In the land of football, the size of a football field is a familiar measurement. Brazilians have a pretty good idea how long it takes to run from one goal to another or how hard to kick a ball to reach the other side. Maybe that is the reason that football fields are used to illustrate how much of the Amazon forest has been devastated throughout the years.
In 2010 the devastated area was equivalent to 3,500 football fields. Wood sellers cut into the virgin forest for illegal material with massive trucks and chains that pull out trees with their roots and everything. “In only one day, these trucks can devastate up to twelve football fields”, says Ricardo Cruz, sustainability consultant. That is way too far to kick a ball.
It is a profitable illegal business. With little inspection and some 80% of the original Amazon forest to go through, wood sellers seem to be unstoppable. The foreign market is always opened to receive the noblest material from the forest, even when sanctions are made for non-certified wood.
“Not much can be done if Europe buys certified wood, but China and the Middle East continues to purchase illegal material”, says Cruz. Wood sellers get expensive fines if anyone decides to speak up against their illegal activities. In the land of no laws, those who talk too loud face murder threads and assassination.
José Claudio Ribeiro da Silva, collector of Brazilian nuts, had his land covered by tall trees and virgin forest in the south of Pará, a state the size of Germany, Italy and France put altogether. He was an extrativist leader (land owners that extract products of the forest without devastating), responsible for closing 10 illegal wood seller business before his assassination in May 24th, along with his wife, Maria do Espírito Santo.
Their murder was followed by another one three days later in Rondônia state, of Adelino Ramos, leader of small farmers in the region. Two more days and another murder happens in Zé Claudio’s region, Eremilton Pereira dos Santos. On June 9th, the killings were still happening and Obede Loyla Souza was murdered after complaining and discussing with a group of illegal wood sellers.
President Dilma Rousseff said that the State would not rest until the responsible for the deaths was punished. The minister of Justice, José Eduardo Cardozo, traveled around the region with Human Rights minister Maria do Rosário and announced all measures being taken in relation to the deaths: the military police would be working in the regions, as well as the Federal Police, investigating Zé Claudio’s death.
The first cycle: Chico Mendes
The immediate actions follow a well known script made by the government since the death of activist Chico Mendes, in 1988. Mendes was the first case to reach international notoriety. He worked in the rubber trees extraction in Acre state and became an activist against farmers in the region that were destroying trees for agriculture. He was killed by a shooter in the name of farmer Darly Alves da Silva.
As soon as a crime reaches international repercussion, authorities from higher levels are called to pursue the criminals. A lot of propaganda is made when the shooters are arrested, but after that, life comes back to normal and nothing else is done to change the situation, until another crime is committed.
Antonio Canuto, secretary of the national coordination of CPT, complains about the superficiality of the measures. “If the government doesn’t touch the structure on what these crimes are being held, nothing will ever change. They are attacking the consequences, not the causes”.
When Lula took over, all small land owners celebrated the president that came from the people. Eight years later, the results are consistent, but the problem persists. “Lula improved life in the fields, made a few projects that helped the farmers, like bringing electricity to the lands or financing higher education, but those were just money crumbs close to what he did for high profile land owners. Whoever was poor improved their lives with Bolsa Família [the Brazilian minimal income program that guarantees that every family has at least 90 Reais, or US$40, per month], but whoever had money has now a lot more. Lula never changed the rules of the game”, says Antonio Canuto.
The second cycle: Dorothy Stang
This cycle of punishments against forest criminals happened in 2005, after the death of Dorothy Stang, an American nun that dedicated her life to help small land owners in Pará. She was executed in her backyard with six shots in her back, abdomen and head. Her executors were judged not only in Brazil but also in the United States. They are facing prison time, but justice seems far from being done.
The Federal Police initiated an operation called Arch of Fire, investigating illegal wood extracts, but the operation was cancelled in 2010 due to lack of money resources.
The number of devastating area has been dropping since Dorothy Stang. It is 14% lower than in 2009 and 33% lower than in 2005, when the devastated area was close to 20,000 square kilometers, or 10,500 football fields.
These are great news indeed. Unfortunately, the number of murders in the forest did not follow the same logic. According to Commisão Pastoral da Terra (CPT), an institution that supports small farmers and extractivists, 192 people lost their lives trying to defend their lands and the forest from wood sellers and big land owners since 2005, Dorothy’s death. Last year, out of 38 people killed in the forest, 18 were in Pará.
