PAP 51 : The Instituto Socioambiental and the Waiwai People in the Amazon

Drawing inspiration from Brazilian organisations that fight for the preservation of the rights of traditional peoples and their territories

Marion Bruère, juin 2021

Le Collectif Paysages de l’Après-Pétrole (PAP)

Anxious to ensure the energy transition and, more generally, the transition of our societies towards sustainable development, 60 planning professionals have joined together in an association to promote the central role that landscape approaches can play in territorial planning policies. Marion Bruère, a young landscape designer graduated from the Ecole de Versailles, volunteered for a year with the Brazilian Socioambiental Institute (ISA), which has been working since 1994 to preserve the rights and territories of indigenous peoples. Following this experience «  in an oppressive context due to the arrival of Jair Bolsonaro in power, the increase in deforestation but also the Covid epidemic ", she wonders about the lessons learned within the ISA to act from now on on on our territories in Ile-de-France.

I worked for seven years, within the association Terre et Cité, for a development respectful of the actors and the agricultural territory on the Saclay plateau. In order to discover how, on a larger scale and in a very different context, non-governmental organisations are acting in Brazil to preserve the Amazon, I was able to volunteer with the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) between October 2020 and April 2021 1.

I was able to follow the actions of the team in the state of Roraima, in the north of the Brazilian Amazon, working with the Waiwai and Yanomami peoples. In an oppressive context due to the arrival of Jair Bolsonaro in power, the increase in deforestation but also the Covid epidemic, what lessons can be learned from the learning received within the ISA to act on our territories in the Ile-de-France region?

«  Socioambiental se escreve junto " : socioambiental is written in one word 2.

10% of the planet’s biodiversity, 45,000 species of plants and vertebrate animals 3, hundreds of new species identified each year in the largest tropical forest 4 : contrary to a commonly accepted image, «  the forest is cultivated and managed by the indigenous peoples  » recalls Ailton Krenak, an indigenous Brazilian leader « It took the Indians 12,000 years to form this Amazon », notes Eduardo Goes Neves 5, professor of archaeology at the University of Sao Paulo. In its May 2019 report, the IPBES 6, a UN body working on biodiversity, recognised the essential role of indigenous peoples’ know-how in preserving natural spaces. This socio-ambiental term created by the ISA proposes to think jointly about the issues related to the environment and those related to local populations.

Recognising peoples and their links to ecosystems

There are 256 indigenous peoples in Brazil, representing approximately 900,000 people, or 0.47% of the Brazilian population and occupying 12.5% of the territory 7. Other traditional peoples include the quilombolas, estimated at 16 million people 8, the seringueiros who exploit latex in the Amazon forest, and the ribeirinhos who live along rivers. The vast majority of these peoples now live in and with the natural spaces in Brazil. They are the ones who manage them.

Before the arrival of the Europeans, 2 to 4 million people were divided into more than 1,000 peoples according to Darcy Ribeiro, a Brazilian anthropologist. These peoples have been decimated ever since. In addition to the violence inflicted by the colonisers, diseases of European origin have caused thousands of deaths locally. Today, Covid-19, malaria and diseases caused by the use of mercury by gold miners affect the indigenous peoples. A first and decisive step towards the protection of these peoples and their territories was the recognition of their existence and activities. Considerable anthropological work, gathered in multiple studies and audiovisual documents, has made them known 9. Today, 724 Indigenous Lands (ILs) are registered in the whole Brazilian territory 10.

Local organisations continue to fight for successful demarcation and respect 11. ISA is also working on the implementation of vigilance and territorial occupation plans with the IEPE 12. These plans aim to create patrol roads at the borders, in the most vulnerable places, to signal the entry into protected territories, to create surveillance posts and to organise surveillance expeditions between neighbouring peoples.

The standing forest economy, the case of the Waiwai people in Roraima. Developing a sustainable resource-based economy

To stop the development of the economy that is destroying the Amazon forest (industrial agriculture, timber exploitation, mining and illegal activities 13), sociologist Ricardo Abramovay proposes developing a standing forest economy. Based on the preservation of ecosystems by people who have a very detailed knowledge of them, this economy would develop value chains with products harvested from the standing forest.

