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Land conflicts and destruction in the Brazilian Amazon

Poor farmers and settlers in the Amazon are under attack as never before.


This is the first of a series of articles contributed by LAB partner Agência Pública from São Paulo, Brazil. It brings together material first published in the series ‘Amazônia sem Lei’ on Agência Pública’s website. You can see the original and other material (in Portuguese) here.

97.7% of conflict areas in Brazil are found in Amazônia Legal, a broad definition of the Brazilian Amazon basin, encompassing over half of the country. Here, land disputes and environmental destruction go hand in hand and in this article we tell the stories of some of the small farmers targeted by the increasing violence in the country.

Translated for LAB by Julia May & Sue Branford.

With the Amazon rainforest ablaze, Jair Bolsonaro’s government faced harsh criticism both inside and outside Brazil. When confronted, the president accused NGOs of causing the fires and got into disagreements with international leaders, who criticized his stance on the crisis. In a meeting with the governors of the Brazilian states affected by the fires, the president made further accusations, suggesting that NGOs were inciting the fires as a way of pressuring the government to mark out the boundaries of undemarcated indigenous reserves and claiming that, if this were done, “the fires in the Amazon rainforest would end in two minutes”.

The largest number of fires took place on a so-called ‘Day of Fire’, which farmers, traders and grileiros (land grabbers) from the northern region, mainly the state of Pará, organised through WhatsApp. On August 10, this group felled and burnt forests on public lands. One of the leaders told the local newspaper, “Folha do Progresso”, that the event was to “make authorities aware that progress in the region is happening without government support” and to “show the president that we want to work, and the only way to do this is by felling, and the only way to create our pastures is with fire.”

Since Bolsonaro’s election, environmentalists have been concerned about the impact the government could have in the region, as the president has a long history of speaking out against environmental laws and indigenous land demarcations.

Kneecapping the regulators

Soon after it came to office, the Bolsonaro government cut 90% of the already depleted budget of the National Indian Foundation (Funai), and slashed budgets and sacked employees from IBAMA and the Chico Mendes Institute for the Conservation of Biodiversity (ICMBio), the two bodies responsible for monitoring the environment. It also issued a decree that withdrew up to 95 percent of the funding for strategic programmes such as combating climate change, firefighting, licensing and monitoring of the environment, and fired the director of the Space Research Institute (INPE), the body that uses satellites to monitor deforestation in the country, after it had posted data that showed that forest destruction was on the rise compared with 2018.

In an open letter to the current president of IBAMA on 26 August, a group of this agency’s employees said that “the measures that have been adopted to make it difficult for IBAMA and ICMBio to act suggest that federal environmental management is collapsing and that crime inside and outside of the Amazon is being encouraged.” In addition to environmental crimes, such rhetoric and measures also affect another issue closely linked to preservation in Brazil: land conflict.

According to the Legal Amazon Deforestation Bulletin in July, produced by the NGO Imazon, 20% of deforestation took place in land settlements (set up for small-scale farmers in the agrarian reform programme), 19% in protected areas (areas of special environmental interest) and 6% on indigenous land.

However, most deforestation (55%) occurred in areas privately owned or in the process of being taken over by private owners. In addition, the cross-checking of data carried out by Pública showed that deforestation is also on the rise in land settlements, where land is being taken over by beneficiaries who do not fit the criteria for being awarded a plot of land and are irregularly carrying out a process of land reconcentration.

Settlements under pressure

In a country where land concentration is historically high, the Amazonian integration programme carried out by the military regime in the 1970s simultaneously brought to the Amazon, on the one hand, large companies from the centre and south of the country and, on the other, poor rural workers who were desperately searching for a plot of land. The government first promoted settlements to occupy the Amazon and then abandoned them. Over the years, small farmers trying to find or maintain a space for planting their crops have found themselves under increasing pressure with the expansion of the agricultural frontier, with land grabbers, loggers, gunmen and miners all trying to drive them off their land. As a result, they have become targets of increasing violence.

The amount of land involved in conflict has grown exponentially since 2015, according to the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT). Its annual report shows that 39.4 million hectares, 4.6% of the national territory, were in dispute in 2018, and 97.7% of the country’s conflicts occurred in Amazônia Legal, which encompasses nine states of Brazil.

Pará, the state which recorded this year the second highest number of fires, is also the state with most deaths as a result of rural conflict. According to a survey by historian Airton dos Reis Pereira, from the State University of Pará (UEPA), over 1,000 people died as a result of land conflicts in rural Pará between 1970 and 2018. This region also had the country’s highest number of massacres (defined as an incident involving three or more deaths). From 1985 to 2019, there were 49 massacres in rural Brazil with 229 victims.

