- Areas along the Acará River in northern Pará state are at the center of a six-year legal battle where Quilombolas — descendants of Afro-Brazilian runaway slaves — accuse Agropalma, the country's second-largest palm oil exporter, of land-grabbing over their ancestral lands, including cemeteries, as revealed by Mongabay's yearlong investigation.
- One of these areas is Our Lady of Battle Cemetery, where Mongabay witnessed in November 2021 Quilombolas celebrating the Day of the Dead for the first time in decades. They say access to the area was hampered since it became Agropalma’s “legal reserve” — the proportion of land that the Brazilian legislation obliges a private property owner to maintain in its natural state — in the 1980s.
- In this video, Mongabay exhibits what is called a “historic moment” and firsthand footage and interviews with Quilombolas going to this cemetery for the first time. This video also has impressive images of palm trees just a few steps from the graves at Livramento Cemetery, completely surrounded by Agropalma’s crops. Quilombolas accuse Agropalma of destroying three-quarters of its area to make way for its plantations; the company denies.
- “To support future lawsuits,” prosecutors in Pará state have cited the Mongabay investigation in their procedures looking into the conflicts between Quilombola communities seeking recognition of their territory and areas occupied by Agropalma.
ALTO ACARÁ, Brazil — “The right of those who used to live here to access the cemetery is in the [Brazilian] Constitution. … The cemetery is a sacred place,” sociologist and historian Maria da Paz Saavedra told Mongabay during a visit to Our Lady of Battle Cemetery in the Amazon.
The area, located in northern Pará state, is at the center of a six-year legal battle where Quilombolas — descendants of Afro-Brazilian runaway slaves — accuse Agropalma, the country’s second-largest palm oil exporter, of land-grabbing over their ancestral lands, as revealed in Mongabay’s yearlong investigation. The company denies the accusations.
Saavedra is part of the group that guided Mongabay in November 2021, when Quilombolas celebrated the Day of the Dead at Our Lady of Battle Cemetery for the first time in decades, claiming that access to the area had been hampered since it became Agropalma’s “legal reserve” — the proportion of land that the Brazilian legislation obliges a private property owner to maintain in its natural state — in the 1980s.
“They’re forbidden to come here. … All the riverside communities have to be expropriated, as a legal reserve, by its definition, can’t have people [living] in it,” says Saavedra, a researcher at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA) and PhD candidate, adding that they had to leave their homes “whether by the acquisition of their lands by farmers or by being expelled by gunmen.”
In this video, Mongabay witnessed what is called a “historic moment” and got first-hand footage and interviews with Quilombolas going to this cemetery for the first time in decades. “They consider the homage of the dead a very important symbolic act … they believe it’s fair not to forget their ancestors.”
“Four of my sons are buried here. … After [the company] took it over, they haven’t allowed us to come here anymore,” Quilombola smallholder Benonias Batista tells Mongabay in the video while lighting candles for his children at Our Lady of Battle Cemetery.
Mongabay also visited the Livramento Cemetery, located on the banks of the Acará River, completely surrounded by Agropalma’s crops. This video showcases impressive images of palm trees just a few steps from the graves. Quilombolas accuse Agropalma of destroying three-quarters of its area to make way for its plantations; the company denies.
“My grandmother died in 1978, when she was 110 years old. From my point of view, she is underneath this palm oil [plantation] there. They have planted palm trees on top of her grave,” smallholder Raimundo Serrão tells Mongabay with much emotion in the video. “We know that our relatives will not come back, but this is something to remember them by. So, to me, this is a great sorrow.”
State prosecutor Ione Nakamura, who has led the case since 2021, says in order “to support future lawsuits,” she included the Mongabay investigation in the legal procedings surrounding the conflicts between Quilombola communities seeking recognition of their territory and areas occupied by Agropalma.
Joint research from Saavedra, anthropologist Rosa Acevedo Marin and researcher Elielson Pereira da Silva, who has a PhD in sciences with an emphasis in socio-environmental development, points to evidence of the existence of slaves and Quilombola communities in the Alto Acará region, and the displacement of residents from the banks of the Acará River in the last four decades under pressure from land-grabbers who cheated the communities into selling the land before reselling it to Agropalma.
“You’ve had the opportunity to come here, see the area and verify that there is ancestrality, there are traditional cemeteries, there are people who have got a voice, a face, a history and a memory,” Pereira tells Mongabay. He has conducted research in the area since 2019 and was Pará’s regional superintendent of the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) from 2008 to 2013. “Therefore, it is something quite surreal that the state deliberately denies this acknowledgement.”
Water contamination claims
The investigation also denounces water contamination by Agropalma’s palm oil effluents; the company denies. Nakamura says she also sent the investigation to other prosecutors investigating the environmental impacts caused by pesticide use in oil palm plantations in order “to be added to those procedures that investigate environmental impacts to these territories.”
Last year, Mongabay’s 18-month investigation into palm oil contamination in Pará helped federal prosecutors obtain a court decision to scrutinize the environmental impacts of pesticide use in oil palm plantations on Indigenous communities and the environment in the state. This investigation won second prize in the Society of Environmental Journalists Awards for Outstanding Investigative Reporting and third prize in the Fetisov Awards for Excellence in Environmental Reporting.
Banner image: Researcher Elielson Pereira da Silva and Quilombola people waiting for a canoe to cross the Acará River to go to Our Lady of Battle Cemetery at the Day of the Dead. Image by Mongabay.
Karla Mendes is a staff contributing editor for Mongabay in Brazil. Find her on Twitter: @karlamendes
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Major Brazil palm oil exporter accused of fraud, land-grabbing over Quilombola cemeteries