Conservation news

Death foretold? A courageous Amazon peasant couple resists illegal loggers

Two fresh graves dug by unknown assailants to terrorize Osvalinda and Daniel who live in Pará, the Brazilian state with the highest recorded number of murdered activists. According to the latest report from the Catholic Church’s Land Commission, 21 of 70 deaths it recorded in rural areas of Brazil in 2017 took place in Pará. Image by Osvalinda Marcelino Pereira.

AREIA, Pará state, Brazil — “I’m only leaving here when I’m dead. And I hope it won’t be after a gunman has killed me,” said peasant farmer Osvalinda Maria Marcelino Pereira, speaking to Federal Prosecutor Paulo de Tarso Oliveira in June when he visited her Amazon settlement. After describing the torrent of threats and acts of violence that she, like many other peasants in Brazil’s Amazon basin, has suffered in recent years, it is easy to understand why she fears assassination.

The June visit marked the first time a representative from the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), Brazil’s body of independent litigators, had ever visited the agrarian reform settlement of Areia, located near the BR-163 highway, between the rural districts of Triarão and Itaituba in western Pará state. The prosecutor had come in response to a chilling warning: On 20 May, Osvalinda and her husband, Daniel Pereira, stepped into their backyard garden to pick fruit, only to find two freshly made graves, each with a cross, dug a hundred yards from their home.

This was no idle threat. The NGO Global Witness has just reported that Brazil saw 57 murders last year of environmental activists, the worst year on record anywhere. Another 448 environmentalists were murdered in Brazil from 2002-2013, half the total killed worldwide during that period. The NGO blames this horrific rise in crime on “the failure of many governments and businesses to act responsibly, ethically and even legally.”

Daniel and Osvalinda Pereira planting their next crop at their homestead, a farm that took them 18 years to create inside the Areia settlement. Over the years, community members were so fearful of the illegal loggers that they abandoned their homes and farms. Osvalinda and Daniel decided to stay. Photo by Lilo Clareto / Repórter Brasil.

Enduring decades of rural terror

The Areia settlement, created by the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INCRA) in 1988, lies adjacent to the Riozinho do Anfrísio Extractivist Reserve, part of a continuous mosaic of protected areas covering 28 million hectares (108,000 square miles), known as the Terra do Meio (Land in the Middle). As big as the U.S. state of Colorado, the Terra do Meio represents one of the world’s largest areas of conserved tropical rainforest. Located between the Xingu and Iriri Rivers, it includes a chain of 20 indigenous territories and 10 conservation units, intended as a buffer against illegal Amazon deforestation and land theft.

Today, this conserved rainforest is under intense pressure from illegal loggers.

And, based on 2017 data, one of the hottest spots for this illicit harvest in all of Amazonia is the Riozinho do Anfrísio Extractivist Reserve, according to Juan Doblas of the NGO, Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA). Unfortunately for the people of Areia, the main route out for timber felled in the reserve runs right through their community.

The problem – and the threats of violence – are not new. A well-known community leader João Chupel Primo went to MPF in 2011 to denounce the illegal loggers, telling how they transported out about 3,500 cubic meters (123,601 cubic feet) of timber – roughly 140 truckloads in a single day. The criminals had strong incentive: that amount of raw tropical wood is worth about US$800,000, or US$4.5 million if cut into decking for export to the U.S. or Europe – the most common destination.

Hours after lodging his complaint to the MPF in the city of Altamira, Chupel was assassinated with a shot to the head in his Itaituba office. According to the Areia settlers, at least 20 local people were killed between 2010 and 2018 in conflicts over land and logging.

Night traffic is heavy with trucks loaded with illegally harvested timber along the access road to the Areia settlement. Note that the trucks lack license plates or any other form of identification. Image by Mayangdi Inzaulgarat.

Organized crime has dominated the region and settlers’ lives for decades, they say. Until the early 2000s, the only access road into the Areia settlement was blocked by a gate controlled by illegal loggers. Passage was only achieved by paying a toll or gaining permission from the lawbreakers, which settlers say left them “indebted to the loggers” for a “favor” rendered.

