INTERVIEW OF THE MONTH – Geová Alves: “We will show that the standing forest is capable of generating much more wealth than the destroyed one”
Geová Alves, president of the Association of Traditional Communities of Bailique (ACTB) talks about the potential for income generation and the challenges for the sustainable use of biodiversity resources and traditional knowledge
By Instituto Escolhas
The Bailique Archipelago, in the Brazilian Amazon state of Amapá, is a group of eight islands that are home to several traditional communities, with a strong tradition of associations and cooperatives. Bailique, located about 170 km from the state capital, Macapá, was one of the first territories in Brazil to create a community protocol for the protection of traditional knowledge. This took place even before the new Biodiversity Law, which was created in 2015 and regulates research and development of products drawing on genetic heritage and associated traditional knowledge.
In an interview carried out in May with Instituto Escolhas, Geová Alves, president of the Association of Traditional Communities of Bailique (ACTB) and vice president of Amazonbai (the Cooperative of Agroextractive Producers of Bailique and Beira Amazonas), talks about the community building process, the importance of rural cooperation, and how much Brazil can gain by reducing bureaucracy and investing in the sustainable use of biodiversity in ways that promote sustainable development.
“Our goal is to reach all the markets in the world and to prove, mainly to the government, that there is no need to destroy the forest to generate income. And I am sure that in one or two years we will be able to prove this,” says the president of ACTB.
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ESCOLHAS – How did the communities of the Bailique Archipelago organize themselves politically to structure their productive activities, especially in relation to agroextractivism?
GEOVÁ ALVES – Until the 1980s, Bailique was very sparsely populated, with some communities founded by Portuguese and a handful of Dutch people. The first period of population growth happened with the arrival of migrants, mainly from Pará, to explore the heart of palm. It was a very intense activity that practically wiped out most of the açaí palm groves in Bailique. When environmental inspections became more rigorous, the illegal factories left and, starting in the 1990s, there was an açaí boom in the states of Amapá and Pará. A new production chain started in which the açaí berry, rather than just the heart of palm, was extracted. In parallel, activities such as fish, medicinal plants, oil extraction and family farming began to expand.
Community organization was very much driven by the church, first the Catholic Church and then the Protestant Church, which created family hubs within a territory on the island, building houses and setting down wooden walkways. They also began to organize producers, mainly working with fish and açaí. Then a broader organization movement began, with the appearance of the Bailique Community Council 35 years ago and, a little earlier, the fishermen’s colony, which today has more than 1,800 members.
The Community Council began to organize the community politically, with a methodology of organization and representativeness, and the creation of community associations that began to represent each community. Yet production was not organized collectively; each fisherman sold his produce individually. The producers were trained, they knew what management was, but there was no collective effort to organize and sell this production. All of this started in 2015, as part of the community protocol and discussions about the creation of the cooperative.
ESCOLHAS – And how did you become involved with community leadership work, engaging with a topic as complex as the legislation on access to genetic resources?
GEOVÁ ALVES – Until the 90s, the people who lived in Bailique had to go to the capital to finish their studies. In 1998, the government brought schooling from the fifth grade until the third year of high school, but with a different methodology, with several specific disciplines, involving environmental and production issues, looking at sustainable development, the extraction of natural resources in a responsible way, as well as community organization. At the end of high school, I already knew that I was going to do something in the environmental and social area. There was a college in Macapá that offered a course in socio-environmental administration, exactly within what I wanted: the community movement. I graduated and came here from Macapá in 2008. In 2012, I became president of the Community Association of Macedonia, where I live, which is the second largest community in Bailique, with around 1,100 inhabitants.
