We reach Uruará, a town of some 50,000 inhabitants on the Transamazônica highway. It is a typical frontier town, with no running water, no sewerage, no Internet, no airport (apart from some small, clandestine landing strips, some of which are said to be used for drug trafficking), not even a bus station. Its hospital is understaffed and poorly equipped, with people sleeping in hammocks overnight on its veranda, just in order to make an appointment to see a doctor in a month’s time.

Loggers' lorry, no platesWhat Uruará does have in abundance (apart from mobile phones, which work here but not in the settlements) are madeireiros (loggers), who bring in most of the town’s income and are very clearly the powers that be. Indeed, a madeireiro won the recent election for mayor. In the late afternoon, lorries transporting massive tree trunks, many of them macarenduba, arrive in the loggers’ depots. Some of the lorries are new models but, almost invariably, they don’t have a number plate.

Mobiles and cartsIt’s rumoured that they’re stolen vehicles, brought here from the south of the country. As in other frontier towns in the Amazon, the modern rubs shoulders with the archaic: men with horses and carts for hire offer their services by giving their mobile phone numbers.

Sue on the bus to Rio Trairão When we go to find out the times of buses to the Projeto de Assentamento Rio Trairão, a colonisation project where conflicts with loggers are occurring, people tell us that there are far fewer buses today than there used to be a year or two ago, as so many families have bought motos, tough little motor bikes that can get through floods even if the water comes up to the handlebars, and over very rough roads. Indeed, on our journey in the bus to the settlement project, we see scores of motos travelling dangerously fast down the unpaved, rutted track. Indeed, nearly everyone on the bus seems to have a story about someone in the family being injured in a fall from a moto. So it is with some apprehension that I get on the back of a motor-bike, by now in the dark, to get to the community of Santa Rosa in the settlement where we are staying.

Next morning I try to get my head around the complex land situation in the settlement. For decades now, the settlers tell me, land in the region has been unofficially divided up between the big madeireiras (logging companies). There have been conflicts between them, often violent; at times one group of loggers has been stronger, at times others. The logging was always illegal because all the land lies within a region designated by the government in 1971 to be an area of agrarian reform (Polígono Desapropriado de Altamira). Legally, therefore, no one other than colonos should be using the land. But for many years the loggers have been active all over the region – so much so that local people refer to areas as ‘terra da Vargas e Vargas’ (land of the Vargas and Vargas company), ‘terra da Marajoara’ (land of the Marajoara company).

The loggers have moved through the region in waves, first extracting mainly cedar, then mainly ipê, and, more recently, less valuable timbers such macarenduba. It’s a region that was never rich in mahogany, a timber that loggers are now banned from exporting, such was the wantonness with which they plundered the forest to get hold of it. The madeireiras take timber not only from areas not yet allocated to settlement projects, but also from plots belonging to colonos. With the government largely absent from the entire region, the loggers have used the classic combination of patronage (building roads, repairing bridges, taking sick people to hospital) and threats to get the colonos to sell them their timber at peppercorn prices.

The situation, long violent, has become more tense recently because some of the colonos have begun to challenge the stranglehold that the loggers have over the region. The Rio Trairão settlement is a case in point. It is what is called a ‘spontaneous’ colonisation project: when land in the early colonisation project began to run out, families themselves marked out a new settlement, deeper in the forest, following precisely the earlier guidelines that INCRA, the National Institute for Colonisation and Agrarian Reform, had stipulated. Eventually, INCRA turned it into a settlement under the government’s agrarian reform programme (PNRA). It is significant that the families say that at the time they also requested – and got – the go-ahead from the big logging company that controls their area – Marajoara.

It was an uneasy alliance but, to some extent, it worked. The dynamic began to change in 2007, when some of the colonos, most of whom are Catholics, got involved in the Catholic bishops’ education campaign that year, titled ‘Fraternity and the Amazon’. They began to realise that, if their children and grandchildren were to have a future, they had to construct an alternative to the old destructive ways of exploiting the Amazon – not only logging, but their own practice of slash-and-burn agriculture.

