The indigenous tribe reclaiming their corner of the Amazon

After years of plunder, parts of the Amazon’s indigenous lands are being restored, with help from the Caring Family Foundation. Francisca Kellett witnesses the rebirth of a way of life

13 May 2023
5 min read

Maria Nukini is showing me a grainy picture of herself in a magazine. In the photo, she’s wearing a grass skirt, feathered headdress and face paint, and she’s facing down a conference centre filled with men in suits. “They tried to throw me out, but I had a right to be there,” the 50-year-old teacher says, clasping her hands together on the kitchen table, her expression steely.

This was 2015, and she had left her indigenous reserve in a remote part of the Amazon rainforest, travelled 2,900 miles to Rio de Janeiro, and marched into a conference for the gas industry. She tells me this while we’re sitting in the tidy wooden bungalow she shares with her husband, Paulo, chief of the indigenous Nukini tribe in the far western corner of the Brazilian Amazon, close to the Peruvian border. Outside, flowering trees crowd the windows, casting dappled shade over the clearing. Paulo smooths out a map on the table. “They wanted to auction off our land for fracking,” he says, running a finger around the 35,000 hectares of rainforest demarcated as Nukini reserve.

“All the multinational gas companies were there,” Maria explains via Juliana Ayrosa, who works for the Caring Family Foundation and is acting as our interpreter. “They let me speak for just one minute. Then they turned off my microphone,” she says. “So I shouted instead.”

Even in a post-Bolsonaro world, even under Lula da Silva’s new government, which promises to reverse the past decade’s record-breaking devastation of the rainforest, it takes bravery to change things in the Amazon. Especially here, in Acre, a small state that is so isolated, so remote, that there’s a Brazilian saying: o Acre não existe (Acre does not exist). But Acre does exist, and Acre matters. In a country where 3,000 football pitches of rainforest are razed every day, it matters that the rate of deforestation is 11 times lower in indigenous areas. It matters that 94 per cent of indigenous land acts as a vital carbon sink, while non-indigenous Amazon land is now a net emitter of greenhouse gases.

Here, in Acre’s Juruá valley, Maria knew long before her visit to the gas conference that the forest mattered and that her tribe mattered — that the two were so intertwined that one would not survive without the other. “My father always said that we need to protect the forest. If the forest disappears, we disappear,” she says.

She’s fierce when she talks about that conference, but her tone softens when she speaks of the forest. We walk down the grassy slope from their house to the stream flowing along the bottom of their property, and Paulo points towards the riotous rainforest on the other side, a protected national park which he helped to map out 30 years ago. Maria’s face breaks into a smile as we gaze at jungle straight from a children’s picture book: a steamy wall of dripping vines, towering giants and tangled trees dipping their branches into the river. Birds call, cicadas thrum, frogs croak.

Turn 180 degrees and the view is very different: quieter, drier, sunbaked. Maria and Paulo live on an old cattle ranch, and their land tells a familiar story. Ranchers moved in, hacked down the trees and torched the rest. The Nukini tribe became indentured labourers and, without forests, the bare soil was leached of its nutrients. Turn your head right and you see a living, breathing rainforest. Look left and it’s a scarred sweep of patchy grass dotted with the odd tree: all that was left to the community when the ranchers moved on.

Look closely, though, and you see it’s changing. Here a row of young banana trees marches up the slope and there, beside the house, is a new seedling nursery. Maria spent years rallying her community to revitalise their culture, persuading other teachers to include the Nukini language in their lessons, asking her neighbours to remake their traditional dress for formal occasions and meetings. And she got her remote corner of Acre noticed, lobbying SOS Amazônia, a Brazilian NGO, to come to help her fix what was broken and protect what needed protecting.

Maria shows me the new plants in the nursery — citrus, palms, bananas, cassava, acai, hundreds of seedlings in neat rows — which she hopes will achieve the twin goals of reforesting the area and boosting the income for the community.

While SOS Amazônia does the on-the-ground graft, it’s all funded by the Caring Family Foundation (TCFF). And yes, that’s Caring, as in Richard Caring, the billionaire owner of the Ivy and Annabel’s in Mayfair, central London. What ties him to this far-flung corner of South America is his wife, Patricia — Brazilian by birth and, by all accounts, the decision-maker when it comes to their charitable donations, which include multimillions to TCFF. Ever seen Annabel’s in September, when its corner of Berkeley Square is transformed into a riotous rainforest? That’s raising funds for this, even if it feels a million miles away (three flights, three hours in a car and four by boat, to be exact).

