Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Brasilian Land War

The Ka’apor tribe patrol one of the most murderous frontiers in the world, a remote and largely lawless region of the Brazilian Amazon where this indigenous community has fought for generations to protect their forest land. Members of Ka’apor Forest Guard drive off – and sometimes attack – loggers who intruded into their territory, the 530,000-hectare Alto Turiaçu Indigenous Land, which is roughly three times the area of Greater London and contains about half of the Amazon forest left in Brazil’s northern Maranhão state.

For decades, loggers have cut dirt tracks into the forest that allow them to selectively fell valuable timber such as ipê (Brazilian walnut), which can fetch almost £1,000 per cubic metre after processing and export. This is followed by fires – often set deliberately – that destroy the remaining trees so land can be used for cattle ranching or soy farming.

Last year 6,624 sq km – more than four times the area of London – was deforested in Brazil. This was the first time in three years that the rate did not rise, and the country remains off track to reach its Paris climate targets. Numerous studies have shown that protection of indigenous land is the most effective way to cut deforestation, but the Ka’apor – like many other tribes – feel the police often work against them. 

 According to Global Witness, Brazil is the deadliest country in the world for environmental and land defenders with 44 killings recorded in 2017. Maranhão – the nation’s poorest state – is among the worst affected. There were more death threats and attacks on indigenous groups here than anywhere else in 2016, according to the Pastoral Land Commission.

 The biodiversity is testimony to the quality of the forest in a place that defiantly holds out against extractive industries and global markets. But the pressure on this natural wealth is relentless. The Ka’apor council has attempted to hold the line but many individuals succumb to temptations. “The loggers use alcohol to weaken us. It’s a more powerful weapon than guns,” said Itahu.

It is clear where the real power lies. More than any state in Brazil, Maranhão is in thrall to the “coronels” (major landowners who carry a semi-feudal authority). One family – the Sarneys – have dominated politics here for as long as anyone can remember. The patriarch (an 87-year-old senator who ruled Brazil from 1985 to 1990) has a roadside school named after him – the Escola Unidade da President José Sarney. The system of patronage and control is replicated at a municipal level. The powerbroker near the Ka’apor’s land is Josimar Rodrigues, a state assemblyman who has been accused by police of running an illegal operation to remove timber from the indigenous territory. Despite the allegations, he and his family remain hugely influential. His wife, sister and former driver are all mayors in municipalities that overlap Ka’apor territory.

No comments: