Loss of Brazilian pines threatens Kaingáng Indigenous culture

  • The decline of the Paraná pine forests in the southern region of Brazil poses serious consequences for the Kaingáng culture, which uses pine trees as an important source of food, culture and resilience.
  • The ecosystem is one of the most devastated in Brazil: Only 3% of its original area remains.
  • The tree occupies a noble position in the Kaingáng culture, considered the third-largest Indigenous group in Brazil, with 45,000 people living in the states of Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, Paraná and southern São Paulo.
  • “Efforts to revitalize Kaingáng culture must be aligned with the resurgence of araucaria planting in the territories of the Kaingáng people,” says an Indigenous expert.

Besides its ecological relevance, the disappearance of the Paraná pine (Araucaria angustifolia), a tree that is native to Brazil, also threatens the survival of an entire people: the Kaingáng, the third-largest Indigenous population in Brazil, with a contingent of 45,000 people.

The Paraná pine forest, also called mixed ombrophilous forest, is one of the most devastated ecosystems in Brazil. In the past, it covered 40% of the territory of Paraná state, 30% of Santa Catarina and 25% of Rio Grande do Sul. Today it has been reduced to 3% of its original extent, according to data from the Ministry of Environment (MMA).

“The Kaingáng [people] need to exist not only as people, but also as a culture produced in this environment of the araucária tree, of the forest, of the environment, and this is a cultural retake, of resilience,” says historian Bruno Ferreira, a member of the Kaingáng people who holds a PhD in education.

The Paraná pine occupies a noble space in Kaingáng culture. It is used for food, in formal education, as raw material for the production of handicrafts and as a resource for maintaining spirituality.

The seed harvested from this tree, the pine nut, for example, is consumed in various ways: roasted, cooked or pounded in a mortar and pestle and made into a flour called pisé. But also, the plant species that grow under the tree serve as important nutritional sources, such as the nettle (pyrfér in the Kaingáng language), the fern (grỹ), the sinjira kind of vine, and the ka nĩgrẽg mushroom, taken from the trunk of the tree.

The resting and meals usually take place under the Paraná pine, moments when the teachings that promote the maintenance of the Kaingáng culture are orally transmitted.

The Paraná pine also makes up Kaingáng myths and plays an important role in the composition of the Kamẽ and Kanhru clanic halves, the two family trunks from which all Kaingáng members descend.

“[The Paraná pine] brings teachings to the families, to the Indigenous population, and to the spiritual knowledge of the kujá [spiritual leaders of the Kaingáng people]which were passed down by our ancestors,” says kujá Pedro Garcia, who was honored by the government of Rio Grande do Sul with a Cultural Trajectories Award in 2021.

Kaingáng Indigenous harvesting pine nuts in the National Forest of Passo Fundo (RS). Image by Sônia Kaingáng for Mongabay.

History of invasions

The problem is that most of the Indigenous lands where the Kaingáng live no longer have Paraná pines. “When distributing araucária seedlings, a chief sought help and told us that the communities had no more pine trees and could not cut them down for the annual Kaingáng rite,” says Flávio Zanette, a researcher at the Federal University of Paraná and an expert in the study of the species in the country for almost 40 years. The ritual to which Zanette refers is the Kiki Koja ceremony in honor of the dead in which the trunk of the pine tree is a fundamental element.

Besides the cultural and religious character, the Paraná pine and the Kaingáng people also share a history of land degradation, with the Indigenous people being expelled from their traditional lands over decades by joint invasions by the government, squatters and small farmers — the same people who , not coincidentally, have deforested vast tracts of Paraná pine forests.

“In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the pine trees were cut down because the idea was that where there was a pine forest, other plants could be produced. And the space gave way to monoculture production,” Ferreira points out. Entire areas in Rio Grande do Sul have been named fág kava“thin pine” in the Kaingáng language — an indication of the damage caused to the Paraná pine forest in the region over the last centuries.

