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Sinop, a city of 125,000 people in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon in Mato Grosso state, is a modern success story. Prosperous and booming, the small urban center services a region dominated today by industrial agriculture.
Few remember how the city came to be. As recently as the 1970’s, the Sinop region was mostly rainforest and occupied by indigenous peoples.
At the time, Brazil’s military government highly favored large-scale land speculators. These men gained dubious title to millions of acres of rainforest, divided it into lots, and sold it off to poor Brazilian settlers. Many settlers found their transplantation into the Amazon very difficult.
Indigenous and traditional people who lacked land titles were driven out, often violently. The story of Sinop is a story of development, exploitation and conflict that has continued to play out across the Amazon region — especially in the Tapajós River basin today.
The Tapajós River Basin lies at the heart of the Amazon, and at the heart of an exploding controversy: whether to build 40+ large dams, a railway, and highways, turning the Basin into a vast industrialized commodities export corridor; or to curb this development impulse and conserve one of the most biologically and culturally rich regions on the planet.
Those struggling to shape the Basin’s fate hold conflicting opinions, but because the Tapajós is an isolated region, few of these views get aired in the media. Journalist Sue Branford and social scientist Mauricio Torres travelled there recently for Mongabay, and over coming weeks hope to shed some light on the heated debate that will shape the future of the Amazon. This is the fifth of their reports.
Visitors to the Amazon community of Sinop are greeted by a sign proclaiming: “Sinop, capital of the North.” It’s no empty boast: the well-planned city of 125,000 with its broad tree-lined avenues and green spaces dominates the local economy and is fast becoming the de facto capital of the northern part of the state of Mato Grosso. Sinop’s citizens say the town’s founders modelled it on Maringá, a “garden city” in Paraná state (originally designed by the British).
Sinop today boasts numerous upscale shops, selling mobile phones, computers and fashionable clothes. Auto showrooms shine with expensive new vehicles, particularly 4x4s, able to handle the rough dirt roads that lead to surrounding soy plantations and other large-scale farms.
The stores — some flanked by Greek columns almost as large as the ones in the Parthenon, and even a replica of the Statue of Liberty — are not coy in broadcasting their message: we have great ambition and a lot of money to go with it.
What is not so clear — indeed, very surprising on a first visit — is that Sinop is only four decades old. A frontier town carved out of the rainforest, it has a fascinating history that many young sinopenses know little about.
Sinop’s story is emblematic of the Amazon, where the region’s natural riches are incrementally culled year-by-year, decade-by-decade, and where the rainforest and indigenous people give way slowly to highways, dams, logging and mining operations, industrial agriculture, and small settlements that grow into cities.
From rainforest to boom town
As recently as the 1950s, indigenous people — particularly the Kayabi and Apiaká Indians — were among the only inhabitants of the plain where Sinop now stands. That’s when the government forced them to move to the National Park of Xingu, in a resettlement process orchestrated by the Villas-Bôas brothers. Though criticized today for their paternalism and their willingness to make concessions to the authorities, these three brothers were responsible for getting the whole of the upper Xingu River turned into a legally protected area — the first huge indigenous area in all of South America.
Early Sinop settlers, unaware of that forced evacuation, told us that they recalled unearthing clay pots and indigenous axe heads when first clearing their land in the 1970s, but noted that they only occasionally encountered Indians, as they “passed through.”
Under the Brazilian military government (1964-85) — which was obsessed with national security and fearful of a foreign takeover in the Amazon Basin — the trickle of non-indigenous families to Mato Grosso state became a torrent. The nation’s top generals adopted the slogan “ocupar para não entregar” (occupy so as not to relinquish) and took a raft of measures to ensure that the Amazon basin got populated with “true Brazilians”, their way of saying “non-indigenous”.
The generals also took seriously a 1960s assessment by the Hudson Institute of New York, proposing that much of the Amazon basin be flooded by dams to make mineral wealth accessible, a political inclination that has remained strong down to the present.
The military government provided tax incentives to encourage big companies (including, somewhat paradoxically, multinationals, such as Volkswagen and Mercedes Benz) to slash-and-burn the rainforest and establish cattle ranches.
They also funded the gigantic Transamazônica Highway project, which crossed the Amazon basin from east to west, and then got a recently formed government institute, INCRA (the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform), to settle landless families (brought in from the impoverished Northeast) along the highway.
The government also invited in businessmen from Brazil’s South, men with experience running private land settlement schemes, to set up similar operations in Mato Grosso. Vast swathes of forest gained “owners”: Zé Paraná in Juara; Ariosto da Riva in Alta Floresta; and Ênio Pipino in Sinop.