During this period, in 2012 and early 2013, during the second year of its mandate, the Amazon Working Group (Rede GTA) came to Bailique with a proposal to develop the community protocol together with the Amazon Luthier Workshop (Oficina Escola de Lutheria da Amazônia), the Ministry of the Environment, and other entities. I was invited and started to participate in the consultation workshop and in the following workshops. I have taken part in the project since then. I helped to create the methodology for the community protocol–which was developed in practice–and I helped to build a Co-living Agreement (Acordo de Convivência) for each community. My experience in Access and Benefit Sharing came primarily from the Community Protocol, which has been one of the most widely discussed topics since the consultation workshops.
ESCOLHAS – A lot has been said about strategies to help traditional communities to develop community businesses with their own knowledge and the native species present in their territories. Bailique has had a very interesting experience in this regard, with the creation of Amazonbai. How does the cooperative work, and why did they decide to create it?
After we finished the phase involving the sending of documents for the community protocol, we returned to two demands of the project that were considered priorities: the production chain as a way of generating income, and looking at the project as a part of education. In 2015, we launched a discussion to find out how to manage this protocol and how to deal with this part of the education production chain. So we created the Association of Traditional Communities of Bailique (ACTB) to carry out this management and to represent the protocol’s member communities.
With the support of lawyers, ACTB started a discussion on what would be the best management model for working with the production chains. We believe that the cooperative is a fairer company model, because it allows collective community work and the sharing of benefits and surplus to be proportional to what each member produces. After a year and a half of discussion, we decided to create a cooperative based on ACTB and, in February 2017, we decided to create Amazonbai [a cooperative that brings together agroextractivists from Bailique and from the Beira Amazonas region], which is a company model that most closely matches our reality.
ESCOLHAS – Based on Amazonbai’s experience, what do you believe needs to be done to support communities in creating sustainable businesses and to encourage them to develop products based on their traditional knowledge?
GEOVÁ ALVES – We still face several challenges in working with the production chain in Bailique and Beira Amazonas. The distance is too big. When we work with fish, we need a local structure to prepare this fish so that it reaches Macapá or Belém maintaining its quality. With açaí, it’s even more important. If, after being harvested, it is not processed in cold chambers with ice, the quality of the açaí suffers and, 12 hours later, it is no longer good for anything.
From the point of view of rights to public policies, we do not receive any type of subsidy, despite the existence of a state fund, the Fund for Rural Development of Amapá (FRAP), and other funds to subsidize these productive chains, but which we can’t access due to bureaucracy. For example, in most of the Bailique territory, producers lack a document that guarantees ownership, because those are public lands. What we have today is a term of authorization for sustainable use (Termo de Autorização de uso Sustentável – TAUS), granted by the state agency. Given the bank’s requirements, it seems impossible to access public policies.
The oil production chain is the fourth most important in Bailique. There is very large market demand and it generates a huge volume of resources, but there is no structure or government support. The third most important production chain, that of medicinal plants, faces a legislation issue: we have 135 medicinal plants from which we produce various types of medicine based on traditional knowledge, but when it is time for us to sell, we can’t, because of Anvisa’s (the Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency) requirements. Amazonbai was lucky to have obtained such a large number of partners to be able to reach the açaí production chain, but the absence of the state is glaring, and this makes things very difficult. The scenario is quite challenging, but we have already managed to make great strides, and we are close to reaching our goal.
ESCOLHAS – And what is this goal?
GEOVÁ ALVES – Amazonbai’s mission is to reach all of the world’s markets and foment development in the Bailique territory. It aims to show everyone, especially the government, that–in order to fuel development–you don’t need to cut down the forest, you don’t need to destroy everything. And I’m absolutely sure that in one or two years, we’ll be able to prove it. When the state government itself sees the volume of resources that Amazonbai will mobilize in 2021, 2022, and so on, as well as the transformation that it will trigger in this territory, I’m sure that we’ll be able to prove that the standing forest is capable of generating far more wealth than the destroyed forest. And when I speak of wealth, I am referring to distributed wealth, wealth that doesn’t go to a single rancher or soybean farmer. In the case of Amazonbai, we are 141 partners, but we also have employees at the factory, we have the local technical team, the local workers. Over 1,000 families are directly benefited. Income is not accumulated in the hands of one person.
