The family of Raimundo Benedito, 35, has been harvesting brazil nuts on the banks of the Cedro river, close to the boundary between Amazonas and Acre states, for at least three generations.
Their routine began to change four years ago, when strangers began hacking open paths in the forest. From that moment on, the native brazil nut groves began to be cut down to make place for pasture.
“The first time we came upon the guys, one of them said: ‘If you want anything you’ll have to go to the end of the trail and make a plot for yourselves there, because all the ones over here have been taken’”, says Benedito, talking in the veranda of his house built of wood planks only a few meters from the river Purus, in the Arapixi Extractivist Reserve (or Arapixi Resex, for short).
The invasion of livestock in areas inhabited by traditional populations is widespread in the Amazonian area. After the assassination of the rubber tappers’ leader Chico Mendes in 1988, the federal government responded with the creation of these reserves, in an attempt to contain the advance of the cattle ranchers. Managed by ICMBio (Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation), the reserves are protected areas that are meant to ensure the way of life of the non-Indigenous populations and encourage the sustainable use of natural resources.
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The problem that Benedito and dozens of other families face is that the demarcation of the reserves, made official in 2006 during the government led by Lula (PT – Workers’ Party), didn’t include the brazil nut groves. Situated close to the igarapés (smaller tributary rivers) that flow into the Purus, they are part of the Antimary Agroextractivist Project (PAE), an area whose boundaries were defined in 1988. The PAE is under the responsibility of Incra (National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform). It is supposed to be for traditional use, similar to an extractivist reserve, and large scale cattle breeding is forbidden there, too.
Besides bananas, brazil nuts are the main source of income for the inhabitants of Resex Arapixi. The brazil nut harvest takes place at the start of the year and usually involves entire families. Benedito himself began harvesting brazil nuts at the age of 12. For an entire month the family moves to a simple hut put up inside the colocação – the name given to the area within a nut grove that is worked by each family.
The trip is made by canoe along small and sinuous streams, frequently blocked by tree trunks that have fallen naturally and require a chainsaw to be chopped up. Every time the canoe touches the leaves at the river banks, spiders of various species and sizes fall onto the passengers.
The family’s exhausting daily routine starts before dawn and finishes in the mid-afternoon. The castanheiros –those who harvest the brazil nuts—gather the capsules fallen on the ground around the majestic trees, up to 50 m tall, break them open with their machetes, remove the nuts and take them away in handwoven baskets known as paneiros.
The families sleep in hammocks in their huts. Their sleep is often interrupted by mosquitoes, such as the tiny maruim, which goes for the scalp, causing bad itching.
After a month’s work nut gathering, the families load their canoes for the return journey. The harvest is usually taken to Boca do Acre, in Amazonas, also on the banks of the Purus.
An imaginary line
In the beginning, the inhabitants didn’t know where the boundaries of the Resex lay. Benedito says he only found out in 2010, when his family came upon an ICMBio team in the area of the nut groves. “So the father said: ‘You mean to say all the Resex was given was a flooded area? This area is always underwater. The best part is the brazil nut grove, and it’s been left outside the reserve?’. He said: ‘Yes, that’s the truth, unfortunately.’”
“Because the nut groves were within the PAE, people believed they were protected and available for sustainable exploration,” says João Paulo Capobianco, president of ICMBio at the time the area was demarcated, in 2006.
“Nobody expected the PAE to become the object of a conflict with cattle ranchers who have been occupying the settlement, promoting illegal deforestation and hostilities with families connected to the harvesting of sustainable resources and family agriculture,” he said.
This process of invasion began about a decade ago, intensified from 2014 on, during the administration of Dilma Rousseff (PT), and gained new impetus last year, amid promises made by the government of president Jair Bolsonaro to legalize invaded stretches of public land.
2019 was the most devastating year in the history of PAE Antimary, according to INPE’s (National Institute for Space Research) monitoring system PRODES. Between August 2018 and July 2019, the PAE lost 5,108 hectares of forest .
An investigation by the Federal Police revealed that from April 27 to September 9th 2019 last year alone, 2.8 thousand hectares of forest were illegally cut down –an area equivalent to 18 times the Ibirapuera Park.
Oblivious to the satellite data, Benedito confirms the increasing damage. “To begin with they would cut down a little forest over here and plant some grass, cut down a little more over there and plant a little grass. Now they are connecting all those little areas and joining them all up. Really large areas are being deforested,” he says. “It spread even more last year in our colocação.”
Felling Brazil nut trees is a crime, since the species is listed in the Official National List of Endangered Plant Species, in the vulnerable category. Also, their use as timber has been forbidden by federal decree since 2006.
In the area of brazil nut groves visited by Folha in mid-March, deforestation has opened large clearings in the forest and reaches the banks of the Cedro igarapé. Some parts have been recently deforested, while others have already become pastureland. A wooden house had been put up recently on one of these cleared areas.
Besides the loss of the brazil nut groves, some of the harvesters are forced to surrender part of their harvest to the land grabbers. Others say that it is the invaders themselves who harvest the nuts, and there have been cases of colocações being sold –which is illegal, since this is government-owned land.
Benedito’s family has lost part of their brazil nut groves, but are putting up resistance: “We have received sizable offers to sell the land, but my father always refused. What he always said was: ‘If I sell it today, the money will be gone tomorrow, and what then? What will my children and grandchildren live off?’. This has come down to us from long ago, it was passed on to my grandfather, from my grandfather to my father, and now he is passing it on to us.”
Bolsonaro’s promise to legalize land seizures (grilagens) and reduce environmental protection took shape in December, when he signed the Provisional Measure (MP) 910. The original text extended until the end of 2018 the marco temporal, or cut-off date for legalizing invasions of public lands. Among other facilities, the government provided for the sale of these areas to grileiros (land grabbers) at prices well below market values.
“Over 30% of the land in the Amazon area has nothing on it and belongs to the Union. Land belonging to the Union is yours, it belongs to the people. We must return to the example of the much missed president Emílio Garrastazu Médici (1969-1974) and say: let us integrate the Brazilian Amazon region so as not to deliver it into the hands of these NGOs with vested interests,” said the Secretary of Land Related Issues of the Agriculture Ministry, Nabhan Garcia, in a speech in September in Porto Velho, Rondônia.
After being strongly criticized by environmentalists and becoming the target of a social media campaign, in May 2020 MP 910 was replaced in Congress with the bill 2.633, which maintains the current cut-off date for legalizing lands until 2011, but with loopholes.
“They want to add a provision allowing bids for properties that do not fit the regularization requirements, but without providing specific criteria to prevent distortions. This can lead to legalization of areas invaded after March 2011 or even after this bill is approved,” says researcher Brenda Brito, from Imazon (Amazon Institute of People and the Environment).
In the view of public prosecutor Rafael Rocha, of the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office (MPF) in Amazonas state, the successive changes in the marco temporal through history, once again proposed under Bolsonaro, encourage the land-grabbing industry in the Amazon region.
“What these changes do is to signal that what is against the law today, or even illegal according to the MP and the bill, may legalized tomorrow,” explains Rocha. “People don’t worry about committing an illegal act when they invade or occupy public land. They believe that, even if it’s not lawful today, in a few years’ time it will all be regularized.”
The brazil nut harvesters’ situation has called the attention of the Amazon Task Force, created by the MPF in 2018. This initiative, which Rocha is part of, tackles environmental and land ownership issues in a joint effort involving public agencies and civil society.
In May, the MPF took part in a joint operation against deforestation in the PAE Antimary that also included the Army, IBAMA, the Military Police, ICMBio and the Federal Police.
Over six days, 76 search and seizure warrants were carried out. Thirteen people were arrested while committing illegal acts and 14 firearms and 14 chainsaws were seized. IBAMA levelled fines amounting to R$2 million in total, according to a notice from the MPF.
In May 2019, INCRA authorized the brazil nut harvesters to make use of the nut groves within the PAE Antimary. The initiative was mediated by the MPF, which has defended a change in the boundaries of the Resex so as to include brazil nut groves.
Despite all this, Benedito is pessimistic about the future: “With all this deforestation, our river (the Purus) has begun drying out. I was born yesterday, but I see it happening. When the dry season arrived, we never had any problems going down river. Nowadays if our canoe is carrying a slightly larger load, if we leave in the morning, we only arrive at Boca do Acre by night-time. It’s the river itself, not only in the nut groves, it’s everywhere.”
The spearhead of the invasion lies around 80km as the crow flies from the PAE’s boundary line. It’s Vila do V, 43 km from Rio Branco. Situated within the Porto Acre municipality, it has simple houses and few paved roads. As is the case of other areas in Acre, it is dominated by a criminal faction formed of youths connected to the drug trade. Graffiti on walls advise you to lower your car windows to avoid being killed by mistake. This is where invader Sebastião Ferreira de Sales, 56, also lives.
After being contacted by Folha on WhatsApp, Sales agreed to be interviewed in the simple wooden house he lives in when he is in the “street” (the town), belonging to a friend. His wife, Ana Paula das Neves, was with him.
Born in Espírito Santo state, Sales was almost a teenager when he moved to Jaru, in Rondônia, with his family in 1978. The family bought 109 hectares of land. It was the beginning of the settlement drive promoted by the military dictatorship along the route of the BR-364 road, from Cuiabá to Porto Velho. Sales told us land was so cheap that the payment for theirs was a two-tube Caloi bicycle.
Sales’ schooling came to an end after the 4th grade. His life was in the fields. They planted cocoa trees and rice, but the farm became small for the family of eight siblings. In 2002 Sales moved to the state of Acre. “I came here to work with logging. I did this for about ten years, more or less. Once things went very bad with timber extraction, I began working the land.”
In 2013 he signed a private contract to acquire 1.239 hectares of land within the PAE Antimary, in an area called Seringal (rubber tree grove) Nazaré. Sales maintains he was unaware at the time that it was federal public land. The payment, registered as R$60 thousand, was provided by his boss in lieu of labour indemnity. Differently from other invaders, his area is far from the nut groves used by the Resex inhabitants.
He was fined for the first time in the following year, 2014, for deforesting 98 hectares, but the former logger shrugged it off: “All they did was fine me. No problem whatsoever. I appealed the fine and that was it. I put cattle to graze in the area.”
Sales deforested another 98 hectares in 2017-2018. This time he was detained by the Federal Police for invasion of public lands, illegal possession of a firearm and disobeying the embargo during an operation against deforestation.
“I spent a night at the Federal Police pen, two nights in the Penal (in Rio Branco), and then was freed. The police chief said: ‘You are forbidden from returning there and undertaking any activity. If I catch you there once more, we will arrest you again.’ I have nowhere else to live. We returned the following Monday. And I just stayed on.”
In his statement, Sales said that two months before his arrest he had taken part in a meeting with INCRA in which its representatives promised to legalize his area. He also said he did not obey the embargo because if he leaves his farm, it could be invaded by others. He mentioned he has to pay R$1,000 monthly in child support for two underage children.
Sales denies having felled any brazil nut trees, but admits some may have burned down during the deforestation process: “Some of them can’t resist the heat of the fire, but I have never cut them down with a chainsaw because I know it is a crime. Setting fire is a crime in itself. If you cut down brazil nut trees, the crime doubles. So why would I go to the forest and use a chainsaw to bring down a brazil nut tree?”
The Federal Police indicted him for three crimes: invasion and occupation of public lands, deforestation and illegal possession of a firearm. The sentences could add up to ten years in prison.
Last year Sales’ area was once again the target of a raid, this time with the participation of the Army, by means of a GLO (Guarantee of Law and Order). “They broke down the bedroom door and window and came inside. They tampered with our documents. Two piggy banks full of coins disappeared.
“My father-in-law’s shotgun was behind the wardrobe and they took it. They left all the gates open. They said the area was under embargo and if the cattle got out it was not a problem. Eleven cows and 21 calves got away,” he claims.
Sales and his wife continued in the area even after this third raid. In their latest attempt to maintain the farm, the couple went to court with a suit requesting recognition of their ownership and a request not to be disturbed by inspectors. In the lawsuit, their lawyer mentioned MP 910 signed by Bolsonaro in December. The Federal Justice court struck down Sales’ appeals in April and May, and the former logger appealed again in a higher court.
He couldn’t explain why his lawyer used the argument of MP 910, but says that, contrary to other invaders, he doesn’t believe Bolsonaro has the power to legalize deforestation.
“Some people said: ‘With Bolsonaro in power, people are now going to let loose with the deforestation, they’re going to fell trees, because he has allowed us to clear land and is going to regularize ownership.’ But that’s not how it works, is it? It’s not just because he said so that people are going to be able to cut down as much forest as they like. He [Bolsonaro] doesn’t own the world.”
Sales says the only source of income in the region is now cattle: “Cattle breeding doesn’t require government incentives, because there are buyers for cattle everywhere. If you go to town and offer ten chickens you won’t find any buyers. But if you offer 1.000 cows, people will come and check it out the next day. That is the problem. There is no other trade.”
This reporting is part of The Amazon under Bolsonaro, a collaboration between Folha De S.Paolo and Climate Home News. Additional reporting by Monica Prestes, from Manaus. All photos: Lalo de Almeida/FolhapressSilva. Translated from the Portuguese by Clara Allain.