Bolsonaro’s hostile speeches against indigenous and landless people, his government’s halting of land reform, and the recent passing of a law to extend gun ownership on farms increases the fear that already high levels of rural conflict will further rise this year. In recent months, we have interviewed farmers facing death threats in the fight to have land to call their own.

‘Every interview, we think will be our last,’ says a farmer under threat

The Areia Settlement Project (PA Areia), in southwest Pará, is the gateway into a vast amount of forest intensely disputed by loggers, who have dominated the area for decades. Surrounded by protected areas, that together form one of the largest stretches of continuous rainforest on the planet, PA Areia is an easy way of gaining access to the hardwoods that still abound there. For this reason, people who should not be given land on a settlement project are trying to buy plots and concentrate land, and this engenders violence, slave labour and environmental crimes. Access to the PA is controlled by loggers, who even charge an entrance to the settlement, even though it is public land.

Osvalinda & Daniel in better times. Photo: personal archive

Unaware of what was going on, the couple Osvalinda and Daniel arrived in 2001 “looking for a plot of land without problems.” At first glance, it looked like a wonderful place, with fertile land and a newly-built village. But slowly, they began to feel that something was wrong.

When they tried to seek help from the residents’ association and the rural workers’ union so that they could improve their farming, none was available. They noticed that the farmers were able to produce enough food to feed themselves, but they were not increasing their output. As a result, the families in the settlement weren’t earning enough to satisfy basic necessities. “We tried to get to the bottom of it: why had agriculture not developed there? Then we saw that the residents’ association, the union and all the bodies in the region were controlled by landowners and loggers in such a way that they couldn’t develop their agriculture. The only activity that was allowed to work there was timber extraction.”

Osvalinda & Daniel. Photo: Paula Cinquetti/Agência Pública

Due to lack of support from the existing bodies, the couple decided to open a women’s association and carry out new experiments in farming. They were invited to participate in an eight-year experimental family farming development programme. “We decided to move in another direction [away from the predominant model in the settlement], working with agro-extractivism. We encouraged farmers to plant crops, and not to use poison or pesticides. We were beginning to change the way people did things in the PA Areia,” said Osvalinda.

Join us, or else

However, they soon faced problems with the illegal companies operating within the PA. At first, the companies were conciliatory, suggesting that the couple should join a scheme for helping the timber companies. “I didn’t accept it because we had just opened an association precsiely because we didn’t want to be in their hands,” explained Osvalinda. She said that from that moment on, their lives began to change.

“We received verbal threats all the time. They kept saying that our association would not be successful, that it would make the lives of the settlers worse. And so began a snowball effect of negative sentiment towards the women’s association.”

Osvalinda remembers in detail the day when her life changed for good. She had gone to a nearby town for a health appointment when she made a shocking discovery.

“I was in a healthcare support centre and I began talking to a woman settler who asked me if I knew a woman in Areia called Osvalinda, who was president of the women’s association there. I said I did but didn’t say it was me. This was strange because the woman was from Novo Progresso [a municipality in the same region as PA Areia but quite a long way away]. I asked, “Why?” And she said, “Because that woman is under a death threat. She’s going to die this week.” It felt as if the floor under me had given way. I asked her why she is going to be killed, and she said, “Because she is reporting the loggers [to the authorities]. Ibama came and burned all their machines, their trucks. And she’s the one reporting them.” Then I said, “I’m that woman. I’m Osvalinda. And I’m not reporting anyone.” Then the woman changed the subject, talked her way out of it, saying it was her husband who had heard the rumour somewhere.”

Osvalinda didn’t keep her health appointment in the town, and Daniel went to fetch her. But when they got home a group of loggers and gunmen surrounded their house. One of the loggers arrived with a bag of money and made of an ultimatum-cum-proposal to the couple:  accept the money in exchange for silence. The couple denied having reported anyone but also declined the money.

The man got angry and said, “Poor people accept money or they die, Dona Osvalinda.” I asked if he was threatening me. He said: “No, I’m not threatening you. I’m just telling you that if IBAMA comes back to Areia and burns my trucks and my machines, and if my employees lose their jobs and then come here and do something, it wasn’t me who sent them.”

