European Company Buys Rights to Amazon Tribe's Ancestral Land

The Amazon rainforest remains one of the most mysterious regions on the planet, home to an invaluable treasure-trove of cultural and ecological wealth -- but it too can be had for the right price.

Today, a carbon crediting company finalized a $120 million deal with Amazonian tribal leaders to gain sole rights to a 8,800 square-mile swath of forest in Northern Brazil. Under the terms of the contract, the tribespeople living in the region will no longer be able to grow crops or harvest timber on their ancestral land for a period of thirty years, leading some to question whether the decision was finalized with due consideration.

In the agreement between indigenous South Americans and a European company, members of Brazil's Mundurucu tribe will relinquish their rights to a parcel of Amazon rainforest, roughly the area of the U.S. state of New Jersey, to Celestial Green Ventures, a vendor of carbon-credits based in Ireland.

According to O Estado de Sao Paulo, a Brazilian media outlet which examined the contract, this deal guarantees the company three decades of unrestricted access to the Mundurucu's tribal land and unlimited rights the biodiversity contained there at a rate of roughly $4 million per year. During this time, the indians would be disallowed to practice their agricultural traditions which have stood as the cornerstone of their society for generations.

"The Indians often sign contracts without knowing what they are signing. They are unable to cut down a tree and are eventually paving the way for biopiracy," says historian and anthropologist Marcio Meira.

In light of these restrictions, investigators are now examining the legality of the contract which may have been signed without the Mundurucu tribe's unanimous consent.

There are 672 Indigenous Territories in Brazil, accounting for 13 percent of the country's total area. These reserves were originally established to protect the land rights of indigenous communities on their traditional land. However, outside interests have increasingly sought to gain access to these region's resources, through illegal means like clandestine logging, and legal channels such as today's $120 million contract agreement.

Indigenous territories are largely autonomous from federal law, meaning that not even Brazil's Army would necessarily have jurisdiction over Celestial Green Ventures's newly acquired land.

This deal granting a European company rights to 8,800 square-miles of indian reserve is just the latest in a series of sizable land grabs on the part of Celestial Green Ventures. O Estado reports that the firm already possesses 16 similar contract agreements throughout the Amazon totaling more than 77,000 square-miles, or roughly twice the area of Portugal.

Answering claims that such arrangements are made without full understanding on the part of indian communities, Celestial Green Ventures asserted that their contracts are submitted to a "rigorous process of free, previous and informed consent on the part of the Indian communities." Additionally, the company says its mission is to carry out "an innovative, financially savvy and environmentally sustainable investment vehicle, which offers an opportunity to invest in REDD projects which deliver co-benefits including conservation of the rainforest, biodiversity protection and also contributes towards essential socio-economic improvements for the local communities."

While it's unclear what effect a company's possession of nation-size swaths of pristine Amazon rainforest will have in the region, some worry it could give rise to biopiracy, wherein a ecosystem's unique biodiversity and cultural knowledge is tapped for financial gain, and often detrimentally so.

Brazilian Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira addressed these concerns, commenting that "[Brazil] must ensure that opportunities to advance the development of biodiversity action disguise of biopiracy."

Given the restrictions of government over indigenous territories, however, there may be little recourse available to prevent the indian's ancestral lands, held under legal contract, from being exploited or misused.

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