A person who has never seen the sea, when they see it, they just see a gigantic body of water. But fishermen and fisherwomen, when they look at the sea, they understand it according to the movements of the water, the temperature, the direction of the wind, the moon (whether it is a full moon or a new moon, whether it is a waxing or a waning moon); all this interferes with fishing and the dynamics of the species.
Coastal and marine extractivists,(1) like all peoples that belong traditional communities, are culturally differentiated groups. We have our own forms of organization and forms of occupying and using our territories, or maretories(2) – which is the term we like to use – and natural resources as a condition for our cultural, social, and economic reproduction. Our practices and technologies have been passed down through generations.
I am a jangadeiro(3) artisanal fisherman. I am a coastal and marine extractivist, an artisanal fisherman from the Canavieiras Resex,(4) a traditional community of jangadeiros located in the municipality of Canavieiras, in the south of the state of Bahia. I did not learn to make jangadas at school, I did not learn to make jangadas in college; I learned it in my community. Our transmission of knowledge takes place in conversation circles, in the closeness we have with our elders, in dialogue. It is fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, uncles, who pass on knowledge to their children, to their nephews, thus perpetuating it. We, who are fishermen and jangadeiros, depend intrinsically on nature: there is no jangada without the jangadeiro, as well as there is no jangada without wood, which is why we depend on the Atlantic Forest. The jangada is a vessel made with no metal at all, it is all fastened with different types of wood.
The Brazilian Federal Constitution of 1988 recognizes and guarantees the territories of two kinds of traditional communities: Indigenous peoples and quilombolas.(5) Only later, in 2000, a law was enacted which established the National System of Conservation Units(6) (SNUC) and, based on a demand from traditional extractivist communities, the extractive reserves (Resex) were created. Such reserves are protected territorial spaces whose goal is to preserve the livelihoods and culture of traditional populations, as well as to ensure the sustainable use of the area’s natural resources.
The extractive reserve is a genuinely Brazilian category of Conservation Unit. In other countries there are similar models of territorial protection and protected areas, but not with the same attributes. It originated from social movements, from the struggle of the rubber tappers in defense of their territory in the Amazon, and it later spread throughout Brazil. It arises from the struggle of Chico Mendes(7) – from the famous demonstrations in which the rubber tappers and their communities placed themselves in front of the forest, preventing the advance of loggers and destruction. They called this tactic a “draw” because the idea was not to go into combat, but to draw. The loggers did not enter and the rubber tappers did not retreat, and there was a paralysis of the deforestation process. This began in the city of Xapuri, in the state of Acre.
We, artisanal fishermen, are traditional communities and occupy the coastal and marine area of Brazil. One of the great debates that arose when we started our movement was precisely about the fact that, until then, extractive reserves were defended and demanded mainly by extractive communities from biomes such as the Amazon, the Cerrado, the Pantanal and the Atlantic Forest. In the coastal and marine areas, extractive communities did not yet have their voice heard, which is why we sought our space. We created the National Commission for the Strengthening of Coastal and Marine Extractive Reserves and Traditional Coastal and Marine Peoples and Communities (Confrem),(8) which is an organization whose mission is to develop, articulate and implement strategies aimed at recognizing and guaranteeing maretories in their social, cultural, environmental and economic dimension, ensuring our livelihoods and sustainable production.
According to the National Register of Conservation Units, there are currently 98 extractive reserves in the country, of which 67 are federal and 31 are run by local state governments. Lately, municipal extractive reserves are also being created. The state with the largest quantity of Resex is Pará, since Salgado Paraense, the largest continuous strip of mangroves in the world, concentrates most of the extractive reserves created to date.
Until 2019, there were 87 new Resex being implemented, both statal and federal, and today there are approximately 1.2 million families that depend directly or indirectly on these territorial areas. A community that demands the creation of an extractive reserve, in addition to wanting to protect its way of life and its culture, is usually under extreme pressure, that is, it usually faces conflicts that threaten its existence. Of the 67 federal extractive reserves that exist today, 32 are coastal and marine extractive reserves. The largest contingent of families that depend on extractivism in Brazil are to be found in such reserves.
