Site icon Conservation news

Cerrado: traditional communities win back land from agribusiness firm

  • Traditional communities, which have inhabited rural lands sometimes for centuries but without land deeds, are protected under Brazilian law. However, a variety of elite land grabbers, ranging from cattle ranchers to large agribusiness companies, have used intimidation and other methods to seize community lands.
  • Rural communities in Formosa do Rio Preto in Bahia state are a case in point. They are in conflict with Agronegócio Estrondo, an agribusiness firm which the communities say illegally seized their lands on the Black River. A state court has now ruled in the communities’ favor, ordering the land returned and fines paid.
  • However, the communities say Estrondo, which has a documented history in Bahia as a land grabber, has continued its tactics of intimidation, recently digging a 1.8-mile trench to hinder movement of local people and livestock, and using a private security force and police to seize the rural community of Cachoeira’s cell phone tower.
  • Also, in Cachoeira, in June, local police and private security, allegedly from Estrondo, entered the home of Adão Batista Gomes, arrested, then released him. He is the community leader whose name appears first on the judicial action against the agribusiness firm. Estrondo seems likely to appeal the court ruling.
Catarina Lopes Leite has lived in a rural portion of Formosa do Rio Preto since being born there 59 years ago. She is one the geraizeiros who is resisting the encroachment of agribusiness on the traditional communities’ land. Image by Flávia Milhorance.

Traditional communities in Western Bahia state, Brazil, have won a major legal victory, allowing them to remain on a tract of land claimed by Agronegócio Estrondo, a large agribusiness firm.

As Mongabay reported in March, rural communities in the municipality of Formosa do Rio Preto accused the large farm of illegally expanding its operations onto their land. The communities had also denounced the firm for employing armed men who blocked local roads with security checkpoints to intimidate local people and to impede their passage to city markets.

On 6 May, a Bahia state court of appeals upheld a preliminary decision safeguarding the communities’ territory and imposing a fine on the company of R$50,000 (US$13,000) per day, for each day that the court’s decision was not carried out. The firm still has the right to appeal the decision.

The disputed land is within the threatened Cerrado savannah biome, Brazil’s second largest biome after the Amazon. The Cerrado plateaus, or the chapadas, are preferred by mechanized agribusiness because they are flat and can easily be plowed up for soy, cotton and corn crops. Image by Flávia Milhorance.

“This victory is extremely important to these communities,” said Mauricio Correa, a member of the Association of Lawyers of Rural Workers in Bahia state, who oversaw the case. “We are all thrilled with it. Estrondo is very influential and got rid of a number of [other] judicial actions. The chances [that] this decision [will be] reversed is quite limited now.”

The small-scale farmers are known as geraizeiros, and their traditional communities have occupied the region for up to two centuries. The geraizeiros have farmed and grazed the land, while preserving the surrounding biome, the Cerrado, the richly biodiverse Brazilian savannah. These traditional communities are recognized by the Brazilian government as having sustainable livelihoods rooted in their territories, and as worthy of protection.

But Western Bahia state recently became a target for rapid agribusiness expansion, leading to fast-paced deforestation and an increase in agrarian conflicts. Formosa do Rio Preto, with approximately 22,000 residents, is now one of Brazil’s biggest soy producers, with 1.4 million tons harvested last year, and projections of 23 percent growth by 2027, according to the Ministry of Agriculture — which means that agribusiness conflicts with traditional communities are only likely to escalate.

Estrondo Agronegócio, a large-scale agribusiness company, has placed signs at the edge of property it claims in rural areas of Formosa do Rio Preto. But the traditional communities say some of the land is theirs, a contention to which a Bahia state court recently agreed. Image by Flávia Milhorance.

Historically, the traditional communities built their homes in the savannah lowlands, the baixões, and allowed their cattle to roam freely in the natural pastures of the plateaus, the chapadas. However, the chapadas are valued by mechanized agribusiness, because they are flat, allowing for use of heavy farm equipment, and because they receive plenty of rain, needed for water-intensive soy, corn and cotton monocultures.

Because the traditonal communities typically lack legal deeds for these uplands – a common situation in rural Brazil – most of the plateau around Formosa do Rio Preto was taken over in recent years by large-scale industrial agribusiness. But the small communities still resist in the lowlands.

Agronegócio Estrondo came to Western Bahia in the 1970s. Today, it occupies a 305,000-hectare (1,177-square mile) area, almost four times the size of New York City. The enterprise is owned jointly by 24 companies which produce soy, corn, and cotton. The land area claimed, and now won back, by the 62 families in seven communities is a portion of a 55,000-hectare (212-square mile) tract in the lowlands along the Rio Preto, or Black River.

