Valéria Vasconcelos O.

This article reports an experience in popular education and culture circles inserted in the formation process of the Deliberative Councils in two conservation regions – the Anfrisio stream (Riozinho do Anfrísio) and the Iriri River (Rio Iriri) – situated in the Terra do Meio (or Middle Land) of the Amazon region. Community empowerment, based on participation and dialogue seems to be one of the alternatives to the struggle and pressure in a region where the interests are conflicting and ambiguous, since the social actors are as distinct as the intentionality that brings them closer together or drives them apart. The methodology used and the events experienced may serve as parameters for actions with traditional populations, whether or not they remain in the conservation unities. It is important to observe, however, that the problems identified here are regional and, therefore, their solutions must be understood within their specificities and idiosyncrasies. Valéria Vasconcelos is a professor at the University of Uberabas in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais.

River-Dweller Populations in the Amazon Region and the Preservation of the Traditional Culture: Dilemmas in a Globalized Society

First Words

"We do not want to defend just a part of our environment; we want to defend the entire environment".
(Osmarino Amâncio)1

The Amazon region has been, in the past few decades, the focus of attention of several distinct interests, since different countries, with different interests, present themselves more and more as the protagonists in discussions which involve issues such as development and environmentalism. These interests relating to the Amazon region are, in addition to conflicting, quite ambiguous, since the social actors are as dissimilar as the intentionality that brings them together or drives them apart:

“Despite the apparent polarization between the developers and environmen talists, the conflicting elements are not constituted in homogeneous blocks. In that arena numerous social actors can be identified, some like regional and national entrepreneurs, multinational companies with economic inter est in the region and others with national influence, like the military, who are trying to regain influence in the geopolitics of the region.”
(Garnelo e Sampaio, 2005, p. 762)

The discussions on the Amazon region converge not only those who intend to pre serve and maintain an “untouched forest,” but also those who are seduced by its immeasurable riches, comprising uncountable subjectivities in this complex network of relations which defines life in a society revealing itself to be increasingly global. According to Porto Gonçalves (2008) the Amazon region is plural, not singular: Amazonia, Amazonias. In this vast region, which occupies nine Brazilian States, more than half of the national territory, in the “country of the waters”, as Tiago de Mello called it, the biggest biodiversity of the planet exists and co-exists with incalculable natural resources and a natural and cultural patrimony as huge as the size of its ecosystem.

Less frequently, however, people who live in and from the forest are present in the discussions; little do we see the “other”, as observed by Whitaker e Fiamengue (2002), who would be represented by “all the traditional populations (peasants, indigenous Indians and forest people, etc.) exploited by the economic system, with its perverse articulations.” (p. 20) The authors point out the prejudices dis closed against those populations when, trying to keep a balance in relation to the environment, resisting the advances of the system and defending their culture and traditionalism when dealing with the ecosystem, they are accused of being “primitive, wild” and “reactionary”. On the other hand, when those populations surrender to the pressures and begin to act according to the rules of the market, they are accused of being non-traditional, destroyers of their own environment, “most of the time had already been impacted by the same economic forces, which eventually will destroy any resistance to integration”. In short, “if they fight to be integrated, they are accused of depredating the environment, and if they resist, they are accused of impairing progress”. (p. 20)

This rainforest population lives in a turbulent scenario with pressures and conflicts that are difficult to solve. Furthermore, according to Garnelo and Sampaio (op. cit.), governmental action is very contradictory, in some situations supporting incentives to reduce tax for predatory activities, and then promoting environmental protection procedures.

The Rubber Extractors and their Struggle

Among all the social movements in the Brazilian Amazon region, in order for us to understand what kind of people we are working with, one deserves special at tention: the rubber-tappers’ movement.

The rubber booms in Brazil were mainly between 1850 and 1970, and were characterized by migrations from several parts of the country, mainly from the North and Northeast. The “rubber soldiers” – as the men who went to the Amazon region to work with latex extraction from the rubber trees became known – had to adapt into a completely unknown context, adding their agricultural knowledge to the knowledge apprehended from the native populations, although such relations were quite conflicting and frequently unfriendly.

The social struggles of that movement eventually attracted specific public policies of preservation and conservation of the nature and of the values and culture of the traditional non-native populations, the “Extractive Reserves”.





Riverine’s houses
Source: Valéria Vasconcelos O.



