Visit the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA) headquarters here and it’s easy to see why the eight-year-old organization, called the Instituto Socioambiental in Portuguese, has become Brazil’s most influential environmental group.
In one room, institute mapmakers use satellite photographs to pinpoint illegal logging, mining and farming in indigenous and protected areas. In another room, staff attorneys huddle over a legal brief they’re drafting on behalf of peasants threatened by a large dam.
And in a third, a project coordinator is communicating by radio, scribbling down a list of supplies being requested by the leader of an indigenous group with which the institute has developed a teacher-training program.
While most of Brazil’s 500 environmental groups are small, locally focused and manned by non-specialized staffers, the institute is large, national in scope and—most importantly—flush with wide-ranging expertise. Its 80-member staff includes anthropologists, ecologists, biologists, agronomists, lawyers, educators and mapmakers.
“ISA is, by far, the most respected and most important environmental NGO in Brazil because it’s got the best, most-qualified people working for it and because of their multidisciplinary approach, something rare among NGOs here,” says Roberto Kishinami, the executive director of Greenpeace in Brazil.
Thanks to its influence, the institute increasingly has weighed in on national-level public-policy discussions hitherto dominated by large landholders and industry leaders.
“ISA is among the few NGOs that have the clout in Brazil to be important as watchdogs and whistleblowers,” says Analzita Muller, a technical advisor for the Environment Ministry’s Amazon division. “They keep the government from making the wrong environmental decisions, often by convincing the government to change them.”
The Socioenvironmental Institute was created in the merger of an indigenous-rights group and another nonprofit that supported grassroots social movements. Several founders had begun campaigning in their university days against incursion by settlers, miners and loggers onto Indian lands, a trend that took a heavy environmental toll and infected indigenous groups with diseases to which they had no immunity.
An early initiative of the institute was to help one of those groups, the Panará Indians, return to their homeland.
In the 1970s, construction of a 1,200-mile (1,900-km) dirt highway through the Amazon region exposed the Panará to diseases that reduced their 300-strong community to just 75 members. The government moved the remaining Panará to Xingu Park, an area in the southeastern Amazon set aside for indigenous people facing outside threats. But in the 1980s, the Panará decided to return home, some 300 miles (480 kms) away.
To assist them, the institute organized bus trips so the Panará could visit their former homeland and choose a spot for a new village. In 1994, it won a lawsuit calling on the government to return to the Panará 1.2 million acres (486,000 hectares)—25% of their original territory. The same year, some 80 Panará returned to their land, in buses chartered by the institute, to rebuild their village. The remaining 100 Panará eventually followed them. And in 1996, the government formally recognized the area as Panará land.
As a result of a second lawsuit filed by the institute, a federal court this September awarded the Panará $330,000 in compensation for the deaths that followed construction of the highway. (See “Decimated Brazilian tribe wins damages”—EcoAméricas, Oct. ’00.) It marked the first time a Brazilian court had ordered the federal government to indemnify an indigenous people, according to staff lawyer Ana Valéria Araújo Leitão.
Many of the institute’s efforts are aimed at protecting indigenous communities’ culture and at improving their economic prospects. In 1994, the institute assisted residents of Xingu Park in setting up a bilingual-education program that was slated to graduate 25 state-certified elementary-school teachers this year and 29 teachers next year, all of them members of the 14 different indigenous groups in Xingu Park.
More recently, it contracted linguistic consultants to help indigenous groups at Xingu Park develop literacy primers—as well as science, history, and mathematics textbooks—in each of the 14 tongues. “When a Xingu child can read and write in his own tongue, he can preserve his people’s legends and history, which are the source of that people’s values,” says Alupa Kaiabi, a member of the Xingu Park Council, a body representing all 14 indigenous groups.
The Socioenvironmental Institute also is helping indigenous communities develop via sustainable agriculture, as witnessed by its work with the Xikrin, a community of 800 people in the eastern Amazon. After mahogany loggers moved onto Xikrin lands in the late 1980s, the Federal Indian Agency (Funai) cut deals with the loggers that gave the Xikrin $2 for every cubic meter of mahogany cut. The mahogany, felled without a forest-management plan, fetched $100 a cubic meter abroad.
To protect the forest and ensure the Xikrin gain more benefit from their timber, the institute from 1994 to 1997 developed Brazil’s first—and thus far only—forest-management program for indigenous lands. Twenty areas of Xikrin territory were established in which specific quantities of a variety of woods could be cut. But cutting occurs in just one location a year, giving each area 20 years to regenerate.
The management program is expected to be certified next year under sustainable-forestry standards set by the Oaxaca, Mexico-based Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
Meanwhile, the institute has helped the Xikrin identify markets and find an ecologically friendly timber operation to fell and mill the wood. It also assisted the community in starting Brazil-nut harvesting and on-site shelling of the nuts.
Such efforts have boosted the tribe’s economic prospects. While the community now must pay for the timber felling and milling, for instance, it keeps virtually all the net sales income, which can be considerable. With the government tightening restrictions on mahogany, the Xikrin now can sell the wood for $580 per cubic meter.
