Heroes of the new wild west

Amazon communities stand up to gun toting loggers to protect the forest and their homes

Feature story - 3 November, 2003
When the communities near Porto de Moz just south of the Amazon river first moved to the remote forest region, they knew that it would be tough work. They endured a harsh climate and isolation, fought off insects and forest creatures, but hoped for a peaceful life and enough food for their families. They didn't expect to have to endure violence and fight off loggers 20 years later.

Vivaldo Barbosa with family.

Having plundered much of the rest of Pará state, the Brazilian Amazon's largest state and biggest timber exporter, loggers, cattle ranchers and land speculators, among others, are now turning Porto de Moz into a new lawless frontier. Public lands are illegally seized, exploited for logging, turned over to cattle ranching. And then they move on to a new area and start all over again. The cycle is driven by greed, lawlessness, violence, intimidation and even murder.

People in search of a simple life

The Porto de Moz area was first occupied during the rubber boom, which eventually collapsed in 1914. Today, communities scratch out a simple living from fishing, small scale hunting, subsistence agriculture and from the few forest products they could sell or extract.

There are about 20,000 people living in the region in rural areas and small communities within the forest that spans 8 million hectares in the center of Para south of the Amazon river, between the Tapajos and Xingu rivers.

Vivaldo Barbosa moved to the Porto de Moz region with his family in 1982. They already had friends living in the community of Santa Maria de Matias and the community agreed Vivaldo and his family could move into the area. Now there are eight families living and working together in this forest community.

"When I arrived here, it was a paradise. We always worked together, we grew everything together - our pigs, our cattle, in only one piece of land. As you can see on this side here there is not even a fence in our lands - our bulls pass from here to the other side, his [bulls] pass from there to this side... Everything is only one piece of land. Thank God, our neighbours are still working together today."

But now Vivaldo and many others like him are fighting to hold on to their forest homes and the peaceful lives they had hoped for have turned into a struggle to hold on to their livelihood, even their lives.

Loggers in search of profit, at any cost

After 1995 when commercial stocks of timber dwindled in large production centers elsewhere in the state, the region of Porto de Moz became known as a new "Eldorado". Several logging companies arrived in the area, fighting with the traditional communities for resources created a situation of rampant violence.

Wood production in the region grew fast. By 2001 for example, 50,000 cubic meters of timber in logs was transported down the Jaurucu river, a tributary of the Xingu, each month. The impact of loggers on the forest increased dramatically due to the use of heavy machinery and the high production. Local people and small extractors, who initially traded with the companies, were removed from the process.

While the government's own figures estimate that 80 percent of all logging in the Brazilian Amazon is illegal, a report published last year by IMAZON, a independent research institute promoting sustainable forestry, stated that 95 percent of the timber exploited in the Amazon is produced through predatory logging.

Today Para is the largest timber producing and exporting region in the Amazon, accounting for 40 percent of production and 60 percent of all exports from all Amazon states. At the same time Pará accounts for over one-third of the total Amazon deforestation in Brazil amounting to an area larger than the size of Austria, Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland combined.

The large area has become a battleground between the forest communities who live in the region and depend on the natural resources for their survival, and logging companies who have invaded the area either with or without official sanction from the government environmental agency IBAMA.

Communities in conflict

Vivaldo first started having problems in 1999 when a farmer arrived and claimed the land was his. The man claimed Vivaldo and his family invaded his land and destroyed his assets, but Vivaldo says that there was never anything on the land before he arrived. "He kept saying that his wife was heir of this area, although we never met this woman, even the old people from here never met that woman. But he kept saying that his wife was one of the heirs to this land."

Illegal land grabs have become one of the most powerful means of land-based domination in the Amazon resulting in a major social disparity in Pará.

Known as "grilagem" in Brazil, the falsification of land titles is the most frequently used method employed by loggers, cattle ranchers and land speculators to illegally occupy and exploit public land. Illegal landholders take over public lands by forging titles of ownership often with the complicity of land registration offices, and sometimes using violence to expel informal settlers and indigenous communities who have legitimate rights to the lands.

