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It has been a little over six months since I visited the traditional rural village of Geraizeiros in the state of Bahia, Brazil. I was taking a group of journalists to interview the community, who has been under enormous pressure to leave their native lands. When I got out of bed that morning, I thought I understood the mortal danger facing this community. But I was still not prepared to find myself staring down the barrel of an assault rifle, in a room full of people praying for our lives.
This has become the reality in the Brazilian Cerrado, a region where small farmers are surrounded by never-ending industrial farms of soybeans and corn and are never sure if they will make it home at the end of the day. The Geraizeiros and their ancestors have lived for over 200 years in an area of economic interest in Brazil, where agribusiness has been on a violent expansion, not sparing anything or anyone in its way.
In the late 1970s, a large agricultural enterprise called Agronegócio Estrondo was established in the region, deforesting an area almost four times the size of New York City to make way for soya farming. And almost 20 years ago, the company started to expand into these communities’ lands, turning their lives into hell on Earth.
The soya produced by Estrondo at the cost of the lives and livelihoods of the Geraizeiros community is sold to traders like Cargill and Bunge and then shipped all over the world to become food for cows, chickens and pigs. Fast food companies like McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King all buy soya from those traders.
On the day we were visiting the community, our plan was to take a German TV news team to see the devastation caused by Estrondo up close. From the security around the clock to the illegal watch house built by the company, what struck me the most was the gigantic, 3-meter deep ditch that Estrondo built around the land they invaded. Not only are the residents of the community unable to cross it, neither can the wildlife that lives in the region. Many of the animals die trying.
Things started to go wrong after we were at the village and a white pickup truck pulled up. Four men in khaki clothes emerged, assault rifles in hands. “They’ve got guns! Ladies, go to my house,” said desperately the only woman from the community there. I could see it was not the first time she had been through this.
We skirted between the manioc fields and met in one of the rooms in the village, hoping that it was all a misunderstanding, unaware of what it was about. While some of us were sobbing and others praying, it occurred to me how sad it would be if I died without being able to make some calls, say “thank you” to my parents. Those things we think of when we are faced with imminent danger.
Then we heard fists pounding on the door and a man yelling “come out with your hands up, this is the police.” They broke into the room and ordered us to lift up our shirts, to show that we weren’t armed. When we had to leave the room, the woman from the village fainted from the stress.
Outside, the rest of the men were already gathered and the intimidation began. “We came here because we received a complaint and we need to enter your house to investigate.”
Many things that didn’t add up in their story: no warrant to enter the house, the men did not wear police uniforms, nor did they have any identification on their vests. Their weapons, however, were very much real. Rifles as big as those used in war. I had never seen anything like it before.
The men pressured the residents to enter their homes for around two hours, but when the sun started to set on the horizon, and knowing that the press had recorded the entire episode, the men decided to leave, but not without telling us it was not over. That they would be back.
We were all terrified, not just for ourselves, but for those who would remain behind. When were they going to come back? Would they come during the night? What will happen when they return? If I was in a state of shock, I couldn’t imagine what the Geraizeiros were feeling. I couldn’t conceive this being part of their lives. But unfortunately, this is the harsh reality that the community has had to deal with.
“Don’t worry about it, this has been happening for a long time, we’ve been through this many times before. But at least now you are here to tell our story,” said Edvaldo Lopes, one of the community members. And it was then that we all died a little inside. Is that it? Is telling their story all we can do?
Human and environmental rights are deeply connected. Indigenous Peoples, traditional communities and those on the frontlines are the ones affected the most by the greed of corporations, often being tortured and even murdered.
We cannot allow these companies to continue looking the other way and making millions while people are living under constant threat of violence, fearing for their lives, and their rights are being abused. The world needs to know that there are people who risk their own lives, to protect the land, a river, the planet. Demand change now, before it is too late not only for the Geraizeiros, but to all of us.
For the safety of the author, we are keeping their name anonymous.