On the one hand organised crime, assassins, the systematic destruction of the Amazon rainforest. On the other the defenders of the environment who are continually being assassinated.
In the state of Rondonia, in the north of Brasil, Eder Chaves Dias and Joao Coelho try to defend the Amazon Forest by preventing the passage of the invaders into the Valle del Javari. They are doomed to die. Like them, there are hundreds more on the lists compiled by organised crime as it advances from the lands of the Union towards Amazonia, the largest tropical reserve on the planet.
According to the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), 57% of conflicts in the countryside occur in Amazonia, even though the inhabitants of the region amount to only 12% of the population of Brasil. The situation is also critical in Cerrado, an area with 24.1% of the localities involved in the conflict but with only 14.9% of the rural population of the country. When a map was made of the illegal possession of land in seven states in the North West of the country, the CPT identified 482 centres of tension and violence in 143 municipalities. Other regions of the country suffer from the same evil but to a lesser degree.
The fact of the matter is that agrarian conflict in Brazil has increased and 2017 promises to be one of the most violent in the campaigns of recent years: up to August, 55 people lost their lives in agrarian conflict. Last year there were 61 deaths, the highest number for 25 years. At the present pace, the number will probably be surpassed.
According to the Pastoral Land Commission, murders during rural conflicts are over questions of land and timber and usually take place in isolated areas where there is no institutional protection or the support of the network of lawyers involved in these problems. The victims are mainly small farmers and Indios but they also include fazendeiros, body guards and gunmen. Most of the murders are committed by those who occupy land abusively (grileiros) and by the great landowners. Figures show that 97% of those killed are peasants and indigenous people. Apart from the murders, the CPT has found a world of violence that includes torture, the burning of corpses, violence against women and indigenous people, the fraudulent sale of permits and shootings on commission.
The destruction of the forest and the unrelenting pressure by the grileiros on the lands of the centre-west and the north of Brasil has brought about the birth of territories with their own particular dynamic. In the financial machinery of the land criminals, the business of violence has created lists giving the price of the lives of people who condemn social and environmental law-breaking. Both in the felling of trees and land lottery, the fingerprints of the green mafia are there for all to see.
According to the Pastoral Land Commission, the order to kill someone is close to the payment received for two or three cubic metres of ipê, nowadays extracted from the forest for around 1,500 reals ($468). In Rondonia, a professional gunman is paid from five to ten thousand reals (between 1,562 and 3,125 dollars) for his services, according to the ‘importance’ of the victim. On average, he is paid much less in the fields.A well-structured hierarchy of criminal agents has taken over part of the Amazon Forest. The timber business is the most important in this chain. It finances operations, receives orders – often from distant cities such as Sao Paolo – starts the process of producing the goods. Its primary aim is noble timber, the gold of the forest. Research is carried out by the toreiros, men who are sent into the forest to take stock of the trees and calculate the cost of creating carreadores, open tracks and footpaths. The investment is substantial.
On the border between Rondonia and the State of Para, coordinated action involving ten people costs around 240 thousand reals (75 thousand dollars). This money is sufficient to hire two machines, wood-cutters and spies and open up an area from five to ten kilometres wide in the virgin forest. In preserved areas, criminals usually gain entry through the areas located around the protected forest. Valdir Seza; a representative of the CPT, states that in Rondonia the land-owners open the gates for the woodcutters to invade the forests for a fee of seven thousand reals (2,187 dollars) per week. The trees are usually felled by a skidder machine that resembles a tank and able to travel over just about any obstacle. The work of destruction proceeds at a rate of about a kilometre a day. A skidder will easily cut down about 150 cubic metres per day. In just one week, 40 hectares are cut down, an area equal to forty football fields.
The removal of the timber also requires attention. According to the Pastoral Land Commission representative, the tree trunks are removed by night. Before the order reaches the homes of the woodcutters, explorers are hired to see if the way is clear. Information is communicated by radio. Finally, to disguise the timber, the trunks are labelled to show they come from a legal area where tree-cutting is allowed. This is easily done since no checks are made regarding the area or origin of the timber. The sale of the rarest types of wood is sufficient to guarantee the woodcutters make a profit, the employees are paid as well as the hire of the machines and the costs of the following stages of devastation are covered. According to Valdir Seza, after a gap has been opened in the forest, there follows a second a third and a fourth cycle in the theft of timber. In these stages, the esplanadas are opened, land to one side where the toreiros cut up the timber of lower value. The operation concludes with the coming of the lasqueiros in search of fencing material. When all the commercial timber is gone, the rest is burned. The land is then ready for the correrias pelas terras, who will decide which parts are to be kept for grazing and which will be cut down by illegal occupiers.
In Amazonia, the killing of farmers and Indians opposed to all of this takes place in an area that has lost, to date, 20% of its natural forest. Data furnished by the National Institute for Space Research (INPC) show that Legal Amazonia has lost 762,000 Km2, equal to 17 times the State of Rio di Janeiro. It is estimated that 42 billion trees have been cut down. According to research carried out by IBAMA (Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources), the diminution of the forest has allowed organised crime to circulate 3 billion reals (937.5 million dollars) each year, considering only the phase up to where the trunk leaves the forest. Besides that, there is the work of processing the timber, an important part of the business. This money is more than enough to finance political campaigns in municipalities and States, to sponsor the expansion of illegal possession of land and, where necessary, eliminate the opposition.
Factors in the violence.
According to experts, there are four factors that guarantee that rural violence is unlikely to diminish: the lack of any real agrarian reform, the lack of any public policy to regularise the lands, the lack of oversight and the inability of the Judiciary to punish criminals.
According to Marco Apolo Santana Leao, a lawyer of the organisation Society for the Defence of Human Rights (SDDH), “the disempowerment of agrarian reform policy is taking place, the extinction of INCRA (National Institute for Colonisation and Agrarian Reform), and there is a lack of resources”. According to Marco Antonio Delfino de Almeida, Procurator of the Republic and coordinator of the working group for public lands, “there is no continuous policy for the regularisation of lands. While this is the case, conflict will continue”. The occupation of Amazonia was encouraged in the seventies by the military government. However, much of the occupied areas of the region are still owned by the Union or by the States. They are public lands that were never officially transferred to an owner, something that increases the tension in the dispute over lands. According to Almeida, “most of the deaths have been of people who were fighting for the distribution of land in areas formerly occupied by the large fazendeiros”.
Another factor is created by the difficulty in expanding security in the fields, given the limited ability of public organisations to exercise surveillance. In IBAMA, for example, there is no change in the organisation or the infrastructure that manages the work. In 2008 the federal organisation had 1,600 employees. Today the number is only 900. There are only six helicopters and 400 vehicles to patrol the whole country. Even minimally sufficient supervision of Amazonia would require more than a thousand people.
Impunity in judicial processes is the fourth factor that contributes to strengthening crime in the fields. “The gunman who kills a peasant, following an order, and who receives his payment without being punished, will always seek more orders: he is an employee of death”, Leao states. “In the same way, the one giving the order will continue to resolve the problem of conflict in this way since he is certain the law will not touch him. When there is a prosecution – the lawyer continues – it is usually the gunmen and the intermediaries who are punished and not those really responsible who are financing these deaths”. Data from the Pastoral Land Commission confirm this: since 1985, there have been 1,387 murders in rural areas. Of these, only 112 cases were brought to trial with 31 people behind the murders found guilty and 14 found not guilty. Only 92 of the murderers were sent to jail.