The Tremembé are an indigenous group that inhabits Brazil’s northwest State of Ceará. In the XVI century, they occupied an area that spanned from what is nowadays the State Para to Ceará. However, today, they can only be found in four coastal municipalities of this last State. The Tremembé still maintain many of their traditions, especially the Torém dance.
Despite having lost most of their land rights in the XIX century, in the past decades they have been strengthening their political organization and struggling for territorial recognition against different economic interests in the region. These interests, who mainly come from agribusiness activities – such as coconut plantations and irrigation projects – and tourism infrastructure, put their already small territory under constant pressure.
In the late 70s, Ducoco Agrícola S.A acquired land in an area inhabited by the Tremembé at the sites of Vartoja, Almofala in the Itarema municipality. The company expanded coconut plantations motivated by a higher demand for coconut water and the modernisation of the coconut production process. A couple of years later, Ducoco started invading and displacing the Tremembé from their lands, destroying their houses and plantations and using armed henchmen to threaten the people out of the land. While some families moved to a nearby area, some remained and formed a small hamlet in the mangroves called Villa Ducoco, trapped between the Aracati-Mirim River and the company’s plantations. The displacement has stripped the Tremembé of their former means for survival since Ducoco’s dispossession deprived them from accessing hunting grounds and land for raising livestock and agriculture. Without means for sustaining themselves, some people ended up as hands for Ducoco, working for a meagre, seasonal salary. The company also hired some Tremembé as security to guarantee the residents of Vila Ducoco wouldn’t enter its property, thus turning the indigenous people against each other. Moreover, the company has severely reduced their mobility by denying the Tremembé the right to cross the plantations, thus further fragmenting the territory. They also fear the consequences of the agrochemicals used by Ducoco in underground waters and in the Aracati-Mirim River, which they use as a source of water for consumption. Some of the workers have reported falling ill due to exposure to the fumigated substances.
The Tremembé have initiated different lawsuits against Ducoco and have won most of them. The Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT) (part of the Basic ecclesial communities movement) has been their strongest ally since the mid-1980s, helping the Tremembé with their political organisation and in obtaining land rights. The FUNAI arrived in 1992 and started the process of land recognition. One year later, the foundation recognised 4900ha to form the “Tremembé indigenous territory of Almofala”, comprising both the invaded land and those the company had bought. Ducoco currently occupies 30% of the indigenous land. Ducoco and several local actors – such as the Itarema municipality and other political groups – met the creation of the indigenous territory with fierce opposition. These groups have often hindered economic activities by the indigenous people and threatened them with violence. Ducoco started different legal actions against the FUNAI, protesting against land demarcation. While the company always loses in court, it manages to appeal the decision and thus annul its effects. Until today, however, neither the Ministry of Justice has declared the land’s possession by the Tremembé nor did the President of the Republic homologate it.