What I’d heard of a little Brazilian town on the eastern edge of the Amazon had prepared me for the worst. Criminality plagues many areas of Brazil, and the government’s presence remains feeble in the interior of the country. But even by that measure, the pace of homicides in the region is staggering. “It’s a risky town for a reporter,” said Danicley de Aguiar, a Greenpeace activist.
I first went to the town, Rondon do Pará, in Pará state, in 2017, to understand why and when the jungle had become not only a front line of climate change but also to get to the root of the conflicts that have made the largest rainforest on earth the world’s most dangerous place for environmental and land activists.
Even today, as the new Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has promised to focus his government’s efforts on preserving the rainforest, the activists’ stories rarely reach international audiences. When they do, it’s because reporters retrace the lives of the victims, at great personal risk. “You should go and contact the people of the local rural workers’ union,” Mr. de Aguiar told me.
Rondon do Pará has a history typical of its time and place. In the late 1960s, when the Brazilian government decided to build a grid of highways penetrating the hinterlands, settlers moved into the lands of the Gavião Kyikatêjê people. Eventually the Gavião Kyikatêjê were removed and settlers began to carve out gardens, farms and cattle ranches. In the years that followed, wealthy ranchers and land sharks moved in. As did migrants and landless poor farmers from Maranhão, one of Brazil’s poorest states, in search of a plot of land or work.
One of them was Gil, who in the 1990s migrated to Paragominas, a town in Pará state that at the time was described as one of the world’s logging capitals. There, he met a recruiter who offered him work on a large fazenda, or estate, some 100 miles from Rondon do Pará. He was driven down an unpaved, rutted road punching into the jungle. He would later tell the police that once there he was instructed not to leave the property without approval and was put to work clearing the land without pay.
A few months later, Gil pushed through the brambly vegetation to investigate the strange cloud of dark smoke rising above the canopy. He expected to find brush set ablaze to clear the land. Instead, he found smoldering embers — a mix of human remains and old tires. He believed that the remains belonged to a co-worker who had complained about not being paid. Gil eventually managed to escape to Rondon do Pará, where he sought help from the president of the local rural workers’ union, Jose Dutra da Costa, who was known as Dezinho.
The paunchy and determined social leader suspected that the fazenda — owned by a cattleman with a criminal record for murder — was riddled with human rights abuses. In the early morning of June 27, 1995, the police raided the estate and unearthed carbonized human remains. Witnesses testified to the police that murders, threats and debt bondage were widespread at the ranch. The case made the front pages of local newspapers. Yet no one was prosecuted.
In many areas of Brazil, impunity rules in the absence of rule of law. Data from the Pastoral Land Commission shows that from 1985 to 2018, about 92 percent of all land- and resource-related murders logged in Brazil — some 1,790 in total, most of them in the Amazon — resulted in no arrest or trial. Even when powerful criminals are convicted, they often avoid jail time by filing any number of appeals and exploiting the flaws in the legal system.
While the pervasiveness of debt bondage in the frontier has substantially diminished, it continues to ensnare hundreds of laborers.
For years, Dezinho shrugged off the death threats he received for encouraging poor settlers to stand up to ranchers and loggers. It cost him everything: In November 2000, he was shot at point-blank range by a hit man. The police investigating the case uncovered a local criminal network in which ranchers, corrupted officers and gunmen were said to work together to silence opponents. A key witness told the police that “they decided who lived and who was murdered in town.”
What followed was a quest for justice that continues to this day, both in Brazil and in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Dezinho’s killer was arrested and convicted, but he soon escaped and was never found again. The mastermind, a wealthy cattleman who now exports beef as far as Hong Kong, was also arrested, prosecuted and convicted of murder in jury trials held in 2014 and 2019. He never served jail time, and over two decades after the murder, his case is still under appeal because a judge has allowed him to appeal at liberty.
He still lives in Rondon do Pará. Dezinho’s widow, Maria Joel Dias da Costa, also lives in the town with her four children. Ms. Dias now leads the rural workers’ union and denounces human rights abuses in that area of the Amazon. Since 2004, she has lived under state protection, guarded round-the-clock. The same warnings once directed at her husband are now aimed at her. She said that when she first met Mr. Lula in May 19, 2005, then in his first term, she told him, “I don’t want to die, Mr. President.”
In the 21st century alone, more than 2,000 people have been killed worldwide for defending their lands or the environment. Brazil accounts for about a third of these homicides, with most of them occurring in the Amazon. Pará sits at the top of the list of the most lethal states, and murder is just the most extreme tactic used to silence campaigners. Campaigners also suffer death threats and nonlethal physical attacks; female activists face sexual assault.
The Amazon, especially under former President Jair Bolsonaro, has received extensive attention over issues like deforestation rates and threats to environmental activists. But we know little — too little — about the daily struggles of defenders, either Indigenous communities fighting to preserve their traditional lands or grass-roots activists like Dezinho and Ms Dias, who have been crucial in exposing the lawlessness expanding throughout the frontier.
“Our goal is to achieve zero deforestation in the Amazon,” Mr. Lula said in his inauguration speech on Jan. 1, just a week before rioters ransacked government buildings in Brasilia. “Brazil does not need to deforest in order to maintain and expand its strategic agricultural frontier,” he added.
Accountability will be central to Mr. Lula’s pledge. For too long, the fate of the rainforest has rested on the shoulders of environmental campaigners, Indigenous leaders, land activists and courageous and determined judges, prosecutors and state and federal investigators. But social and ecological advances in society can’t rely on martyrs.
One of the last times I met Ms Dias, I asked her what she thought about how her work had contributed to making Rondon do Pará a more just place for the poor. “They took Dezinho,” she said. “But the seed planted never stops growing and bears fruit.”
Heriberto Araujo is an investigative journalist. This essay has been adapted from his new book “Masters of the Lost Land: The Untold Story of the Amazon and the Violent Fight for the World’s Last Frontier.”
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