PCAB: Transforming Lives

Elders share knowledge of the past to strengthen the future 

The Partnership for the Conservation of Amazon Biodiversity (PCAB) values the traditional knowledge of populations living in the forest and supports local organizations. It contributes to the implementation of sustainable solutions, generating income for communities and conserving biodiversity.

In 2020, the PCAB helped strengthen 20 management plans over 46 million hectares in the Amazon region. Of these, 32% covered indigenous lands, and 56% supported sustainable use and livelihoods. 

Through these plans, local communities, with the support of partner institutions, have implemented sustainable management systems for forest products – such as Brazil nuts and timber – and are now making a living out of it. This process helps communities to incorporate traditional knowledge passed from generation to generation by indigenous, riverine or quilombola community elders. 

This edition shares the stories of "dona" Maria Luiza and Alberto, two elders who live in PCAB-supported projects areas in the Amazon, and who have played an important role in the history of their peoples.

1 - A self-taught woman who helped to create a conservation unit in the Amazon 

Born in a community deep in the forest, Maria Luiza Barbosa Ribeiro learned from her father about the forest and how to fight for the land where she lives. After seeing her mother die in childbirth, Maria Luiza turned her grief into drive and became a midwife, an activity she performed over the years in parallel with her work as a teacher.

As a child, Maria Luiza had not been able to attend regular school. She later enrolled in an adult literacy program and studied on her own with the methodology developed by Paulo Freire – a Brazilian educator who, in the 1960s, created a literacy method for young people and adults based on their own experiences and on the words used in their daily lives.

Today, at the age of 82, "dona" Maria Luiza, as she is called in her community – Nossa Senhora do Perpétuo Socorro do Rio Arimum – is proud of her efforts, which resulted in the creation of the Verde para Sempre Extractive Reserve in the municipality of Porto de Moz, in the state of Pará. Verde para Sempre is the largest extractive reserve in Brazil, with almost 1.3 million hectares, and currently has two cooperatives and seven associations with active management plans.

These local organizations participate in projects supported by USAID/Brazil through several PCAB partners, including the Brazilian Education Institute (IEB) and the Porto de Moz Sustainable Development Committee. These partners have implemented a number of actions aimed at strengthening local arrangements to meet the demands of local communities.

"We fight for our land, and to preserve the forest. In this region there has always been pressure from land grabbers and loggers... We got organized, and we worked hard for many years, until we managed to create the reserve in 2004," recalls Maria Luiza, who received death threats from illegal loggers when she led the establishment of the reserve, working with the rural workers union and the local parish. 

Creating an extractive reserve was a strategic step toward combating deforestation, which was advancing in the region with the opening of illegal roads. After demarcation, the rate of devastation dropped from 1,413 km², in 2003, to 53 km², in 2006.

In addition to acting on these fronts, Maria Luiza helped to set up several associations in her community, and engaged in women's movements to encourage their regular participation in local issues.

Knowledge transmission – “My father’s teachings helped to define my role in the community… I have always tried to pass on our stories, and to value simplicity and life," says “dona Maria Luiza, who has helped to deliver over 200 babies, including her great-granddaughter, the latest child born through her hands.

Maria Luiza has five children, four of whom are women. She says that she has always sought to share her faith and love for nature with younger generations – and it seems to be working! 

Her son, Genésio da Silva, has been chairman of the Arimum Association; and one of her daughters, Margarida Ribeiro da Silva, is a community leader and a strong advocate for the preservation of biodiversity, with a focus on the role of traditional communities in the Amazon.

In 2018, Margarida received the Wangari Maathai Forest Champions international award, given to people who work to conserve forests and improve the lives of those who depend on them. "My mother is a symbol of knowledge, resilience, courage, and humanity. She is a role model for all of us," sums up Margarida.

When asked about the message she usually shares with the youth, Maria Luiza summarizes: "Always keep working for those who need it most, and advise small farmers and forest people on how to conserve nature and life, be it fish, animals, trees, or humans." 

2 - Krahô culture rescued through the words of an elder

Alberto Hapyhi Krahô is currently responsible for monitoring projects in Timbira Indigenous Lands. He remembers many stories about the identity of his people, and has also played a key role in building their history.

Born in the village of Galheiro in 1954, Hapyhi was still a child when he moved with his parents to a farm, back at a time when few Krahôs spoke Portuguese. As a teenager, he attended school and joined local movements that advocated the interests of his people. 

It was through music and log races – an indigenous tradition – that, in the early 2000s, Hapyhi helped to raise awareness among his people about many problems indigenous villages in the region were facing, including the increase of deforestation and land grabbing. He and other indigenous people promoted a log race in Brasília (the capital of Brazil) to draw the government's attention, including Congressional representatives, and to engage with them during an event known as “Grito do Cerrado” (Cry of the Cerrado). 

Log races are relay competitions in which participants carry large wooden logs. These events bring the whole community together. The type of timber used, the paintings and the music depend on each ritual – birth, death, beginning of a new season, harvest, among others.

Years earlier, he helped found the Wyty-Catë Association. Now, he uses traditional festivals to share knowledge of his people's way of life to younger generations.

“Some customs have been left behind. These festivals are a way of teaching the young about our culture, and about the meaning, for example, of piercing your ears and painting your body, or the way we grow our gardens,” says Hapyhi. Understanding that this year's events will depend on the implementation of health and safety measures aimed to control the COVID-19 pandemic he looks forward to the next festival.

At the Kraolândia indigenous land, festivities usually take place during the dry season, starting in April. During the rainy season, fishing and hunting are common activities. 

This indigenous land has been included in a diagnosis study of environmental impacts, and also benefits from PCAB-supported training programs on Integrated Environmental and Territorial Management in the Eastern Amazon Indigenous Lands. 

Created through a cooperation agreement between USAID/Brazil and the Indigenist Work Center (CTI), this program engages with Wyty-Catë and other local institutes and organizations with the aim of improving territorial and environmental management in indigenous lands in the states of Maranhão and Tocantins

“In the villages, we explain how the projects are set up, what must be done, and describe follow-up measures. The COVID-19 pandemic scared many indigenous people and brought many activities to a stop. We hope to be able to resume them soon,” says Hapyhi.

At 66, Hapyhi says he still learns a lot from his mother, who is 101 and is a member of the Apinajé people. “We talk about crops, food, and fighting for our land and our rights. This is what I want to pass on to my children,” he concludes.