Vast swaths of rainforest are being felled to provide land for Brazil's booming soya industry – and those who protest face violent retribution. Alex Bellos meets the land-rights activists risking death to save their communities. Photograph by André Vieira
In a remote corner of the Amazon rainforest, two men pointed their guns at a passing car and asked the woman inside to get out. Dorothy Stang, a 74-year-old nun, stepped outside. She showed them her Bible and said, 'This is my weapon.' The men listened as she read out a passage, and then shot her six times. They left her corpse face down in the mud, her white blouse stained with blood.
Stang, an American, had lived in the Brazilian Amazon for more than three decades and was a prominent campaigner on behalf of the local poor. The brutality of her death, in 2005, provoked outrage worldwide. And one shocking aspect of what happened was that it had been predicted. In Pará, the Brazilian state where she lived, there is a 'death list' of activists at risk of assassination, compiled by campaign groups to raise awareness. Stang had been on the list for years.
It was only because she was American that Stang's death was reported internationally. Between 1971 and 2004 at least 772 rural poor and those protecting their human rights have been murdered in Pará. For the others on the death list, Stang's murder brought home their own possible fates. 'The night I heard she died I cried a lot, and so did many people who didn't know her,' Ivete Bastos, a Brazilian charity worker who is on the death list herself, said. 'I also thought – I'll be next in line.'
Bastos was sitting in her office at the rural workers association STR (Sindicato dos Trabalhadores Rurais) in Santarém, a town 500 miles upriver from the Atlantic, at the confluence of the deep blue Tapajós river and the grey-green Amazon. Santarém is 300 miles from where Stang was killed, on the eastern fringes of the rainforest. Strang was trying to protect the land there from ranchers. As the STR president, Bastos is also campaigning to save the rainforest. In Santarém, however, the threat emerged with soya, Brazil's boom crop. Last year the country became the largest soya exporter in the world, with more than a third exported to Europe for animal feed.
Bastos, a 40-year-old mother of three, has already suffered intimidation. Once, a local businessman came to see her with an armed sidekick, who insinuated that he would use his weapon if she didn't stop her activism. Another time a man tried to climb into her flat through the window to attack her. (She shouted that she would cut his head off and he ran away.) Her closest brush with death came when she arrived at a meeting at Gleba Pacoval, a few hours' drive from Santarém along a dirt track. The residents had been told that she would be killed if she was found there, so Bastos left immediately. Shortly afterwards, a car of thugs showed up and burnt down all the village's crops.
Six months ago, as part of a federal project to support 'defenders of human rights', the police offered her 24-hour armed protection. The day I met her, she went to the police station to accept the offer. It had taken her a while to agree – she had been wary because she realised she would lose certain freedoms and, like all the rural poor, she has a deep suspicion of authority. But her friends convinced her it was a necessity. Eight other people in Pará are under protection, including three priests.
In the police station Bastos was led to a room with portraits of officers on the wall and a Brazilian flag in the corner. The state police chief and the local battalion commander stood up to meet her – their formality and confident posture contrasted with Bastos's small, compact frame. Bastos has the distinctive indigenous features of the caboclo, the mestizo descendants of Indians and settlers. She sat down and explained how her life was at risk. At first her voice was quiet, then she gained confidence. She told the policemen, 'I am ready to die. I am not afraid. I cannot give up the fight.'
The police explained that two officers would be assigned to her at all times. As we left the station Bastos said she felt that the state was opening its arms to her for the first time. But, she added, 'My happiness at this is restricted. Now I will be able to do my job, to visit places I wasn't able to before. But on the other hand I will have no privacy any more. How can I be happy when I am under 24-hour protection and I haven't committed a crime?'
The Amazon rainforest is the largest tropical forest in the world, covering an area the size of western Europe and containing up to a fifth of the world's life forms. Until the rubber boom at end of the 19th century it was virtually intact and inhabited almost exclusively by indigenous Indians. But in the 1970s the Brazilians – thanks to the then dictator's nationalist zeal – moved to the rainforest in large numbers. Roads were built and tens of thousands of settlers moved in. Since then about 15 per cent of the Brazilian Amazon has been destroyed.Though the deforestation rate has fallen recently, the scale is still astounding – in the next 24 hours, based on last year's rate, an area the size of 5,000 football pitches will be burnt or chopped down.
