- Palm oil is a ubiquitous ingredient in products ranging from chocolate to cookies to lipstick, but its production in a corner of the Brazilian Amazon may be linked to a land grab from traditional communities, including cemeteries, a year-long investigation by Mongabay’s Karla Mendes has revealed.
- 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, the country’s second-largest palm oil exporter.
- In November 2021, Mendes went to Pará’s Alto Acará region to investigate these land-grabbing claims, and shares her reporting journey in this behind-the-scenes video, including witnessing a historical Day of the Dead celebration at a cemetery that the Quilombolas say they were locked out of by Agropalma.
- Mendes also witnessed another cemetery hemmed in by Agropalma’s oil palms, where Quilombolas accuse the company of planting the trees over the graves of their loved ones, and investigated other palm oil-linked issues reported by local communities, including water pollution and the threat of displacement from the paving of a trucking road.
ALTO ACARÁ, Brazil — In November 2021, I went to Pará state, in the Brazilian Amazon, to investigate claims of land grabbing in traditional territories, leveled against one of Brazil’s leading palm oil exporters. The date wasn’t by chance, as I was there to witness a historical moment on the Day of the Dead, when Quilombolas — descendants of Afro-Brazilian runaway slaves — lighted candles for their ancestors at the Our Lady of Battle Cemetery for the first time in decades.
But why hadn’t they been able to go there in so long? Because this cemetery is located in an area officially occupied by Agropalma, the country’s second-largest palm oil exporter. It’s part of the company’s “legal reserve,” the proportion of land that a private property owner must maintain in its natural state, as revealed in a year-long investigation.
“Four of my sons are buried here … After [the company] took it over, they haven’t allowed us to come here anymore,” smallholder Benonias Batista tells me through tears while lighting candles for his children at the Our Lady of Battle Cemetery.
Quilombolas also accuse the company of planting oil palms over the graves at the Livramento Cemetery, and say just a quarter of it remains today. “They have planted palm trees on top of [my grandmother’s] grave,” Raimundo Serrão tells me in tears at the cemetery on the banks of the Acará River, where it’s hemmed in by Agropama’s oil palm plantation.
In this behind-the-scenes video, I take you on my reporting journey as I investigate these land-grab claims and other palm oil-linked issues reported by local communities, including water contamination by Agropalma’s palm oil effluents, and displacement threats arising from the paving of a trucking road for the palm oil industry.
The land in which the cemeteries featured in the video lie is at the center of a six-year legal battle. Pará state prosecutors and public defenders accuse Agropalma of fraud, including the creation of a fake land registration bureau, to occupy a total area of about 58,000 hectares (143,000 acres). Agropalma’s land property titles to these areas have since been canceled in court. Yet despite admitting the deeds were faked, the company says it wasn’t involved in the scheme and is seeking to repurchase the land from the state.
In the meantime, the recognition of the Quilombolas’ land rights remains unresolved, as revealed by this investigation.
State prosecutor Ione Nakamura, who has led the case since 2021, told me in a phone message that Mongabay’s investigation was “very thorough and complete,” and that she had included it in the procedures into the conflicts between Quilombola communities seeking recognition of their territory and areas occupied by Agropalma “to support future lawsuits.”
Nakamura said 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, an 18-month investigation I published 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: Members of the Quilombolas community make their way across the river to get to the Our Lady of Battle Cemetery on the Day of the Dead. Image courtesy of Elielson Pereira da Silva.
Karla Mendes is a staff contributing editor for Mongabay in Brazil. Find her on Twitter: @karlamendes
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