Modern technology supports maroons in the Amazon to protect their land and improve their lives

Oriximiná, in Pará State, is the fourth biggest municipality in Brazil. With an area of 107,000 km² it is bigger than the State of Colorado and twice the size of Arkansas. This northern strip of the Brazilian Amazon Forest bordering Guiana and Suriname became the refuge of slaves escaping cocoa, sugar cane and livestock farms in Pará during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Groups of maroons sailed up the calm waters of the Trombetas river - a tributary of the mighty Amazonas - and were helped by native Indians to get through the river¬’s sudden rapids in the West of Pará State, away from the threat of Portuguese expeditions sent to recapture African slaves.

Similar communities sprawled all over the country and were called ‘mocambos` in Pará and ‘quilombos` elsewhere in Brazil. Official figures show that 20% of quilombos are in the North of Brazil. Their rights to the common ownership of the lands was only recognized by the Constitution of 1988, after the end of the military dictatorship.

Claudinete Colé de Souza was born in Boa Vista, a community of 280 families by the river, close to Porto Trombetas city, founded in the 1970’s to house workers for what is today one of the biggest bauxite mines in the world. Traditionally, those families lived hunting, fishing, collecting and selling Brazil nuts. “We stopped planting cassava, to make cassava flour and most people from Boa Vista are now working for the mine company in low paid jobs, such as cleaning or gardening.”

Two years ago, when she became the first woman elected as Coordinator of the Communities Association of Remaining Quilombos of Oriximiná (ARQMO), she dreamed of improving quality of life for maroons in the Amazon. Not everyone in Boa Vista and other communities have access to clean water, sanitation is virtually non-existent and over 70% of quilombolas in Brazil (as maroons are called in the country) live in extreme poverty, according to official figures.

Boa Vista was the first quilombo in Brazil to get land tenure in the 1990`s and was followed by others in the region, but four are still waiting. When USAID partnered with Google Earth and the Brazilian NGO Equipe de Conservação da Amazonia (ECAM) on the New Technologies and Traditional Communities project, the maroons got the tools to develop a community management plan based on the methodologies used to implement the indigenous communities and traditional lands policy of the Brazilian government. The project trained them on collecting data using the smartphones, developing questionnaires and using Google Earth as an instrument to help solve the issues most important to them.

“We are using Google Earth to map our territories and another free software (ODK) to carry out a detailed analysis of the social and economic situation of maroon communities in Oriximiná. We are doing a census with questions we have decided were important. And we are mapping our productive areas and fishing spots,” explains Claudinete. This effort can help to speed up the land tenure process and ensure their rights.

 

Proudly, she says that “for the first time we were able to go ourselves to the field, talk to people, ask the questions, listen to their stories and then transfer them to the maps. Through the years researchers came and went and we never even heard of their conclusions or results. Now, we own the information.”

Quilombola youth will now be trained by ECAM in partnership with Google, YouTube and with support of USAID to develop their own YouTube channels in which they will be able to show their culture to the world and to preserve the memories of the elders who still remember the time in which they lived hidden from the world.

The first community socioeconomic analysis has just been finished, providing hard data on water, sanitation and education. Claudinete is getting ready to lead the process of creating a community management plan (Life Plan) for maroon territories: “From the reports we will know where the problems are more acute, which communities need more help, which families have more needs. We will also be able to access public policies and not be depending on the mayor or the state government for assistance. We are learning to write projects now, to look for available funds and we ourselves will apply for funding.”

The mapping and data collection of the 37 maroon communities will be ready by the end 2018 and now Claudinete is already dreaming of creating a fund that will help the communities to prepare for life after the mining company leaves.