Landmark court ruling allows island fishing community to sustainably manage state park services in Brazil

A man stands next to a boat
  • For the first time in Brazil, a traditional community has been awarded the concession to manage and operate visitor facilities inside a state conservation unit.
  • The Caiçaras, a traditional fishing peoples, of Cardoso Island have lived in what is today Ilha do Cardoso State Park since the 19th century, and for decades faced pressure to leave the area.
  • A year ago, when the concession for visitor facilities at the park went up for tender, they won a landmark court decision that found it was unconstitutional to bar them from bidding, given that it was on their territory.
  • That led to the signing of a public-community partnership with the São Paulo state government, and in July 2023 the community formally took over managing accommodation services for visitors, cafeterias, education trails, a crafts shop and a visitors’ center.

It’s 1983 in Ilha do Cardoso State Park, at the southernmost tip of São Paulo state in Brazil. Within a year the country’s military dictatorship will be gone, though no one knows it yet. For now, it sends low-flying warplanes roaring over the sleepy fishing community here.

On the ground, the terror is amplified by the arrival of Navy personnel threatening to arrest residents who own small farms and giving everyone 24 hours to leave the 13,600-hectare (33,600-acre) conservation area.

The military’s actions four decades ago were on behalf of the Forest Institute, a government agency that no longer exists but whose environmental policy was based on removing all human occupants from state parks.

Between the creation of Ilha do Cardoso State Park, in 1962, and the end of the military regime, in 1984, the 400 families living on the island faced constant intimidation to leave. Yet many from this community of Caiçaras, a traditional fishing peoples, could trace their family lines here back to the 19th century.

The process of clearing the park was finally blocked in court thanks to the actions of Dutch clergyman João Verbeek, also known as João Trinta, from the Cananeia parish and a member of the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission. Ultimately, it was the fierce resistance of the Caiçara community of Cardoso Island that allowed them to remain on their ancestral territory.

A boat parked next to a lake
The Perequê River, between the communities of Pereirinha and Itacuruçá, in Ilha do Cardoso State Park. Image by Luís Patriani.

Four decades later, on Jan. 27, 2023, the Association of Residents of the Communities of Itacuruçá and Pereirinha (Amoip), with support from the Coordination of Traditional Communities of Cardoso Island, celebrated another victory: an unprecedented agreement that created Brazil’s first public-community conservation partnership.

The agreement, signed by Amoip with the São Paulo State Forest Foundation (FF), delegated to the Caiçaras the management and operation of visitation in one of the two visitors’ areas of the state park, the Perequê, for five years, with the possibility of an extension.

This includes managing accommodation services for public and private school students, as well as cafeterias, education trails, a crafts shop and a visitors’ center, in addition to providing support to technical and scientific events held in the park.

“We’ve been wanting to work with community-based tourism and receive students for a long time,” says Amoip president Sergio Carlos Neves. “The Forest Foundation managed visitation until 2008, when accommodation and food services for groups were suspended for major renovation works. They didn’t reopen until 15 years later, in 2023, when we took over.”

Located in the estuary zone that straddles the municipalities of Iguape and Cananeia in São Paulo and Paranaguá in neighboring Paraná state, Ilha do Cardoso State Park is part of Brazil’s largest continuous areas of Atlantic Forest.

All it takes to understand its importance is a careful look: rocky shores, beaches, inlets, estuaries, harbors, lagoons, marshes, mangroves and rivers serve as habitats for several threatened species such as the red-tailed parrot (Amazona brasiliensis).

The conservation unit is also home to the intriguing middens known as sambaquis: heaps made of shells, sand, plant remains, and animal and human bones. Built between 10,000 and 2,000 years ago by the sambaquieiros, peoples who occupied the coast at the time, the sambaquis were used as territorial markers, homes and cemeteries.

A hill
The hill in the background is a sambaqui, a heap of earth, shells and plant, animal and human remains. At around 8,000 years old, it’s considered one of the oldest in Brazil. The marker in the foreground indicates the line of the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the South American continent between Portugal and Spain. Image by Luís Patriani.

Saving the park from private enterprise

The two decades of military intimidation are a thing of the past, but residents of the Ilha do Cardoso State Park still face major restrictions. Farming of crops must be authorized by the forest foundation, and logging certain types of trees for wood to make fishing gear is banned.

With their traditional way of life constrained, the Caiçaras have turned to tourism as their main source of income. When visitation services were interrupted, they feared that, after the works were completed, the job of managing visitors to the island would go to a private company. Community members’ concern was justified by the state’s concessions law, which prevents residents’ associations such as Amoip from participating in public bidding processes.

That fear deepened in 2016 when they learned of the enactment of a new law that listed 26 conservation units in the state to be managed by private companies.

