- From 2016 to 2017, Mongabay contributors Sue Branford and Maurício Torres traveled to the Tapajós River Basin, in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, to report on the controversial plan to turn the region into a major commodities export corridor.
- Branford and Torres wrote a 15-part investigative series (published in partnership with The Intercept Brazil) based on what they’d found during their travels for Mongabay in the Tapajós Basin, one of the most biodiverse and culturally rich places on Earth. Now, the reporters have turned those pieces into a book, Amazon Besieged, which was published by Practical Action Publishing this month.
- Mongabay spoke with Sue Branford about what new perspectives she gained on the issues covered in the book while compiling her and Torres’ on-the-ground reporting for publication, what she hopes the average reader takes away from Amazon Besieged, and what she thinks the prospects are for the Amazon under the incoming Bolsonaro Administration.
From 2016 to 2017, Mongabay contributors Sue Branford and Maurício Torres traveled to the Tapajós River Basin, in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, to report on the controversial plan to turn the region into a major commodities export corridor. Along the way, they visited many of the indigenous villages and other local communities whose very survival is threatened by the more than 40 large hydroelectric dams that are to be built in the region in addition to a railway and numerous roads, canals, and port complexes, all so that soy and other agricultural products can be exported to global markets and fuel Brazil’s economic growth.
Branford and Torres wrote a 15-part investigative series (published in partnership with The Intercept Brazil) based on what they’d found during their travels for Mongabay in the Tapajós Basin, one of the most biodiverse and culturally rich places on Earth. Now, the reporters have turned those pieces into a book, Amazon Besieged, which was published by Practical Action Publishing this month.
“Amazon Besieged tells the story of two writers’ long investigative trip along the basin in 2016 and 2017,” according to Practical Action Publishing. “As if travelling through history, the authors were able to trace the way an outside economic force arrives and dispossesses earlier inhabitants.”
The book has already been heaped with praise. Journalist George Monbiot said: “This is a fascinating, important and astonishing account of the battle to save the living world and the future prospects of humanity.”
And Fiona Watson, head of research for Survival International, said of Amazon Besieged: “Based on years of first-hand research and vivid testimonies gathered from grassroots communities in Brazil, Sue Branford and Mauricio Torres give a fresh and lucid overview of the complex issues behind mega-development projects and illegal resource extraction that are rapidly destroying the Amazon rainforest and its inhabitants.” She added: “This is essential reading for those concerned not just for the future of the Amazon and its rich human and ecological diversity, but ultimately for our planet.”
Mongabay spoke with Sue Branford about what new perspectives she gained on the issues covered in the book while compiling her and Torres’ on-the-ground reporting for publication, what she hopes the average reader takes away from Amazon Besieged, and what she thinks the prospects are for the Amazon under the incoming Bolsonaro Administration.
Mongabay: This book came out of your reporting for Mongabay. How and why did the idea of the book come about?
Sue Branford: With funding from Mongabay, we made a long and, at times, arduous trip along the valley of the Tapajós River and the BR-163 highway that runs parallel to it, in the east of the Amazon Basin. We chose to visit this area as we think that what happens to this region will be crucial for the future of the whole Amazon rainforest. It is rapidly being opened up to logging, cattle ranching, arable farming, and the construction of hydroelectric power stations. Many climatologists fear that, if the Tapajós River basin suffers the same devastation that has occurred along other Amazon tributaries to the east of it, notably the Araguaia and the Xingu river valleys, the loss of vegetation could be so great that the Amazon forest could be pushed over the ‘tipping point’ into irreversible decline, becoming, in effect, shrubland.
Few journalists have visited the area because the logistics are difficult, so a lot of what we were reporting was new. People began to ask us if we could bring the articles together in a short book, available in both print form and as an e-book.
It sounds a simple process but, of course, when we assembled the articles, we found that we needed to eliminate repetition, update the information and pull out more clearly the themes running through the articles by writing an introduction and conclusion. We were also very pleased that Susanna B. Hecht, professor of Urban Planning at UCLA, who has published some wonderful books on the Amazon basin, wrote a preface. We were also delighted to get many endorsements, including one from the leading British environmental activist, George Monbiot, who has also reported on the Amazon.