Most of the destruction has happened in the so-called 'Arc of Deforestation' – the southern fringe of the Amazon, where loggers, ranchers and farmers are pushing deeper into the forest. Here the expansion has been fuelled by the soya boom.
Santarém is 800 miles north of the soya-growing area. But the town became a flashpoint in Brazil's agricultural frontier in 1999, when Cargill, the US grain trading company, decided to build a grain terminal in its port, to provide a cheaper and quicker way of exporting soya to Europe. Instead of having to drive the crop to Brazil's southern ports it could be sailed in barges to Santarém and then transferred to ocean-going ships.
The opening of the terminal in 2003 transformed the area. This was a region of almost no mechanised agriculture, randomly populated by small and subsistence farmers and caboclo communities. But with the means of export on their doorstep, developers moved in and began to plant rice and soya on a large scale. The area covered by farms quickly reached 300 square miles – mostly on overgrown wasteland, but an estimated 10 per cent was on newly destroyed rainforest.
As well as the environmental damage, there was also a social cost. Many poor people lived on the land that the soya farmers wanted. Some went voluntarily – selling off their plots – but some left under threat of violence. Communities disappeared and the landscape was razed.
For Ivete Bastos, soya has brought only bad things to Santarém: misery, fear and exploitation. She was born and raised in Carariaca, a small caboclo village two hours by boat from Santarém. The community was set within the rainforest; the families who lived there were subsistence farmers. While villages like this are materially very poor, there is little hunger since the rivers are full of fish and the trees full of fruit. 'Our culture was to respect nature,' she said. 'We would listen to the birds and believe they were speaking to us.'
Bastos grew up with her parents and 11 brothers and sisters. They picked fruit to sell in local markets and tapped rubber for extra cash. At school she realised she had a skill for organisation and became a community leader. She also got involved in the local church group and began to leave the village to visit churches in other rainforest communities. She married and had three children.
It was not until she was in her thirties that Bastos became politically active, joining the Santarém rural workers association (STR). The STR provides links between communities and gives them a common voice. At first Bastos was her village's STR representative. She campaigned on issues such as installing the first public telephone in Carariaca. She was efficient and popular and, at the age of 34, was made a regional director. This meant she had to live in Santarém. Moving to a town was a huge cultural shock. On her first night she left her flip-flops outside her home, just as she would in the rainforest. When she went to get them in the morning, they had been stolen.
At work, she faced problems on a scale she could never have foreseen. Her arrival in Santarém coincided with the start of the soya boom. Many communities represented by the STR found themselves under threat from land speculators. She wasn't campaigning on parochial issues any more, but battling to preserve a way of life. The STR began a campaign to dissuade people from selling up.
After a year in Santarém, Bastos was elected STR president. This made her the most prominent activist working against the expansion of soya in the region. Her job involved going to each of the communities in her area, holding meetings and organising demonstrations. Soon the death threats started. Even at a visit to her local health clinic, the doctor said he recognised her from the television. He told her, 'I hear you're going to die.'
Brazil has one of the most unfair distributions of wealth in the world, with a tiny proportion owning most of the land and a massive underclass of poor – the result of being the country that imported more slaves than anywhere else in the Americas. The gap between haves and have-nots sustains a culture of corruption and impunity, which tends to be more shameless the more remote you are. In Pará, for example, it is easy to hire a gunman to take out anyone who stands in your way. Of the 772 land-rights activists in Pará murdered between 1971 and 2004, only three cases came to trial.
When, in 2005, the rancher Vitalmiro de Moura wanted to silence Dorothy Stang, he paid two gunmen £12,000 to kill her. He was just solving a problem the traditional way. The international furore it caused, however, made him an exception – he was tried, together with the gunmen and a middle-man, and sentenced to 30 years in jail.