ISA accompanies people who want to develop this economy and also considers how the socio-ambiental services provided by indigenous people could be valued, whether or not in monetary terms.

One example of this standing forest economy is the collection of the Brazil nut, castanhada-amazonia, also known as the Para nut. The Waiwai are known for the production of these nuts, contained in the fruit produced by the Bertholletia excelsa tree. 2500 people are present in the two indigenous Waiwai and Trombetas/Mapuera territories in Roraima, in the northern part of the Brazilian Amazon 14.

The different communities live in the territories between and along the Anaua and Jatapu rivers. The forest here is tropical, rainforest and dense.

During the harvest period from April to August, in the dry season, families live for several weeks in bases in the heart of the harvest areas. They collectively collect, stack, break and wash the nuts in the river, then dry them and pack them in 50 kg bags. The harvesting areas are sometimes accessible by road and others only by boat. This river transport is subject to the vagaries of weather and river levels. Some waterfalls can only be passed when the water level is high. Throughout the production chain, regular sorting is carried out up to the storage shed in order to eliminate spoilt nuts and limit the development of fungi.

The objective of the Waiwai and ISA is to increase production so that it can be sent, by reducing the number of intermediaries, beyond the local markets to new buyers committed to fair trade.

The Waiwai have created associations (APIW, APIWX and AIWA) to carry out this project collectively in each of their territories, in conjunction with the Origens Brasil network 15, which aims to « promote sustainable markets in the Amazon in priority conservation areas with a guarantee of origin, transparency, traceability of the production chain and promoting fair trade ». The Waiwai people have thus supplied since 2018 several tens of tons of nuts per year to the company Wickbold, a large manufacturer that sells its nut breads throughout the country. Wickbold has committed to the process by offering cash advances and a price three times that of the local markets.

This income enables the Waiwai to buy hunting and fishing equipment. The harvest also supports traders who sell fuel, transport, clothing, food, tools, motorbikes and boat engines in the villages. For the Waiwai, this harvesting economy allows a traditional, collective and cultural activity to continue.

More or less close to the communities, cultivated areas called roças also exist along the rivers. This subsistence agriculture complements the products of fishing, hunting and gathering in the forest. After removing and burning the vegetation from these roças between August and November, the Waiwai grow a variety of common fruits and vegetables - bananas, pineapples, oranges, coconuts, sugar cane, and tubers such as sweet potatoes, yams and cassava - without the use of synthetic fertilizers.

They also sell processed products such as mawkin, tapioca flour mixed with roasted nuts. Work is currently underway to bring these products to independent shops in Boa Vista, and to use them in public canteens through institutional programmes 16.

Involving people in the creation of public policies

ISA is also working to ensure that the Waiwai’s right to be consulted on projects that affect their territory is respected and that they are able to make proposals for public policies.

Several international and national texts impose the consultation of indigenous peoples during projects impacting their territory 17. However, on the ground, consultations are difficult to implement.

Studies for the demarcation of indigenous Waiwai lands began in 1976, were halted in 1987 and the process was only completed in 2007 and approved in 2009 18.

During this period, the Jatapu hydroelectric plant (1994) was built by the government without consulting the Waiwai. As a result of the dam, the river is dry during the summer, affecting fishing and navigation.

The BR-210 «  Perimetral Norte  » road project is now worrying the Waiwai population. The 410 km route, studied without consulting the communities concerned, threatens to cross several indigenous territories. The existence of such a road could facilitate deforestation for industrial agriculture and the arrival of gold miners.

The Waiwai people, together with other neighbouring peoples in Wayamu territory, recently issued a consultation protocol to define the steps to be taken when projects impact on their territory 19.

The communities are also working on the implementation of Territorial and Environmental Management Programmes (TEMP), accompanied by two partner organisations for the development of these documents 20.

