Amazon Under Fire: The Long Struggle Against Brazil’s Land Barons
Last October, when former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defeated the far-right incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, in Brazil’s national election, environmentalists around the world breathed a sigh of relief. Under Bolsonaro, who had weakened environmental protections and pushed to open Indigenous lands to commercial exploitation, deforestation in the Amazon had exploded. Lula has pledged to safeguard his country’s rainforests, but, as Spanish journalist Heriberto Araujo says in an interview with Yale Environment 360, the job won’t be easy.
For his new book, Masters of the Lost Land, Araujo spent four years traveling from his home in Rio de Janeiro to Rondon do Pará, a town in the eastern Brazilian Amazon, to understand how, in less than 60 years, the largest rainforest on the planet has been transformed into an engine of economic growth. Tracing the story of land rights activist José Dutra da Costa, or “Dezinho,” who, before his assassination in 2000, led a revolution among landless peasants, Araujo comes to see how a handful of ranchers managed to grab huge swaths of pristine rainforest and why deforestation, violence, and lawlessness remain pervasive in the region.
When it comes to reining in the destruction, Araujo tells e360, stopping those holding the chainsaws must be only the beginning. “The key issue will be making sure the bad guys are unable to benefit from global markets. Because if there’s a way to launder your deforestation-linked timber or beef and to sell it, you have an incentive to continue doing that.”
Yale Environment 360: What made you decide to write this book?
Heri Araujo: I had begun making trips to the Amazon to report on deforestation, and at one point someone at Greenpeace told me about a town named Rondon do Pará and an activist there whose husband had been murdered — her husband had died in her arms. So I traveled to Rondon and found Maria Joel. Eventually I realized that this little town allowed me to explain the whole story of the Brazilian Amazon. In terms of deforestation, everything is pretty recent. It started in the 1960s. And every time I learned about a new person or event related to the phenomenon, I could always find a link to Rondon or Maria Joel.
e360: It must have been difficult to report.
Araujo: It was a complicated process. It helped that I had been a reporter in China for seven years. I learned to deal with censorship and other kinds of dangers — maybe not the danger of being murdered, but of being expelled from the country. And I learned to avoid announcing my presence as a foreign reporter. I speak decent Portuguese, and I kind of look like an average Brazilian, so people were relatively open to talking with me.
“Today, something like 45 percent of the land in Brazil is controlled by 1 percent of the population.”
e360: Tell me about the progression of Rondon over the decades.
Araujo: As often happens in that area — the eastern edge of the Amazon — it started with an infrastructure project. In Rondon, it was an unpaved road, named the Nut Road. There were several trails that collectors of Brazil nuts would follow to enter the rainforest. In the late ‘60s, the state began to think about developing a road to allow these nut gatherers to increase their production. As soon as people became aware that it might be possible to claim a plot on the side of the road, they began to move in. At the time, Rondon was a frontier. It was inhabited by Indigenous populations.
The problem got worse when the federal government, the military dictatorship, presented a master plan to develop the whole Amazon Basin. It introduced tax incentives and financing, including some from international lenders, to build highways and distribute huge areas of land to settlers. It was very improvised. People were fighting for access to the same land. The Indigenous populations had to deal with settlers coming in with arms and willing to kill them. I talked to the first woman to build a house there. She was 90-something. She told me that she had bought a gun to defend herself from the other settlers because everyone was armed. People were reluctant to recall those days, and they were unwilling to talk about what had happened with the Indigenous populations, because they realized the tribes had suffered. I began to understand that the official story being told in town probably wasn’t what had actually happened.
E360: Dezinho, as president of the farmworkers’ union, instituted a series of land occupations that proved very successful. How did that work?
Araujo: One of the main problems the Amazon inherited from the ‘60s and ‘70s is extreme land inequality. Today, something like 45 percent of the land in Brazil is controlled by 1 percent of the population. For some years, the federal government wanted to split areas of the Amazon and give 30- or 40- or 50-hectare plots to family farmers. But that’s not the model that prevailed. What prevailed was a single landowner owning several thousand hectares. So, you had massive numbers of people moving in from eastern and southeastern Brazil, hoping to have a plot but finding out that the land was already controlled by a minority.
There was poor governance, but there was also corruption, bribery, and land grabbing. And the dictatorship [which ruled from 1964 to 1985] was obsessed with communism, socialism, anything that looked like people gathering to try to achieve something together. Unions and other institutions weren’t allowed to have a say in the way things were managed.
And then, all of a sudden at the end of the 1980s, you had democracy. Brazil managed to implement a new constitution that was a game-changer in terms of peoples’ rights. Indigenous populations have the right to remain in areas where they were living before the expansion of the frontier. About 13 percent of Brazil’s land, mostly in the Amazon, is the property of Indigenous groups. The constitution also allowed for the expropriation of farms that were unproductive. The government wanted to implement agrarian reform and take poor populations living in favelas and give them plots so they could improve their lives.
“Some argue that Dezinho was too blunt or too outspoken. He told his wife and children that he was willing to die for this cause.”
And then you had the church and the left coming together to say, “Hey, we want what the Constitution says. We want our share of the country’s wealth.” Ranchers who had grabbed those areas years or decades earlier, and who perhaps weren’t worried about getting documents because they didn’t think anyone would ever claim them, suddenly realized they could be brought to court and could lose their land. That’s when you had this violent clash.