The situation in the Amazon is aggravated because even though the Brazilian government encouraged people to settle there, it did not follow up and give them proper ownership of their plots. About 90 per cent of western Pará is still considered public land. This has led to the practice of grilagem, or the selling of false titles, so-called since fake documents were supposedly stuck in boxes with grilos (crickets) to make them look authentically aged. Grileiros are the men at the frontline of deforestation, thriving on lawlessness and violence as they grab land in order to sell it.
Bastos groups the grileiros, the soya producers, the loggers and the ranchers together. She calls them the grande, the big people, meaning the pol-itical and economic elite. She describes herself as representing the pequeno, the small people, the powerless. 'There is no place for the pequeno because the grande wants everything for himself.'
Bastos said that the grande never usually show their faces. Instead, they pay local thugs to do their dirty work. When she goes into the rainforest she is often stopped by local men and given 'messages'. She said, 'I am told that if I return here it will be in a coffin, or that if I manage to get land rights for a group of subsistence farmers I will be turned into ashes.' The pressure has taken a physical and emotional toll. She suffers from stress, and has had serious bouts of depression – each time recuperating in Carariaca, the only place she feels safe.
For Bastos, the grande are most clearly embodied by Cargill. It was the US company's decision to build the grain terminal in Santarém that triggered the arrival of the grileiros and the lawlessness in their wake. 'The terminal acted as a magnet for expropriation and illegalities,' John Sauven of Greenpeace said.
Local feeling against Cargill is exacerbated because of allegations that the terminal was built illegally. As soon as building started the federal prosecutor began legal action against Cargill, saying that it had failed to submit the correct environmental impact assessment report. Cargill fought the prosecution in the courts. Earlier this year the terminal was closed temporarily, after a judge ruled against Cargill, although it has reopened as the case goes to appeal.
To groups such as Greenpeace, Cargill has benefited from Brazil's legislative anarchy – building a controversial facility and giving financial assistance for local soya production, seemingly without concern for the social and environmental costs. Yet there are many in Santarém who defend Cargill, arguing that the terminal's presence has brought wealth to the town.
It is not easy to speak to a Cargill supporter. The soya producers do not talk to the press. Their interests are represented by the Union of Rural Producers. The president of the union, Adinor Batista, is a dairy farmer and businessman who owns a motor spare parts garage in Santarém. In his heavily air-conditioned office, Batista set out his position. Santarém has no industry. In order for the town to develop, either you turn it into a high-tech centre, or you farm the land. 'People forget that there are people in the Amazon who need to live and survive,' he said.
Batista described Bastos as a hindrance to agricultural development. In fact, he went further – calling her a public nuisance for organising demonstrations. When I asked if he felt any compassion with the poor communities who have sold or been forced off their land, he replied that they left of their own volition. 'People sell their land because there is no infrastructure in the rainforest. They want running water and electricity.' When I mentioned the threats to Bastos's life, he laughed. 'Once again she is lying. There is no problem of threats.'
The day after we visited the military police station, Bastos took me to a small community outside Santarém. Her bodyguards had not yet been assigned to her, so she could only go to an area where she thought we would be safe. Still, when we passed the first soya field and asked her to get out for a picture, she refused. The area was deserted, yet she did not want to risk being spotted by a soya farmer for fear of retaliation.
Twenty miles from Santarém we left the main road and followed a dirt track. We passed fields of reddy-brown soya, some fields of rice, scrubland and sections of rainforest. Bastos stared out of the window and, when we passed cultivated fields, she sighed and said she remembered when there was no farming here at all. 'That all used to be forest,' she said lamentingly, and pointed to a field of soy that spread for several hectares until the forest began again in a straight line.
Bastos is opposed to soya for several reasons. First, as a monoculture crop it needs large areas to be financially viable, which destroys biodiversity. Second, it encourages land ownership to be concentrated in the hands of a few, rather than spread out among those who live there already. And third, local people, who are by and large uneducated, are not able to find work since the only jobs on soya farms are skilled machinery operators. 'Soya brings us social exclusion, not social inclusion,' she said.