“We spent two years looking for the right partner,” says Katie Beeching, the director of TCFF, who’s here to see the project for herself. SOS Amazônia ticked all their boxes, she says. Together, they have already planted a million trees and TCFF has pledged to plant another million by March 2024.

The idea is simple enough: provide communities with the knowledge, hardware and assistance to plant endemic species on degraded land, mixed in with commercial crops they can sell. So mahogany and acai might be interspersed with cocoa, coffee and rubber. The plants benefit each other, creating a sort of forest kitchen garden that restores the soil, sequesters carbon from the atmosphere and — crucially — provides a livelihood. SOS Amazônia then sources buyers for the products, which means new revenue doesn’t dry up.

“That’s what makes it sustainable,” Beeching says. “It has to make commercial sense for the communities. It’s killing two birds with one stone.” It’s not just about trees, in other words, it’s about people.

An email I receive later from Patricia Caring agrees: “Our reforestation work is more than tree planting. Our work, at its core, is about supporting women and children. With SOS Amazônia, we encourage a female-led approach to plant trees for sustainable food and income, whilst restoring the Amazon.”

Here, on Nukini land, the project is only just beginning. But in Novo Horizonte, in Amazonas state, a four-hour journey up the Juruá river, SOS Amazônia has been at work for five years, planting 300,000 trees with seven communities. They used to live hand to mouth, fishing when they could, relying on government handouts and using the forest — “but not sustainably,” says Osmir, a community leader. Now they grow cocoa amid the forest, which backs on to his garden — the towering trees and thick mud and swarms of mosquitoes just a few steps away. And then, through SOS Amazônia, they sell the beans to Luisa Abram, an award-winning chocolate brand that sells bars for $13 a pop. They also harvest murumuru nuts, which they turn into cosmetic butter and sell to beauty brands such as Lush and Natura Brasil.

Osmir talks tenderly about the trees: a seedling must be planted in a “cradle”; new plants must be “nurtured”; sometimes — about 10 per cent of the time — a seedling “passes away”. He travels to nearby communities to spread the word and show them how to reforest their land and make money while they’re doing it.

Back with the Nukini, Maria has disappeared to change and neighbours begin to arrive, drifting between the trees in the morning sunlight, some in shorts and T-shirts, others in grass skirts and feathered headdresses, rucksacks and school bags slung over strings of beads. Maria reappears in her traditional get-up, and everyone hugs and gathers around the outdoor tables, drinking coffee, unfurling bright green and blue feathered headdresses and fixing each other’s face paint.

One man in a green headdress asks me for a selfie, then sits down with a guitar and plays a few folksy melodies. Girls take pictures of each other on their phones (everyone has a phone), putting on red lipstick to match the feathers in their hair; children peer from behind their mothers’ legs, tugging at their tiny headdresses and staring at the visiting “gringos”. We’re ushered into the newly built longhouse, which Maria hopes to open to eco-tourists one day, and the kids plop down on the floor to draw pictures of rainforest animals — jaguars, parrots, an inexplicable yellow dog — and tell us the Nukini name for each one. Two elderly women are given seats to watch it all. “They call me the ‘library’,” says one, grinning. She was taught the Nukini language by her mother. “When we got our land back from the government, the songs, the stories and the crafts started to come back,” she says. Right on cue, Maria and her teacher friends boss everyone into a circle, where they hold hands and sing a traditional Nukini song, before taking it in turns to make emotional speeches to thank SOS Amazônia and TCFF. There are tears on all sides.

But back to that gas conference. What happened? Maria looks fierce again. “Some people stood up and walked out while I was talking. Then the gas companies pulled out. We won.” Big smile. As we get ready to take the long boat journey back to the city, I ask Maria what she thinks will happen in the long term. She puts a hand over her eyes. “The future belongs to them,” she says, taking a deep breath and waving in the direction of the children. I hope they have her steel.

She pulls a wooden ring off her finger and pushes it on to one of mine. There’s that steely expression again. “We are connected now. You are connected to me, and I’m connected to the forest,” she says. “Remember us.” As if there could ever be any doubt.

13 May 2023

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