issue 219 - May 1991
Photo: David Ransom
Most of the people of the Amazon live in towns and cities.
They talk to David Ransom about life, death and dislocation.
‘People are stupid!’ says Lucia, sitting in a café in the great city of Belém – ‘Bethlehem’ – at the mouth of the Amazon.
She wears a mock leopardskin blouse and her hair is swept back from a heavily made-up face. Beside her sits a woman with elegant spectacles – she reminds me of an aunt of mine in England.
‘They don’t want to see the benefits that unity can bring us. They are fooled into seeing only the things that divide us. But of course all of us poor people, black, brown, yellow, white, whatever race we belong to, whatever sex we are, all of us have many problems in common.’ The woman next to her nods her agreement.
The café is built over an open sewer in the industrial part of Belém. Across the road more women are gathered around a factory gate. It is one of the factories owned by the Mutran family, who control a large part of the city’s Brazil nut processing industry. I have been brought here by Igina, a smart young woman who gave up commercial work to join the Movement of Rural and Urban Women.
All the women I talk to tell much the same story. They work long hours for minimal pay in unhealthy conditions. They are paid piece-work rates and receive nothing for damaged Brazil nuts although they are still sold in their crushed form. Pregnant women are sacked, and since many have half a dozen children or more, that adds up to an awful lot of sacking.
Most of the women live across the open sewer in a rambling shantytown that was ‘invaded’ by workers in the Brazil nut factories 15 years ago. In some ways it is a familiar Latin American urban scene. But what makes this different is that all the workers in the factories are women and the community is largely run by them. They have joined the Food Workers Union and some have become active in the Movement of Urban and Rural Women.
‘As you can imagine, there’s plenty of machismo in the union and plenty of members expect the women just to do what they are told, says Igina. ‘In fact there’s just one woman full-time official. But unions in Brazil are only now beginning to recover from the inheritance of the military dictatorship when everyone had to belong to official unions. Their job was to keep their members in line. Now, for the first time, the leaders are beginning to think about the interests of their members. They have even supported strikes by the women in these factories. Radical women are beginning to make an impact, and some of the men don’t like that.’
These, too, are the people of the Amazon. They live in the cities and towns where once the forest stood and now the forces invading the Amazon are generated. This is where the people who quit the forest end up – and from where those who invade it frequently set out.
There is a point south of Belém that is known as the ‘Parrot’s Beak’ – because of the shape formed by the boundaries of the states of Pará, Tocantins and Marnahão where they meet. Here the Belém-to- Brasilia highway crosses the new 900-kilometre railway running from São Luis on the coast to the giant Carajás iron ore mine. It should be blessed by the benefits of modern, industrial development. Instead it is the scene of the most intense and violent land conflicts in Brazil.
Take a look at Açailándia, perched on hilltops near the actual junction of the highway and railway. On these hilltops, balancing precariously over eroded gorges, thousands of people live in utter squalor. Most of them are rural workers driven from the land by the fazendeiros – the ranchers. Without facilities of any kind, they live in minute wooden shacks. The smallest of all are on a patch of land ‘donated’ by the friend of a local politician who made as many promises as possible in exchange for votes in recent elections. The air is thick with the acrid smoke of burning wood from hundreds of adobe ovens making charcoal.
Such conditions are common throughout the world. I’ve seen plenty just as bad. But there is something peculiarly sickening about this place. I try to figure out what it is.
Part of it is simply the sight of the great rainforest being destroyed. There are said to be some 600 sawmills in the 300- kilometre stretch between Imperatriz and Paragominas. They export the best hardwoods to the rich world. Second-class wood is used for the domestic building and furniture trades. The mills are incredibly wasteful, losing as much as 70 per cent of the usable wood.
But the worst part of it is, I think, the way deforestation combines with massive foreign investment to produce utter human misery. One might argue for ever about why this should be so. But you have to begin by seeing that it is so. And the biggest single complaint I hear from the people actually experiencing it is that no-one wants to know. Talking to the active members of trade union and community groups, who risk their lives for their work, I discover what I think lies at the heart of my growing sense of outrage.
The single measure more likely than anything else to halt the continued deforestation of the Amazon is the equitable distribution and more efficient use of the land already cleared. That means land reform. It also means orchestrated violence and intimidation to prevent it – or any other challenge to the power of the fazendeiros and patrões.
Our companion, Gil, is a trade unionist who worked on the Belém-Brasilia highway. He stops as we drive along it and points to a place where he unearthed the bodies of fellow construction workers buried in a shallow grave. A little further on he shows us where labourers were simply burned to death in the forest instead of being paid. (The first news I receive on returning to England is that Ribeiro de Souza, president of the Rural Workers Union in Rio Maria, just to the south, has been assassinated. He is the twelfth rural workers’ leader killed in the Parrot’s Beak in just one month.)