DedelAlthough most of the families come from the north-east, and none of them knew how to collect produce from the forest, they decided to learn. With the support of the Church, they invited people from other settlements, who had experience in collecting seeds and nuts, to come and teach them. It was in this way that the settlement’s ‘Seeds of the Forest’ project was born. It’s been a steep learning curve. Derisvaldo Sousa Moreira (known as Dedel), president of the settlement’s Community Association, puts it this way: ‘We are changing from one reality to another. We’re bringing together this new way of doing things with our old way of farming.’

Luziane de Cruz SilvaToday, along with growing rice, beans, maize and manioc as they always have done (though here too they are experimenting with ‘direct tillage’, a more environmentally friendly way of farming), they are also collecting brazil nuts, and seeds from andiroba, cupuaçu, copaíba and other trees. They are extracting oil from them and making soaps, shampoos, skin creams and other products. They have faced setbacks in achieving the high technical quality that big companies such as Natura demand, but the project is going ahead. I used their copaíba cream on my face and arms after a long day battered by the tropical sun and found it very effective (not to mention its subtle perfume, so redolent of the forest).

copaiba tree brutally cutNow the families want to annex a big new area of forest to their settlement, an area that is currently being heavily exploited by loggers. ‘We need to move quickly before the loggers destroy everything’, says Dedel. Not only are the loggers felling trees that the colonos need, but they also turn a blind eye to the wanton destruction wrought by the teams of poorly paid labourers, often employed in conditions of virtual slavery, sent in by the men subcontracted by the loggers to fell the trees. The colonos showed us a copaíba tree after one of the teams had been in the region: one of the men had brutally cut the tree with an electric saw to extract oil. Months after he’d slashed the trunk, oil was still leaking out and the tree was slowly dying. In contrast, when they extract oil, the colonos do it carefully, drilling a small hole into the trunk and then closing it after the oil has been extracted, so the tree will recover.

Ipe trees recently felledThe colonos took us to see the damage that the loggers are doing to the land they want to annex. We saw huge ipê trees lying on the ground, recently felled. One of the colonos told us, in dismay, that this land belonged to Miguel Padre, a colono we’d met earlier in the nearby town of Uruará. A lively, sharp-witted man, Miguel has been through a lot in his struggle to survive in this frontier country: among other things, he’d been held as a virtual slave on a big farm (eventually being rescued by one of the federal government’s anti-slavery teams), and he’d worked for a logging company as a guard, keeping intruders out of one of their timber-rich ‘estates’.

Miguel Padre, colonoFinally winning land in the Rio Trairão settlement, Miguel has become a strong supporter of the ‘Seeds of the Forest’ project. He’s currently doing a technical course in Uruará on how to collect forest products, and the loggers had taken advantage of his absence from his plot to fell his timber. One of the colonos calculated that 30 cubic metres of ipê had been felled and was lying on the ground, waiting to be taken away by the loggers. Today ipê is exported for about US$2,400 a cubic metre. This means, if costs are deducted, Miguel is losing something like US$60,000. It makes one weep to think what a difference this money would make to the colonos’ ‘Seeds of the Forest’ project. As we rode back on our motos to Santa Rosa, we met Miguel on his moto travelling back to his plot with his wife and one of his children. We stopped to tell him the bad news. He was understandably angry, and his reaction was not to get help from any authority at a federal or state level, but to ask his uncle, who ‘foams at the mouth like a barrão (an uncastrated pig)’, to help him expel the men.

Dedel, Miguel and the others in the Seeds of the Forest Project are directly challenging the loggers’ control . It’s a dangerous thing to do, and Dedel has already received death threats. Early this year, when they were collecting seeds in the area of forest they want to annex, loggers told them to leave. They refused and nothing more came of it. But the conflict continues to simmer. There are rumours that the loggers are prepared to pay R$60,000 (almost $30,000) – more even than was paid for the killing of Sister Dorothy Stang in 2005 – for Dedel’s death. Dedel’s mother told me that she cannot sleep at night for fear that Dedel, the oldest of her 11 children, will soon be assassinated. There was little we could say to reassure her.