One landowner was known for chainsawing in half the peasants who refused to sell their land to him. Another had a jar in his office in which he kept the severed ears of the men he had ordered murdered. There were as many as 20 clandestine cemeteries used to dispose of the remains of murdered workers. And whole populations of Indigenous people had been wiped out by dynamite, machine guns, and sugar laced with arsenic.
This was, and in some ways still is, the Amazon rain forest, a lawless land of legal impunity and environmental degradation, where to be an activist or peasant fighting against land grabs and slave labor-like working conditions is courting death.
“In the Brazilian rain forest, grilagem, or land grabbing, is a central cause of deforestation, violence, and the array of crimes associated with illicit forest economies—fraud, money laundering, corruption,” says Heriberto Araujo, author of Masters of the Lost Land: The Untold Story of the Amazon and the Violent Fight for the World’s Last Frontier. “And in the 1970s,” he adds, “the reigning lawlessness prompted some criminals and psychopaths to take extreme actions in order to earn a name in the region. By becoming an evil myth, they perhaps could deter squatters from claiming their land-grabbed ranches and farms.”
Araujo’s book is centered on the Brazilian state of Para, the country’s second largest, which has accounted for the largest number of land control murders, and 80 percent of Brazil’s 18,000 slave labor complaints. In explaining what is happening there, and all over the Amazon, he focuses his story on several key players in the area: Dezinho, president of the rural workers union, who is eventually murdered for his advocacy; Maria Joel, his wife, who takes up the causes he fought for; Joselio, a landowner accused of torture, murder and enslavement; and Decio Nunes, a lumber baron twice convicted of murder who has yet to spend a day in prison.
Araujo, who was interviewed by The Daily Beast via email from his home in Spain, believes that accountability is a central problem in this area, that “those who violate the law, either because they deforest an area or commit a violent crime, including murder, often manage to dodge prison. The fact that many crimes are committed through middlemen and hired killers represents a challenge for the police and the prosecution offices.”
The numbers seem to bear this out. From 1985-2018, of the 1,790 land and resource-related murders in Brazil, most of them in the Amazon, 92 percent resulted in no arrest or trial. But if this sounds all Wild West, Araujo cautions that there are significant differences between how the American West and Brazilian Amazon were opened up for development, and the land rushes that followed. In the latter, he says, “the federal government never really succeeded, if it ever really attempted, to put in place an effective and lawful system to distribute public lands among the population. The U.S. [government] did play a crucial role in systematically overviewing, if not controlling, the distribution of plots and the records of that process to prevent major fights for land. I don’t argue it was perfect, but it was done in a more professional way than in Brazil.”
The Amazon was essentially opened for major development in 1966 under Operation Amazonia, a campaign to develop and settle the jungle, which included construction of roads to, and into, the interior. But in 1969, when an Indigenous tribe slaughtered a peasant family, the country was forced to develop a policy that protected their lands against invasion. Still, according to the Jornal do Brasil as quoted in Araujo’s book, this didn’t stop planters and cattlemen with powerful ties in other states who had illegally “demarcated great areas, including in the Indian territory, and sold the land, without any deeds, to colonists.” Other pioneers, simply by clearing the land, became owners of it, the idea being that whoever cleared a plot became its owner, no matter the legislation. This became known in Brazil as “Land for people without land.” The harm to nature was seen as the price of progress, and, says Araujo in his book, “the world cared about the fate of the forest, but the immediate concern of many breadwinners was getting a job.”
Eventually the government began to prioritize massive farms, no longer supported the little guy, and by the early years of this century, soybeans had become a major crop, with iron or and gold mining also contributing to the despoliation of the land (The Guardian recently reported about a 75-mile long illegal road cut through an Indigenous reserve to reach an outlaw gold mine). But because of this, the country was also becoming an agricultural superpower, and under the presidency of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) exports tripled.
“There is hope going forward. Lula’s recent re-election signifies an end to Bolsonaro’s destructiveness.”
Still, there was progress in the early years of this century when, says Araujo, “illegal deforestation reached historic lows, and the reason for that progress was that the federal government had allocated resources to fight the networks of criminals behind the looting of the jungle.”
But that progress ground to a halt under the rule of President Jair Bolsonaro when, Araujo claims, “there was a real and purported attempt to destroy that capacity and knowledge, both because he removed key figures and underfunded the environmental agencies fighting the criminal networks operating deep in the forest. As a result, deforestation spiked and those reporting on these problems became a target.” Proof of this came last year, with the murders of Indigenous activist Bruno Pereira and journalist Dom Phillips, an incident that drew international attention to the ongoing lawlessness in the Amazon.
And yet there is hope going forward. Lula’s recent re-election signifies an end to Bolsonaro’s destructiveness, and just days into his new term in office, Lula has named an Amazon activist as minister of environment and an Indigenous woman as the country’s first minister of Indigenous peoples. He has also pledged that unlike his second term in the early 2000s, when he began catering to farmers, he is now embracing proposals for preservation.
Can he make a real difference? “Lula faces multiple challenges,” says Araujo, “from a sophisticated and violent criminality to a widespread mind-set that considers the Amazon a place to plunder. Ultimately, I think he has a chance to end illegal logging if the international community takes part in the process of setting the foundations to sustainable development. The Amazon requires a new model of development that puts at the center the whole system—the rainforest and its people, including Indigenous populations.”