$ 3 million and an official apology: Brazil’s Ashaninka get unprecedented compensation for deforestation on their lands

By Naira Hofmeister, translated by Matt Rinaldi

  • An unprecedented court settlement guaranteed reparations to the Ashaninka people of the state of Acre, in the Brazilian Amazon, whose lands were deforested in the 1980s to supply the European furniture industry. The sanctioned logging company was owned by the family of the current Governor of Acre, Gladson Cameli.
  • The conflict was resolved through the mediation of the Attorney General of the Republic, Augusto Aras, after the case circulated in the courts without resolution for 20 years.
  • The indigenous people only agreed to the negotiation because it included an official apology and recognition of their “enormous importance as guardians” of the Amazon.

Far from the chestnut trees that shape the landscape of the Kampa do Rio Amônia Indian Reservation at the western end of the state of Acre, the Ashaninka the town achieved its most important victory since the federal government first recognized its territory in 1992. On April 1, 2020, the Attorney General of the Republic, Augusto Aras, signed an unprecedented agreement that guaranteed reparations for crimes committed almost 40 years. the agreement grants this indigenous community the right to compensation of R $ 14 million (about US $ 3 million) with an official apology from the criminals.

His crime: the felling of thousands of mahogany, cedar and other tree species to supply the European furniture industry from 1981 to 1987. The devastation hit a quarter of the area that currently comprises the indigenous reserve. Francisco Piyãko, the Ashaninka leader, was a teenager at the time of the logging invasion. “What matters to us is what this agreement represents for the Ashaninka cause and how it can affect the affirmation of the rights and values ​​of indigenous peoples in a broader sense,” Piyãko explained to Mongabay.

Celebration of the Asháninka people in the Kampa of the Amônia River Indigenous Reserve, on the border with Peru. Arison Jardim / Ashaninka of the Amônia River Association

A dispute of two decades

The agreement marks the end of a legal dispute that began in 1996, when the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) initiated a Public Civil Action against logging companies owned by the powerful Cameli family. The same family as the current Governor of Acre, Gladson Cameli, and his uncle, Orleir Cameli, who was also Governor from 1994 to 1998.

The Ashaninka prevailed in their initial court case, in the appellate courts and also in the High Court of Justice (the highest Court of Appeal in Brazil for non-constitutional reasons). But as soon as the case reached the federal Supreme Court in 2011, it stalled.

At a standstill, an out-of-court settlement was imposed, but it took a year of regular negotiations until both parties agreed to the terms of the agreement. “It was a great challenge for everyone, because the negotiation involved large sums and constitutional issues. It required a lot of study, partners and several public authorities to analyze every detail,” observes Antônio Rodrigo, a lawyer for the Ashaninkas.

“It is the first time in the history of Brazilian law that something like this has happened. I am very proud. It was tough, but wonderful,” he sums up.

According to a notification published on the website of the Federal Public Ministry, which described the result of the negotiation as “historic”, Augusto Aras celebrated the validity of the constitution, “recognizing that the indigenous people are guaranteed the right to a dignified life, to choose their own destiny and to take part in political decisions.”

“With this agreement, there is the feeling that we are building a new moment of peace, harmony and, above all, understanding that wounds exist to heal, not perpetuate,” concludes Aras.

One of the defendants in the case, Abrahão Cândido da Silva, was excluded from the settlement and still faces charges of deforestation and invasion of indigenous land. The case is in the Federal Supreme Court file for April. In this case, the Supreme Court ministers will decide not only whether to convict the remaining defendant, but also whether there is a statute of limitations to claim compensation for an environmental crime.

The federal Public Ministry maintains that this environmental damage is inalienable, that is, it cannot be reversed, since it is part of the “right to life”, and that the determination of a statute of limitations would deny future generations the right to fight for a healthy environment. Said thesis was accepted by the Superior Court of Justice, and the review of its decision by the Supreme Court will acquire a status of general repercussion, that is, the sentence will apply to all cases from now on.

“This definition will affect hundreds of thousands of cases. To give three recent examples of massive environmental crimes that occurred in Brazil: we have Mariana, Brumadinho and, last year, the oil spill in Brazilian waters”, affirms lawyer Rodrigo.

The Amônia river in the state of Acre. It crosses the indigenous reserve that bears his name, which is the home of the Ashaninka in Brazil. Diego Gurgel / Government of Acre

The acknowledgment of guilt was decisive

The R $ 14 million will be paid to the indigenous people in installments over a period of five years. The final beneficiaries of the compensation will be decided annually in an Ashaninka assembly, but it is required to apply to projects “in defense of the community itself, the Amazon, the indigenous peoples and the peoples of the jungle.”

“Our resources will be used to maintain and recover our values. We call on this region to be increasingly respected and valued, that its products are placed in the market with added value, which in turn, will serve to guarantee sustainability. This is what we are going to do: we are not going to stop, “promises Francisco Piyãko, whose father, Antônio Piyãko, was responsible for reporting the invasion to the world through an open letter published in 1991.

In addition to the damages paid to the Asháninka, the logging companies will also have to pay R $ 6 million (US $ 1.2 million) to the Human Rights Defense Fund as compensation for the damage caused to society as a whole.

However, for the Ashaninka, the climax of the agreement with the logging companies was the official apology, contained in the agreement signed by all parties.

“Faced with all the events narrated and discussed extensively over the years in the Courts, (the logging companies) formally extend an official apology to the Ashaninka Community of the Amônia River for all the evils caused, respectfully acknowledging the enormous importance of the Asháninka People as guardians. of the forest, obedient in the preservation of the environment and in the conservation and diffusion of their customs and culture ”, affirms the settlement.

“If guilt had not been acknowledged, the indigenous people would not have accepted the deal,” says Rodrigo, a lawyer for the Ashaninka.

According to Piyãko, this moral reparation transcends the financial arrangement, symbolizing a victory for all the traditional peoples of Brazil and the world for the usurpation of their lands and traditional ways of life.

“Many indigenous communities have to see themselves in this recognition, because there are things that cannot be paid for with money,” says the Ashaninka leader. “Our intention is that this official apology is the recognition of a mistake made and (a promise) that, from now on, it will not be repeated anymore. And that it serves as a reference for other companies, because some laws and rights must be considerate and respected. “

Francico Piyãko at a celebration of the Ashaninka people. Arison Jardim / Ashaninka of the Amônia River Association

Published with permission of Mongabay.

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