Zica Pires, a lifetime protecting quilombo land in Brazil

The story of water defender Zica Pires, a young Brazilian activist fighting against the exploitation of quilombo land in Brazil.

curated by Emauele Bompan

The Lençóis Maranhenses National Park in the state of Maranhão in Brazil is famous the world over for its splendid white sand dunes, up to 40 metres high. Here there are precious lagoons, where rainwater is collected by the sand and the underlying layer of permeable rock.

Most people are aware of the battle for water that has been going on for years in the region (as well as in the rest of the country) against the multinational Vale S.A. (known until 2007 as Companhia Vale do Rio Doce, “Company of the Doce River valley” in Portuguese). Vale is a Brazilian mining group focused on the production of iron ore, of which it is the world’s largest producer and exporter. “The company is known for its irresponsible behaviour and for the absence of environmental and social standards in the way it operates,” says Zica Pires.

Who is Zica Pires

Zica is 26 years old and was born in the municipality of Quilombo Santa Rosa dos Pretos de Itapecuru-Mirim, in Maranhão, where she still lives. She is one of the many activists who is working to stop Vale’s hoarding of water resources. The company has been linked to two major environmental disasters in the past few years, the collapse of the Brumandinho Dam (279 deaths) in 2019 and of the Mariana Dam (19 deaths) in 2015, both of which were built to contain water used in the mines in need of being decanted.

In the area of Itapecuru-Mirim the company is behind the construction of a number of infrastructure projects that have significantly altered water supply. “A long time ago in the village we had abundant water, sufficient to sustain family-based agriculture, which is essential for our subsistence,” Zica continues. Families lived on manioca seeds, corn, beans, pumpkin and watermelon, crops that they would trade with each other and sell on the market.

The quilombos’ right to water

Life in quilombos, a type of rural village built prior to the 20th century by African slaves escaping Brazilian plantations, is traditional. In the past, these settlements were an important centres of resistance to slavery (abolished as late as 1888). Today, Santa Rosa dos Pretos’ fight is against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro‘s extractivist dictatorship, known for his anti-environmental platform. For decades the community has faced continuous harassment at the hands of Vale: for the building of the Carajás and Transnordestina railways, and of three electric railways, by Eletronorte and two by Cemar (Companhia Energética do Maranhão).

“Our community has suffered from the impacts of the barriers, of the construction works, which silenced our water flows and made our eyes cry, bringing hunger and limited access to water,” the activist, who has always fought for the right to water, explains. “I’ve been fighting for the right to nature and for it be be cared for since I was a child. The fight for water is, in truth, one for life on Earth”.

Zica Pires fights for the right to water © Water Grabbing Observatory

In 2011, the federal prosecutor’s office filed a public civil action against Vale S.A. and Ibama, Brazil’s environmental institute, for violations committed against the quilombo of Santa Rosa dos Pretos and Monge Belo during the extension of the Carajás railway, belonging to Vale S.A., up to double its length. With legal support from the Justiça Nos Trilhosassociation, the community succeeded: Vale was indicted in 2012 and forced carry out reparatory measures to mitigate the impacts caused.

Among the compensation measures was the restoring of the Igarape source, rich in fish and used by the entire community, which had been cemented over by Vale. Seven years after the ruling, the company, however, hasn’t fulfilled most of its obligations as established in court.

The fight against natural exploitation

Zica fights every day to spread awareness as widely as possible about the environmental conflicts afflicting her community, using social media (this interview was recorded on WhatsApp), YouTube and other digital platforms, to give voice to the ¡Água para os povos! (“water for the poor”) campaign. “We give visibility to our problems, in particular to the issue of agricultural subsistence and the right to manage our land”, she continues. “But we also try to act to regenerate devastated areas, replanting trees or conducting maintenance and monitoring of Igarapés to keep the water sources alive”.

Unfortunately, in May 2020, the community suffered another defeat. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Brazilian government resumed plans to expand the BR-135 highway, which will pass through the quilombo with devastating impacts on the remaining waterways and forests surrounding the village, without consulting the community. “We won’t give up. Everyone has a right to water, and so do plants and animals,” Zica concludes proudly. “We won’t give up”.

Water Defenders is a Water Grabbing Observatory project celebrating the tenth anniversary of the recognition of the human right to water through a series of interviews that tell the stories of grassroots battles being fought for water all over the world. A multi-faceted struggle against resource exploitation and large as well as small projects that impact communities and natural environments. Ordinary yet extraordinary men and women across the world are defending this fundamental human right. Starting from World Water Day, 22 March, LifeGate regularly publishes features by the Water Grabbing Observatory, each centred on a person fighting to protect the most precious resource we have. And claim their right to water.

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