The criminals remain free of prosecution by laundering the cut timber, or as locals say, “heating” the wood. That is, they falsify records to give illicitly extracted timber the veneer of legality, a common practice in the Amazon where official corruption is rampant.

According to one of the settlers’ complaints lodged with the MPF, in 2007 the loggers coerced them into drawing up a community plan for logging which was then used by the loggers to obtain licenses to legally cut 11,546 cubic meters (123,601 cubic feet) of timber within the Areia settlement. The loggers then shifted trees illegally felled inside the reserve to the community, and falsified the paperwork.

Anyone who protested was put on a death list; some were killed. Fear dominated: settlers were either driven out or forced to work for organized crime, and, at times, held as virtual slaves.

Osvalinda raises chicks in her backyard. Photo by Lilo Clareto / Repórter Brasil.

Refugees from violence

Osvalinda and Daniel are among the few settlers who have managed so far to escape the loggers’ control. They arrived in Areia in 2001, fleeing violence brought by the expansion of the agribusiness frontier into Mato Grosso state. Formerly residents of the Itanhangá settlement, they had refused to sell their plot of land to incoming farmers who wanted to take it over to grow soy. The rejected farmers responded by setting fire to the couple’s crop.

“We left our two daughters in a neighbor’s house and came by motorbike to Pará, looking for a new plot of land on which we could plant and rebuild our lives,” remembers Osvalinda.

Itanhangá came to national attention in 2014 when the Federal Police launched the Promised Land Operation and arrested more than 30 people, including politicians, civil servants and farmers who had been evicting families from the settlement. Among those arrested were two brothers of the then-federal Minister of Agriculture Neri Geller.

But by that time Osvalinda and Daniel were well established in Areia. There they set up Nova Esperança, an organic agricultural center located on a 100-hectare (247 acre) plot of land. It produces an abundance of fruits, such as açaí, cupuaçu, bacuri, araçá, taperebá, cashew, acerola, passion fruit, pineapple and guava.

A view of the Amazon worth fighting for, as seen from Osvalinda’s house in the agrarian reform settlement of Areia, located between the rural districts of Triarão and Itaituba in western Pará state, Brazil. Image by Thais Borges.
The couple stands in the doorway of their home. Photo by Lilo Clareto / Repórter Brasil.

The couple achieves all this without chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Instead, they use environmentally friendly techniques, such as intercropping, and not cutting native forest trees but leaving them to create shade for crops that need it. In the 15 years they’ve been working their plot, Osvalinda and Daniel have only cleared one hectare of forest.

To help other families break away from their dependence on the illegal loggers, Osvalinda founded the Association of the Women of Areia (AMA). Through its activities, the AMA showed other settlers that there was an economic alternative to working with the lawbreakers, or to accepting very low paying jobs from the big landowners, with the laborers held as virtual slaves.

Osvalinda and Daniel have avoided confronting the loggers directly, but they understand that the example of the independent life they lead represents a threat to organized crime’s control of the region. And the loggers know this too.

After years of intimidation, a third of Areia’s land plots are now in the hands of land thieves. Many families live in this hamlet located inside the settlement, but lack anywhere to plant. So they must rely on other sources for food and income, often working for the illegal loggers or for wealthy landowners under slavery-like conditions. Image by Mayangdi Inzaulgarat.

A long history of intimidation

Little by little the pressure on the couple has grown.

In 2012, when Osvalinda was in the city of Santarém for medical treatment, she was warned that unnamed men were doing the rounds in the towns of Trairão, Itaituba, Uraurá and Novo Progresso, asking loggers, land thieves, ranchers and businessmen to each contribute 3,000 reais (US$780) to a fund that would pay a gunman to kill the president of the Association of the Women of Areia, namely Osvalinda.

But even as the loggers planned murder, they offered graft. “When I was in hospital, Daniel phoned, telling me that the loggers had visited him, suggesting that he set up a tollhouse and make every truck passing through the settlement pay 100 reais (US$25),” Osvalinda recalls. It was the loggers’ first attempt to co-opt the couple. The two turned them down.