The Extractive Reserves

According to the SNUC (Sistema Nacional de Unidades de Conservação da Natu reza), the “Extractive Reserves” – ER (Reservas Extrativistas, RESEX) are areas used by traditional extractivist populations who live from subsistence agriculture, from micro-livestock farming and from the extraction of the rainforest’s natural resources; the main goal of those conservation units is the protection of the culture and way of life of those populations, in addition to the protection of the natural resources in the area (Bill Nº 9.985, 18 July 2000, Art. 18º, p. 7).

According to Osmarino Amâncio, well-known activist in the struggle for the establishment of such protected areas, the rubber tappers, who had no tradition of collectivity – often due to the secluded conditions in which they lived in the for est – began to organized themselves as a social movement during a time of strug gle for their survival and maintenance of their way of life. For him, if sustainable development is a current topic today, for the indigenous people and tappers the practice has been common for many yeas.

The tappers’ success in getting the protected areas spread nationwide2 and the plurality of the resident populations continue to be the highlight of these social movements for basic human rights. However, for the legal implementation of an ER, it is necessary to elaborate a “Management Plan”, which consists, roughly, in the definition, together with the community, of the rules of use which will guide the dwellers and their possible partners.

The experience related here is specifically about some steps toward the elabora tion of Management Plans by two ERs – River Iriri (Rio Iriri) and Anfrisio’s Stream (Riozinho do Anfrísio) – and their dialogue with the education of the population, so as to problematize the challenge of their traditional culture’s preservation in a globalized society. The culture circles occupied the margins of the Iriri and Anfrisio rivers, in rooms and sheds built with wood, loam and babassu straw, with the river dwellers, the men and women who have a deeply rooted history in the Middle Land (Terra do Meio), in search of a dialogue full of symbols and meanings for their daily life:

“Educator and pupils (leadership and mass), co-intended in relation to reality, meet for a task in which both are subjects in the action, not only to disclose it and thus critically know it, but also to re-create that knowledge.”
(Freire, 1977, p. 61)

The Middle Land and the River-dweller Populations

The Middle Land (Terra do Meio), is located in Para State (Northern region of Brazil), in the Xingu River hydrographic basin, and is a region very rich in bio diversity and is one of the world’s biggest mosaics of conservation areas. In this region there are Federal and State Conservation Units like the Indigenous Lands, (Terras Indígenas), a National Park, an Ecological Station (ESEC), a National For est (FLONA), a State Forest (FLOTA), a State Environmental Protection Area (APA) and two Extractive Reserves.

The present dwellers are remainders from the “rubber soldiers”, who stayed there even after the economic decline in demand for the Amazonian latex. These river dwellers reside mostly near the borders of the rivers, narrow riverbanks (igarapés) and swamplands (igapós), and basically live from extractivism:

“The natural resources of the jungle have different uses among the river-dwellers in the region. For some of them fishing, as well as agriculture, is used only for subsistence, whereas for others it is also an income source. The same happens with other products such as honey, medicinal herbs, edible fruit and fruits used to extract oil (copaiba tree, crab-tree, pataua and babassu trees). The wood is used, in general, to build houses or canoes, and for cooking. Hunting is done only for sustenance.”
(Salazar, et. al. 2008, p. 27)





Learning to read even without light
Source: Valéria Vasconcelos O.




The two reserves are very isolated geographically. Altamira is considered to be the biggest county in Brazil and in the world in territory.3 From the county seat to the most distant location of the Riozinho do Anfrisio ER, it may take between five and fifteen days by boat, depending on the season of the year. Furthermore, the distance between the houses or locations within the ERs is huge, usually 20 to 30 kilometers from one another.

The population of Rio Iriri ER is 235 inhabitants, distributed among 51 families in 23 locations. The highest concentration of population is 30 dwellers from seven families in Ilha do Amor. In the place with the lowest concentration (Pati I) there is only one inhabitant.

The population of Riozinho do Anfrísio is 261 inhabitants, distributed among 52 families. The site with highest concentration of population is Morro Verde with 53 in habitants and nine families, and the lowest, Largo Bonito, has only one dweller.

Education is fundamentally based on oral transmission of information, and the knowledge is transmitted from fathers/mothers to their sons/daughters daily, in solidarity, in the ancestral apprenticeship deeply related to nature. These values are present in their daily lives and in the community memory, seasoning the recipes of babassu oil, forest medicines, or even the care with the woods and the animals. Most of the children of the river-dwellers are born into the hands of neighboring midwives. Sons and daughters are usually born among many mothers: the one who “takes” them from their mothers’ world and receives them in the outside world (“mães de pegação”, as midwives are called); the one who protects them as a “godmother”; and the one who chooses or is chosen to bring up a child that is not hers biologically but becomes her child for life. Thus, the care network of the children grows enormously; with a vast relationship network, the children are cared for by all (or almost all) the adults living in the region. The children’s education is a socialized duty and takes place in distinct apprenticeship communities daily and endogenously, traditionally and ancestrally.