The importance of local facilitation structures in resolving crisis situations

The arrival of the Covid pandemic in indigenous territories has awakened memories of epidemics that have caused the disappearance of hundreds of peoples throughout history. Alongside the indigenous associations, support organisations then set up various actions. The Waiwai were advised to go to the forest earlier in the year to start harvesting nuts, and to set up a cantina storing groceries in the warehouse where the nut harvest is gathered. This warehouse allowed the Waiwai to source, deliver and receive payment for their produce without travelling to the city of Boa Vista where the risk of contamination was high. From July to September 2020, more than 150 people were able to use this grocery shop. This innovative and emergency operation was a success. The logistics for the supply and stock management of the grocery shop and sales were ensured by the strong relationship between ISA and the indigenous associations, and by the hard work of the Waiwai on site. In early March, ISA received a European Union award for its human rights work in the fight against the Covid epidemic among indigenous peoples 21.

The climate crisis also affects indigenous peoples. In the case of the Rio Negro territory, changes in the annual crop and fishing cycles have been observed 22. In the Xingu territory in the south of the Amazon, the historical practice of roças is being questioned because of the drought, which has probably been amplified by deforestation 23. Alongside the peoples, structures such as ISA are accompanying research projects to identify changes and imagine new ways of cultivating.

Similarities and learning : what lessons for our territories ?

The strategies aimed at preserving these Amazonian territories, which are rich in invaluable diversity, are in fact similar to those adopted by certain territories in the Ile-de-France region : protection of the territory, development of a sustainable economy based on local resources and involvement of the populations in public policies in order to guarantee greater resilience of the territories and the populations in the event of a crisis.

In both contexts, the first phase of the work is to build arguments to request the protection of territories, to organise meetings and field visits to convince institutional and political actors, and ultimately to enshrine these protections in law. Communication actions should then be planned with the various land users, for example by marking the boundaries on the ground with signs, then finding institutional actors capable of enforcing them, and finally providing funds so that the land actors can ensure this surveillance.

In our Ile-de-France agricultural territories, the development of a sustainable economy also involves the promotion of local products, implying the traceability of the production chain and the transparency of farming practices, as proposed by the OrigenBrasil network. The Wickbold company is committed to prices that secure and encourage nut producers. In doing so, it ensures that they remain in the region well beyond their productive role, which is rarely the case with the major players in the sector in France.

In France and Brazil, the involvement of populations in public policies is played out in the texts of laws and then in the territories. Bottom-up policies such as the PGTAs in Brazil or the European LEADER programmes promote the same empowerment 24 of local actors to decide on the actions that they consider necessary to implement.

Beyond these similar strategic axes, three elements of approach could be adopted by our territories :

It is essential that the socio-ambiental concept be assimilated by political decision-makers and planners, so that they systematically involve in projects the local players who have experience of the natural functioning of territories.

On the Saclay plateau, which is a marshy area, the recommendations of farmers and associations concerning the management of water and the drainage network have not been heard. The damage observed in the first constructions of the new campus provided a recent counter-example of the practices to be followed.

Communication actions at local, national and international level are fundamental to document and publicise the realities of territories, however large and remote. Thus, ISA works with many journalists who have learned to know the territories and their peoples, which allows them to effectively describe the accuracy of the actions carried out and to warn of the threats underway. The necessary advocacy actions with public actors, civil society and the Public Prosecutor’s Office require the presence of lawyers.

The necessary advocacy actions with public actors, civil society and the Public Prosecutor’s Office require the presence of lawyers within the territorial teams. With more than 430,000 signatures, the #ForaGarimpoForaCovid campaign demanding on social networks that gold miners be expelled from Yanomami territory is a successful example. The petition was followed by a federal court decision fining the state a daily sum of one million reals (about 153,600 euros) if no action was taken to remove the gold miners from Yanomami territory.

These actions with the legislature are the subject of an entire ISA programme, the Socio-Ambiental Policy and Law Programme, which reaches out to policymakers and defends violations of the human rights of Brazil’s traditional peoples on a case-by-case basis. In the absence of the executive branch, ISA acts at the legislative and judicial levels.

In the same way, on the Saclay plateau, farmers and associations are gradually taking joint legal action.

A study should be launched soon to identify the appropriate legal means to protect the hydraulic system of the territory.

Seeking the support of the judiciary would be a new direction for our territories, complementary to other strategies intended to favour transitions towards a sustainable and harmonious development of the territories. This type of recourse could complement the principles and provisions advocated by the PAP collective.