The 1.8 mile ditch dug by Estrondo Agronegocio stretches is up to three meters deep, with the excess soil piled high beside it, and is meant to prevent movement by people and livestock from the traditional communities in Formosa do Rio Preto, Bahia. Image courtesy of 10envolvimento.

Ongoing conflict

Despite the court’s ruling, the geraizeiros say that intimidation by Estrondo is ongoing. Within weeks of the decision, and in apparent defiance of the verdict, the company dug a 1.8-mile trench to hinder movement of local people and livestock. “We can’t take the cattle to pasture in some areas anymore, and a few families are more isolated,” says Jossone Lopes Leite, who lives in the Cachoeira rural community, 60 miles from paved municipal roads.

Cachoeira is one of the best-organized geraizeiros villages along the Black River. During Mongabay’s visit last February, the community boasted a small mobile cell phone tower, built by the families themselves at a shared cost of R$10,000 (US$2,600), which connects them to the world.

In May, however, community members say that Estrondo’s private security detachment, along with local police, dismantled the tower, which was then taken to the farm’s headquarters. No reason was given for the theft.

Lopes reported to Mongabay via a WhatsApp call made 30 miles away from Cachoeira: “Today, if we need to talk to someone, I come here to a farm where the owner allows me to use the Internet.”

The geraizeiros traditional communities have harvested small-scale crops and raised cattle in Formosa do Rio Preto, Bahia, for as much as two centuries. Image by Flávia Milhorance.

Also, in Cachoeira, on the night of 6 June, the local police and private security men, allegedly in the employ of Estrondo, entered the house of Adão Batista Gomes, the community leader whose name appears first atop the judicial action against the agribusiness company.

According to Gomes, the men lacked a warrant on charges of illegal weapons possession and destruction of the company’s security cabins. In March, Mongabay reported the geraizeiros tore down fences and two cabins erected by Estrondo because they blocked a road used to regularly travel to the city of Formosa do Rio Preto. The road remains open to traffic and armed men were no longer seen in that area, according to the community.

Gomes spent the night in jail and talked to Mongabay the day after his release. He denied taking part in the destruction of the cabins and fencing, and explained that he did own an old gun which he uses to scare away wild animals from his backyard. “I was released at noon after being heard.… I believe this was only an excuse to incriminate me, as they [Estrondo] are being defeated in court. I know I’m targeted, but this won’t intimidate me.”

Mongabay’s reporting team visited Estrondo’s security cabins, destroyed in February. Community leader Adão Gomes was accused by police and private security men of taking part in the destruction, but he denies his participation. Image by Flávia Milhorance.

Martin Mayr, from the NGO 10envolvimento, says that these recent incidents have been reported to the Public Ministry’s Office (the MPE, Brazil’s independent Public Prosecutor’s Office, which operates on the state level). The NGO filed a formal complaint, stating “these forays disrespect the geraizeiros traditional communities’ territories at upper Rio Preto and will result in serious environmental damage.” Mauricio Correa adds that the court was also informed about the latest developments, but it has yet to fine the company for these new infractions.

Agronegócio Estrondo was contacted by Mongabay and acknowledged the request for comment, but made no further response. In its court filling, the company alleged that it “has always respected” the communities, but argued that the geraizeiros based their claims on “biased” documents and oral accounts that could not “support the aforementioned area delimitation.” Mongabay also contacted the local police, but the police chief could not be reached, and law enforcement has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Judicial battle continues

There have been two further developments in the judicial battle – both of which support local traditional communities against the large agribusiness company.

In late May, a legal opinion issued by the state Public Ministry’s Office supported the geraizeiros’ land claims. There is “strong evidence” that the families are “the actual owners of the land in question,” the document attests. It also acknowledges that there are “a number of complaints of blockaded passages” through the local area, which “prevents them [community members] from conducting their activities.”

NGO 10envolvimento warns that the ditch dug by Estrondo is intensifying soil erosion and causing environmental impacts. Image courtesy of 10envolvimento.

In a second development, the government’s agrarian department (CDA), issued a report contesting Estrondo’s land titles. The document points out that the company’s behavior in the past was described by Brazil’s agrarian institute (INCRA) as being a “serious case of alleged grilagem [land grabbing] in Bahia.” CDA also supports the legal position of the court ruling: that the geraizeiros of the Black River “fit perfectly into the definition of traditional people” protected under Brazilian law.

The CDA’s report was forwarded to the State Prosecutor’s Office (PGE), asking it to “promote the land regularization of the historically occupied area (about 55,000 hectares) by the geraizeiros communities of the upper Rio Preto.” PGE was contacted but did not respond as of time of publication.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.

Exit mobile version