Indigenous leader’s influence leads an Amazon city to grant legal recognition and personhood to a threatened river

In the picturesque region of Guajara-Mirim, Brazil, lies the enchanting Komi Memem River, which has served as a lifeline for the Oro Waram, a subgroup of the Wari’ people, for centuries.

This idyllic setting is a hub of activity, with women diligently washing clothes along the riverbanks, men embarking on hunting and fishing expeditions in their small canoes, and children eagerly plunging into its tea-colored waters at day’s end.

However, this harmonious relationship between the Wari’ people and the river is now facing an unprecedented threat.

The relentless expansion of soybean cultivation and pastures is gradually encroaching upon their ancestral land, while opportunistic land-robbers are promoting illegal deforestation.

Faced with these challenges, the Wari’ people have devised a novel strategy for self-preservation: they are turning to the white man’s law.

In a groundbreaking move, the municipality of Guajara-Mirim recently passed a law, proposed by an Indigenous councilman, that grants the Komi Memem River and its tributaries the status of living entities with inherent rights.

These rights encompass the preservation of their natural flow and the protection of the surrounding forest.

The Komi Memem, a tributary of a larger river situated in the Brazilian Amazon, has recently achieved a remarkable and groundbreaking milestone by being bestowed with personhood status through a newly enacted law.

This remarkable development marks a significant shift in the legislative approach towards nature conservation, not only in Brazil but also around the globe.

The Komi Memem’s newfound personhood status not only recognizes its inherent value and significance but also affords it the legal rights and protections typically reserved for human beings.

This innovative approach to environmental protection has gained traction in various parts of the world, including countries like New Zealand and Chile, where similar laws have been enacted to safeguard the rights and welfare of natural entities.

By granting personhood status to the Komi Memem, Brazil has taken a bold step towards recognizing the intrinsic worth of its rivers and ecosystems, setting a precedent for other nations to follow in their pursuit of sustainable development and environmental stewardship.

Councilman Francisco Oro Waram, the proponent of the law, expressed his determination to protect his community from potential invaders.

In a statement to The Associated Press, he emphasized the need for organized defense, stating, “We are further organizing ourselves to fend off invaders.” Recognizing the limitations of traditional methods such as arrows, Waram stressed the importance of utilizing legal frameworks to combat any threats.

This sentiment highlights the councilman’s belief in the power of the law as a tool for safeguarding the community’s interests and maintaining order.

By emphasizing the necessity of employing legal means, Waram underscores the importance of a structured and systematic approach to defense.

This approach not only ensures the protection of the community but also upholds the principles of justice and fairness that underpin the legal system.

Oro Waram, a teacher by profession, resides with his family in the serene and picturesque Laje Velho village, situated a mere 40-minute drive away from the bustling downtown area of Guajara-Mirim.

The journey to this tranquil abode predominantly takes place on a well-maintained, paved highway, enveloped by sprawling pastures.

As one approaches the entrance of the village, the sight of heavy machinery toiling diligently to prepare the soil for soybean cultivation becomes apparent, signifying the rapid replacement of traditional cattle ranching practices that have long been prevalent in this part of the Amazon, located in the Rondonia state.

With a profound appreciation for the environment and a deep-rooted sense of responsibility, Oro Waram passionately expresses his commitment to preserving the natural resources that surround their village.

In particular, he emphasizes the immense significance of the river, which holds a sacred place in their community.

Oro Waram elucidates that the river is not merely a source of sustenance, but rather a living entity that demands their utmost respect and protection.

Thus, the elders of the village have instilled a steadfast commitment to safeguarding the purity of the water and ensuring that the trees that envelop its banks remain untouched.

This profound reverence for the river extends beyond the present generation, as Oro Waram emphasizes the importance of preserving it for the benefit of future generations to come.

When observing satellite images of the region, a disheartening reality becomes evident—the encroachment of deforestation upon the Indigenous Land Igarapé Lage, which stands as a solitary green rectangle amidst a sea of destruction.

It is within this very land that the tranquil village of Laje Velho finds its home. Over the past few decades, the federal government has taken measures to establish six Indigenous territories in this region.

However, the creation of these territories has not been without its challenges. One such territory, Rio Negro Ocaia, has been awaiting the long-awaited approval of the federal government regarding the expanded boundaries that were originally established based on an anthropological study conducted 15 years ago.