All that stood in the way of these entrepreneurs, and a relentless wave of settlement and development, was the exuberant forest, the indigenous communities and traditional populations — seen by the new landowners as mere obstacles to be overcome.
The Amazon’s wild west
Many of the big projects initiated by the government, and by business, failed to take root. The most successful were the private land settlements pushed by the newly arrived big landowners. To encourage these businessmen, the military turned a blind eye to their crimes, which ranged from the violent eviction of peasants and Indians to large-scale land theft.
Énio Pipino got exceptionally good treatment. Born into a family of Italian immigrants in 1917, he grew up in the state of São Paulo. In 1948, he set up the Northwestern Paraná Real Estate Society, or Sinop Terras. He bought large areas of land in the state of Paraná dirt cheap, then sold plots to settlers.
According to journalist,Silvestre Duarte, who has studied the colonization of Paraná, it was a violent epoch: “Paraná was like the American Wild West in the 19th century, when all conflicts were resolved by the bullet,” said Duarte. The level of violence used to drive out Indians and peasant families was so intense that it drew a response in the Brazilian press and from the National Congress.
Pipino himself developed a reputation for ruthlessness, as he carved out an empire in northern Paraná, said the journalist: “From the middle of the 1940s to the beginning of the 1960s, Sinop’s band of gunmen were very active in the region. Under the command of Marins Belo and other famous gunmen, they evicted entire families of squatters and assassinated many people, throwing their bodies into the Piquiri River. Indeed, this became the hallmark of the Sinop’s hired guns.” By all accounts, Pipino made a lot of money.
The businessman then began planning how he could replicate his Paraná settlements on a bigger scale in Mato Grosso. The Sinop archivist, Luiz Erardi, told Mongabay that in 1970 Pipino and his wife, Lélia Maria de Araújo Vieir, began paying visits there. Encouraged by what they saw, Pipino bought some land from an absentee landowner and opened rough roads to make it accessible.
Relying on military support, Pipino took over more land, much of it lacking titles. He carved out plots to sell and opened real estate offices in the state of Paraná, promoting his Mato Grosso land with newspaper advertising and radio jingles.
According to one academic study, Pipino sent in gunmen to evict peasant families from land he claimed in Paraná, and it seems likely that he used similar methods in even more lawless Mato Grosso. Erardi confirmed that Pipino evicted peasant families in the Amazon, though didn’t comment on the methods used.
Though he clearly could be ruthless, Pipino could also be charming, according to Sinop residents who remember him, and he had a salesman’s knack for putting people’s minds at rest. One early settler, Geraldino Dal’Mazo, told Mongabay that people felt re-assured when Pipino guaranteed them a plot “with a legal land title.” Though his right to issue such titles was, at best, dubious.
An influx of eco-refugees, a hard life
In 1972, the first settlers made the arduous seven-day trip from Paraná to Mato Grosso. Over time, many sent dispirited reports back home, saying how difficult life was in the heart of the Amazon rainforest.
Then came 1975 and a severe frost in Paraná that wiped out the coffee harvest. “That frost ended forever coffee cultivation in Paraná,” said Luiz Erardi. “Many families began to think seriously about moving. Big landowners were arriving with tempting offers: ‘I’ll give you so much for your land!’ Many say that with [the sale of] their tiny plot in Paraná they bought a sizeable farm in Mato Grosso.”
Still, everyday life on the Amazon agricultural frontier remained arduous. There were no proper health service, no schools. The soils underlaying the forest were infertile. There was no technical support and settlers found that the farming skills they knew from the South didn’t transplant to the Amazon. Relieved there were no frosts, some planted coffee, only to see it fail for other reasons.
Many gave up. “They came penniless and went back doubly so”, Erardi said. Broke, they often had to find a neighbor with a truck and persuade him to transport them, paying him in the only thing they had left — their land. Almost worthless then, those plots have risen hugely in value, and today the children and grandchildren of the truck drivers have grown rich.
Luiz Erardi and his wife arrived in 1982 to work as teachers and found life very hard. Their diesel generator broke often; they didn’t have hot water; there was no stove in the kitchen.
“Two months after we arrived, I woke one morning, opened the wooden shutters in our shack, and saw that everything around us was flooded. I went to make coffee and the sugar had turned to syrup. I said to myself: ‘This isn’t land for people but for frogs.’” The floods were the final straw. “I told my wife we had to leave that morning. I couldn’t stand it any more. But she refused. She said she hadn’t wanted to come but now she was here she wasn’t giving up. She stamped her foot and said: ‘I’m not leaving’. And we didn’t. Thank goodness.”
