As LAB prepares to launch its new and powerful book*, co-author Sue Branford issues a stark warning of the implications of a Bolsonaro government for the river-basin and the indigenous and riverine communities who live there. Land-grabbers are already taking the law into their own hands – after January 1 the law will become their own.
Let us have no doubts. The prize that the extreme right-wing politician, Jair Bolsonaro, recently elected President of Brazil, is dangling before the powerful rural lobby, whose support he will rely on in Congress, is the radical opening up of the Amazon Basin to agribusiness and to mining.
During his electoral campaign, Bolsonaro derided the indigenous populations, saying they were entrapped on their land ‘as if they were animals in a zoo‘. He insulted quilombolas, the descendants of Afro-Brazilians, saying that they ‘didn’t do anything’, were ‘obese’ and ‘probably not able even to procreate any more‘. In contrast, he repeatedly endorsed capitalist values, saying that private property was ‘sacred’ and should never be ‘invaded, stolen or expropriated‘. His son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, who is a close aide, said that he would favour the detention, if necessary, of ‘up to 100,000 people‘ to defeat ‘terrorist’ social movements campaigning against these values.
If Bolsonaro does what he says – and why wouldn’t he? – he will rapidly take measures to make it easier for loggers, ranchers, land thieves and soya farmers to move into the Amazon. He will put an end to rigorous environmental licensing for new economic ventures and infrastructure, relax environmental regulations for existing businesses and farms, open indigenous reserves to mining and ban international NGOs.
Analysts have worked out that, as a result, annual deforestation could nearly triple to 25,600 square kilometres (15,900 square miles), an area about the size of the Netherlands. Climatologists fear that such devastation could tip the tropical forest into irreversible decline.
Because they have already taken over almost all accessible publicly-owned land in the Amazon, land grabbers are now eying up indigenous territory and protected areas, so far relatively unscathed.
Many of Bolsonaro’s views – his denial of climate change, his disregard for human rights, his machismo, his belief in the supremacy of western civilisation, his racial prejudice – have shocked many progressive people, at home and abroad, but they come as no great surprise to traditional and indigenous communities in the Amazon. Life on the Amazon frontier has long been violent and barbarous.
Jumping the gun
In their daily lives these communities frequently encounter people who are carrying out violent actions based on Bolsonaro’s alarming views, even though at the moment these actions infringe the law. An end to the rule of law will not mean much to them, because the rule of law has never reached the region.
Time and again during our journeys to the Tapajós river valley, on which our new book is based, I felt that I was stepping back into the 1970s, the time of my first trip to the region, when Brazil was ruled by the military. The election of Bolsonaro, who espouses so many of the old military views, particularly their obsession with national security, means that these views will once again become official policy. This will make things worse in the Amazon, perhaps much worse, but only because those government officials espousing the democratic alternative will now become the transgressors.
Even before Bolsonaro’s victory, violent land-grabbers enjoyed the support, albeit discreetly expressed, of the federal government. Take Agamenon da Silva Menezes, president of the Rural Farmers’ Union in the town of Novo Progresso in Pará state, the new epicentre of the Amazon frontier. Whereas at the time of my first visit to the Amazon, the agricultural frontier had reached the savanna (Cerrado) region in the north of Mato Grosso state, today it has moved 200 miles north to Pará state, leaving environmental destruction in its wake.
Novo Progresso is a typical frontier town. It sprang up around a clandestine landing strip but today it is dominated by the BR-163 highway, which has become the town’s main street. At the peak of the soya harvest, hundreds of huge lorries rumble through it, choking up clouds of dust. ‘Here we don’t have robberies,’ a cab driver told us proudly on arrival. ‘Here everyone is armed.’
Agamenon has a long history of violent land-grabbing. Back in 2003 when land thieves were lobbying to get the government to reduce the size of an indigenous reserve, so they could get their hands on valuable land, he did not hide his tactics. ‘When a hunter goes into the forest to hunt down a paca [a large rodent], he has his gun cocked, ready to shoot’, he said. On that occasion the landgrabbers’ bullying tactics worked: the Indians, terrified for their lives and under coercion, signed a decree reducing the size of their territory.
Learning how to resist
Agamenon’s tactics have not changed, but indigenous communities and land settlements have learnt better how to oppose him. When we interviewed him in 2016, he was involved in a vicious conflict with landless peasants, who were squatting on potentially valuable public land that the land grabbers wanted.
Although we were filming, Agamenon spoke frankly about how he intended to send in militias, composed of violent thugs, to gradually increase the violence and force the peasant families off the land.
