João Roberto Cilento Winther
BrazilFellow since 1988

Joao Winther intends to give the fishermen living along Brazil's vast coast preventive legal protection so they can defend their continued use of the oceanfront.

The Person

Joao Winther is a young lawyer from Sao Paulo with substantial work in public service law especially concerning land issues. As a student he worked as a volunteer in the prisons, building up a program that continues under a formal memorandum of understanding between the university and the prisons to this day.

The New Idea

The idea is simple: all the fishermen or indigenous peoples need to prevent a "quick take over" of their costal land is a legal document that states their claim to the usage of the land. Merely starting the process of applying to have their use of the oceanfront recognized will stop anybody else from easily getting usage rights. Any such new request will be studied, carefully taking into account the previous claim -- thus at least allowing time for the community to prepare.Joao Winther plans to provide the basic material for both the application and any legal defense. He wants to work with the fishermen, in his words, "drawing a picture" of their communities. This picture will start with mapping the locality (identifying the houses, the community buildings, the places where the boats are anchored, etc...). It will include the history of the community and its use of the land. He will also provide a brief socio-economic profile of the population. The final picture will be the property of each community to use as it sees fit. In addition to using the material to file for recognition of its traditional uses of the land, this community map will help the coastal communities plan their development and to ask for help.There may be as much value in the process as in the results. It focusses communities on an important concrete issue with clear short term results. The process of gathering and mapping the community's vital statistics and land use pattern should encourage analysis of the past and planning for the future. The surrounding series of discussions, meetings and lectures should raise people's consciousness and, hopefully, stimulate them to begin thinking through some of the major issues they face in light of the facts brought into focus by the map.

The Problem

According to Brazilian law the 100 foot strip of costal land (above the high tide mark) called Terras da Marinha (Marine Land) is part of the country's patrimony. Unlike other union land it cannot be divested by government. Apparently an extension of the old Roman law's principal that tidal areas are held in trust for the public, the government's trusteeship over this patrimony gives Joao a potentially very powerful tool. If he can encourage its development, this trust doctrine could, as it has elsewhere, give important new protection to the coastal people and the oceanfront environment. The extensive Brazilian coast is punctuated by small fishing villages subsisting on small scale commercial fishing. Most of these fisherman families (a mixture of Portuguese, black, French, Dutch and native Indians) have lived and fished in these areas for over a century. They have, however, no title or legal instrument stating their right to use this land. In recent years land speculation and development for housing, tourism, or industry caught many of these communities unprepared and unable to defend their traditional use of the shore. In one case a chemical company was awarded the use of a large stretch of coastal land just 14 days after it started the legal process requesting the use of the land. Later on this company's pollution destroyed not only the livelihood of the fishermen its plant had dispossessed, but also those from surrounding villages. These coastal villages suffer high illiteracy, generally lack minimal community or individual documentation (e.g., birth certificates), and often are quite isolated. However, they often have a tradition of informal organization. The power of the land issue gives it the potential, in some cases at least, to strengthen community organization and to build.

The Strategy

Joao's approach is preventative; he wants to avoid problems, to prepare these communities to take care of themselves. Joao wants eventually to work with communities along the whole Brazilian Coast, but he will start with pilot communities in Sao Paulo and Para states. He has already developed contacts in these communities and with broader fishermen's associations and interested environmental groups that he hopes will provide support and follow up. Once the communities have their legal process started, they will be used as show cases when contacting other community leaders.