Friday, April 19, 2024
HomeTopicsThe AmazonAmazon Besieged - by dams, soya, agribusiness and land-grabbing

Amazon Besieged – by dams, soya, agribusiness and land-grabbing

by Mauricio Torres and Sue Branford


The Tapajós River, a major tributary of the Amazon, is renowned for its extraordinary biodiversity and the vitality of its indigenous and riverine communities. But it is gradually being carved up by highways, hydroelectric dams and railways, built to allow agribusiness, the new powerhouse of the Brazilian economy, to export soya and other products though the Amazon River. Amazon Besieged tells the story of two writers’ long investigative trip along the basin in 2016 and 2017. As if travelling through history, the authors were able to trace the way an outside economic force arrives and dispossesses earlier inhabitants. They started their journey in the south of the Tapajós river basin, where modern Brazil is firmly entrenched, with its paved roads and huge soya plantations, and moved north, where outsiders are engaged in a violent tussle with the earlier inhabitants who still occupy much of the land. Travelling by canoe and pick-up, the authors visited remote indigenous villages and isolated communities of rubber-tappers and fisherfolk. They recorded moving testimony of the pressure these people are experiencing, with the arrival of dam builders, loggers and land-grabbers. At times, these outsiders show little respect for the law, openly sending in illegal militias to evict the original inhabitants. Yet the outcome is far from clear, for today indigenous and riverine communities know full well that they are struggling for their very survival. Overcoming traditional hostilities, they have created powerful new alliances and are forging links with environmentalists, who know that they are the true guardians of the forest.

The authors

Mauricio Torres has lived and worked in the Amazon for 15 years; he has a PhD in human geography and has been consulted as an expert by the Federal Public Ministry in over a dozen cases involving social and environmental issues in the Amazon. Sue Branford is a freelance journalist and writer, based in the UK, who worked for the BBC World Service as a Latin America analyst and is an editor at Latin America Bureau.

What leading authorities on the Amazon have said about this book

This is a fascinating, important and astonishing account of the battle to save the living world and the future prospects of humanity. George Monbiot, journalist …essential reading for those concerned not just for the future of the Amazon and its rich human and ecological diversity, but ultimately for our planet… Fiona Watson, Survival International Amazon Besieged appeals equally to the head, the heart and to our sense of socioenvironmental responsibility. Antonio A R Ioris, Cardiff University A vivid and lively exploration of the dynamics of life and death on Brazil’s Amazonian frontier and the threat that this poses to the world’s hopes of preventing catastrophic climate change. Graham Woodgate, UCL Institute of the Americas

Published by LAB and Practical Action Publishing, December 2018 ISBN: 9781909014046. Cover Price £14.95. Available at a discount price of £14.20 from
Since the book went to print, co-author Sue Branford has issued a stark warning about what can be expected for the Amazon and its peoples from the incoming administration of far right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro, from 1 January 2019: “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.” In October 2018, when it was clear that Bolsonaro would win the election, one of the landless leaders interviewed in the book, Aluisio Sampaio, known as Alenquer, was killed. Gunmen appeared in his 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…. The indigenous people and riveine communities  of the Tapajós 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.  

This article is funded by readers like you

Only with regular support can we maintain our website, publish LAB books and support campaigns for social justice across Latin America. You can help by becoming a LAB Subscriber or a Friend of LAB. Or you can make a one-off donation. Click the link below to learn about the details.

Support LAB