ESCOLHAS – Last year, the three largest private banks in the country–Itaú, Bradesco, and Santander–released a document in which they commit to invest in the bioeconomy. In your view, how can banks help community businesses in the Amazon obtain access to financing that today only serves to support livestock and soy cultivation?
GEOVÁ ALVES – Our challenge is bureaucracy. Banco do Brasil, Bradesco, Itaú and Caixa Econômica have funds that people cannot access. In addition to the documentation, the bank requires considerable collateral. The community, the traditional community member, is the best payer in the world. He doesn’t like to owe a penny, as long as the necessary conditions are created for him to do so. The only thing that’s missing is the creation of suitable instruments. Traditional communities must be treated differently from companies, large ranchers, and the soy folks.
ESCOLHAS – How is the relationship between Bailique communities and researchers and companies who wish to access their genetic resources or traditional knowledge through the Protocol? What measures do you believe can be taken to make these relationships mutually beneficial and, above all, for them to respect the conditions imposed by communities for access?
GEOVÁ ALVES – We have a very good relationship with universities. In fact, several researchers are pursuing doctorates or Master’s degrees on Bailique’s community protocol. Researchers present their topics of interest to ACTB, which consults with community leaders, allowing university personnel to access the territory to observe their work, provided that the result is disclosed and known to ACTB and the communities involved.
As for the companies, they have distanced themselves from Bailique somewhat. Before, they came and discussed with a family here, a family there and ended up receiving traditional knowledge, using genetic heritage, and leaving without even saying thank you. This has changed a lot. With the protocol, we started to see that, as a traditional community, we had the right to use and also protect the territory’s own genetic heritage. The intention wasn’t to block the entry of interested actors, but rather to create instruments so that we collaborate as equals, with at least the same level of information. Now, several steps have to be taken together with the community in order to reach agreements for the development of a project. So, since the protocol, there have been very few attempts at discussion.
We recognize that there is a certain difficulty in this relationship due to the protocol that we created, and we had already felt the need to adapt the protocol to the new legislation and to be able to improve these agreements or build new agreements so that we can resume the relationships with companies, or make them easier. Companies have limited time to launch a product on the market. I think it’s possible to develop this relationship through the community protocol, but, on our end, for this to happen, we still need to create more appropriate instruments–and we intend to do this from 2021 until the middle of 2022. We already have a new, revised and updated protocol, with new agreements focused on Access and Benefit Sharing.
ESCOLHAS – Much of the country is still unaware of the importance of traditional communities. How is it possible to explain to these people the relationship of communities with the culture and environment of Brazil and the world?
GEOVÁ ALVES – The relationship of the traditional community, whether quilombola (Afro-descending), indigenous, riverside or other, with nature generates an impact everywhere in the world. Keeping the forest standing with traditional practices or in combination with technological innovation gives rise to a social and environmental economic movement that has never been seen before in the history of humanity. In 2017, we shipped eight thousand cans of açaí. At the time, this generated a volume of resources in the cooperative worth R$ 104,000, and this doesn’t account for even 0.5% of our total production–we had the capacity to produce 300,000 without problems, perhaps even more, including the production of Beira Amazonas [a territory adjacent to Bailique that has been a part of Amazonbai since 2019].
Bailique is a very small archipelago, it hardly appears on the map, but it manages to generate a very large impact with the development of a community protocol. Imagine this being promoted and being replicated in an appropriate way with state support for various territories in the Amazon and across Brazil. What impact would this have on the country’s social and economic issues? We have managed to develop Bailique and Beira Amazonas with sponsorship from external actors and with no help from the government, but if the government engaged with this issue with traditional communities, recognizing the importance of traditional communities, the result would be very significant for Brazil. In the short term or in the very short term, the relationship with the environment itself would be different, resulting in a much more developed country.