Although devastation has been dropping along the years, the recent period has seen a rise of 27% on devastating land from August 2010 to April 2011, when compared to the same period a year before.
The reason for this rise is on the new Forest Code that was about to be voted in the Senate. “Wood sellers heard that the new code would give them amnesty over all devastated land, but what the code states is amnesty for all devastation until 2008, not now”, says consultant Ricardo Cruz. The rise was followed by a stronger inspection held by Ibama, the Brazilian regulatory institute, and more complaints made by small farmers and extrativists, resulting in the recent deaths.
The third cycle: José Claudio da Silva
The most recent cycle was put together to investigate Zé Claudio’s death. The operation Arch of Fire was reinstalled and federal forces were moved to the areas of conflict. It seems quite unfair to have the Federal Police investigating only one of the forest crimes instead of focusing on the whole issue. All other matters – 170 cases only in the state of Pará – are held in state departments. The problem here, says Canuto, is the negative presence of the state: “It has been said that there is a lack of action by the states on the land issue, but the problem is that the state is there, but on the money side, defending interests of high profile land owners and companies”.
The huge land of Pará state is considering to be dismantled in three different parts: Pará, Tapajós and Carajás. The Carajás state, if ever becomes a reality, would be the richest of the three. The region concentrates not only virgin forest for wood sellers or open camps being cut off by cattle owners. It is also the most profitable mineral fields owned by Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (CVRD), Brazilian’s most powerful mineral company. It would also be the most violent state of Brazil. Political forces in favor of Carajás state creation argue that a smaller territory would benefit the population, approximating them to the authorities, bringing sustainable development and infra structure. “When the population has more access to information and education, the so called ‘feudalism’ will vanish”, says technical advisor of the Democratic Workers Party (PDT) Tatiany Barata.
The ideal plan of transforming Carajás in an independent state has some serious risks when it comes to land speculation. “The main reason for creating Carajás is economic. It is a rich land, full of minerals that CVRD has their eyes on. Massive land owners will gain millions by selling their property to mineral companies. It would be like putting foxes to watch the chickens”, says Ricardo Cruz.
Can this cycle be broken?
Much has been said about the land reform in Brazil for over 60 years, but it was never done. Activists of the No-land Workers Movement (MST, in the Portuguese acronym) expected Lula to be the one to do it, but it could never be that simple. The Brazilian agribusiness was responsible for most of Lula’s success as president, keeping commodities like soy, cotton, wheat, corn and sugar on top priorities for exports, helping the country to grow from inside out.
Wood sellers are facing a melt down on their illegal activities as the devastating areas are being closely monitored by authorities. The cancer of this deal is corruption. “It is not an easy deal to cut off illegal wood, put inside an airplane and send it abroad without anyone seeing it. There’s a lot of people closing their eyes”, says Ricardo Cruz. The only way out of the cycle is to combat corruption.
The possibility of taking all forest crimes into the federal sphere sounds like a way of ending impunity in the region. Local instances have freed notable murders in the past and seem to be too close to the problem. “Usually, judges, policemen and farmers are all in the same social spheres, making a biased investigation”, says Ricardo Cruz.
Left wing deputies like Jandira Feghali, Manuela D’Ávila and Amauri Teixeira were the first voices in the Congress to defend federalization of the crimes, but Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo stated that only clear biased cases would have their the investigations federalized.
But it’s not enough to dismantle illegal schemes. Small farmers have to count on the State in order to sell what they produce. “A company or a rich land owner is able to build their own road to deliver their product to its final destination, but the small farmer needs the investment from the government. Without support, his production is not viable”, says Ricardo Cruz.
Technical advisor Tatiany Barata points out how the government needs organization: “We need that the Ministries of the Environment and the Agriculture sit together, talk and settle an integrated regionalized project”.
According to the numbers, the Amazon forest seems to be in the right track, but the people from the forest need more protection than ever, as they are the ones dealing with the consequences of stopping illegal activities. With the state support, small farmers won’t have to be afraid of fighting for the forest. The only hope is that the notable vicious cycle does not end – or begin – with more deaths.
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