Marcos do Prado was at the beach on São Paulo’s coast checking if there was mullet to be fished when a convoy of officers from the state’s environmental police told him his house in the nearby Rio Verde community was being demolished.
Mr. Prado and his cousin had been calling on the government to recognize the rights of fishing families to live on what they consider to be ancestral land in Jureia-Itatins Ecological Station, a protected area of 207,570 acres of dense forest.
But with one day’s notice, police and agents from the Forestry Foundation (FF), which is responsible for environmental conservation in São Paulo state, tore down both of their homes on July 4, 2019.
“It is a feeling of incapacity,” Mr. Prado told the Thomson Reuters Foundation over the phone. “The Forestry Foundation doesn’t respect the community. They call us invaders.”
Now, the men are suing the government for permission to rebuild their homes, in a case that highlights what they say is the state’s effort to clear Jureia of traditional fishing communities – known as caiçara – in the name of conservation.
According to the people living in Jureia, when it was established as a protected area in 1986 it was home to about 300 families – today, there are 100 left.
“The case of Jureia is an isolated and unique episode,” the Forestry Foundation said in emailed comments.
“[The FF] also clarifies that this episode does not reflect or alter FF’s public policies,” the statement continued, without providing details.
Villagers confirmed that the FF does not usually demolish homes in Jureia.
But they said the government is pushing residents out of the area by refusing to recognize them as traditional communities and denying them the rights that go with that status.
Community members call it “expulsion due to tiredness,” Mr. Prado said.
Andrew Toshio Hayama, the public defender representing the community members in their court case, said the state works by “criminalizing [their] ways of life, not maintaining public services.”
“It empties these spaces and doesn’t take political responsibility to resolve the conflict,” he said.
Jureia residents say authorities have closed schools and health centers that were in the area before it was protected and put restrictions on fishing and agriculture, making it impossible for them to sustain their livelihoods.
For example, Mr. Prado said, families have to ask the FF for authorization to plant crops, but permission often comes too late to cultivate.
Requests to use wood from the surrounding forests to build a canoe or renovate a house are often denied, he added.
He said the restrictions have prompted many people to give up fishing and farming and move out of the area to nearby cities, including his parents.
Mr. Toshio said the FF argues the caiçara who had their houses demolished lost their right to remain in Rio Verde when their families left the community for a span of time.
The FF said it “value[s] and support[s] traditional communities and their fundamental role in the conservation of socio-biodiversity.”
But the Foundation did not respond to specific questions regarding the villagers’ complaints of oppressive restrictions or provide any details on how it is supporting traditional communities.
In a study published in May, the Pastoral Land Commission, an advocacy group linked to the Catholic Church, said Brazil is facing a record number of land conflicts since the association started gathering numbers in 1985.
The study said there were more than 2,050 instances of land conflict in rural areas in 2020, an increase of 8% compared to 2019.
Rodrigo Ribeiro de Castro, an anthropologist at the University of Campinas who works in Jureia, said the São Paulo government has been clearing traditional communities out of the area for decades.
The sustained campaign is “legitimized by talk of preservation [but], in the end, aims to establish who controls these territories and for whom,” he said.
“There are different concepts of conservation operating in this conflict.”
In its report published in June, the Brazilian deforestation mapping initiative MapBiomas showed tree loss in the Atlantic Forest, a coastal biome covering the Brazilian seaside including Jureia, shot up 125% in 2020.
As a whole, the country lost 24 trees every second last year, the report said.
‘The greatest environmentalists’
Adriana Lima, president of the Jureia Residents’ Union, calls what the FF is doing “environmental racism.”
She said the solution is to create a form of “specific territorial legal protection” for São Paulo’s traditional fishing communities, similar to the rights granted to indigenous people.
According to Brazil’s constitution, indigenous territories belong to the state and indigenous people have customary land tenure which is not subject to negotiation.
Ms. Lima said in 2018 the villagers proposed a deal with the authorities to let the communities keep using and preserving the territory “based on the [traditional] way of living and thinking,” but it was rejected.
A report published in March by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization highlighted the role of traditional peoples in forest protection.
“These communities often help to stop outside groups that destroy forests from entering their territories,” said the author of the report, David Kaimowitz.
“A forest that is empty is sitting there waiting for criminal actors to come in and destroy the resources,” he said in emailed comments.
In the Rio Verde court case, a preliminary request to allow Mr. Prado and his cousin to rebuild their houses was denied on May 7.
The judge is reviewing the case, which can take up to two years, said Mr. Toshio, the public defender, adding that he plans to appeal.
As Mr. Prado waits to see if he can return to his home, he hopes the state will see that the traditional fishing communities are essential to preserving this part of the forest.
“The Forestry Foundation says Rio Verde is a [natural], untouched place which is important for biodiversity,” he said.
“We agree with that. We are the greatest environmentalists [and want] to protect this place.”
This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.