  • 1 This organisation works to protect the rights and territories of indigenous peoples, quilombolas (Afro-Brazilian peoples descended from slaves) and other traditional peoples of Brazil. The institute was born in 1994 from the merger of several organisations and activist networks, a few years after the adoption of the Brazilian constitution of 1988, which includes an article on the recognition of indigenous peoples.

  • 2 We voluntarily use the term «  socioambiental  » in Portuguese because the translation «  socio-environmental  » in French does not reflect what the creators were looking for: «  We wanted synthesis, not juxtaposition ", as Marcio Santilli says in his book «  Subvertendo a gramatica e outras cronicas socioambientais ".

  • 3 Figures from Ministry of Environment documents «  ARPA biodiversidade  »


  • 4 The Brazilian National System of Conservation Units (SNUC) managed by the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio) with over 2,200 units managed at the federal, regional and municipal levels aims to enable sustainable use or integral protection.

  • 5 Eduardo Góes Neves, Professor Titular de Arqueologia Brasileira do Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia da Universidade de São Paulo


  • 6 Summary of the Report on the Global Assessment of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services : Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Article B6, D5

  • 7 ISA figures to be found at

  • 8 The Quilombolas are the descendants of slaves who have established more than 6,333 autonomous communities, according to the estimate of Conaq (Coordenação Nacional de Articulação das Comunidades Negras Rurais Quilombolas).

  • 9 Work was initiated between 1988 and 1994 by the Nucléo de Direitos Indigenas, one of the bodies that gave rise to the ISA. Proving the existence of these peoples was necessary in order to request the demarcation of their territory. Demarcation is an administrative process carried out by the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) that guarantees territorial rights to communities.

  • 10

  • 11 The agency responsible for compliance with environmental legislation at the federal level, IBAMA (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Resursos Naturais) does so through coercion or the implementation of possible financial sanctions.

  • 12 With IEPE, Instituto de Pesquisa e Formações Indigena.

  • 13 Extractive activities include all activities that remove mineral, plant or animal resources from ecosystems. The term then covers collection activities, but can also be used for more impactful activities such as mineral extraction.

  • 14The Waiwai also live in other parts of Guyana. The term Waiwai encompasses several ethnic groups who now predominantly speak the Waiwai language of the Karib language family. Until the 1980s, about ten other languages were also spoken.

  • 15

  • 16 Such as the Food Acquisition Programme (PAA) and the National School Feeding Programme (PNAE) run by the National Supply Company (CONAB).

  • 17 Article 6 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention No. 169 (1989) states that governments must consult with peoples in appropriate processes and through their representative institutions. Article 7 states that people should have the right to choose their own priorities. Article 231 of Brazil’s 1988 federal constitution recognises the importance of demarcating, protecting and enforcing the property of indigenous peoples.

  • 18 Protocolo consulta Wayamu, 2020.

  • 19 «  After a plenary meeting to present the project by the authorities in the indigenous territory, the leaders of each community called «  tuxaua  » will go back and forth to collect the opinion of the population before the final decision is taken in a plenary meeting where women, children, young and old people will be present.

  • 20 The Roraima Indigenous Council (CIR) and the Institute for Indigenous Research and Training (IEPE).

  • 21 Retrieve ISA’s humanitarian actions

  • 22 Youth mobilise to raise awareness on climate change

  • 23 Short film made in Xingu territory.

  • 24 The process by which a person or a community is freed from a state of subjection, acquires the capacity to use the fullness of his or her rights, and frees himself or herself from a social, moral or intellectual dependence.


  • Alton KRENAK, Idées pour retarder la fin du monde, Dehors, 2020

  • Marcio SANTILLI, Subvertendo a gramática e outras crônicas socioambientais, Instituto Socioambiental, 2019

  • Davi KOPENAWA, Bruce ALBERT, La chute du ciel, Plon, Terre Humaine, 2010

  • Fany Pantaleoni RICARDO, Majoí Fávero GONGORA, Cercos e resistência : povos indígenas isolados na amazonia brasileira, éditions Instituto Socioambiental, 2019

  • Claudia ANDUJAR, Exposition La lutte Yanomami, Fondation Cartier, Paris, 2020

  • Luiz BOLOGNESI, Film « A ultima floresta » avec Davi Kopenawa

  • Cao HAMBERGER, Film “Xingu”, 2012