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An Island
in the Sand

The national park’s name translates to the Sheets of Maranhão, an homage to the billowing white sand dunes that form the 600 square miles of Lençois do Maranhão National Park in northeastern Brazil. And in the middle of all these sheets of sand, the small community of Queimada dos Britos makes its bed.

The village is named after Manoel Brito, who first wandered into the dunes when drought hit his home state of Ceará. His descendants continue to live and intermarry here, a five-hour walk over the sand from the nearest village. They live off of fishing in the ocean, which is two hours away. In the winter they breed fish in the lagoons that fill the creases of the sand with blue and green waters after the rains. They also raise cattle and goats, which run free on the dunes.

But even in this remoteness, the modern world creeps in. Travellers on foot (and the extra income they bring) are welcome, but more and more agencies from nearby cities are bringing tourists into the park on motor vehicles, which villagers say is disrupting the local ecosystem. On the other side, the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Natural Resources (IBAMA) is planning to remove the villagers entirely since they live in a national park. The residents refuse to move, since many of them were born there and lived all their lives in the Queimada. Rather than a threat, they say, they are a source of protection to the Sheets of Maranhão.

Eduardo Leal
Eduardo Leal is a documentary photographer focusing on Latin America’s social and political issues and Portuguese traditions. Follow him on his website or on Twitter at @EduardoLeal80.

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