If they [the settlers] leave on their own accord, fine. If they won’t go, we make them. We do what it takes. If they use clubs against us, we use clubs. If they use knives, we use knives. If they use dogs, we use dogs … the way it is done depends on them … but in the end we get them out. – Agamenon da Silva menezes
When we remonstrated that what he was doing was self-evidently illegal in supposedly democratic Brazil, where the military had returned to the barracks over three decades earlier, he shrugged his shoulders.
A few days earlier the landless movement leader Aluisio Sampaio, known as Alenquer, had taken us to the settlement that Agemenon was talking about. The families, all impoverished and desperate for a plot of land, had received us warmly.
A couple days later, just as Agamenon had said, gunmen arrived, threatening and shooting in the air. But quick-witted Alenquer was ready. He immediately appealed to the press and published a powerful interview on YouTube. The gunmen backed off and the families breathed a sigh of relief.
But in October of this year, when it was already clear that Bolsonaro would win the election, gunmen appeared in Alenquer’s home, which also serves as his office, and killed him, with eight bullets in the head. It may be a taste of what lies ahead.
Like the landless families, the indigenous communities in the Amazon, who have lived in the region for thousands of years, know what the arrival of the economic frontier means. The 13,000 Munduruku, who live in numerous villages beside the Tapajós river, are a case in point. It wasn’t easy to meet them. The Indians are mistrustful of outsiders, using the same word, pariwat, to mean a ‘non-indigenous person’ and an ‘enemy’, but we eventually received an invitation to visit them.
Their village is only accessible by boat and the Indians picked us up in a canoe one morning. We then had an eight-hour journey in the full sun and at times had to get out of the canoe to wade through rapids. But once we arrived in the village the Munduruku, decked out in traditional costume and with their bodies covered with ceremonial designs, gave us a courteous welcome. They were all, men and women, keen to talk to us.
But what they had to tell us was tragic.
In 2013 the government built a large, 1.8 megawatt hydroelectric power station, called Teles Pires, and, in doing so, dynamited the Sete Quedas rapids, where the Indians’ most sacred sanctuary, inhabited by the spirits of the people and the animals of the forest after death, was located. In their cosmology it was equivalent to bombing the Christian ‘Heaven’.
Today the Munduruku, mortified by the shame of betraying their ancestors, feel they face double annihilation, in life and death.
It is a time of death. The Munduruku will start dying. They will have accidents. Even simple accidents will lead to death. Lightning will strike and kill an Indian. A branch will fall from a tree and kill an Indian. It’s not chance. It’s all because the government interfered with a sacred site. – Krixi Biwûn
Krixi Biwūn says this with authority. A well-built woman, she is a respected Munduruku woman warrior. She wears a traditional skirt made of straw, with necklaces fashioned from nuts of the forest around her neck. Though she is over 60, her long, straight jet-black hair has scarcely a single white strand.
Over the centuries, the Munduruku have changed as the world around them has changed. On some occasions, they have readily incorporated new technological elements into their culture. The British Museum has a ‘very traditional’ Munduruku waistband, probably fashioned in the late 19th century, which utilises cotton fabric imported from Europe. The Indians must have realized that cotton fabric was a useful alternative to the textiles they made from forest products, and they happily incorporated it into the decorative garment. Today that custom continues. Almost all young people have mobile phones.
But only with great difficulty can they to change that annihilates the basis of their cultural and spiritual life.
Throughout our journey, we met numerous communities – indigenous, riverine and peasant – battling to save their way of life and their ecosystems. Because the odds against them are so uneven, we should have been inconsolably depressed by what we saw but we weren’t. Along with the violence, there was so much positive to report on – Kayapó Indians using modern technology to set up effective monitoring systems to detect intruders, peasant communities and indigenous tribes working together after many years of mutual mistrust, fair trade networks being established so that forest inhabitants can finally get a decent price for their forest products, including Brazil nuts, indigenous tribes resorting to ‘direct action’ to mark out their territory when the Brazilian authorities fail to, and so on.
They don’t think they’re ‘doomed to extinction’ so neither should we. But they desperately need help. There are many ways in which we can assist – supporting social movements to resist Bolsonaro, putting pressure on multinationals not to use soya cultivated on what was once tropical forest, supporting the communities’ fair-trade networks, and carrying out our own forms of ‘direct action’, as are now being organised by Extinction Rebellion, to put pressure on governments to act NOW to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.
* Amazon Besieged: by Dams, Soya and Land-grabbing, by Mauricio Torres and Sue Branford, Latin America Bureau and Practical Action Publishing, £14.20, available at https://developmentbookshop.com/amazon-besieged