In Rondon, you had the extreme concentration of land in a few hands — some landowners had 200,000-hectare spreads — and laborers and migrant workers were beginning to speak out about the conditions they were enduring on those farms. Dezinho suggested to the workers that they team together and occupy some of the plots of the most powerful people. That was a way to get the authorities to investigate the ownership of the land. He knew beforehand that those lands had been grabbed and were the product of corruption. The Catholic church played a fundamental role, in the sense that there were well-educated people, especially lawyers, who could help activists figure out the situation. They knew how to get the authorities to provide official documents regarding the plots. In the last 30 or 40 years, more than 350,000 families managed to get plots in Brazil through land occupations, often following the model in which they would enter a massive spread claimed by a single person or company.
e360: That’s quite a legacy for land activists like Dezinho and his wife.
Araujo:. Some argue that Dezinho was too blunt or too outspoken. He told his wife and children that he was willing to die for this cause. But if you ask Maria Joel and her children, they don’t believe they are the winners of the story. They remember the struggle of those years, the suffering and the fear. As a father, I could imagine the pain that those children and Maria Joel might have felt, not only when he was killed, but when she decided to remain in Rondon do Pará. Everyone was expecting that this poor little woman would just get her children and go away. But she decided to continue Dezinho’s fight, because she realized that unless she continued, he would have been killed for nothing. It was painful to report, because I had to sit with her for hours, going back to issues that I knew were very sensitive, and they were all crying. But I wanted the reader to understand that the obvious choice wasn’t the one she made.
e360: How did the men suspected of being behind Dezinho’s murder, land barons Josélio de Barros and Décio José Barroso Nunes, come to consolidate so much power?
Araujo: In the case of Josélio, he had had a tough youth, and he learned to fight to prevail over other violent people. Violence and criminality helped him consolidate a myth such that people were fearful of simply hearing his name. He had a controversial way of doing business, but he saw himself as a pioneer and someone contributing to the development of Rondon.
“If Lula wants to put an end to deforestation, one of the main things that needs to be tackled is accountability.”
Nunes was much more subtle. He was a modern businessman who decided to do business in a very different way. While the other entrepreneurs were extracting the most valuable logs and reselling them or selling them to brokers, he set out to control the whole supply chain. He could sell his timber and his cattle at a much higher price, and that allowed him to reinvest in Rondon and become the number-one entrepreneur. Today he owns the meatpacking industry in Rondon, which exports meat to Hong Kong and leather to Europe.
According to the courts, Nunes was guilty of masterminding the murder of Dezinho. But he did so without exposing himself, using a middleman and a gunman. Court documents say that Josélio [who had threatened Dezinho and bragged about killing other people] was involved in crimes himself.
e360: There are glimmers of hope in the book, with criminals getting convicted, but the wrongdoers always seem to evade justice in the end. In terms of Brazil’s judicial system, are you hopeful that things are improving?
Araujo: I am optimistic. I had the chance to speak with many judges, state and federal. And I saw a new generation who have been educated in democracy and who realize the challenges of implementing the rule of law, and they’re trying to fight these things. One judge told me that when he thought he was being threatened by one of the big landowners, his colleagues told him, “Hey, simply ask to be relocated and forget about this issue.” And he said, “I couldn’t do that, because if I did so, I would be accepting that someone, a rancher, is able to dictate the rules. And in a democracy, things don’t work that way.” So I see hope. In some areas, Brazil is a very advanced democracy. But there are other areas, especially in terms of governance and the rule of law, where it needs to improve.
e360: Scientists say the Amazon may be reaching a tipping point where it turns into savanna, with far-reaching implications for ecosystems and the global climate. What can Lula, and the international community, do to ensure that doesn’t happen?
Araujo: If Lula wants to put an end to deforestation, one of the main things that needs to be tackled is accountability. Brazil has one of the most advanced forest-monitoring systems in the world. They have satellites, algorithms, task forces. Once you know where the deforestation is happening, you send your team and you get the petty offenders, the ones holding the chainsaws. But they’re not the ones you need to get. Because often the system and the courts are responding in such a way that those responsible for the crimes are able to remain at large, even if they’re convicted. If you have the financial resources and good lawyers, you can dodge a prison term. Lula needs to hold those who commit crimes accountable — environmental crimes and all the related crimes, from fraud to corruption to murder.
Another key factor is global markets. In 2022, Brazil will export something like $160 billion in agribusiness, everything from soy to leather to orange juice. There’s no way to stop deforestation if there’s a market for illegal products coming from the Amazon. The European Union is about to pass legislation that for the first time will ban, or at least try to ban, products related to deforestation. This is an important step forward. But China is the main buyer of Brazilian products. The scale of Brazil-China bilateral trade is something like $120 billion per year. So the key issue is to make the sure that the bad guys are unable to benefit from global markets. Because if there’s a way to launder your deforestation-linked timber or beef and to sell it, you have an incentive to continue doing that.
“People at the local level, from Indigenous populations to family farmers, need to know there is financial help coming from Western countries.”
The markets also have to reward those who follow the rules. There needs to be a way in which, if we are importing açaí, we pay a premium to those who are producing it in a proper way. [People] are deforesting because they need a job. If you offer people a chance to have a legal job, that’s a great strategy.
Lastly, people at the local level, from Indigenous populations to family farmers, need to know there is financial help coming from Western countries. That was something I learned quite early when traveling to the Amazon. I was interviewing illegal loggers, recording with my iPhone, and one guy told me, “You want to know why I’m doing this? You have an iPhone, right? I assume you have a car. I assume you have a house. I also want to have, in addition to a great forest, a chance to improve my life.”
It’s difficult to respond to that. I mean, it’s fair. So, the international community needs to find a strategy. My concern is what will happen if, for example, the United States, Japan, the European Union, and India together say, “Okay, we are going to implement a comprehensive strategy to punish offenders and reward those who follow the rules.” But then China, which is the main buyer, simply ignores it. That will be a challenge. And having lived in China, I can see it happening. I hope that I’m wrong.