Vivaldo and his family resisted and would not leave the land, but then one day some men with guns arrived and destroyed his house along with everything he owned in it.

"There have been many bad things. When they burned our house, they kept a boat over there with three unknown people with guns in their hands. Not one canoe could pass over there and they would point the gun. Can you imagine that? And the court of Porto de Moz took no measures. Me and my neighbour Gerson spent three days in Porto de Moz looking for justice and they didn't come here when my house was burned," said Vivaldo.

There are almost no police in Porto de Moz, and the Federal Police, who could protect community leaders and their families, are 285 km away in Santarém. However, the Federal Police, considered to be the most respected police force in Brazil, don't have enough agents to accomplish its tasks, nor money to transport the agents to the scene of crimes.

With the support of the community Vivaldo rebuilt his house, only to have it burned to the ground again. Now he is on his third house.

"We live in fear, seeing people doing wrong with what is ours and we are afraid of these things. We have already looked for justice, but we have no support and I don't know how we can hold on. A conflict could start. Something better can happen, but something worse could happen as well. So, we are afraid. I am afraid of what may happen because I'm not used to violence. I'm not used to violence".

Vivaldo's story is not unique in this region, others in fact have suffered worse.

A state of conflict

Grilagem, along with logging, often takes place under the use or threat of physical violence. Loggers and large landowners pressure powerless traditional communities to leave their land and, in some cases, companies simply expel the residents from their lands by destroying their plantations, burning houses, firing at them or even by killing them.

Pará is the state with the largest number of people assassinated in land conflicts. Between 1985 and 2001 nearly forty percent of the 1,237 rural workers killed in Brazil were killed in Pará, according to the Pastoral Land Commission, a Catholic organisation campaigning for landless people and the poor.

An inventory conducted by the Pará state government reports that there were 804 victims of assassination during the same period. In 2002, the number of victims increased by almost fifty percent compared to the previous year and half were killed in Pará.

Although numerous cases of violence, including murders, are reported, they are hardly ever properly investigated. Those responsible are rarely if ever punished, often because witnesses are intimidated or killed.

Public intervention is unstructured, sporadic, partial and fragmented. Different levels and sectors of government do not converse or interact. Some organized communities, who refuse to accept ruin and devastation and have proposed alternative development projects based on the sustainable use of natural resources, live under frequent threats and the risk of being killed.

In August 2001, Ademir Alfeu Federicci, known as 'Dema', was assassinated inside his house in front of his family.

Dema, a coordinator of the Movement for the Development of the Transamazon and the Xingu Area (MDTX), had voiced numerous condemnations of corrupt politicians and illegal logging inside indigenous lands in Pará, including mahogany logging. Federal Police officers and the MDTX believe his murder was a contract killing. However, the civil police claimed that Dema was killed during a bungled burglary.

Brazil has far-sighted environmental laws, but its ability to police them has proved almost impossible. The nonexistence of governance and law enforcement has led to a situation where murder, violence, slavery, land invasions and illegal occupancy of public land are characteristic of this region of Pará.

This complete lack of the rule of law makes it easy for the logging companies or large-scale farmers to seize and exploit public lands. There is often little financial support for the federal or state law enforcement agencies, or what support there was has now been almost entirely withdrawn by cuts in the government annual budget as a consequence of the Brazilian agreement with International Monetary Fund, which granted international financial aid on the condition of reduced public expenditures.

Vivaldo is afraid for his family and doesn't want his children to have to face such a threat. "We are afraid of dying, afraid of killing, we look for justice but don't find it. We are at a dead end. I keep thinking what to do, if I had a place to go, I would already have left. I keep up because I have children to raise and I don't have another place, because if I did I would already have left."

Vivaldo and family.

A reserve of hope

Fearing the loss of their traditional lands, and wanting to put a permanent end to illegal and predatory logging in the area, in 1999 community leaders in the Porto de Moz region created a resistance movement called the Porto de Moz Sustainable Development Committee. In April 2000 the Rural Workers Union, representing the communities, sent a letter to federal and state government requesting the creation of an extractive reserve they called Verde para Sempre (GreenForever).