We divide the sea as follows: we are in the coastal and marine zone, but there is also an estuarine area, where the mangroves are, closer to the coast, by the mouths of the rivers, and there is the restinga, a vegetation that lies just behind the mangrove, between the mangrove and the Atlantic Forest – if the Atlantic Forest still remains. The coastal zone is a strip with five or six miles at most; after that, we call it open sea. Each of these areas has its own dynamics, including species occurrence. Lobsters, for example, are found in areas that are not within eyereach, at least in the region where I live, in Canavieiras. One cannot see a boat fishing for lobsters, because this kind of fishing can only be done farther away. Shrimps are found in very close, visible areas, where they are dragged. Crabs, oysters, sururus,(9) and shellfish in general are fished in the mangrove area, in the estuary area and in the restinga, the transition area which we call the “mangrove bottom”.
Most of the fish we catch in Brazil, at least in artisanal fishing, goes to a middleman. In general, a maximum of 30% is sold directly to consumers. The fish that leaves my community, for example, passes through at least four middlemen before it arrives in the state of Minas Gerais. By the end, prices increase 4 or 5 times. Brazil has almost no fishing statistics, that is, we do not have a history of collecting data on fishing. In our community, the price is always more affordable. A part of our fish supplies the city itself, but as our production is usually very large for a small city like Canavieiras, 80% of the fish goes to other places. We are approximately 600 kilometers away from Salvador, the capital of Bahia, so a large part of the fish goes to the state of Espírito Santo, and a part goes to Minas Gerais and to other places. Our production is very diverse, ranging from different types of saltwater fish to crustaceans, such as shrimp, lobsters, crabs, and some mollusks, such as oysters, sururu and lambreta.(10)
One of the major problems that we experience in artisanal fishing is the devaluation of the fishing product. For this reason, in some communities like ours, there are initiatives to reduce the number of middlemen, so that the community itself, through cooperatives, acquires fish and creates exchange systems to guarantee fairer prices, both for fish and for the basic items we need. In addition to being a traditional community, we are also a professional category, regulated by law, but we suffer from the lack of attention to our demands. As artisanal fishermen, we are responsible for putting the finest products on the Brazilian table. When we think about something expensive to eat, what do we think about? Lobster, shrimp, etc. Government out, government in, what we want is for fishermen to have the same appreciation that is given to seafood.
At the Canavieiras Resex we have a social currency called moex. We have our own currency for exchange, purchase and small loans, the so-called microcredit. The moex is printed with some warranty items, such as serial number and a watermark, and is circulated within the communities. A fisherman who wants a 600 reais credit will get 600 moex from the community bank, because 1 moex is equivalent to 1 real. For every 1 moex in circulation, there is 1 real deposited in an account at Caixa Econômica Federal,(11) as backing for the social currency. Community banks work like traditional banks, but they have a communal logic: almost zero interest, almost no fees. The idea arose in the state of Ceará, in Conjunto Palmeiras, where the first Brazilian community bank, Banco Palmas, was created. At the Canavieiras Resex, we created a bank through a partnership with the solidary economy incubator at the Federal University of Bahia and the Ministry of Labor, which had a Solidary Economy Secretariat. We had almost 200 community banks in Brazil when the Secretariat was extinguished.
During the pandemic, we improved the model, creating small community stores, or markets, in each of the community associations. The moex became our main currency. It was a strategy to ensure that the community’s fish would be sold. The fishermen arrived with their catch, sold it for moex and in the same association they could buy basic food items, without having to travel to the city and without being exposed to Covid. Thus, fishermen now receive a fair price for their fish and purchase basic items for a fair price as well. With the little capital we had, we managed to buy a certain amount of food from a large wholesale company in order to exchange with the fishermen. Part of the fish is now exchanged with our MST(12) partners.
We are also achieving interesting results in tourism. The Canavieiras Resex is structuring a Community Based Tourism operator. This type of tourism is already taking place here: we have itineraries, tour boats, fishermen’s inns, community inns and also fishermen’s houses, for those who want a different experience. Travelers can stay at our houses, and they will fish with us, eat with us, get to know the community, get to know our culture. Nowadays, most of the fishermen’s houses already have a small room to receive tourists. We also have community restaurants. In the state of Ceará we find the Cearense Community Tourism Network, Tucum, which is a reference for Community Based Tourism and an inspiration for us. There, they managed to integrate different tourist itineraries in order to create a great itinerary for the entire state.