The violence is directed precisely against those people who are leading the search for a better future, not just for themselves but for the forest as well. We talk to union leaders from the sawmills in Paragominas, and they are perfectly well aware that their work is destroying their children’s future. Most of them are farmers who look for inspiration to the Movement of Landless People and the Union of Rural Workers.
A sense of exile and displacement pervades the towns and cities of the Amazon. Indeed, it pervades urban Brazil. The greatest migration of all is, in fact, from rural to urban life – to the gigantic industrial conglomeration around São Paulo in Southern Brazil, where now upwards of 40 million people live. And it is here that the Union of Indigenous Nations (UNI) works to strengthen the political influence of Brazil’s indigenous peoples – and to develop alternatives to deforestation.
Ailton Krenak is the Union’s national leader. His people, the Krenak, were evicted from their traditional lands before he was born. His parents moved to São Paulo. Perhaps it was a sense of displacement that gave him his early insights. ‘As a boy I already had a clear vision, but I had no real understanding,’ he says. ‘I have always had the feeling that the Indian nations are really one people.’
So he set out on a voyage around Brazil to meet them, hitching lifts where he could, travelling with Indian chiefs to meetings. ‘It was as if the original streams were meeting to become one river, gathering strength as it flowed. We began to create expectations where before there had been nothing but despair.’
Links have been forged with rubber tappers through the Forest People’s Alliance and Ailton is interested in working with rural and industrial unions. ‘But we’re not interested in just talking. We need to take practical steps, small measures that will provide a positive example’.
I travel with him to the Centre the Union of Indigenous Nations has set up near Goiânia on what was once forested land just south of Brasilia. Representatives of indigenous peoples from right across Amazonia come here to study alternatives to deforestation. Ailton wants them to return to their villages with the knowledge they have gained.
In the evening I go for a walk with Mario Krenak, the caretaker of the Centre. He takes me into a plantation of maize. At its centre is a tiny hut. Inside it are Joveno, Maria and their two small children. They offer us food and coffee. They are landless migrants from southern Brazil who have been taken on by the Centre, though they are plainly not Indian.
We sit in silence, the ‘Indian’ the ‘migrants’ and the ‘gringo’ together, watching the sun set over the valley as the children play with a plastic scooter. What I am finally beginning to realize is that no amount of intimidation can remove entirely from these people their sense of dignity or their courage to resist. The violence they have all endured can also take them beyond their personal suffering, across racial, cultural and geographical divides. That, I feel certain, is how their future, and that of the forest itself, will eventually be secured.
The Greater Carajás carve up
In 1980 a helicopter developed engine trouble and landed on the Carajás mountains in southern Pará state. It happened to be carrying a surveyor. He found the largest and richest deposits of iron ore in the world.
A huge development project was formulated by the Brazilian Government. It proposed the investment of $62 billion in an area covering almost 10% of Brazil’s territory, most of it within the rainforest. The Greater Carajás Programme (GCP) was born and the Government launched a scheme to improve the ‘infrastructure’ (roads, power supplies and so on) within the area covered by the Programme.
The iron ore project was implemented between 1982 and 1987 at a total cost of some $3 billion, largely financed by the World Bank ($304.5 million), the EC ($600 million), Japan ($450 million) and the Brazilian Government. It is run by the largest state-owned mining company, the Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (CVRD). A 900-kilometre railway was constructed between the mine and Sâo Luis on the coast.
The GCP was intended to promote private enterprise. Charcoal-fired pig iron smelters are now being constructed around the mine. They will consume 1,500 square kilometres of forest every year. Plans to reforest with plantations have yet to be realized, partly because the low international market price of pig iron has made this uneconomic. The programme also called for the establishment of ranches for beef cattle in units of 100 square kilometres each.
The idea was that by linking the natural resources of the area to large ‘agro-pastoral’ industries it would be possible to achieve in less than two decades a level of development in the region that had taken a century in the US.
The controlling, state-owned mining company takes great pride in its environmental record within the boundaries of the iron ore project. This appears to be true within the company’s tastefully landscaped and forested enclave. Outside the wire fences the deforestation set in motion by the project is obvious. Within a 300 kilometre wide strip along the railroad 47% of the forest had been cleared by the end of 1985 alone.
By 1989 less than 37% of the land occupied by Indians within the Programme area had been properly demarcated in recognition of their land rights.
Sources: Anthony B Anderson, ‘Smokestacks in the rainforest: industrial development and deforestation in the Amazon Basin’ in World Development vol 18 no 9, 1990; Anthony L Hall, Developing Amazonia: Deforestation and social conflict in Brazil’s Carajás programme, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1989.
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