The Faxinal: A Brazilian Experience with the Commons and Its Relationship with the State

Mayra Lafoz Bertussi

In Brazil, innumerable land tenure situations are to be found that express great variety amidst the State’s imposition of limited forms of property use. Collective identities, which find expression in social movements, reaffirm their rights to the common use of their territories: communities of indigenous, quilombolas (descendants of members of runaway slave communities), quebradeiras de coco babaçu (or women palm oil coconut breakers), caiçaras, cipozeiros1, and faxinalenses, or members of the faxinal communities. Examining those forms of appropriation of the territory opens the door to important interpretations of the commons. Here I place emphasis on the common use of territory through the experience of the peoples of the faxinal communities in the state of Paraná, Brazil.

Characterizing a faxinal is a delicate matter, as it requires that one define categories. One possible characterization of the faxinal is the designation of a part of the territory for use as a commons. Often known as criador comum (“common stock-raising area”) or terra de criar (“land for stock-raising”), such areas are used by the residents of the community to put their animals to pasture and to extract plant resources. Without fences that delimit the area around each property, the animals of a faxinal roam freely in the common area and feed from plant resources beyond what constitutes each community member’s private property. The common use of the territory coexists with the legal existence of private property. The experience of the faxinal communities attests precisely to the fact that in the commons private property and common use are interconnected.2

Criações, which is to say the animals in the space set aside for stock-raising, are private property, and ensure the food security of the residents. Nonetheless, it is not possible to restrict the categorization of the livestock solely on the basis of their function. Such animals are part of the landscape of a faxinal, and are engaged in the construction of the territories. Criações may be soltas (open) or fechadas (closed). The quality of “open” or “closed” casts light on an understanding that permeates the use of that territory. “Open” is a way of designating the common use; “closed” designates individual use. And this explains the dynamic of the relationship between common and private use. In this sense, “open” or “closed” may be used for both animals and for natural resources: “open watering place,” “closed area for growing yerba mate,” “open herd of swine.”

In addition to the area for stock-raising is the plot for crops, the lavoura, which is used individually and known as terra de planta, or crop area. The space used as commons has abundant forest cover, whereas the crop area is cleared and all planted. As there are no fences delimiting each property within the common area, the existing fences delimit the common area and keep the animals from invading the crops. The dwellings are within the common area.

The lack of concern with protecting private property in a faxinal does not mean it is an area without owners and without use rules. The arrangements that govern the use of the territory are not apparent because they take on different forms. The most common have to do with work on the fences. A person who works on building or maintaining fences and barriers may let his animals out in the common area. The work is also recognized when it is done collectively; such collective work on fences is referred to as mutirão de cerca. As a form of recognizing and valuing partners, the mutirão de cerca attests to one expression of the common use of the territory.

The territory, taken here as a broad category that encompasses expressive social and cultural forms, is permeated by local relationships and agreements between owners and residents. The pasture, the animals themselves, the water, the fences, the barriers, are all active elements in the construction of territories permeated by the relationship between common use and private property.

Diversity and the State: a complex relationship

The first regulation aimed principally at the faxinal communities was State Decree No. 3477 of 1997, of the Environmental Institute of Paraná (IAP: Instituto Ambiental do Paraná), which recognized the faxinal communities as sustainable use conservation units. That regulation uses the term Sistema Faxinal (“Faxinal System”) to characterize a mode of production. The legal text emphasizes the term sistema faxinal, highlighting the productivist and environmental angles, where the environment is emphasized to the detriment of a traditional way of life of the peoples of the faxinal communities. In that case, the environmental discourse does not take into consideration the role of the local communities themselves in preserving their own environment (Shiraishi 2009).

In August 2005 a political organization emerged to guarantee the defense of collective and territorial rights – the Articulação Puxirão dos Povos Faxinalenses.3 Mobilized around a collective identity, the peoples of the faxinal communities recognize themselves as traditional peoples and make access to the territory their main demand. Their argument in pursuing this aim is recognition of the tra­ditional nature of a unique and distinct territory.

The peoples of the faxinal communities put forth understandings of “traditional” that go beyond a linear conception of time. What is called “traditional” is not reduced to history, a remote and static past. As a contemporary form of vindication, traditional peoples and communities incorporate collective identities in the context of specific mobilizations and situations.