Working with officials from the Federal Prosecution Service, the São Paulo Public Defender’s Office, and the Linha D’Água Institute, which works on coastal and marine sociobiodiversity, the residents of Cardoso Island had another opportunity to turn the tide.

The first step was to file a lawsuit together with representatives of the traditional peoples of the Ribeira Valley, challenging the concession law.

In 2023, Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court (STF) partially overturned the 2016 law by ruling that the state government’s partnership with private companies in conservation units overlapping traditional territories was unconstitutional.

That decision paved the way for the unprecedented agreement between the state forest foundation and the Caiçara community.

A group of people in a meeting
A meeting of members of the residents’ association, Amoip, and representatives of the Linha D’Água Institute in the chapel of the Itacuruçá community, in Ilha do Cardoso State Park. Image courtesy of Henrique Kefalás/Instituto Linha D’Água.

Henrique Kefalás, executive coordinator of the Linha D’Água Institute, was a crucial player in designing the agreement’s conceptual basis, which allowed a partnership between the state and a residents’ association. He recalls how, in 2016, a conversation with his academic adviser, sociologist Antonio Carlos Diegues, inspired him to set out the premise for the innovative instrument.

“Professor Diegues provoked me by saying that the communities had to play a leading role and manage the visitation area,” Kefalás says. “Instead of proposing a public-private partnership, we’d have to suggest a public-community partnership. I took up the idea and thought to myself, ‘Let’s do this.’”

The following year, the Linha D’Água Institute produced an assessment of local arrangements for public visitation in coastal and marine protected areas along the entire Brazilian coast.

One of the cases revealed by the document was that of Cardoso Island, which already had a history of tourist visitation managed by local communities; in this case, the Itacuruçá and Pereirinha communities located within the Perequê area, in addition to the Marujá area in the southern part of the island.

The study culminated in the booklet Navigating the Paths of Public Use, which the Linha D’Água Institute presented to Amoip and the management of Ilha do Cardoso State Park.

“We showed them partnership options that could be used by the state but depended on an understanding of the needs of the territory. The aim of the agreement is to create quality of life for the community. They are not merely service providers,” Kefalás says.

The right to consultation

Michel Souza Razera, 28, is taking a course in community-based management thanks to a scholarship from the Linha D’Água Institute. He’s an example of the intergenerational coordination of activists that was created on Cardoso Island over time.

“We built this unprecedented partnership based on a lot of determination and struggle by the entire community. We didn’t give up. We gradually created agreements and principles, and during this process of building dialogue, the forest foundation began to respect our values a lot,” he says.

Razera highlights an important moment when the community could see the maturity of the association’s political awareness.

In 2021, when the forest foundation, faced with well-structured resistance from Amoip, pointed out the possibility of an agreement based on a new type of public-community partnership, the association celebrated. However, it had to assert its legal right to take part in the consultation process so that it could be carried out under democratic, horizontal dialogue, and within their reality.

“We know that this partnership is a test, but we also know our potential. Cooperation needs to be done gradually and proportionally, respecting our culture and each person’s moment for it to work. That’s a work in progress. And we also want to integrate other communities. It’s the idea of common interest,” Razera says.

A man stands on enormous rocks by the beach
Activist Michel Razera, a resident of Cardoso Island, who’s taking a course on community-based management. Image by Luís Patriani.

Activist Michel Razera, a resident of Cardoso Island, who’s taking a course on community-based management. Image by Luís Patriani.

The visitation operation run by the Caiçaras opened on July 27, 2023, when the keys to the Perequê area were handed over to Amoip representatives. Emily Coutinho, the new manager of Ilha do Cardoso State Park, recalls greeting the moment with enthusiasm.

“Much of the understanding of the partnership came from the consultation process conducted by the island’s communities. Once the forest foundation opened up to dialogue, we were able to advance in many participatory points in the agreement’s document, whose writing was fully participatory. And now the partnership is starting to take hold, with school groups making appointments,” she says.

In addition to carrying out activities aimed at public use in the Perequê area of the park, another important point of the agreement provides for socioeconomic development and increases the quality of life of traditional resident families, Coutinho says.

“We only achieved this result because of this joint, open and transparent construction process,” she says. “A traditional community operating a state park is something new, and with each new demand that arises, we are learning with them. And we hope that this model continues to work well and serves as an example for other places, for other regions that have this same context.”

A trail between the communities of Cambriú and Folés, in Ilha do Cardoso State Park
A trail between the communities of Cambriú and Folés, in Ilha do Cardoso State Park. Image by Luís Patriani.

This article was originally published on Mongabay.

Banner image: Sérgio Carlos Neves, president of the Association of Residents of the Itacuruçá and Pereirinha Communities (Amoip), one of the organizers of the new partnership. Image by Luís Patriani.

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