SÃO PAULO, Brazil – August 18 will be a special date for many of the isolated communities in the Amazon Rainforest.
It will mark the beginning of journey number 100 of Justiça Itinerante (Itinerant Justice), a program of the Amapá Court of Justice that brings legal services, by boat, to geographically isolated communities.
These trips are made by boat because the state is located within the Amazon Rainforest, and 70% of its territory is interwoven with rivers and forests.
About 60,000 live in communities scattered among the forests and rivers, far from the state’s urban centers, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).
Appeals Court Judge Sueli Pereira Pini joined the program in 1996 and coordinated the initiative until 2005. Since then, she has alternated with other judges in leading these journeys.
Pini didn’t know what to expect when she embarked on her first trip.
“It was a trip back in time. I found people who were isolated from civilization, without electricity or basic sanitation,” recalls Pini, who is the first female appeals court judge to serve on the Amapá Court of Justice. “I discovered that cultural isolation is even worse than geographic isolation.”
Pini says she quickly realized the people needed much more than the Itinerant Justice boat could offer. Their problems went beyond land disputes, divorces and other judicial issues.
There were riverside inhabitants without proper documentation. Many lacked access to social services, health care and education.
Some lined up just to ask the judge what she had to offer, while others asked for food and money.
As a result, Pini started introducing new services with each journey. Representatives from the children’s charity Pastoral da Criança, the Army, the Board of Elections, as well as doctors, dentists and sanitation specialists accompanied her on the trip.
“There were trips where we brought 16 different public services with us,” Pini says.
Over the course of nearly two decades, the program has provided much more than legal services. The boat, which takes one-week trips every two months, also brings education and citizen services to thousands.
I met mothers of disabled children who didn’t know that they had a right to assistance from the government,” Pini says. “Itinerant Justice’s most important mission is putting an end to legal illiteracy.
Next stop, archipelago
When it sets sail on Aug. 18, the boat “Tribuna – A Justiça Vem a Bordo” (Tribunal – Justice on Board) will head to the Bailique Archipelago, a district of the state capital, Macapá. The region has about 11,000 inhabitants among 50 communities.
The trip from downtown Macapá to the archipelago takes 10 to 12 hours by boat.
For one week, about 40 will use the boat as their office. In addition to a judge, the archipelago’s population will be offered services by representatives from the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Amapá Water and Sewage Utility, the Public Defender’s Office, the Regional Board of Elections and the Institute of the Environment and Territorial Reorganization.
Throughout the day, the boat will be a multidisciplinary space, with a courtroom and space for showing movies and telling stories to children. At night, it becomes a dormitory, with dozens of colorful hammocks filled with government officials and crew members.
Leslie Ferraz, a law professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio) who specializes in legal access issues, took part in two river trips to the Bailique Archipelago in 2005 and 2011.
“It’s incredible how the community developed during that time period,” says Ferraz, who is also a visiting researcher at the Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA).
Ferraz says the progress she saw on her second trip wasn’t limited to the archipelago’s economic development, which had benefited from the Federal Government’s Bolsa Familia (Family Grant) program and other initiatives.
Ferraz saw significant social progress in the region, such as the emergence of new leadership and an overall improvement in the citizens’ understanding of their rights.
“What caught my attention the most was the fact that people have become aware of their own rights,” says Ferraz, who points to the program’s transformative potential. “In addition to democratizing access to legal services, the program deformalizes the judicial branch, tailoring it to different audiences, social dynamics and community demands.”
Since April, Ferraz has been working on an IPEA study to map all of the itinerant justice programs in Brazil.
This type of program was introduced in 1995 with the creation of special courts, she says.
In 2004, Constitutional Amendment No. 45 included itinerant justice in the Brazilian Constitution. Since then, state and federal judges are required to offer this type of program to the population. Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Ceará, Sergipe and Pará are some of the states that have introduced strong itinerant justice initiatives.
In Amapá, the river journeys have been conducted bimonthly since 1996. The annual cost of the program is R$276,500 (US$136,887), according to Ferraz’s research.
No money to travel to the capital
All types of legal processes are handled aboard the Itinerant Justice boat. Divorces are decreed, land disputes are settled and rulings are issued in cases ranging from murder and assault to disputes over child support.
Many people await the arrival of the boat to resolve their problems, as many don’t have the R$70 (US$34.60) it costs to make a round trip to downtown Macapá to file for routine services, such as a divorce request.
That was the case with Maria do Carmo, a resident of Bailique, who Leslie Ferraz met during her last trip.
“She actually waived her right to Social Security benefits because she didn’t have enough money to pay for herself and two witnesses to make the trip to the downtown offices,” Ferraz says.
The Amapá Court of Justice doesn’t keep records of how many people have been served in the past 20 years. Ferraz says the boat received 4,782 visitors who requested a broad range of public services during her first trip in 2005.
“Itinerant Justice is the most concrete example of the democratization of access to government that I have ever experienced,” she says.