Prainha do Canto Verde is a beautiful traditional fishing village on the North East coast of Brazil, 123 km from Fortaleza, set within miles of rolling sand dunes, beyond which lies the Mata Tabuleiro (low-level forest) and fresh water lagoons.
Canto Verde means Green Corner and the village lives up to it’s name, coconut trees abound, their fronds waving in the wind and spreading pools of welcome shade.
The often deserted beach stretches to the horizon in both directions. Low tide reveals a vast expanse of sand, ideal for spontaneous games of capoeira, football or beach volley, gentle strolls or long walks beach combing. The warm waters and constant winds make the area ideal for water sports such as kite surfing.
The fishermen leave the beach in the early hours of the morning and fresh fish can be bought from them on their return.
Forests and wetlands offer a habitat for a multitude of bird life; eagles, owls, egrets and numerous small birds can be spotted, while vultures rise with blissful ease on the thermal currents. At the beach sea birds skim the waves or compete with the crabs on the shore line. Turtles are regularly seen in the shallow coastal waters, and dolphins are occasional visitors.
The North East coast of Brazil is blessed with countless stunning beaches. The constant sun shine, palm trees, white sand and warm seas make the little fishing villages that dot the coast line an attractive prospect for developers, who are cashing in on low land prices and the increase in tourism to this part of Brazil.
Unfortunately, as in many other parts of the world, foreign investment can remove all evidence of the traditional way of life that made the villages so attractive to tourists in the first place, with disastrous consequences for the native population.
The Fight for Land Rights
The developers are intimidating opponents, backed with enormous resources of both money and man power. Small communities and individuals have their land bought out from under them, as a combination of poverty and lack of education, leads people to believe that they are powerless. Some simply move off the land, others accept a payment that represents a fraction of the market value, one that will be multiplied several times over when the land is re sold.
There are some villages where the residents are, against the odds, resisting the onslaught and developing tourism at their own rate, welcoming the tourists as guests but not the controlling influence. Community based tourism strives to keep the profits that tourism generates, circulating within the community. Using the money to further educate the residents and enabling them to improve their quality of life, while holding foreign investors, developers, drugs, prostitution and other problems of mass tourism at bay.
Prainha is one of those villages the fight against a property developer was mammoth, running through all levels of the courts and lasting for thirty years.
The dispute began in 1976 when a property developer, with vast tracts of land for sale all along the NE coast of Brazil, bought a strip of land a distance away from the beach. He then convinced a judge and the office of land registration that he had bought the land all the way down to the sea, including the 749 hectares of Canto Verde.
The developer announced that he would be building hotels and that there would be work for all. Some residents naively believed that they would be working in managerial positions, earning high wages, enabling them to build new homes of their own in situ.
The reality, as demonstrated by numerous other developments along the coast, is very different.
The illiteracy rate in the rural population is high and people do not generally posses the skills needed to obtain the kind of work they dream of, as a rule the only jobs open to them are menial and low paid. Once development is under way, the natives are often completely removed from the area and relocated inland, this is disastrous for the fishermen who need to live with a view of the sea. Their other options are to head further inland to try and scratch a living from the poor soil, where farming, owing to the regions extremely low rainfall, is difficult to say the least, or move to the city, to try their luck amongst the ranks of poor there.
In Canto Verde the majority of residents remained unmoved by the developers promises. Deciding to fight, they went to court with lawyers from the Brazilian Human Rights group, Centro de Defesa e Promçaão do Direitos Humanos (Centre of Defence and Promotion of Human Rights), to challenge the legality of the land purchase.
The pressure on the residents to give up the fight was often intense. Hired gunmen came to the village and issued death threats, some of the houses were burned down and a fence was erected, completely cutting off access to the beach. Yet the residents bravely fought back, tearing down the fences, re building their homes and continuing with the legal challenge
The villagers decided it was necessary to draw the world’s attention to the land rights issue and the problems of predatory lobster fishing, both of which threaten their traditional way of life. In 1993 they launched the expedition “SOS Sobrevivencia” (SOS Survival). Four fishermen sailed a 6m jangada (a traditional sail raft used for fishing) from Canto Verde to Rio De Janeiro, a journey of nearly 3000 kilometres that took 74 days. The voyage was a repeat of one undertaken fifty years earlier, when in 1941 four fishermen made the journey to highlight their poverty and the lack of governmental support; their voyage was the inspiration behind Orson Welles’ film “Its All True”.
Start of the regatta
One of the crew on the second voyage was Chico August (my brother in law), he said the journey was tough (which must be an understatement, the jangada is a very basic craft with no comforts whatsoever), it was hard for them to be away from their families for so long, sailing through waters non of them knew, sometimes facing 25ft waves but, the voyage had the desired effect.
A Swiss National, René Schärer who had stumbled across Canto Verde was able to use the voyage and the publicity it generated to mobilise foreign support, thus enabling the continued funding of the court case. Crucially a foreign NGO organised a fax campaign (pre email days) to the Governor of Ceará calling for a full investigation into the attacks on the village, effectively ending the terror campaign.
Several courts ruled against the developer, with him immediately appealing the rulings with the case finally reaching the Superior Federal Court in Brasilia in 2006. There, all five Judges ruled against the developer and importantly, that he had exhausted all rights of appeal, finally putting an end to his claim. The historic court decision has set a precedent in the fight over land claims. Canto Verde has joined forces with other communities who are also developing community based tourism and or fighting land rights issues, mutually benefiting from each others successes and learning from each others mistakes.
In 2009 President Lula decreed Prainha do Canto Verde an Extractive Reserve and Marine Protected Area.
Sadly that is not the end of the story and a secondary land fight, which has divided the opinion of the community, is ongoing.
Prainha Do Canto Verde won a community based tourism award in Germany in 2000 and shortly after they were one of only two entries for Brazil, in the directory of Community Based Tourism published by Tourism concern (a UK based NGO).
The slow and steady approach to tourism isn’t always an easy path to follow and some of the residents have taken a bit of convincing.
Within Canto Verde there are a number of small family owned guesthouses and restaurants, beach front bars and a local craft shop, part of a fair trade network.
Canto Verde is part of TUCUM a network of 12 fishing communities and a agro ecology farm, who seek to develop community based tourism in a sustainable manner, whilst preserving the natural environment.
Prainha do Canto Verde – Official website Click here for the website in English
TUCUM Network of Community-based Tourism of Ceara
http://www.turisol.org.br – Brazilian Network of Community-based and Solidarity Tourism