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An Amazon Leader on the Frontier

Ivonete Freitas
Ivonete Freitas, founder of the Institute for Community Cooperation and Promotion in São Felix do Xingu. Credit: Rane Cortez, The Nature Conservancy.

Editor’s Note: Rane Cortez works for The Nature Conservancy and is based in Belem, Brazil. She has just moved for two months to the highly-deforested frontier town of São Felix do Xingu in northern Brazil to work with local farmers, ranchers, landowners, indigenous groups and city officials to together promote forest-friendly sustainable growth for the area.

This post is the seventh in a series over the next eight weeks that will share her perspective from the frontlines of Amazon deforestation.

By Rane Cortez

Films and histories about the American West have always relied heavily on the macho-cowboy image to romanticize the danger and adventure of our frontier days. But, this is 2012, and I’m on the Amazon frontier – where women are increasingly stealing the show.

Perhaps they are taking a page from Greek mythology, which described the Amazons as a nation of all-female warriors, known to be fiercely non-reliant on men. Or, perhaps the time has more than passed for women to be manifesting their own destinies here in São Felix do Xingu.

“Women are being increasingly listened to in the communities because of their gumption and their fight,” explains Ivonete Freitas, founder of the Institute for Community Cooperation and Promotion (ICPC). “We have women presidents of associations that form committees, travel to Brasilia and are fighting for benefits for their communities, like electrification. It’s the women that have been more forward and persistent.”

I sat down with Freitas to talk about her work with rural communities in São Felix, and the struggles that she has faced trying to make changes.

“When I first came here, I was afraid,” said Freitas. “Everything that the media said about São Felix was a disaster – everyone said it was very dangerous. But when I arrived and I got to know the people, I saw that the people were different. When they came here, 20 years ago, it was only forest. They gave up everything they had, the whole life they knew to try something different. They came here as part of a government program [to populate the Amazon] and they tried to work the land, but … they didn’t have any assistance, they weren’t given any orientation. So they made a lot of mistakes.”

Even just a few years ago, Freitas saw that communities still needed to get organized and get technical assistance if they were going to have long-term, sustainable success on their land. So, she founded the ICPC in 2008 to join together many different associations and communities to help gain better access to information and services.

“As president of the Institute, I would hear about certain situations, where people were doing things … that didn’t compensate them for their efforts. For example, people had Brazil nut trees that were producing well, and they would cut them down and sell them for 30 reales. When I heard that, I thought it was ridiculous – you can sell just one sack of Brazil nuts for 140 reales! So I would show them that if they collected the Brazil nuts to sell, it would be worth much more to them. Now, when I visit the villages, many people tell me that their children are selling the nuts. That’s sustainability. And the Brazil nut trees are still there, beautiful and majestic.”

Brazil Nut Tree
A Brazil nut tree. Credit: Rane Cortez.

Freitas said that being a woman has not been an obstacle to being a leader in São Felix.

“My mother worries about me, and my family tells me I shouldn’t get involved sometimes, because the situation is dangerous. But I keep showing up and keep conversing, even when I am afraid. And I have had a lot of successes because I have been courageous. If you bring a good idea to people, people will believe you and they will do it.”

Freitas shared one story where she organized a protest at a local bank to help family farmers gain access to credit. The police shoved her, and the judge said they did not have the right to protest. But she stood her ground, called politicians, brought food and beds for the protesters and stayed at the bank for four days. When the bank manager refused to give in, Freitas threatened to organize other nearby municipalities and show up in the state capital to continue the fight. The next day, the bank provided the credit. “For me that was a great victory because I was a woman, but I had the courage to stand my ground.”

Freitas says her work is the “work of an ant” – small actions, consistently working toward a set goal. But she is seeing results. “The people weren’t prepared when they came here. But now they want to stay and they want to know how to do the things the right way. Now everyone is talking about sustainability. They don’t want a government handout; they want to work. They just need the right tools.”

Freitas, it seems, has a whole box full of tools, and she’s working hard to put them to good use to help the people of São Felix as well as the rainforest. The Amazons would be proud.