After 40 miles of track we reached Baixa do Cipó, a succession of small huts set just within the forest. We stepped out of the car and Bastos led us round the side of one of the homes to meet José Hipólito, one of the community leaders. He lives here with his family, which has a small plot for subsistence crops. Hipólito explained that Baixa do Cipó first came under pressure from the expansion of soya three years ago. 'Every day an estate agent would show up, on behalf of the soya producers, to try to buy the land,' he said. He refused, since his mother-in-law owned the land and she did not want to leave the place where she had raised her family. Hipólito also convinced most of his neighbours to stay. Only seven of the 35 families sold their plots.
Bastos said that people were 'seduced' by the money they were offered. 'They had never seen so much money.' Yet she added that often this windfall would be spent unwisely, and within months the families were living much worse lives in Santarém's slums. Hipólito added that not everyone went to live in the slums – many decided to go deeper into the rainforest, looking for new land, opening up more areas for future destruction.
Because Baixa do Cipó is relatively near Santarém and well connected to the STR, it has so far escaped the most violent excesses of the grileiros. One of the STR's demands is for the government to give proper titles to those already living on the land. Hipólito, however, said that this would not solve the problem. '[The state] might be able to give you the land, but they're not going to give you a bullet-proof vest.'
When we left, Hipólito gave Bastos a gift of some cucumber, parsley, black pepper and a pupunha plant. 'She has real guts, real determination,' Hipólito said. A few miles deeper in the forest, we met João de Sousa, who has raised cattle for 40 years on a small farm. De Sousa, aged 60, said that all his neighbours sold their land to the soya producers and so his land is now surrounded by cultivated fields.
De Sousa blames the pesticides from soya farms for killing 88 of his 120-strong herd. 'They never put a dyke up. The chemicals went into the brook where the cows drank.' His own health has been harmed too: 'Once when I was by the field and they were spraying, I started to feel odd and I collapsed on the track.' He tried to complain to the local authority, but a representative who came to take a water sample never got back in touch. 'It's not worth complaining,' he said. 'The grande tread on us like a pair of old shoes.'
Even though Brazilian deforestation figures are huge, the country, in fact, has very progressive environmental legislation. In the Amazon, farmers are allowed to use only 20 per cent of their land for production – 80 per cent must be left intact. The problem, of course, is enforcement. Only about one in 10 farmers abides by the rules.
A consequence of Greenpeace's campaigning has been that Cargill has now begun to take on board some of the legal issues surrounding deforestation. The company has said it will only buy soya from farmers attempting to comply with the law. Last year the big grain traders, including Cargill, announced a two-year moratorium on buying the crop from newly deforested land. John Sauven of Greenpeace said that this is the first step in trying to make sure that the forest is protected. 'Never before have the big traders, the NGOs and the government sat down in partnership like this,' he said. 'We are at a new stage here, since everyone is in agreement about what the problem is. It's about bringing governance to where there is chaos.'
The moratorium has given environmentalists some hope, but Bastos has seen no change in the situation of the rural poor. Grileiros are still active in the region and the destruction continues – not just for soya, but for logging and ranching too.
A few weeks after I left Brazil, I called Bastos to ask her how her life was different with the 24-hour armed guard. She said that while she was safer, this was not true for the local STR directors who had been receiving threats instead of her. One man had been kidnapped, stuck in the back of a car and taken into the forest, where he had been tied to a tree for a day. 'I cannot see progress when those with money want to concentrate all the land for themselves,' she said. 'This is what makes me angry. They talk about development, but what they want is to exterminate us.'
The Brazilian government has shown that it is trying to combat the human rights abuses in the Amazon by offering women such as Bastos protection. There have also been promises to increase state presence in the region – such as more police, more environmental officers and more documentation of land. Yet the Amazon is so big, its spoils so lucrative and the corruption and impunity so entrenched, that bringing everyone into line is an almost impossible job. As agricultural expansion pushes ever deeper into the rainforest, one certainty is that more blood will be shed.