It is with this form of education, intrinsically based on oral transmission of informa tion, that the community was formed. There were formal schools in the region only during the rubber boom (approximately during the 1940s and 1950s), but that was punctual and for a short period. The consequence of such a denial of rights is that an 80 % illiteracy rate was diagnosed in both reserves:

“The persistence of illiteracy is one of the most significant indicators of political, socioeconomic and cultural inequality, limiting the essential value of human dignity. The presence of illiteracy is always associated with situations of under-development, marginality or isolation […] The geography of the illiteracy coincides almost exactly with the geography of poverty, with rare exceptions.”
(Torrado, 1991, p. 51)

Valuing the Traditional Way of Life

The legal prerogatives which rule the ERs make it necessary that all initiatives car ried out are based on dialogue and participation of the traditional communities involved/affected. The official discourse reflects the political intentionality of a party originally born in the social movements, and even if that discourse “is not actually carried out”, it indicates a democratic way of social transformation.

There is no attempt here to look deeply into the contradictions between discourse and practice in the several present or past governmental spheres; it is worth warn ing, however about the historical use of progressivist discourses by elite groups to keep the oppressed classes where they are. One of Freire’s accusations in relation to the bank-like education refers to similar practices:

the educator is the one who acts; the pupils are the ones who have the illusion of acting in the educator’s action.”
(Freire, 1977, p. 68)

“participative methodologies have served only to legitimize authoritarian processes disguised as dialogical processes: the people who are responsible for conducting a process of participative management end by imposing their ideas and ideals, many times with the best of intentions, without realizing that the struggle for the oppressed people is not the donation of leadership, but a result of their conscious awareness.”

(Freire, op.cit., p.58)




Culture Circle
Source: Valéria Vasconcelos O.




The goal of creating Deliberative Councils in the ERs is to guarantee a better understanding and integration among the social actors in the region, taking into account their historical, social and cultural aspects, trying to protect the traditional communities living there and attest to and/or improve sustainable practices of use of the jungle’s natural resources. Considering that the creation of the Extraction Reserves represent, even nowadays, a great achievement of the social movements, we began a process of “reading the world and problematizing that lived-in world” together with the population in order to find new ways of strengthening the local by using such broadened horizons.

The “culture circles” were founded in four different sites in each ER, chosen by the communities, and they discussed the most relevant questions concerning the daily life of the people involved. The principal generator theme that moved the partici pants was the formation of the Deliberative Council, which implied discussions on sustainability, production, commercialization, territoriality, values and belonging. Thus, the reading of the world came from the knowledge that youngsters and adults had of the reality of where they were and, later on, from the problematization of this reading of reality, and then, departing from there, being able to propose ways to overcome the problems identified:

“More than just writing and reading [...] the pupils need to perceive the necessity of another learning: the one of “writing” their own lives and the one of ’reading‘ their reality, which is not possible if they do not take history into their hands to make it, and making it, to be made and re-made by it.”
(Freire, 1982, p. 16)

The literacy meetings were carried out daily for around fifteen days in each ER and the popular educators were formed in the process, in the daily companionship with the river-dwellers, identifying different forms of knowledge and sharing new knowledge, always warning about the importance of participation and dialogue to guarantee a better comprehension of their reality, historically built, so as to be able to intervene critically in it. As Freire states:

“Since the very beginning of the struggle for humanization, for overcoming the contradiction oppressor-oppressed, it is necessary that they are convinced that the struggle demands, from the very moment they accept it, their total commit ment. This struggle is not justified if they just gain freedom to eat, but “freedom to create and build, to admire and take chances. Such freedom demands an active and responsible individual, not a slave or a well-fed part of the machine. It is not enough that the men are not slaves; if the human conditions encour age the existence of a robot, the result is not love toward life, but love toward death.”
(Freire, 1977, p. 59)

The generator words referred to the social organization (family, community); to the subsistence and income practices (collecting, hunting, farming, fishing); to the forms of commercialization (retailing, expensive, cheap); to the local natural resources (babassu tree, copaiba tree, Brazil-nut tree); to the risk (smoke, trash); to the social roles (man, woman) and to the instances for decisions (association, council, vote), among others.

