Life and much death in the Amazon
MASTERS OF THE LOST LAND: The Untold Story of the Amazon and the Violent Fight for the World’s Last Frontier
Author: Heriberto Araujo
Publisher: Mariner Books
In 1970, the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil launched one of the world’s most ambitious construction projects: The Trans Amazonian Highway, a 2,600-mile road across the Amazon River basin. It was “a necessary effort,” President Emílio Garrastazu Médici declared at the time, “to solve two problems: One of people without land … and another of land without people.”
Over the next decades, hundreds of thousands of migrants travelled along that highway and other new roads in search of cheap land — often finding themselves thrust into violent conflict with timber barons, cattle ranchers and other oligarchs. In 1988, a rancher murdered Chico Mendes, the globally renowned rubber tapper who had tried to protect the rainforest from illegal exploitation. Seventeen years later Dorothy Stang, an American nun and advocate for the poor, was shot down by two hit men on a jungle road near the town of Anapu after mounting death threats against her. Those high-profile crimes were quickly solved, but other killers carried out their crimes with impunity.
In Masters of the Lost Land, Heriberto Araujo set out to document this ongoing conflict in one bloody corner of Brazil’s wild north. A Spanish journalist who relocated to Brazil from China in 2013, Araujo was quickly swept up in the region’s biggest story: The destruction of the rainforest and the role it plays in accelerating global warming. Intrigued by the human drama behind the catastrophe, he decided, he writes, “to capture, in a single narrative, the factors that have made the largest rainforest on Earth the world’s most dangerous place for environmental and land activists.” The result is an often gripping, sometimes unwieldy narrative that spans five decades and follows the lives of a large cast of characters, from labour leaders to low-level hit men, from criminal bosses to the government officials who abet them.
Araujo’s story unfolds in and around Rondon do Pará, a town in Pará State in northern Brazil. Thrown up as a transient camp for highway construction crews, Rondon do Pará had been a refuge for poor homesteaders before a July 1969 attack on a nearby farm by bow-and-arrow-wielding warriors of the Gaviao Kyikateje tribe. After the government rounded up the Indians and transported them to a reservation, the town’s population grew tenfold. Wealthy landowners, known as fazendeiros, cleared the forests through slash-and-burn operations, staffed their ranches with indentured labourers and enforced control over their territory with an army of gunmen, or pistoleiros.
One of the principal villains of Araujo’s narrative is Josélio de Barros Carneiro, the scion of a cattle-ranching family from the southeastern coastal state of Espírito Santo. In 1967, Josélio organised the assassination there of a political rival, a police major, in a hail of cyanide-tipped bullets fired by three hit men in a bar. After serving several years in prison, Josélio escaped possible retribution from his victim’s family by taking refuge in Rondon de Pará, where he cleared forests and became one of the area’s wealthiest ranchers. In 1994, a labourer led investigators to a field littered with human remains — allegedly a burial ground for workers who had complained about their miserable working conditions or tried to escape and were dispatched by hit men.
Josélio’s apparent crimes brought him to the attention of José Dutra da Costa, known as Dezinho, the charismatic leader of Rondon do Pará’s rural workers’ union, founded in 1982 to help peasant farmers obtain pensions and financial benefits from the government. “A short paunchy man … with curly ink-colored hair and glittering black eyes,” Dezinho pressed the police to investigate Josélio. (The case was eventually dropped owing to a lack of evidence.)
Inspired by the progressive politician Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was elected to Brazil’s congress in 1986, Dezinho moved deeper into political activism. He drew attention to the fazendeiros’ practice of acquiring land by using fraudulent deeds, known as grilagem, derived from the Portuguese word for crickets, so called because the fake contracts were often aged artificially with the insects’ droppings. To pressure the government to confiscate illegally acquired properties, Dezinho organised mass occupations of the disputed land — a strategy that placed him in the sights of the region’s corrupt overlords. In November 2000, a hired gunman shot him dead outside his home.
Dezinho’s murder thrust his widow, Maria Joel Dias Da Costa, into a prominent role in Amazonian activism. Much of the rest of Araujo’s narrative is devoted to her years-long effort to bring the conspirators to justice. Araujo tries mightily to keep the momentum of his narrative going, but his cavalcade of hit men, peasant victims, rapacious landowners, criminal attorneys, police officers and others caught up in the violence becomes difficult to keep track of, and many of the stories blur.
Still, Araujo’s accretion of detail has a powerful effect, demonstrating how deeply the culture of violence has seeped into the social fabric of Amazonia — and how hard it will be to eradicate. The June 2022 murders of the British journalist Dom Phillips and the Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira while investigating illegal exploitation of tribal land in the Javari Valley, serve as a reminder that the bloodshed continues unabated, along with environmental depredation. Under President Jair Bolsonaro, an ally of Brazil’s powerful agriculture lobby, 4,500 square miles of Amazon rainforest — an area nearly half the size of Massachusetts — disappeared between 2021 and 2022, more than double the amount destroyed in 2018. Bolsonaro’s defeat by Lula da Silva last fall cheered environmentalists, but few believe that the new administration can find an easy end to the cycle of violence. As a judge in a case against one lawbreaking rancher said recently, after receiving a death threat, “We live in a democracy still under construction.”
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