The struggle to protect and preserve the natural resources and ancestral lands of the Indigenous communities in this region remains an ongoing battle.

The encroachment of deforestation, the expansion of soybean cultivation, and the bureaucratic delays in recognizing and respecting the boundaries of Indigenous territories all pose significant threats to the delicate balance of this fragile ecosystem.

It is imperative that the government and society as a whole recognize the importance of upholding the rights and traditions of the Indigenous communities, as well as the necessity of implementing sustainable practices that will ensure the longevity and well-being of this precious region.

Only through collective effort and unwavering commitment can we hope to safeguard the natural wonders and cultural heritage that thrive within the Amazon rainforest.

Furthermore, situated in close proximity to Guajará-Mirim State Park, the river’s headwaters hold significant ecological value.

However, this protected area has fallen victim to extensive invasions and deforestation carried out by land-robbers over the past few years.

Astonishingly, rather than taking decisive action to evict these intruders, the state governor, Marcos Rocha, an ally of the far-right former President Jair Bolsonaro, enacted a law in 2021 that effectively reduced the park’s boundaries, thereby legitimizing the land-grabbing activities.

Although a subsequent judicial order overturned this law, the invasion and deforestation have continued unabated.

In a distressing turn of events, last February, the river’s once tea-colored water transformed into a murky red hue, causing deep concern among the Oro Waram community.

A 48-year-old member of the community, who goes by the name of Oro Waram, expressed his astonishment, stating that such a phenomenon had never been witnessed in his lifetime.

He firmly believes that this alarming occurrence is a direct result of the rampant illegal deforestation that has been plaguing the area.

In light of these environmental challenges, the councilman emphasizes that his village can no longer rely on the river as a source of drinking water, as their ancestors once did.

Instead, they have been compelled to depend on artesian wells due to pollution stemming from nearby cattle farms and soybean crops.

In certain instances, the threat faced by indigenous communities is glaringly explicit. Such was the case on June 6, when approximately 60 armed individuals forcefully invaded Linha 26 village, consequently displacing its inhabitants.

It was only after the intervention of the Federal Police, who swiftly reestablished control, that the villagers were able to return to their homes.

According to the Wari’ umbrella organization, this incident exemplifies the ongoing struggle faced by indigenous communities in Brazil.

Gilmar Oro Nao, vice president of the Oro Wari’ association, expressed his concerns regarding the intrusion, stating that the loggers not only encroached upon Indigenous land, but also disrupted the community’s food security.

The destruction of Brazil nut trees and the restricted access to fishing grounds have left the Wari’ with limited means of subsistence.

Oro Nao further emphasized the lack of trust in the local employees of the National Indian Foundation, suspecting that they may be colluding with illegal loggers and land-robbers.

This pervasive suspicion exacerbates the challenges faced by the Wari’ and other indigenous communities, as they strive to protect their ancestral lands and preserve their way of life.

Despite the efforts made by the AP to contact the Indian Foundation, their attempts to establish communication have remained unanswered.

Recognizing the significance of Indigenous rights, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office has taken it upon themselves to initiate an investigation into the invasions and has been closely monitoring the situation.

In light of the perceived inaction by Funai and the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, the Wari’ community is hopeful that the newly enacted law granting personhood status to the river will bring about the necessary changes.

One of the key provisions of this law is the establishment of a committee tasked with monitoring the river’s condition.

This committee will consist of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous members, including a representative from the esteemed Rondonia Federal University.

With the aim of safeguarding the rights enshrined by the new legislation, the committee will generate an annual report detailing the river’s status and propose appropriate actions to address any concerns.

In the midst of an Amazon region dominated by agribusiness, the unanimous approval of a law by the city council of Guajara-Mirim, a city encompassing vast protected areas and home to a population of 40,000, has taken many by surprise.

This significant development has not only brought visibility to the municipality, but has also set a commendable example for other cities and Indigenous territories.

Mayor Raissa Paes Bento, who played a pivotal role in signing the law, expressed immense satisfaction with its outcome.

She emphasized the importance of protecting the Komi Memem River, not only for the Indigenous communities but also for the non-Indigenous inhabitants.

Bento highlighted that fishing, a major economic activity and a vital source of sustenance, heavily relies on the preservation and cleanliness of the river.

Thus, the law’s enactment is seen as a positive step towards safeguarding the environment and promoting sustainable practices in the region.