|Beto Borges, Director of Forest Trends’ Communities and Territorial Governance Initiative talks with Céline Cousteau, humanitarian, environmental activist, filmmaker, and founder of the Javari Project for a conversation on her work with indigenous communities in Brazil.
Beto Borges: Thank you for being here, Céline. You’ve recently created a film, Tribes on the Edge, about the struggles of indigenous peoples in the Javari Valley, Brazil, and you’ve founded the Javari Project, an impact campaign born of the film. I think both you and the Javari Project have a beautiful story that people feel drawn to. Could you tell us how your journey with filming Tribes on the Edge started?
Céline Cousteau: The Javari territory in Brazil is the second largest in the country, about the size of Austria or Portugal. As far as I know, there are six contacted tribes. There are also the largest number of uncontacted peoples in the entire Amazon living in this region. Which makes them very vulnerable to outsiders. And this is a region that has been declared irreplaceable in terms of biodiversity by the IUCN.
I first went to the Javari in 2007. That’s when I met Beto Marubo of the Marubo people. He is the reason I created the film. In 2010, Beto [Marubo] wrote me an email asking me to tell their story, telling me they trusted me with it.
So I returned to the Javari in 2013 to begin filming. Tribes on the Edge has become much bigger than I ever thought it would. Back then, I imagined it would be an 8 to 10-minute film. It’s now a 78-minute film and we’ve done numerous grassroots screenings with a big focus on educational outreach. I really believe in order to do some good, I have to honor my promise to them to tell their story, and I’ve chosen to do more. Thus, the film has become a catalyst for the Javari Project.
Beto Borges: What’s the situation there now? What is threatening the people of the Javari?
Céline Cousteau: The threats are very much like the ones elsewhere in the Amazon: illegal deforestation, illegal gold mining, which pollutes the rivers, natural resource depletion, illegal fishing and hunting. There are aggressive interactions between illegal trespassers and the indigenous peoples themselves.
On top of that, there is an administration in Brazil that’s not very friendly towards indigenous rights and the environment. Even though Javari peoples have land that has been designated as their territory, there’s not much defense or support from the government.
It’s also the age-old story of outsiders coming in and bringing their disesases, which is even more evident now with COVID-19. The message I get from them is: we’ve seen this before. And it’s because they saw malaria come in, tuberculosis, hepatitis.
The less obvious threat to people in the Javari is that when some indigenous people leave the territory, they don’t really have a good support system. There are not a lot of resources and opportunities available to them. So they go to the border town of Atalaia do Norte, which is a challenging place, to say the least, and unfortunately, some of them fall into illegal activities as sources of income because there is no alternative. This is detrimental to their own land. If provided with other options and solutions for economic self-determination, they would be more ready for alternatives.
Beto Borges: We connected earlier this year and have discussed the future of the Javari Project and an evolving partnership between your team and Forest Trends’ Communities and Territorial Governance Initiative. It would be great to hear your thoughts on what we are building together.
Céline Cousteau: We have come to understand that helping bring economic value to the Javari through the people that are there will be one of the ways to support their cause and contribute to conserve their forest homelands. One of the best ways to do that is to help people in the Javari strengthen sovereignty over their territories.
That’s why we came to Forest Trends, to learn about territorial governance and how to have the right conversations that will lead to actionable plans for indigenous communities.
Partnerships are essential to us getting this work done. To me, the authenticity with which people do what they do is more important than the resources they might have. Much like my team and I have built trust and credibility with people in the Javari, investors, and other collaborators, we recognized that Forest Trends has done the same where it works and has the expertise we need in a partner on the Javari Project.
Read the full conversation on our Viewpoints blog