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The couple said that after insisting a lot with the authorities, they managed to make a formal complaint; and it was then that they had another surprise. “We got a real shock at the Federal Police Station. There were already a lot of complaints from others about the people who had threatened us, dating from 1998, 1999 and 2000. Old denunciations of murder, death and environmental crime,” said Osvalinda. “The police already knew that there were organised and wealthy criminal groups operating in the region, dominating the communities, employing slave labour inside the settlement, which still happens today and isn’t a hidden thing. Everyone knows about it. After that, we were even more scared,” says Daniel.

Living under constant threat

In 2015, the two of them were included in the Programme for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (PPDDH), linked to the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights. Even with this support, the situation became worse. In May 2018 they found two graves with a cross on each, dug in their plot of land. Earlier that year, they had left their little plot of land in the PA and traveled to another state to spend a season away. The move was motivated, according to the Ministry, by the need for Osvalinda to receive intensive health care treatment but the threats against them had accumulated over the years and they also contributed to the decision.

Many have not been so “lucky”. The couple say that “a bunch of people” have died in the settlement, not only because of land conflict, but as a result of slave labour. “Nivaldinho [a farmer] was one of those who died cut up into pieces with a machete, Nelson [farmer] was stabbed by a gunman as he lay at the back of a boat for not paying the money they demanded, Cuca [farmer] was killed and they disappeared with his body,” says Daniel. “Another one was Rosinha [farmer], a 13-year-old girl who was pregnant. Her body vanished, and theystill haven’t found her body,” adds Osvalinda. “Gaucho [farmer] was also murdered. This is all within the settlement.” Daniel continues, “There were others they killed and threw into the fire at the sawmill.” Osvalinda adds, “When they do that, the body doesn’t even turn into ashes. Even the ashes disappear.”

The couple fears that the conflict will get worse under the Bolsonaro government. Osvalinda says that in January she was threatened by an escaped criminal, who felt supported by the new president’s stance. “’Now we have a president who will back us’, he said to some people we know”, said Osvalinda. “You can warn Dona Osvalinda that we’re the bosses here now.”

Despite the difficulties, the couple are not thinking of giving up. “We will not abandon the families, because we have seen the fear stamped on all their faces. But we don’t bank on being here tomorrow,” says Daniel. “Every interview we give we think will be our last. If the lawlessness continues, crimes will keep on happening.”

 ‘Either I got out, or I would die’

D.O. and his family Photo: Thiago Domenici, art by Bruno Fonseca/Agência Pública

Holding back his emotions, 58-year-old D.O. does not gesticulate much and whispers when he recalls the threats that have recently forced him and his family to give up the fight for a plot of land in southwestern Pará.

“Some of our companions felt the shock of us leaving. But on the other hand, they realized that I had to leave. Either I left or I would die. One way or another they were going to lose me anyway,” says the former president of the Mata Preta Family Farmers’ Association.

Mata Preta is situated in the municipality of Anapu, in the state of Pará, in the federal public settlement of Bacajá, a huge territory of over 80,000 hectares created in 1983. It was where the US missionary Dorothy Stang was murdered with six shots 14 years ago. In Anapu, the struggle for land never ends and the law of the gun almost always prevails. Last year it was the region with the highest number of murders as a result of land conflict : three deaths, according to the CPT. The total number of murders has reached 20 since 2000, in addition to 16 attempted murders and 34 death threats, such as the ones against D.O.

The plot which D.O. and his family lived in and cultivated became one of the judicial fronts for the fight against irregular land occupation in 2013, in a public civil action undertaken jointly by the federal government and the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) against the agribusiness Santa Helena Participações Ltda. The lawsuit called for the repossession of the area after a survey by INCRA showed that the company had illegally taken over a public area. According to the Constitution, this land should have been used for land reform.

With it becoming increasingly likely that the company would lose the property, the temperature increased in Mata Preta. The CPT sent a message to the authorities public agencies about the situation: “On the weekend of May 30-31 2015, armed henchmen sawed off both ends of a bridge that leads to Mata Preta, where plots 69, 71 and 73 are located […] With the bridge sawn, heavily armed gunmen kept watch over the area, going up and speaking to the people who managed to cross the stream. On August 29, landowners in more than 15 cars terrorized families by pointing guns at them, screaming and threatening them to kill them.” In the following year, 2016, the court gave the authorities the right to repossess the plots of land.

But this first victory for the landless provoked a violent reaction reaction. Mata Preta was in absolute turmoil in the gap of more than a year between the decision in favour of the repossession and it finally being carried out in December 2017.