Articulação Puxirão dos Povos Faxinalenses generally embraces the positions of what are called new social movements (Almeida 2008). Those groups, by taking on ethnic and collective characteristics in the context of political struggles, make explicit a plurality of ways of being in the world and are able to give visibility to the existence of different groups within the Brazilian nation-state. The organization resists relying on ethnicity as the original or primordial characteristic in empow­ering one’s otherness within the State. In this regard, there is no “original faxinalense” or a “true identity,” but rather groups that vindicate such self-identi­fication and belonging.

This updated historical perspective, which has been attained due to the emergence of the collective identity, recently brought about by political and social organizing, does not annul the primary experience, which refers back to a common descendance. The peoples of the faxinal communities access an array of conceptions, all at the same time, when it comes to strengthening a collective identity. In this sense, the identity of povos de faxinais, or peoples of faxinal communities, inherently entails a diversity and variability of situations. Their ancestors came from different places, which is also an argument for their self-identification. The faxinal communities are made up of caboclos, Poles, Ukrainians and Germans; often times they go by the name of the predominant family or the group with the most influence either in constituting or reproducing the territory – e.g. Faxinal dos Küguer, Faxinal dos Coutos. With the emergence of an organization based on self-definition, all that variability is brought together in the designation of peoples of the faxinal communities (povos de faxinais, or faxinalenses).

The diversity and variability of situations are very important for understanding the faxinal communities, as it reveals aspects and dynamics of identity relationships – both identity of origin and the current formats for representing their identity. Reflecting on this diversity of the faxinal peoples means rejecting an essentialist approach based on the search for a supposed authentic identity. There are various practices in relation to the common use area. Some faxinal communities have open stock-raising areas, that is, without a fence; others allow common pasturing only for large livestock, such as cattle and equines.

In 2006 the social organization was designated a member of the National Commission on Sustainable Development of Traditional Peoples and Communities. A parity (government/civil society) body appointed by the Brazilian State, the Commission brings together representatives of the federal public administration and civil society organizations with ties to traditional peoples and communities. On February 7, 2007, Decree 6,040 was approved; it instituted the National Policy on Sustainable Development of Traditional Peoples and Communities, which includes the peoples of faxinal communities.

In 2007, after constant pressure from the Articulação Puxirão, political organizing efforts resulted in state recognition. According to the law, the state of Paraná recognizes that the faxinal communities have a specific relationship with the territory. While the 1997 state decree does not highlight any particular feature of the faxinal peoples, Article 2 of State Law 15,673/2007 recognizes their identity as such as a criterion for determining the traditional peoples who occupy and use the territory in that specific way. Nonetheless, to date the state has taken few specific initiatives to recognize faxinal territories. Some municipalities already have local legislation to recognize the faxinal communities, yet none has secured formal tenure.

Such legislation represents significant gains in terms of the state recognizing realities of identity and land tenure that link common use and private property. Nonetheless, like several other peoples, the peoples of the faxinal communities still face explicit resistance when it comes to exercising their rights. Several persons have given testimony of violence and persecution against the members of the faxinal communities, and the livestock also suffer hostilities as a symbolic way to deny common use. The authorities ignore most of the legislation recognizing the faxinal territory. Most of the time, the argument in favor of private property is superimposed on rights related to common use.


  • Almeida, Alfredo W. B. 2004. Terras tradicionalmente ocupadas, Processos de Territorialização e Movimentos Sociais. Estudos Urbanos e Regionais 6(1) (May 2004): 10.
  • Shiraishi Neto, Joaquim. 2009. “Direito dos Povos dos Faxinais.” In Terra de FaxinaisManaus, ed. Universidade do Estado do Amazonas, UEA: 17–28.
  • 1. Editors’ note: Caiçaras and cipozeiros are traditional peoples with a particular relationship with the territory, who live from extraction. Caiçaras live near the sea and engage in both artisanal fishing and crop farming. Cipozeiros are extractivists who make a living by making crafts out of the vines (cipó) that grow where they live (they are “of the cipó”).
  • 2. See also the essay by Liz Alden Wily on international land grabs in Part 2.
  • 3. Editors’ note: Puxirão may be understood as mutirão, that is, collective work.