A second attempt to pull the couple into the regional crime ring came just days later. Twelve men, some involved in the illegal logging operation and others armed henchmen, arrived at the couple’s house and offered them money to close down the AMA and start working for them. When Osvalinda rejected the proposition, they threatened her. “If one of my employees comes here and kills you, it won’t be my fault but yours,” one said.

“You will have to die like Dorothy, because environmentalists like her who damage us have to die,” said another, referring to Dorothy Stang, an American nun murdered in the Amazon by a hired assassin in 2005.

Until then, Osvalinda hadn’t made an official complaint. And even now she tries to avoid direct confrontation. “I went to the authorities because they were threatening us, not because of the timber they were extracting,” she says. But her concerns met with little sympathy. The police clerk in the town of Trairão refused to register her complaint, saying it would only lead to the couple’s jailing because they were poor people resisting rich people.

Since then, Osvalinda and Daniel have endured a steady drumbeat of threats. In 2013, technicians from INCRA, the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform, carried out a survey in the Areia settlement and found that almost a third of the community’s plots had been seized by land thieves. Rumors arose that INCRA would reclaim this land and hand it back to landless families, the intended beneficiaries.

At that point the threats increased in volume, with the land thieves sending a clear message: ”If INCRA starts interfering, a lot of people will die.”

INCRA superintendent Mário Sérgio Costa, accused of using his office to help his brother, federal congressional deputy Wladimir Costa. Mongabay just learned that Mário Sérgio Costa resigned his INCRA position as of today. Photo courtesy of INCRA.

Officials fail to act

Five years later, little has changed. Mário Sérgio Costa, head of INCRA’s Superintendency for Western Pará, told Mongabay through his press office that INCRA had been to court and won the right to regain control of all the plots they had identified as having been stolen by land thieves: “In 2017 and 2018 INCRA won all the court cases it fought with respect to these plots.”

However, INCRA has done nothing on the ground to reclaim the plots. Pedro Martins, who monitors the situation as legal adviser to the NGO Terra de Direitos, told Mongabay: “INCRA is crossing its arms when it should be getting the police to implement the court orders. It seems that the INCRA management doesn’t see it as a priority to redistribute the plots in Areia. So we still have a situation in which land [holding] is becoming more concentrated [in the hands of a few] within an agrarian reform settlement.”

INCRA’s Costa refutes these charges. “It’s not true to say we are not doing anything,” his press office responded. INCRA is doing as much as it can “given the present operational constraints and the limited financial resources available.” Nationally, INCRA has suffered major budget cuts, being reduced from $504 million reais in 2017, to $380 million in 2018, and $306.5 million for 2019.

Others see the situation differently. The Federal Public Ministry (MPF) began a legal action in which it accused Mário Sérgio Costa and his brother, federal congressional deputy Wladimir Costa, of “transforming the INCRA Superintendency into an electoral platform for their family.”

Since 19 June, Costa has been banned from promoting his brother’s congressional candidacy in Brazil’s October elections at events organized by INCRA. “This ruling, coming from the 2nd Federal Civil and Criminal Court in Santarém, was made because 15 federal prosecutors had shown that they [the Costa brothers] had undertaken actions of administrative improbity,” said Oliveira, one of the prosecutors behind the prohibition. “We are watching INCRA,” he stressed.

Shortly before prosecutor Oliveira visited Osvalinda to learn about threats against her in June, Mário Sérgio Costa was spotted in the municipal district of Trairão, handing out land titles. With him was his brother, Wlaldimir, who had the name “Temer” tattooed on his shoulder to show his loyalty to the president when the Chamber of Deputies voted last year to acquit Temer on corruption charges. Standing with the Costa brothers was the mayor of Trairão, Valdinei José Ferreira, known as Django.

While not proof of wrongdoing, this street scene points to the close relationship between political power and environmental crime in the Amazon. According to IBAMA’s publically accessible database, Django has received fines topping 11 million reais (US$2.8 million), nearly all related to illegal logging operations. Included in the list of transgressions for which he has been found guilty is illegal logging in the Areia settlement. None of these fines have been paid. Mongabay contacted both Mario Sérgio Costa and Django directly for comment, but both failed to respond.