We started working with community tourism because tourism is overwhelming: if we do not dominate it, it will dominate us. Blocking mass tourism in areas like ours is essential. The people operating tourism must be part of the community, because community organization does not generate exclusive gains. If I have a small restaurant, I earn money from it, but those who fish also do, because they will sell for a fair price; the person who organizes tours will gain, the person who owns an inn will gain – the gain is more democratic. There is not so much concentration of income, in addition to guaranteeing respect for the community. In Canavieiras there are no constructions that collide with the reality of our landscape, and there is no prostitution or drugs, which normally accompany tourism. Community tourism defies mass tourism, which is seen as the only alternative. Extractive reserves are seen as something that hinders tourism. Quite the contrary, anyone who wants to do quality tourism today should do community tourism.
A challenge for us at the Resex is how to build connections with public health and education policies and policy makers. When one thinks of creating a conservation unit through the American or European model, one thinks solely and exclusively about the conservation of natural resources. For us, it does not work like that. For us, differentiated public policies are needed which recognize our way of living and other ways of relating to nature, in which development is not necessarily an absolute priority. For us, the priority is a harmonious coexistence with nature and the part we must play in that coexistence. The creation of basic public policies is essential in this sense, because it is not possible to discuss the conservation of natural resources if people are experiencing deprivations. A person cannot be told that it is forbidden by law to catch crabs during the matting period (when male and female crabs leave their galleries and walk through the mangroves to mate and release eggs), or that it is forbidden to hunt tortoises, if they are in need. They will get the crab even if it is matting period. That is why, for us, it is fundamental that basic public policies, focused on inclusion, are implemented together with the creation of conservation units, and not just environmental regulations that, most of the time, are not even discussed with the communities.
The pedagogical curriculum in schools, both in Elementary and Secondary Education, does not value traditional knowledge. That is why we are working together to create the Escola das Águas,(13) in dialogue with Teia dos Povos,(14) so that the fishermen’s children can study in their own community and learn their traditional knowledge. These are big challenges, because we are going to have to face the municipal secretaries of Health and Education, who do not want that. Processes that bring bout territorial autonomy are seen as a threat to the interest of political parties. But we are used to fighting.
We are now producing teaching material, creating a Pedagogical Political Project for Environmental Education (PPPEA),(15) and interacting directly with the municipality’s Department of Education. We face problems not only with the curriculum, but also with school infrastructure. Sometimes the schools in the communities are degraded, sometimes a child needs to travel by boat for three hours to get to school, and most schools lack materials.
Another challenge for us at the Resex is the improvement of governance and social participation mechanisms, whether at the national, regional or local level. At the national level, ICMBio(16) oversees the extractive reserves. On a local scale, the management process is carried out by deliberative councils within the reserves. In such councils, most of the members come from the beneficiary traditional community. In the case of coastal and marine extractivists, artisanal fishermen and shellfish gatherers, we have 50% plus 1 of the advisers. We managed, therefore, to guarantee greater effectiveness in local decision-making, but in the following levels, which are fundamental, we face great difficulty.
Historically, the institution created by the State since colonial times to represent fishermen was not the fishermen’s union, but the fishermen’s colony. The colony is an institution created in the colonial era and rescued during the Second World War by Getúlio Vargas.(17) Its main feature is the presence of the Brazilian Navy. In other words, we fishermen are the only professional category in Brazil organized, from within, by the Armed Forces.
Many fishermen saw their connection to the Armed Forces as a status symbol. My grandfather, for example, was a jangadeiro and was proud that the president of the colony at the time was a Navy soldier, a deputy commander. We have always lived with that arm of the State over us. It was only with the emergence of the post-constituent movements of 1988 that we began to reject the State tutelage, to change the status of colonies, and to indicate the real demands of fishermen. We have faced great challenges, including during the Lula and Dilma administrations. Apart from the atrocities carried out during Bolsonaro’s government, the Dilma administration was the one that brought changes in legislation that most harmed fishermen.
We are in a process of permanent struggle in defense of our maretory, our culture, and public policies aimed at artisanal fishermen and women. When looking at a postcard photograph of Porto de Galinhas, in Pernambuco, Arraial do Cabo, in Rio de Janeiro, Canoa Quebrada, in Ceará, or Trancoso, in Bahia, most people forget that these places were originally traditional fishing communities, and that it was precisely a folkloric historical narrative that made the process of expropriation and degradation of their territories invisible, handing them over to mass tourism and to real estate speculation. Many times, their territories were taken with the help of bullets.
The matter of social image is a great challenge for us at the Canavieiras Resex and for Confrem. We are making an effort to work on communication strategies so that information about us is produced by us. One of the things we have noticed over time is that it all looks very beautiful in the postcard or in the tour package photograph – a bucolic jangada on the horizon, a boat in the middle of a river. But these images certainly do not reflect the reality of the relations at stake.