Taking over the leadership of the farmers’ association in 2016, D.O. immediately had to deal with the murder of two comrades. He describes what happens. “They arrived on foot, out of thick forest. They went up to Zé de Arimatéia and shot him in the shoulder. He fell on the ground but did not die. Then, they shot Titela, who tried to escape into a field, and they ended up killing him. Then they shot Cicero in his legs. Even so, he tried to run away, crossed a stream and, after trying to get up but not managing it, he stayed there… but did not die. Then they shot Marrone. They shot Marrone three times and killed him, he was 17 years old. They even shot at an 11-year-old boy, but didn’t hit him.” To this day, police have not found those responsible for the crimes.

They hadn’t come to negotiate

One month after the farmers’ deaths, the community experienced another dangerous situation. “A group of 30 armed men came in to evict everyone from the land.” According to D.O., the gunmen arrived and began destroying the houses. “They had come to clear the area. They were not there to talk or negotiate with anyone. Either you accepted leaving or you would die. That was the deal. With 30 gunmen, what could we do? Our men always have scythes with them, and machetes for their work but we had no guns so we couldn’t confront them. And the weapons they had were heavy ones, like rifles and submachine guns.” D.O. hurriedly erected a temporary shack, with a roof made from black plastic, in the forest and hid in it with his family. When the situation calmed down, he once more went to the courts to ask for help.

In 2017, D.O. had to join the PPDDH. He can’t even remember how many threats he had received. In May of that year, the CPT approached the Federal Prosecutor’s Office (MPF) to request that the authorities moved quickly to evict the company from the land. “After so many months of suffering and community defense, it would be tragic if the process of evicting Santa Helena Participações from the land ended in slaughter,” said the message sent to the MPF.

It was December 2017 when reintegration actually took place. By that time, D.O. could no longer stay on his land. The PPDDH advised him to remain in Altamira, a municipality in the region, far from the focus of the conflict. He also had to a health problem that required medical care.

The problem, he points out, is that after Santa Helena Participações was truend off the land, in addition to the harassment from gunmen, he was also targeted by people who wanted to sell plots of land illegally. In addition, in the city, the family had difficulties in having enough money to live on. In Mata Preta they had made their living through farming. “We were already starving and the threats continued,” he says. “The same vehicles we had seen on the farm were there in Altamira, 24 hours a day, close to our home. They would ask people about me,” he said.

Faced with this situation, the day came when it was too much. “I asked the human rights people [PPDDH] to get me out of there at all costs. They said, “We’ll take you, but after a while we’ll have to bring you back”. I said, “Look, you will be taking me back to the wolf’s lair, I won’t want to do that. If there’s any way you can take me away and leave me tere …” But the rules wouldn’t allow for it.”

As reports by Pública revealed in April this year, the PPDDH programme suffers from budget constraints. Defenders fighting for the right to land and territory, as well as environmentalists, are the majority of those helped by the PPDDH: these represent 348 of 416 cases included in the programme, according to April 2019 data.

For the farmer, through his fight in Mata Preta he had honoured the commitment he had made to the community. “We left with our heads held high. And that is what brings us satisfaction.” But D.O. has further concerns: he and his family need work and a place to live. “We have a deadline. Only Jesus knows where we’ll go,” he says. His current residence depends on rent that from this month on, he will no longer be able to pay unless he is employed.

Families under gunfire and houses burned

Under the scorching sun of the Amazonian summer, farmer Claudio Araújo da Silva steps on the rubble and ashes of his old home, located in an area now occupied by farm 1,200 in Ourilândia do Norte, southern Pará. Claudio gets emotional when he picks up the remains of his belongings on the dirt floor, now covered in charcoal like the rest of his former home.

Burnt houses. Photo: José Cicero da Silva/Agência Pública)

In May of this year, Claudio and ten other families who took part in the land occupation had their houses burned in the dead of night. According to reports from residents heard by Pública, a group of four people fired in the direction of the homes before setting fire to them. 20-calibre shotgun cartridges were found nearby by the Pública journalists.

Arson is the latest chapter in an agrarian conflict that has been going on for 13 years on farm 1,200, where a group of about 150 families have been calling for the establishment of an agrarian reform settlement since 2006.

Translated by Julia May & Sue Branford.

Agência Pública

Agencia Pubica Blog Latin America Bureau

Founded in 2011 by women journalists, Agência Pública is the first non-profit agency for investigative journalism in Brazil. Their courageous public-interest reports have been republished by over 900 outlets in the past year, under Creative Commons agreements. You can find English translations of our collaborative picks from Agência Pública’s coverage, below.

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