In a similar movement, local communities of the adjacent rural municipality area of Prainha to the west of Porto de Moz proposed the creation of another reserve, "Renascer". Both proposed reserves are contiguous and would create the largest area of protected forests and rivers under collective control of communities in Brazil.

Extractive reserves are areas protected by law for conservation and the sustainable management of natural resources by the traditional communities inhabiting them. This model was developed in the 1980s by forest dwellers under the leadership of Chico Mendes and the National Council of Rubber Tappers and adopted by the Brazilian federal government in 1990. These reserves guarantee local families the collective right to land and its natural resources, allowing them to keep on living from their traditional economic activities, while preserving the environment.

The federal government, through the CNPT (National Centre for the Sustainable Development of Traditional Populations) division of IBAMA, agreed to initiate studies into the viability of the reserve Verde para Sempre, but these have yet to be completed because of a lack of money and political will.

At the same time executive powers of the state of Pará and local mayors have been outspoken about their opposition to the creation of the reserve. The president of ITERPA-Pará at the time, Ronaldo Barata, wrote to the state governor, Almir Gabriel, claiming: "if an extractive reserve is established in the area, it would be a serious impediment to the economic development of the region, since the principles of which the idea of an extractive reserve are based contain very restrictive measures."

Tired of waiting, about 400 community people blocked the Jaurucu river last year protesting the destruction of forests and to ask for the creation of the reserve Verde Para Sempre. During the protest, metal barges loaded with wood belonging the Grupo Campos were stopped and latter seized. The company was fined by IBAMA agents.

Grupo Campos is controlled by the mayor of Porto de Moz, Gérson Salviano Campos. He is joint owner of the sawmill Exportadora Cariny. Mayor Campos is now one of the biggest landowners in the municipality, with 100,000 hectares or perhaps two to three times that area. He also claims to own land that is considered to be federal public land. The federal public prosecution office has denounced Campos for involvement in "fraud and grilagem".

A day after the blockade, some community people, journalists and activists received death threats and physical violence upon their arrival at the city of Porto de Moz. In a national TV broadcast, a journalist from Record TV network accused the mayor Campos of inciting the violence she and her group had suffered.

After the river blockade, the anger of loggers in the Porto de Moz region against the communities and their leaders increased - as well as the risks for social movements. For example, on the day a public meeting was held to announce the National Report to the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, a local leader, Idalino Nunes Assis, received a phone call warning him not to go out of his house at night, or he would run the risk of being killed.

At this time, the extractive reserves remain only an area defined on an IBAMA map and a set of incomplete studies into the viability of reserve. What's missing is the political will of the federal and state government to resolve their differences.

For famililes like Vivaldo the reserve is more than a means to protect their homes. "It's from the land that we take our food, it's from the river that we take our food," said Vivaldo. "The fish is going to end. The companies don't only go for timber. They go after fish, game and everything. When a company leaves an area, you can go there and you won't find anything. You'll find no more game, you'll find no more fish, nor neighbours nearby with food, because they will have to buy everything."

How can you help?

The communities of Porto de Moz are asking for you to actively support their struggle in defense of the communities of Porto de Moz and Prainha, for peace in the forest, for social justice, and in defense of their environmental heritage, "for us, the local communities who are the best guardians of this environment. Pressure the Brazilian government and Para state government to act immediately to create the extractive reserves that will guarantee us a safe, peaceful, social and environmentally just, and harmonious future."

The survival of the Amazon is dependent on many complex factors and actions. One of the most important though is that the governments in Brazil, at all levels, must implement meaningful and permanent solutions so that the people who live in the remote regions of the Amazon can have rule of law instead of the rule by the strongest; the right to live in peace and dignity instead of in fear and with violence; the right to live from the sustainable natural bounty of the Amazon, the right to a future for their families.

"No, I haven't lost hope yet," says Vivaldo, "because hope is the last thing to die. But I think it's taking too long for the reserve to be created... unless the reserve is created, nobody will have anything anymore."

Send a message in support of the communities of Porto de Moz and Prainha.