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Indigenous leader inspires an Amazon city to grant personhood to an endangered river

GUAJARA-MIRIM, Brazil (AP) — On the banks of the Komi Memem River, the activity never ceases: women go down the embankment from Laje Velho village carrying basins to wash clothing, while men embark in small canoes on hunting and fishing expeditions.
An Indigenous Wari' boy looks to the camera after swimming in the Komi Memem River, named Laje in non-Indigenous maps, in Guajara-Mirim, Rondonia state, Brazil, Thursday, July 13, 2023. The Amazon city of Guajara-Mirim recently approved a law that designates the river "as a living entity and subject to rights." (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

GUAJARA-MIRIM, Brazil (AP) — On the banks of the Komi Memem River, the activity never ceases: women go down the embankment from Laje Velho village carrying basins to wash clothing, while men embark in small canoes on hunting and fishing expeditions. At day’s end, it’s the children’s turn to dive into its tea-colored waters.

The river, named Laje in non-Indigenous maps, is vital to the Oro Waram, one of the six subgroups of the Wari’ people, who have inhabited the Western Amazon for centuries. However, this immemorial relationship is under increasing threat. The relentless expansion of soybeans and pastures encroaches on their land, while land-robbers promote illegal deforestation.

To protect themselves, the Wari’ people are resorting to a new strategy: the white man’s law. In June, the municipality of Guajara-Mirim passed a groundbreaking law proposed by an Indigenous councilman that designates the Komi Memem and its tributaries as living entities with rights, ranging from maintaining their natural flow to having the forest around them protected.

The law comes as representatives of eight South American governments gather Tuesday and Wednesday in Brazil to discuss ways to preserve the Amazon rainforest to help stave off climate change and protect its Indigenous peoples.

The Komi Memem, a tributary of a larger river that's unprotected, is now the first among hundreds of rivers in the Brazilian Amazon to have a law that grants it personhood status. This is part of a new legislative approach to protect nature that has made inroads in many parts of the world, from New Zealand to Chile.

“We are further organizing ourselves to fend off invaders,” councilman Francisco Oro Waram, the law’s proponent, told The Associated Press. “We can’t fight with arrows; we have to use the laws.”

A teacher by profession, Oro Waram lives with his family in Laje Velho village, a 40-minute drive from downtown Guajara-Mirim, mostly on paved highway surrounded by pasture. Right before the village entrance, heavy machinery was preparing soil for soybean crops, which are fast replacing cattle ranching throughout this part of the Amazon in Rondonia state.

“There are many generations to come, so the elders protect the water,” Oro Waram said of the river. “We don’t pollute it or cut the trees that surround it. It is a living being for us.”

Satellite images show the encirclement of the Indigenous Land Igarapé Lage, a green rectangle amid deforestation. This is where Laje Velho is located. In the past decades, the federal government has created six non-continuous Indigenous territories. One, Rio Negro Ocaia, has been awaiting the federal government’s approval of the expanded boundaries established by an anthropological study 15 years ago.

The Wari’ people lived independently until the late 1950s and early 1960s and are the largest group of Chapakuran speakers, an isolated language family. In the initial years after contact with outsiders, three out of five Wari’ died from introduced diseases, dwindling to as low as 400 people. The population has increased tenfold since then, but they now occupy less than one-third of their original territory, according to anthropologist Beth Conklin from Vanderbilt University, who has worked with them for nearly four decades.

“The Wari’ value their cosmology and rituals. And all of it centers around promoting human thriving in relationships with the non-human, with the larger world, and the well-being of your people," Conklin told the AP. “So this law is a 21st century update of these very traditional social, biological, ecological values that are at the center of Wari’ culture.”

The expansion of soy, with heavily pesticide-dependent crops, poses a significant threat to the Komi Memem River. But it is not the only one. Upriver from Laje Velho, an invasion by land-robbers has blocked the Wari’ people from accessing their essential fishing grounds.

Moreover, the river’s headwaters are located near Guajará-Mirim State Park, a former Wari’ territory. Despite being a protected area, it has been extensively invaded and deforested by land-robbers in the past few years.

Instead of evicting them, the state governor, Marcos Rocha, an ally of the far-right former President Jair Bolsonaro, signed a law in 2021 reducing the park’s boundaries to legalize the land-grabbing. A judicial order subsequently overruled that law, but the invasion and deforestation have not stopped.

Last February, the river's tea-colored water turned muddy red, scaring Oro Waram. “I had never seen it in my lifetime,” said the 48-year-old, who blames the episode on rampant illegal deforestation.

The councilman says that due to pollution from cattle farms and soybean crops, his village no longer drinks water directly from the river, as their ancestors did. Instead, they rely on artesian wells.

Sometimes the threat is very direct. On June 6, about 60 armed men invaded Linha 26 village, expelling its inhabitants. They only returned after the Federal Police went to the locale and retook it, according to the Wari’ umbrella organization.

“The loggers entered and divided up the Indigenous land,” Gilmar Oro Nao, vice president of the Oro Wari' association, told the AP. “They threaten food security. Our relatives have nowhere to fish, the Brazil nut trees were cut down. Today, they have nowhere to draw their survival from.”

Oro Nao said that the Wari’ don’t trust the National Indian Foundation's local employees. He said there is widespread suspicion that they collaborate with illegal loggers and land-robbers.

The AP sent emails to the Indian Foundation, but received no response. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office, whose responsibility includes overseeing Indigenous rights, said it has opened an investigation on the invasions and has been monitoring the situation.

The Wari’ hope that the new law giving the river personhood status can help address what they see as inaction of Funai and the Federal Prosecutor’s Office. Its main provision creates a committee to monitor the river with a board that would include Indigenous and non-Indigenous members, including a representative of the Rondonia Federal University.

The committee will produce an annual report about the river’s status and propose actions to ensure the rights secured by the new law.

In an Amazon region where agribusiness has become the economic powerhouse, it came as a surprise for many that the law had the unanimous approval of the city council of Guajara-Mirim, a city of 40,000 people with more than 90% of its territory inside protected areas.

“We are very happy with the law. It brought visibility to our municipality and sets an example to other cities and Indigenous territories,” said the mayor Raissa Paes Bento, who signed the law.

Protection of the Komi Memem River is also important for non-Indigenous inhabitants, Bento said, because fishing is a major economic activity and a source of food. “It is very good to have it preserved and clean.”


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Fabiano Maisonnave, Teresa De Miguel And André Penner, The Associated Press