So that basically is the story of the book.
Mongabay: You did most of that reporting on the ground in the Tapajós Basin in Brazil with your co-author, Mauricio Torres, right?
SB: Yes, most of the reporting was on the ground in the Tapajós Basin. We had initially thought of traveling down from the headwaters of one of the two rivers that flow together to form the Tapajós, but that proved impractical. It would have been very expensive, as there are no commercial boats operating on the river. And the rivers have rapids that we would have had to have circumvented. So we rented a 4×4 vehicle and traveled mainly along the BR-163 highway, making forays off the road to meet riverine populations. At times, we had to hire a boat with a pilot to take us from where the road ended down the river to visit communities. Even so, the journey was, at times, physically demanding. For instance, we had on several occasions to get out of our motorized canoe and walk down the river — there was no path on the bank — to get past the rapids on the Teles Pires river, when we were visiting the Munduruku Indians. Our indigenous pilot found it the most normal thing in the world and was a bit shocked when I asked one of the Indians to hold my hand so I didn’t get swept away in the currents.
As well as talking to indigenous people and traditional communities, we interviewed soy farmers, loggers, land grabbers, ranchers, scientists, biologists, and eco-tourism entrepreneurs. We wanted to get a wide range of views. And we did. The people we talked to ranged from outright gangsters who were sending in private militias to evict peasant communities to ranchers and farmers who really cared about the future of the region and wanted to protect the forest.
Mongabay: Did compiling all of your reportage for the book give you any new insights or perspectives on the issues you had covered?
SB: Even though I have been regularly traveling to the Amazon since the 1970s, I learned a lot. My co-author, Mauricio Torres, who has lived in the Amazon for over a decade, probably learned less. For me, it was quite an eye-opener to discover the way in which successive governments failed to properly consult local traditional communities when they were planning big development projects. Take the big Teles Pires and São Manoel hydroelectric dams on the Teles Pires river: Such projects were always going to be harmful, because they disrupt the flow of the river and, with that, the migration of fish to spawn, the annual flooding of the forest upon which so much aquatic life depends, and so on — all processes which affect the river ecosystem and the life of the communities.
If the authorities had properly consulted the local indigenous communities, they could have prevented some of the most disastrous impacts. They could have adapted the dams better to allow fish migration. They could have made sure they didn’t dynamite the most sacred indigenous site or, at least, allowed the Indians to remove their revered urns, following all the due rituals. But they didn’t — the site was completely and unexpectedly exploded. This is where the indigenous communities believe their ancestors live after death and where they themselves will go after death. Losing this site has had a catastrophic impact on these communities. It was quite shocking to realize that this violation of basic human rights had been committed by a progressive, democratically elected government, one that made enormous strides in reducing Brazil’s huge social inequalities.
Essentially, I think, it stems from the fact that the Workers’ Party (PT), which ruled Brazil from 2003 to 2016, emerged from an urban trade union movement in the 1980s. Although deeply committed to improving the life of workers, it holds an old-fashioned view of development, where progress is seen as conquering nature, building roads and dams, increasing economic output. Time and again it ignored the huge cost of this kind of “progress” on the environment and on indigenous and traditional communities. Many of us know now that it is this kind of simplistic attitude that has helped create the calamitous environmental crisis we now face. Attitudes are changing but the process has been slow.
Another thing I learned, something that was new to me, is the way traditionally hostile groups are beginning to work together. For instance, there has long been conflict between non-indigenous riverine communities — that is, communities of fishermen, Brazil nut-collectors, and subsistence farmers — and indigenous communities, largely because they have seen each other as competitors in the struggle to control the land. But now, in some cases, they are working together, helping each other mark out the boundaries to their land. Both groups are realizing that they are stronger if they work together in the face of the encroaching economic frontier. It’s quite inspiring to see how this new spirit of collaboration has evolved.
Mongabay: For those who are just encountering your reporting from Brazil, what would you tell them the book is ‘about’? And why are the issues you write about important, even to an average reader?