What makes the institute unusual is its ability to combine this grassroots expertise with clout in the federal capital.
“I think of us as bridge-builders and translators,” says Márcio Santilli, a former congressman and Funai president who heads the institute’s public-policy office in Brasília. “We create a common link and language with whomever we work and, in doing so, try to make a difference.”
Versatility is key
Santilli is one of two former Funai presidents on the institute’s staff. The policy office in the capital, a rarity for Brazilian nonprofits, has six staff lawyers, making the institute the only environmental group here with an in-house legal department. Its attorneys have stopped Transportation Ministry dredging projects through indigenous lands and helped “quilombos”—the communities of black descendants of those who fled slavery—to gain legal rights to their territory.
While the institute’s public-policy staffers and attorneys can exert influence at the highest levels of government, its field workers, many of them in indigenous villages in the farthest reaches of the Amazon, help implement programs based on the resulting policy changes.
Says Steve Schwartzman, senior scientist with the U.S. group Environmental Defense: “ISA is singular among Brazilian NGOs in having long-term relationships with grassroots organizations throughout the Amazon, while at the same time being able to effectively influence public policy that benefits them.”
The group displayed some of that muscle earlier this year, when the farming and ranching lobbies tried to relax Amazon land-clearing restrictions. Acting quickly, it led a drive by environmental organizations that ultimately blocked the initiative, using detailed critiques of the proposal, marches in cities and towns and an Internet campaign in which opponents inundated Congress with 20,000 E-mails.
Marina Kahn, the institute’s deputy executive director, credits strong organizational roots and the group’s $3 million annual budget, far larger than that of virtually any other environmental NGO in Brazil. By contrast, the budget of Greenpeace of Brazil, a major environmental organization here, is $1 million a year.
Some 80% of the institute’s funding comes from international foundations (mostly from Holland, Norway and the United States), and 20% come from Brazilian foundations.
“Most Brazilian NGOs have a weak and unsophisticated organizational structure and this, coupled with inadequate financing, restricts them to tackling micro problems at the local level or to specializing only in whistle blowing and lobbying at the national level,” says Kahn. “To have a wider scope of action requires an organizational structure that can work at both levels.”
That versatility has aided initiatives such as the institute’s Rio Negro program, its most ambitious. The effort seeks to ensure the survival of the 22 indigenous groups inhabiting the Cabeça do Cachorro (or Dog’s Head) region, an area of the western Amazon that is larger than Portugal.
In 1996, the institute and the Rio Negro Federation of Indigenous Organizations (Foirn), a local indigenous group, persuaded the Brazilian government to recognize the entire Dog’s Head as a preserve, over the objections of the military.
The military had proposed 14 non-contiguous reserves for the 22 groups, whose 30,000 members account for 10% of Brazil’s indigenous population. It argued a single reserve would make it harder to patrol the area’s 800-mile (1,300-km) border with Colombia and Venezuela for drug runners and others illegally crossing the porous frontier.
Indigenous groups responded that they needed a contiguous area in which to hunt, fish and trade.
To advance that argument, the institute showed government officials its detailed maps of land-use in the region by the military, settlers, loggers and miners, and presented them with legal briefs arguing there was no legal obstacle to demarcating the region as indigenous land.
It hired topographers and organized field crews to determine and mark the boundaries, clearing six-meter-wide trails and erecting cement pillars. And on a more practical but no less important level, it also provided boats, outboard motors and short-wave radios so the widely scattered tribes could maintain contact with each other.
The work led to the creation in 1998 of The Indigenous Lands of the Upper Rio Negro, the largest indigenous area in the Amazon—and one with an emerging political identity.
Pedro García, a Tariano Indian and the president of Foirn, said the equipment provided by ISA was “the glue that united us into one people and helped persuade the government to give the go-ahead for the region’s demarcation as one contiguous area.”
In undertaking such initiatives, the Socioenvironmental Institute has taken the position, made plain in its name, that social and environmental issues are intertwined.
“Because ecological diversity is linked to social diversity, you can’t preserve a protected area simply by forcing long-settled subsistence farmers off of it. You must work with [settlers] to develop ways to safeguard it, while at the same time improving their quality of life,” says João Paulo Capobianco, one of the institute’s founders and its chief program coordinator. “The challenge of reconciling land and resource rights, environmental conservation and economic development is far more complex than, say, forcing the government to shut down a nuclear reactor.”
José Gabriel López, the program officer in Brazil for the Ford Foundation, which provides the Socioenvironmental Institute $150,000 a year, says the group has helped define a new field: social environmentalism. This he defines as “working with local populations to improve their quality of life by improving their natural-resource base and helping them protect the rights to that resource base.”
Adds López: “ISA is unique in its focus, which is far broader than just environmental. ISA’s social environmentalism is a way to promote sustainable development, something lots of environmental NGOs in Brazil don’t even focus on.”
- Michael Kepp