Effective today, Mongabay has learned that INCRA superintendent Mário Sérgio Costa , accused of using his office to help his brother, he resigned his INCRA superintendent post.

MPF Prosecutor Paulo de Tarso talks with Osvalinda and Daniel during his June investigative visit. Image by Thais Borges.

IBAMA’s role

Mongabay asked IBAMA how it is that one of the most prominent illegal logging operations in Amazonia, denounced to the authorities for decades, can still be openly operating today. IBAMA replied through its press office, saying that the monitoring of illegal logging occurring inside the Riozinho do Anfrísio Extractivist Reserve doesn’t fall under its jurisdiction, but rather to ICMBio (the Chico Mendes Institute of Biodiversity Conservation).

However, the press office added, over the last year IBAMA had closed down over a hundred illegal logging operations near Areia and the extractivist reserve. Experts agree that this large number of illegal logging raids is a remarkable achievement, given IBAMA’s precarious financial and operational situation; under Temer, the agency has seen its budget slashed by 43 percent from 977 to 446 million reais (US$ 302.9 million to US$138.3 million).

Analysts point out that the logs coming out of the extractivist reserve are passing through territory over which IBAMA does have jurisdiction. The agency press office explained yet another difficulty: the loggers so far have been shielded from law enforcement, and their work hidden behind a façade of legality. “IBAMA has identified fraud with the state [of Pará] system for controlling forest production that permits the ‘heating’ of illegally extracted timber [that is, the provision of false certificates].” Pará state has been especially slow in its reform of its timber monitoring and licensing system, long recognized as vulnerable to fraud.

IBAMA says that it, in association with the government of Pará, is seeking to eliminate fraud by instituting a National System for the Control of the Origin of Forest Products (SINAFLOR). This new system, which became operational in July 2018, will “make forest management plans and the felling of native forest completely transparent,” IBAMA claims. It should, officials say, become impossible to set up a fraudulent forest management plan like the one used in Areia, with authorities now able to track exactly where timber originated.

But critics, including the NGO Greenpeace, point out that while the SINAFLOR national tracking system could be a major step forward in limiting timber harvesting fraud, it will likely achieve only limited success because the government lacks the capacity to conduct onsite inspections in the Amazon’s far flung Forest Management Areas due to a lack of inspectors.

Osvalinda and Daniel Pereira on their farm in the Areia Homestead community, where they have been repeatedly terrorized and threatened with violence by illegal loggers. Photo by Lilo Clareto / Repórter Brasil

Living into an uncertain future

The MPF believes that environmental crime will only decline when there is a real possibility that offenders will be punished. Through its press office, MPF said that “the continuation of environmental crimes in Amazonia is due in large part to the impunity of those responsible for most of the environmental crimes.”

So until federal and state authorities take effective action against organized crime in the Amazon, people like Daniel and Osvalinda are likely to be subjected to a succession of threats of violence and death. In 2014, the couple were registered on the National Protection Programme for Defenders of Human Rights. Now, once a week a policeman from Trairão comes to check on them. But the armed gunmen are far more diligent: “They drive past our door several times a day on motorbikes, revving up their engines, and often follow us on the road when we drive to town,” says Daniel.

Only two neighbors still dare visit the couple, and they too are now receiving threats. “In Areia hardly anyone will talk to us,” Daniel adds. “They are so frightened of the loggers.”

Faced with isolation, the couple is trying to build up a network of supporters from outside the region to publicize the reason for their resistance. “What use will it be to the struggle if they kill us and nobody knows why?” asks Osvalinda.

Life has taught the couple to feel in their flesh the dilemma of peasant families struggling on the Amazon frontier. With land thieves, illegal loggers, corrupt officials, cattle ranchers and agribusiness interests closing in, shouldering the poor aside, and hacking down the rainforest, there is less and less space left for peasant farmers. Pushed off their land in one region, they face the same menace elsewhere.

Considering the grave threat under which Osvalinda and Daniel live daily, many people ask: “Haven’t you ever thought of leaving?”

Osvalinda answers one question with another: “Where would we go?”

Osvalinda and Daniel: “We want to be buried at the foot of this Brazil nut tree when our lives reach their natural ends.” Image by Thais Borges.