From Uruará we continued eastwards along the Transamazônica highway to the town of Altamira, which, because of the proximity of the construction work for the gigantic Belo Monte hydroelectric power station, is expanding at a momentous rate. Infrastructure is lagging badly behind, despite an earlier commitment from Norte Energia, the consortium building the dam, to invest heavily in this area. There is no running water in most of the town, and many of the streets have open sewers (which I know to my cost, as I tripped headlong into a large pool of sewage after stepping out of a car in a dark street one evening!). Because of the serious housing shortage, landlords charge exorbitant rents, and hotel rooms are three or four times as expensive as in neighbouring towns.
We had dinner with Antônia Melo, an extraordinary woman who, for the last 40 years, has been struggling for the rights of colonos (settlers), ribeirinhos (people who live along the rivers)and indigenous people to be respected. She helped to found the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT – Workers’ Party) in the early 1990s, and she is deeply angered by the PT’s repeated insistence, once in government, on pursuing a ‘development’ agenda at all costs, riding roughshod over the demands of the people she represents. She still recalls with pain her first meeting with Dilma Rousseff, then Minister of Mines and Energy, in 2004. After Antônia had cautiously raised some issues about the dam, Dilma banged her fist on the table, saying firmly ‘Belo Monte is going to be built’, and left the room. Today Antônia seems tired, but she fights on, refusing to admit that the battle to stop Belo Monte has been lost.
Back on the bus, we continue eastwards, travelling through what used to be the hamlet of Belo Monte. It looks like one vast building site – there are frantic efforts to widen and pave the road; huge excavators dig out the sides of hills; a constant stream of lorries and earth-movers queue for the boat to cross the Xingu river. Some passengers on the bus take photos though the dusty windows, amazed at the scale of change in their region.
Some of the land that we see from the bus will be flooded, while the stretch of the Xingu that we cross by ferry will lose much of its water (which perhaps explains why the government is not listening to vociferous demands for a bridge). I admit reluctantly to myself that, however mistaken I feel this whole undertaking to be, it exerts a strange fascination. The scale of the project is simply overwhelming.
We get off the bus at Anapu, and stay in the house that Sister Dorothy Stang lived in until, in January 2005, a group of landowners paid R$50,000 (about £17,000) to a professional killer to assassinate her. Other American nuns are still there, carrying on with her work. They welcome us, and on the following morning, to my delight, they provide a hearty breakfast – porridge reinforced with the vitamin-rich middle layer (mesocarp) of the babaçu coconut, papaya, water melon, mangoes, bread rolls, unsweetened coffee. It is by far the best breakfast I’ve had since leaving São Paulo, and I tuck in eagerly.
From there we visit two Sustainable Development Projects (PDS), set up with the support of Sister Dorothy, where there is today more resistance to the loggers than in any other settlement in the Amazon. In the first, PDS Virola-Jatobá, the colonos have blocked the road into their land, and are refusing entry to unauthorised loggers and other intruders.
At the end of September, they were told that loggers had built a track elsewhere into their land and were stealing trees. The colonos reacted quickly. On the following day, with three officials from INCRA (National Institute of Colonisation and Agrarian Reform), they drove as close as they could to the area where the felling was occurring and then, guided by the sound of the machines, they walked about ten kilometres through the forest to find the loggers. They admitted later that they had felt scared as they reached the site, as they didn’t know what awaited them.
As it turned out, the workers were more frightened than they were – ‘Don’t shoot!’, one cried out as they arrived – and readily handed over the keys to the machinery. The colonos explained why they were confiscating the machines, and the workers, who had no reason to feel loyal to the loggers – ‘Madeireiros não são gente’ (‘Loggers aren’t people’) one them commented to a colono – finished up sharing their dinner with them. One workers told a colono that his mother had told him not to work on land that ‘that brave American nun’ had died for, but he hadn’t listened.
On the following day, an official from IBAMA, the environmental agency, arrived and fined the logger for maintaining labourers in conditions of slavery and for damaging the forest. After he had authorised the confiscation of the machinery, the colonos drove the huge machines back to the settlement. ‘I never realised it was so easy to clear a path through the forest’, one commented. The machines are still there, well hidden, waiting for IBAMA to find a legal way of donating them to the community.
One of the colonos and an INCRA official, both of whom had taken part in the action, offered to walk with us through the forest to where the machinery was held. ‘Now we’ve cleared the way with the machines, you’ll only have to walk a kilometre’, the colono assured us. It turned out, as I had suspected, to be three or four times as far, but it was a pleasant, if difficult, walk through the forest, and it gave us a good chance to chat. ‘It’s amazing how quickly the loggers operate’, said the INCRA official. ‘In just three days they’d felled a large number of trees.’ The loggers had planned for the labourers to stay for several weeks at least, because they had built a camp and brought in large supplies of food.
Despite the courage and determination of these colonos, the settlement still faces huge problems. Some time ago it contracted a logger to extract wood legally. He carried out an inventory and assured them that he could take out 22,000 cubic metres, worth almost R$2 million (about £650,000), without harming the forest. He’s already extracted an amount worth, he says, R$200,000 (about £65,000), but so far has paid them only R$30,000 (about £10,000). The colonos, who know little about timber, are also afraid that, apart from this reluctance to pay them, the logger may be robbing them in another way. They suspect that, while saying he is extracting soft timber, he may, in fact, be taking out hard timber, which is much more valuable.
The logger’s contract expires at the end of the year, and he is anxious to take out as much timber as he can before the rains come. When we arrived, the colonos were wondering whether or not to allow some of his lorries, loaded with timber, to leave the settlement before he had paid everything he owed them. When we left, seven large empty timber lorries arrived at the settlement, wanting to get in to carry out more timber. Again the colonos were finding it difficult to decide whether to let the lorries in or not.
The other settlement – PDS Esperança – which we visited on the following day, has taken a tougher line. It is on this settlement that Sister Dorothy was killed, and she is still remembered with great affection. We were taken to the cross marking the spot where – according to Irmazona, the colono guiding us – ‘her blood washed the ground’. She also showed us an inscription paying homage to ‘the martyrs who had fallen in the struggle for the preservation of the forest and agrarian reform in the Amazon’.
Soon after the inscription was nailed to a tree in May 2009, someone riddled it with bullets. The message was clear. Indeed, several community leaders in this settlement confided that they had received death threats, and Father Amaro, the priest in Anapu, told us with a laugh that he’d heard that the landowners were willing to pay R$25,000 for his death, half the price they paid for Sister Dorothy’s assassination.
A couple of years ago these colonos established a camp at the entrance to their settlement and stayed there for seven months, barring entry to the loggers’ lorries. The colonos received death threats. They also earned the hostility of the rural workers’ trade union (which seems to have been co-opted by the loggers in all the areas we visited), and of the state government, headed at the time by the PT politician Ana Júlia Carepa – ‘Ana Júlia Madeira [timber] is a better name for her’, muttered one of the colonos,referring to the fact that her electoral campaign had been financed by the loggers. But they stuck it out. Eventually they persuaded INCRA to build a proper sentry-box and to pay a private security firm to staff it day and night.
For the moment, they have decided not to get involved in any type of logging. ‘We are fortunate here’, said Fábio, a young colono. ‘We have decent soil and we can live from crops we plant on the 20% of our plot that we are permitted to clear.’ The rest of their land has been allocated to a huge forest reserve, which they own collectively. Fábio believes that it is important to save the forest to ensure a future for their children and to help mitigate global warming. But other colonos believe that it is stupid to give up the chance of easy money. It’s a topic they talk about a lot. It’s part of the difficult struggle to forge a truly sustainable development project in the Amazon forest.