SB: The book is “about” the way the world’s last great tropical forest is being opened up to economic interests — logging, ranching, agriculture, mining. It’s important because recent scientific research is revealing that the Amazon forest plays a key role in stabilizing the global climate. Until recently the Amazon forest was an important carbon sink, it absorbed large amounts of carbon. But recently, as a result of deforestation and forest fires, it has started to emit more carbon than it absorbs. If this tendency grows, huge quantities of carbon will be released into the atmosphere and it will become impossible for the world to achieve the radical reduction in carbon emissions that is required within the next 12 years if we are to prevent uncontrollable global warming. So what is happening in the Tapajós Basin is hugely important to all of us.
The situation can be turned around. The trip made me aware that it is possible to radically reduce deforestation in the Amazon, without a huge economic cost. Brazil already has a large amount of cleared land. Farmers should use this land, not clear more forest. Many scientists and some farmers want this to happen. But at the moment it’s cheaper and more profitable (especially for land thieves) to clear new areas. Government policies could change that, but prospects are not good, especially as Brazil has just elected a new president, Jair Bolsonaro, with close links to the most backward sectors of agribusiness.
Mongabay: Your reporting and the book are mostly focused on what’s going on in the Tapajós Basin, but are these same issues playing out across the Brazilian Amazon? How much worse do you think it could get under the Bolsonaro administration?
SB: Deforestation and violence are already getting worse, even before Bolsonaro takes office. Land-thieves know that, with a sympathetic president, they will be able to act with impunity and they are already confidently invading protected areas, agrarian reform settlements, and indigenous territory. The leading Brazilian NGO, Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), which is usually quite restrained in its language, issued a press release earlier this month in which it said that the “news could not be worse.” It was referring to the 13.7 percent increase in deforestation in the Amazon between August 2017 and July 2018, the highest rate recorded in the last ten years. The worst affected area is the so-called ‘Arc of Deforestation’ which crosses the Amazon from the Xingu Basin to the Tapajós Basin. It is this region, it says, which is most susceptible to “savannization,” the process by which the tropical forest tips over into scrubland.
The fear is that under Bolsonaro, with his strong links to backward rural elites, the current waves of deforestation will become even more intense, and that, worse still, social and environmental movements that attempt to stop the destruction will be criminalized. This sounds alarmist, but Bolsonaro is already moving to broaden anti-terrorist legislation, which means many forms of activism could become illegal. Of course, many of those who voted for Bolsonaro are opposed to his more extreme policies. Some sections of agribusiness were horrified by his decision to withdraw Brazil’s bid to hold the next UN meeting on climate change — COP 25 — in Rio de Janeiro. But the signs are not good, particularly as Bolsonaro will rely on the support in Congress of the very regressive rural lobby.
If Bolsonaro adopts the policies he has said he will — and the ministers he has appointed so far suggest he will — the role of international media, like Mongabay, will become important in informing the world about what is going on in Brazil. And international opinion, particularly consumer pressure, in alliance with campaigning groups in Brazil, could become a key force for making Bolsonaro rethink some of his more extreme policies.
Mongabay: What do you hope is readers’ main takeaway from the book? What do you hope it can achieve once it’s out in the world?
SB: The book will, I hope, help people understand the extraordinary speed at which the Amazon forest is being destroyed and the pressing need to work with progressive Brazilians to stop what is going on. When I made my first trip to the Amazon in 1974, the economic frontier had reached the north of Mato Grosso. At that time, under the military dictatorship, there were violent struggles over who should occupy the land between indigenous populations and peasant families on the one side and incoming loggers, ranchers, and farmers on the other. In general terms, the powerful incomers won. For me it was an extraordinary experience revisiting this region, now so transformed, and realizing that the economic frontier had moved 200 miles north to the south of Pará state. What was forest during my first visit had become huge soy plantations, without a tree in sight. I sat for eight hours in a bus scarcely seeing a single tree. All this destruction within my lifetime.
It’s a Wild West process that the USA and Europe have experienced too, centuries ago. We can’t adopt a stance of moral superiority. But today we know what it means, that the whole world will pay a heavy price if the destruction of the Amazon goes ahead. And there is resistance from all sectors of society. That is the positive message that emerges from the book.
Follow Mike Gaworecki on Twitter: @mikeg2001
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