This also permeates our relationship with universities. I did not attend university, but my community has been studied several times. At the Canavieiras Resex we do not have a university, but we have trained several masters, several doctors. Several articles and graduate studies were made here, not necessarily dialoguing and building together with the community, but using us as an object of study. Now, an essential condition in the extractive reserve for someone to carry out a study or produce a documentary is that an apprentice from the community should be hired. We have defined that when people from universities come to us to carry out their projects, it needs to be done in partnership, with a fellow from the community, as the idea is to exchange knowledge. Our knowledge about the dynamics of the tides, the occurrence of species in the oceans, is extremely broad. The knowledge that comes from abroad is important, but ours is fundamental to maintain our way of life.
We have been raising a great issue concerning the goal of extractive reserves. In the law, such goal is clear, but since the regulatory authorities that oversee conservation units are usually the environmental ones, there is a strong tendency to prioritize environmental issues, without necessarily guaranteeing their equivalence with the protection of our cultures and ways of life. There is a conceptual dispute between conservation and preservation: the model historically adopted for the creation of conservation units excludes the people. The fight for the creation of the many Resex wants to break with that model and have the demands of traditional communities as a starting point.
Within the Confrem, we argue that the management plans for extractive reserves should contemplate traditional knowledge, because they often deal exclusively with rules and restrictions for the use of biodiversity. Ours is a strategy to protect the communities’ material and immaterial knowledge. We want the management plans to be published, to be recognized and validated, even though I particularly dislike transforming everything into a document. We have laid the foundations for establishing new protection parameters, mainly based on our traditional knowledge and on our way of relating with nature.
In recent years, another important initiative has been the writing of protocols that establish forms of consultation that must be carried out with communities in the face of any form of violation. The Brazilian State itself is the greatest violator, and it also legitimizes violations by the private sector. These protocols are tools to protect communities, and we have made progress on that front, too.
We also prioritize sharing strategies with other segments of traditional communities. We dialogue with the Movement of Fishermen and Artisanal Fisherwomen, with the National Articulation of Fisherwomen, with the pantaneiros,(18) with the caiçaras,(19) with the mangaba(20) pickers from the state of Sergipe, with the evergreen collectors and with the geraizeiros(21) from Minas Gerais. We have drawn up integration strategies to defend our model of conservation, which is unique, and to guarantee our territories. The creation of new reserves often does not advance due to the pressures of real estate speculation. Until today, we have only managed to create Resexs where this economic sector had not yet been present.
When the marine extractive reserves were created, the main concern of the governing bodies was to protect the fishing resources. The community demanded the creation of an extractive reserve and the government carried out the studies, but they only included the sea, as if the fishermen lived in the sea. The fishermen depend on the sea, but they live on land. We started to change this logic when Confrem came along and we argued that our territory, the maretory of traditional extractivist communities, also includes the part of the land where people live, where they plant, where they have established their own relationship with the environment.
When we created the first extractive reserves that also included striped of land, such as Resex Canavieiras, Resex Cassurubá, also in the state of Bahia, Resex Delta do Parnaíba, in the states of Piauí and Maranhão, Resex Batoque and Prainha do Canto Verde, in the state of Ceará, major conflicts began to take place with political sectors that defended the interests of real estate and of shrimp farming. In an extractive reserve such as Canavieiras, we have 6,000 hectares of land, which is still not a lot. In the Amazon, Resex Verde Para Sempre has almost 1.6 million hectares of land.
Other communities that have a strong relationship with the terrestrial part of the territory face great challenges protecting it. That is the case of the mangaba pickers. Mangabas grow in the restinga biome. The restinga, on the coast of the state of Sergipe, is an area of interest to large businessmen in the hospitality industry and in shrimp farming. The same thing happens with the caiçara communities on the South Coast of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo and on the coast of the state of Paraná, who are unable to advance their demands for the creation of extractive reserves because of political pressure. There we can locate the dispute between our ancestral way of life and the notion of “development”, which degrades and destroys territories and communities. We keep looking for strategies to resist, to exist and to show that it is possible to imagine other ways of living. We defend a life in coexistence with nature, without taking it to collapse.
Expanding the sociocultural aspects of the Resex and highlighting the role of communities in environmental conservation is an uphill struggle. There is great dispute between a part of society that only looks at the environment and does not see the human beings who historically took care of it, ensuring that there are areas today that are still conserved. Our relationship with nature is of inseparability. It is a challenge to make people understand our role as caretakers. If we have had the capacity to maintain both the fishing resources and the forest standing up until today, that means that we have the capacity to maintain them for the future. It means that our way of life does not threaten the existence of nature. Quite the contrary, we are its main custodians, legal subjects who take care of natural life.