Geraldino Dal’Mazo, who arrived in 1985 (and died of cancer in December 2016, shortly after we spoke to him), experienced a similar wifely intervention. After a few weeks in Sinop he had had enough: “One day, I decided we were leaving, but my wife, who’s a real fighter, was having none of it: ‘We’re not going’, she said. ‘Even if I have to work as a washerwoman and you have to till the land for others, we’re staying. I didn’t want to come. We lived in comfort in Paraná. But now we’re here, we’re not going.’” They too stayed, and never looked back.
A presidential savior
After a few difficult years, Sinop prospered, as did Pipino, who was always after more land, though the legality of his claims was often dubious. At one point he is known to have laid claim to at least 645,000 hectares (1,616,000 acres). And in a letter dated 25 March 1979, found in the Incra archive in Brasilia, Pipino courteously requests Paulo Yakota, the then president of Incra, to give him title to 2 million hectares, called Gleba Celeste. The request seems to have been partially granted: Gleba Celeste was registered in Pipino’s name, though covering just a third the requested size. As in Paraná, Pipino founded many new towns for his settlers, giving them all women’s names — Vera, Cláudia, and Santa Carmem.
Pipino also used his influence to garner government favor, especially with General Figueiredo, who ruled Brazil from 1979 to 1985. “Who got this region to prosper was President João Baptista Figueiredo,” declared Geraldino Dal’Mazo. “He came in 1979 and saw our suffering.”
The visiting President made a commitment to paving the recently-built BR-163 highway, proclaiming “he would bring asphalt.” Figueiredo contracted five construction companies from Cuiabá and two years later he came and personally opened the road. “And we didn’t have a television signal or telephones… And he sorted that out on the plane. We had them in four months. And with that, Sinop took off.… President Figueiredo was marvellous. We made him an honorary citizen of Sinop,” remembered Dal’Mazo.
The rich get richer, the poor, not so much
Still, not everyone thrived. Locals say that it was the “pig-headed” who stayed and reaped the rewards, but to become a millionaire on the frontier generally required more than stubbornness.
University teacher, Maria Ivonete de Souza, related how her father, an impoverished rural laborer, was given a plot at one of the land settlements. “It was difficult for settlers who arrived without capital,” she said. “Forty years later my father is just as poor as when he arrived. He’s always had to work on someone else’s land to make ends meet.”
Both Geraldino Dal’Mazo and Luiz Erardi were happy they stayed. Luiz Erardi, who got a series of good municipal government jobs, is proud to have a granddaughter who has trained as a medical doctor. Geraldino Dal’Mazo made a lot of money in the early years, opening up gas stations, and became mayor during the military government. Then he lost his fortune when the Brazilian economy went through a difficult period in the early 1980s. However, his children, almost all of whom stayed in the region, have done very well.
Sinop’s shining success
Sinop has carved out a key role for itself as a service provider to a vast area, stretching north from Cuiabá in the south of Mato Gross state, all the way to Pará state. People send their children to Sinop’s colleges and university, and value its hospitals.
The region’s farmers, after experimenting and failing with various crops, (including cassava for a large alcohol distillery, which went bankrupt), eventually hit the jackpot.
Geraldino Dal’Mazo’s brother was the first to try growing soybeans, which until the 1980s was little known in Brazil. “He planted 1,500 hectares in 1987 and had a marvellous harvest,” recalled Dal’Mazo. Now most farmers cultivate soybeans, complementing that crop with corn and cotton in the off-season.
Today, Sinop belongs to modern Brazil, and those who paid a heavy price for the city’s success — indigenous nations, landless peasant families, and undercapitalized settlers — are largely invisible.
The cost to the Amazon biome is more obvious: the continuous blanket of rainforest that covered the Sinop region until the 1970’s is largely gone, replaced by heavily fertilized and hyper-managed soy plantations. Where once rainforest stood untouched, today only a third of the area of the Sinop Municipal District is still covered with trees. Depending on your point of view, Sinop is a wild territory tamed, or a great rainforest and indigenous homeland devastated by modern development.
Travelling further north along the BR-163 is like traveling into Sinop’s past. When crossing the border into Pará state, one reaches the current agricultural frontier, where the battle over the land is still being waged — and where fragile indigenous cultures and ecosystems are daily being consumed in smouldering violence.