ILHA DAS CINZAS – If the Garden of Eden was in Brazil, it might just be this small island in the middle of the Amazon River.

Here, the heat is unbearable and the tropical jungle abounds with mosquitos and wild animals --just a handful of men and women live quietly on its edge. This brave new world is known as Ilha das Cinzas – the Island of Ashes – and is located six hours away from Macapa, the Apama state capital, in Brazil.

But in this remote and seemingly inhospitable corner, men adapted to the environment -- as opposed the environment adapting to men. Ilha das Cinzas is the perfect example of a successful marriage between man and nature: the forest is untouched, the water filtered and recycled, and farming and fishing are well-planned and regulated.

The story began in the 1920s or 1930s; no one remembers exactly when. It started when a handful of families decided to settle here, without any official papers or title deeds. They came for the island's natural resources, namely its wood and the fish abounding in its dark waters. The small community survived, and grew up to about a hundred families now --350 people in total.

At first, the inhabitants lived off the white shrimps swarming in the mangrove. To make ends meet, they sold hearts of palm and the crimson berries that sprout atop of palm trees. Called "acai", these berries are very popular in this region.

Controlled harvests

At the beginning of the 1990s, the village was living on borrowed time --and could have disappeared at any moment. The mangrove shrimps were almost extinct, and the method used to harvest them was difficult and time-consuming. The price for hearts of palm was too low and acai juice hadn't yet become the last fad on the beaches of Malibu and Ipanema.

The villagers learned that a company had settled a few miles away to exploit the forest --a real threat to the island's stability. Luckily for the villagers, the company packed up after a scandal involving fraudulent contracts.

A wind of change was blowing. The 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit had just happened and "sustainable development" was becoming mainstream. More and more NGOs were taking action, and the Brazilian authorities jumped on the bandwagon. In 1996, Jorge Pinto, an expert on the region and member of the FASE (one of the most important NGOs of the country) decided to take a trip to the island.

After studying farming on the island and comparing harvests, Pinto developed a program with his NGO. A year later, the community agreed to adapt its "macapis," the cages used to catch the mangrove shrimps. Enlarging the space between the vertical bars allowed the youngest shrimps to escape, ensuring the reproduction of the species and saving it from extinction. Based on the experts' calculations, the village also agreed to reduce the number of macapis. Surprisingly, the shrimp catch did not diminish, it actually increased. Reducing collection sites also allowed the villagers to work 20% less. The time saved was used for picking acai berries and chopping wood, organized according to rules taking into account the size, diameter and space between the trees. "Our way of life became very organized," explains Francisco, who was born on the island and graduated in financial management from a correspondence school.

Concerted actions

At the beginning of the 2000s, acai berries became very trendy and insured the survival of the island inhabitants. Their price was rising. The daily picking was of about two 60kg bags per person. Each bag, sold twice a week in the small port city of Macapa, brought in 80 reais – about 32 euros – which is a lot for the region. "We earn a good living," admits José Neide Maledos, one of the community leaders. "Before 1997, our income was under the minimum wage – 622 reais. Today, with all our activities, we earn about 1400 reais a month, which is more than double the minimum wage."

In this community, decisions are taken collectively. An association was created to represent the community in front of the authorities. In 2007, after many negotiations with the government, the villagers were awarded land rights to the island. An important and highly symbolical decision that doesn't equate to title deed but at least acknowledges their existence and the work they put into the island. "Land rights are essential to the people here," former director of the ministerial forests service in Brasília, Luiz Carlos Joels, explains. "They need it, for example, to open a line of credit or to develop a project. The more this right is established, the more the inhabitants feel responsible, improve the output and the environment."

In 2011, the island was awarded "best technological and social innovation" by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

On the neighboring island of São João do Jaburú, inhabitants of the Itatupã-Baquiá nature reserve tried to follow suit. But the experience wasn't as successful. The families are farther apart from each other and the decisions weren't followed through very strictly. According to Luiz Carlos Joels, it's proof that "a collective work needs to be maintained and kept alive permanently."

One day, the Island of Ashes families decided to start a coop to sell their shrimps. A boat came to pick up the production. The first journey multiplied the benefits by three. During the second one, the captain extended his route to increase his load. But when he arrived into town, the shrimps had gone bad. The island's fishermen were blamed and the coop ditched.

"They don't do business together but have a collective set of rules and a land they share," Jorge Pinto adds. "It's a fragile harmony." And so is the nature around them.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Claudio Matsuoka