1 Those who practice extracvism. In the context of traditional communities in Brazil, extrativismo often refers to “extractive reserves” or “community-based resource extraction.” These are areas where local traditional communities engage in sustainable resource extraction practices, such as gathering non-timber forest products, fishing, or small-scale agriculture, while also preserving the natural environment. Reservas Extrativistas or Resex (Extractive Reserves) are a specific type of protected area in Brazil where this approach is implemented. Such reserves are designed to promote the sustainable use of natural resources by traditional populations while ensuring the long-term conservation of biodiversity and ecosystems. So, in the context of traditional communities, extrativismo generally signifies a sustainable and community-based approach to resource extraction that considers both livelihoods and environmental conservation.
2 Word play with territory (which comes from the Latin “territorium”, from “terra”, land) and “mare”, Latin for sea.
3 Person who uses a jangada, a traditional kind of fishing boat.
4 See note 2.
5 Quilombos are communities originally formed by enslaved Black people who were able to escape and resist slavery, in search for freedom and autonomy. With the end of slavery these communities persisted and still do today. People born in a quilombo are called quilombolas.
6 In Portuguese Sistema Nacional de Unidades de Conservação.
7 Chico Mendes was a Brazilian rubber tapper, trade union leader and environmentalist. He fought to preserve the Amazon rainforest, and advocated for the human rights of Brazilian peasants and Indigenous peoples. He was assassinated by a farmer on 22 December 1988.
8 In Portuguese Comissão Nacional de Fortalecimento das Reservas Extrativistas Costeiras e Marinhas e de Povos e Comunidades Tradicionais Costeiras e Marinhas.
9 Marine coastal kind of mussel, very popular in Brazil, especially in the Northeast region.
10 See note 9.
11 Caixa Econômica Federal is a state-owned Brazilian financial services company. It is the fourth largest banking institution in Brazil, as well as the fourth largest in Latin America.
12 The Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) is a Brazilian political and social activism movement. It originated in opposition to the agrarian reform model imposed by the military regime, mainly in the 1970s, which prioritized the colonization of vacant lands in remote regions, with the objective of exporting population surpluses and strategic integration. Contrary to this model, the MST fundamentally seeks the redistribution of unproductive land.
13 Water School.
14 The Teia dos Povos (Peoples’ Net) is an articulation of communities and self-managed territories, social movements and support groups. It was founded at the 1st Bahia Agroecology Conference in 2012, held at the Terra Vista Settlement (Arataca), composed of Pataxó, Tupinambás, Pataxó Hã-hã-hãe Indigenous groups’ representatives, quilombolas and peasants from various movements.
15 In Portuguese: Projeto Político Pedagógico da Educação Ambiental.
16 Since its foundation in 2007, the Chico Mendes Institute (ICMBio) has been responsible for the National Action Plans in Brazil. Its main mission is the conservation of Brazilian biodiversity, especially within Protected Areas.
17 Getúlio Vargas (1882-1954) was a prominent Brazilian politician who served as the President of Brazil in two non-consecutive terms (1930-1945 and 1951-1954). He played a pivotal role in modernizing Brazil’s economy, implementing social reforms, and consolidating state power. While his leadership is generally thought to have brought about positive changes, he is also known for his authoritarian tendencies, including the establishment of the “Estado Novo” regime in 1937, which suspended democratic institutions and curtailed civil liberties.
18 Pantaneiro is the traditional inhabitant of the Pantanal ecosystem. In 2007, traditional peoples were officially recognized by the Government of Brazil, fitting into the policy of sustainable development for traditional communities (PNPCT).
19 Caiçara refers to a specific cultural and ethnic group found in the coastal regions of Brazil, particularly in the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Paraná. The term “caiçara” is often used to describe the traditional way of life of these coastal communities, which is closely connected to fishing, farming, and living in harmony with the natural environment.
20 Mangaba is a tropical fruit that is native to certain regions in Brazil.
21 Geraizeiro is a traditional inhabitant of the cerrado biome of northern Minas Gerais. The term derives from the fact that such regions are known as “Gerais.” In 2007, traditional peoples were officially recognized by the Government of Brazil, fitting into the policy of sustainable development for traditional communities (PNPCT).