Over time, the exploited lands were returned to the Kaingáng people in their history of struggle for territorial occupation. Even so, the current population today is spread over Indigenous lands of reduced size, in camps or claims on the edge of the asphalt and in urban areas in Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, Paraná and southern São Paulo.

A group of Indigenous people in the National Forest of Passo Fundo (RS). In the shade of the pine trees, the legends of the Kaingáng people are told, where the Paraná pine always has its arms raised in a form of gratitude. Image by Sônia Kaingáng for Mongabay.

And even the officially recognized Indigenous lands suffer from a practice that is harmful to both the survival of the Paraná pines and the Kaingáng culture. It is called leasing, a partnership between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people to rent the lands of the original peoples to agribusiness.

Expressly illegal according to Law 6,001 of 1973, known as the Indian Statute, the lease was introduced by the Brazilian government itself through the Indian Protection Service (SPI) and is maintained today with the support of the National Indian Foundation (Funai).

The recent dossier Kanhgág Ga, which gathers information about the leasing of Indigenous lands in Rio Grande do Sul, sent to Amnesty International and the UN and filed in several competent investigation bodies in Brazil, points out the practice as the main source of conflicts and violence in the state’s Indigenous lands, with decades of co-optation and corruption of Indigenous leaders by the local economic elites to promote environmental crimes detrimental to the health and quality of life of the Kaingáng people.

The eradication of leasing has been discussed in order to ensure the livelihood of Indigenous communities culturally and environmentally affected by the practice.

Reaffirmation of ancestral use

Even in a difficult scenario, the nobility of the cultural aspects and values ​​of the Kaingáng people still persist in the figure of the Paraná pine. One of the places where this is visible is in the Mato Castelhano/Fág Tỹ Ka Indigenous land, in northern Rio Grande do Sul, where a community of about 300 people live in an area of ​​3,500 hectares (8,649 acres).

The population of Fág Tỹ Ka is different from other Kaingáng communities, in that people have access to the pine trees through the National Forest of Passo Fundo, which overlaps with the Indigenous territory — the result of a negotiation that took almost a decade to come about .

“Our ancestors passed through here, my grandparents lived here and there were many araucárias. Our access was difficult, there was a lot of resistance from non-Indigenous people and organizations, but today we harvest the vine, the taquara and the pine nut,” says the chief of Fág Tỹ Ka, Jonatan Pỹn Sá, citing several resources of the Paraná pine forest that are well known to the Kaingáng people.

Kaingáng dance in the Fág Tỹ Ka community, in Mato Castelhano (RS). The Paraná pine, an endangered tree, is closely related to the culture, tradition and values ​​of the Kaingáng Indigenous people. Image courtesy of Fabio Susin.

The reaffirmation of the ancestral use of the land by the Kaingáng people from the Paraná pine may signal an intensification of responsible decision-making in order to avoid the loss of the tree in the coming years, as Ferreira says.

“The Kaingáng culture needs the pine tree. It is our main plant, and its disappearance brings serious consequences because there is a destruction of the cultural source, food and resilience of the Kaingáng people,” says the historian. “Efforts to revitalize Kaingáng culture must be aligned with the resurgence of araucária planting in the territories of the Kaingáng people.”

Although the planting and development of Paraná pine trees has been occurring on Kaingáng lands, its measurement is made difficult by the informality of the practice in Indigenous territories.

Recently, news about larger-scale plantings involving the Kaingáng people have been recorded, and point to a total of 10,000 pine trees planted on their lands. The estimate is from 2019, prior to the pandemic, and reflects actions by the Kaingáng with support from partnerships of federal universities in the southern region.

Banner image by Adrian Michael via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Oct. 13, 2022.

Conservation, Ecosystems, Endangered Species, Environment, Environmental Crime, Forests, Indigenous Culture, Indigenous Cultures, Indigenous Groups, Indigenous Peoples, Plants, Threats To Rainforests, Trees, Tropical Forests


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