projects, apprehensive that bureaucracy and conflicts could bring them to a halt.

“If we wish to save lots of the forest, we want the federal government to officially recognize that that is our land,” says Jekupe. “We’re those who see the results of deforestation, who feel the results of climate change, each day. And in the event that they step out of the way in which, we’re those who can do something about it.”


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