Challenges in a Globalized Society

The Deliberative Councils were created in respect to a horizontal relationship from which all benefit, without instrumentalizing the educational process, but implicating and committing with it. The actions of the river-dweller men and women in those decision-making spaces has been engaged and committed, with a growing critical consciousness about their rights and duties as citizens living in ERs.




Culture Circle studying a book about plants
Source: Valéria Vasconcelos O.




As a result of their pressures and deliberations in the Councils, two schools were installed in the region, one in each of the conservation units. The present challenge is, in addition to an endeavor to guarantee their rights, to think and reflect on how such rights can serve, in an organic manner, the local demands. The model of Culture Circle studying a book about plants Source: Valéria Vasconcelos O.

apprenticeship communities, in which all the people of the region educate and are educated in their social practices, seems to be the one that best suits a formal education purpose in the ERs where we worked. If the aim in those unities is to value and preserve the traditional way of life, the school cannot break with the traditional ways of teaching and learn ing that are founded in the family relations, and, from them, spread to other spaces.

We know that the globalized model of socialization is predatory, degrading, exclusionary and non-sustainable, diametrically opposed to the existing model of this region.

An educational model is needed which respects the traditional ways of life and the essential knowledge for their cultural, social, religious and ancestral reproduction, which can only come from the community that educates itself.

In this search we are presently all committed: community, managers, partners and external educators.



Learning to write
Source: Valéria Vasconcelos O.



Freire, P. Pedagogia do Oprimido. 4. ed. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1977 .

Freire, P. Educación y acción cultural. Bilbao: Zero, S.A. 1979, 121p .

Freire, P. Ação Cultural para a Liberdade. 6. ed. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1982 .

Garnelo, Luiza; SAMPAIO, Sully. Globalização e ambientalismo: etnicidades polifônicas n a Amazônia. Hist. cienc. saude-Manguinhos , Rio de Janeiro, v. 12, n. 3, 2005.

Lei Federal N. 9.985, de I8 de Julho de 2000 (SNUC). Diário Oficial da República Federativa do Brasil, Brasília, DF, 19 jul. 2000. Seção 1, p 01 – 06.

Salazar, M. (org.); NEVES, L.; REIS, Alan; SANTOS, R.; SIQUEIRA C.; STRAATMANN, J.; VASCONCELOS, V.. Diagnóstico socioeconômico, cadastramento e formação do conselho deliberativo da Resex Riozinho do Anfrísio. ICMBio, Altamira, PA. 2008, 154p.

Salazar, M. (org.); NEVES, L.; REIS, Alan; SANTOS, R.; SIQUEIRA C.; STRAATMANN, J.; VASCONCELOS, V. Diagnóstico socioeconômico, cadastramento e formação do conselho deliberativo da Resex do Rio Iriri. ICMBio, Altamira, PA. 2008, 152p.

Torrado, S.S. Educación de Adultos y calidad de vida. 1. ed. Barcelona: El Roure Editorial, 1991, 125p.

Whitaker, Dulce C.A. e Fiamengue, Elis C. Ciência e Ideologia: as armadilhas do precon ceito. In Whitaker, Dulce. Sociologia Rural: questões metodológicas emergentes. Presidente Wenceslau, São Paulo: Letras à Margem, 2002 (pp. 19-32).

Whitaker, Dulce Consuelo A. e Bezzon, Lara Crivelaro. A Cultura e o Ecossistema: reflexões a partir de um diálogo. Campinas, São Paulo: Editora Alínea, 2006.


1 Translator’s note: all quotations in this text have been translated by me, without any reference to possible former translations. In this particular citation, the author plays with the word environment, in Portuguese meio-ambiente. The word meio/mean can be translated – in other contexts – as half, and that makes the pun. The author says that he is not defending half of the environment, but the entire environment.

2 Today there are ERs in which different groups of traditional populations live, such as Amazonian riverdwellers, babassu collectors, people who live by the sea, fishermen, quilombolas (T.N.: black slaves who took refuge in a hiding place called quilombo), among others.

3 If Altamira county were a country, it would be the 91st largest country in the world, larger than Greece and Nepal, and almost as large as Tunisia, Suriname and Uruguay. If it were a Brazilian State, it would be the 16th largest one, a little smaller than Paraná and larger than Acre and Ceará.

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