Besieged by progress

Na Amazônia, agressões a comunidade tradicional, dribles legislativos e suspeita de grilagem de terras cercam projeto da gigante China Communications Construction Company e da brasileira WPR – São Luís Gestão de Portos e Terminais

São Luís (Maranhão) – The earth trembles in the community of Cajueiro. The heavy machinery advances on where there were people and the Amazon jungle. The red of the soil flows with the heavy rains, burying the mangroves and the hope of those who can no longer see the future where life went on with such different rhythms and sounds.In São Luís, capital of Maranhão state, the construction of a port for transport grains, fuels and minerals links Brazil and China in cases of violence against rural populations, legislative negotiations and suspicions of land grabbing.

China Communications Construction Company y WPR – São Luís Gestão de Portos e Terminais and WPR – São Luís Port and Terminal Management are building their deep-water port in one of the most coveted regions of the planet. The loads sent there will arrive faster and at a lower cost to the Asian country, crossing the Panama Canal. Waters as deep as the São Marcos Bay are found only in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. They can ensure the arrival of large vessels linked to world trade.

However, the region has other values, such as native forests and mangroves, whose preservation is essential for the reproduction and survival of countless species of fish, crabs and other animals. The northern states of Maranhão, Pará and Amapá are home to 70% of Brazil’s mangroves.

The port is also central in the increase of grain production in the Northeastern region, in a large preserved Cerrado area punctuated by small producers, indigenous and descendants of slaves (known as quilombolas). Half of the biome has already been eliminated, mainly by agro-industry. Protecting its deep-rooted vegetation is vital to maintaining water sources, fighting against climate change and ensuring the survival of those populations.

China Communications Construction Company already operates transport infrastructure connected to the ports of Santos (São Paulo), Paranaguá (Paraná) and Açu (Rio de Janeiro). It’s interested in further projects in the North, South and Northeast regions of Brazil, many of them linked to agribusiness. The Chinese state-owned company has an annual turnover of more than US$ 60 billion worldwide, doing business in Africa, Central America, Asia, and the Middle East.

A loan of US$ 700 million (about $ 2.6 billion Brazilian reais) from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) was secured for the construction of the port in an agreement signed by former President Michel Temer. He was arrested in March after being accused by the Federal Public Ministry of leading a corruption scheme that moved R$ 1.8 billion (US$ 460 million) in bribes to influence contracts with state and public agencies.

The São Luís Port project “can generate about 5,000 jobs”, according to a letter sent by the Secretariat of Social Communication and Political Affairs of the Maranhão Government. The terminal has as neighbors three other ports, a couple of railroads, huge yards useful for iron ore and container production, a thermoelectric plant and a federal highway. The circulation of commodities produced in the Amazon is frantic.

Map: Infoamazônia.

The university shrugged at the threats. On the other hand, digging in social media, WPR found fuel to accuse a public defender and a state judge of acting in tune with civil entities in defense of the Cajueiro community. The public defender received and forwarded the residents’ complaints, while the judge followed up on them in state courts. Both were separated from the case.

In the meantime, the balance of the Maranhão Court of Justice continues to weigh against traditional residents. In a decision in favor of the private terminal, judge Lourival Serejo described São Luís as a city with an “obvious portuary profile”. On the other hand, a request from the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office for public hearings to clarify the ownership of the land on which port works are being carried out was withdrawn without any evaluation. The area is disputed between the traditional community and the companies. 

Questioned by this reporter, the Government of Maranhão admitted that it is licensing the port without a definition of land tenure. “The State Government points out that the case is pending several trials, (…) in which, among others, the right to possession and ownership of the disputed property is discussed. It is up to the Judicial Branch to decide on the ownership of the property”, the Secretariat of Social Communication and Political Affairs of the Maranhão Government said in a letter (see full text here[1] ).

“The invisibility of people’s rights feeds the agrarian conflict. This is the most concerning aspect of the licensing”

Alexandre Soares, federal prosecutor in Maranhão state

For the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, no license could be issued without a legal decision about the property of the territory. “The formal ownership of the area by traditional residents was not considered in the environmental licensing. The invisibility of people’s rights feeds the agrarian conflict. This is the most concerning aspect of the licensing”, says Alexandre Soares, federal prosecutor in Maranhão state. 

Such trampling of legal proceedings does not surprise Marco Antônio Mitidiero Júnior, PhD in Geography and professor at Paraíba Federal University. For him, from colonial times until now, physical or symbolic violence has always been the main mediator of land conflicts in the country, and not unusual for the State or the judiciary. “If there is a dispute over unproductive land between a landowner and a collective of peasants who want to produce there, the judiciary always side with the landowner’s and the businessmen’s mindset”, says the agrarian conflict researcher.

“the judiciary always side with the landowner’s and the businessmen’s mindset”

Researcher Marco Antônio Mitidiero Júnior

A land of many owners

Maranhão is no different from the rest of the Amazon, where the agrarian chaos has allowed multiple lands deeds to proliferate and allows opportunists to take out of their pockets documents suggesting ownership since the times of the “sesmos”, vast swathes of land dedicated to agriculture and livestock in colonial times (1500 – 1822). A boiling room that threatens the future of those who have no economic or political power.

 A stark contrast with the landscape that Massinokou Alapong found in Cajueiro in the mid 19th century. The black woman brought from the Gold Coast (today’s Ghana) saw so much beauty in that landscape of forest and sea that she set up the “Territory of Egypt”. Although claimed by the forest, the site remains a reference for African religions in Brazil and protected many fugitives from the whip of slavery. Every once in a while, the sound of drums still resonates there.

Repairing the fishing net on his balcony, Carlos Augusto Barbosa (62) says that access to the beaches has become more complicated and that fishing has decreased with the construction of the port. He arrived in the region in the early 1980s from Guimarães, 200 kilometers away. “Before, we had fish and the beach near us. Over the years, the situation has only gotten worse. Nobody supports us”, he complains.

Even with deep roots in the region’s history, the continuity of its inhabitants here is on a limbo. They remain invisible to projects “packaged” by governments and private sector. Brazil’s Suzano, one of the world’s largest pulp and paper producers, was already planning to build a port in the same area. There was some solace in 1998, when the state government recognized the collective ownership of the territory by the traditional residents.

At that time, Maranhão was governed by Roseana Sarney, daughter of former Brazilian president José Sarney. Her family has historically wielded power and influence in state and federal politics. She was elected governor in 1994 and 1998, taking office once again in 2009 to replace ousted governor Jackson Lago. One year later, she was re-elected, but resigned in late 2014, alleging health problems.

The term ended in the hands of the president of the State Legislative Assembly, state deputy Antônio Arnaldo Alves de Melo, because the vice-governor had also resigned. On New Year’s Eve, Melo published a decree eliminating possession of Cajueiro’s from its inhabitants and granted the first license to the private port. Almost 20 houses in the community were demolished by mercenaries at the time.

One of the first actions by the following governor of Maranhão, Flávio Dino, was revoking the expropriation of Cajueiro. His government tried to balance the already evident conflicts between the community and the businessmen, and the need for more studies on the socio-environmental impacts of the port.

In early 2015, government representatives listened to residents and participated in community meetings. In May of the following year, Dino assured Deborah Duprat, at that time deputy Attorney General of the Republic, that he would seek solutions to the conflict. In practice, they were innocuous promises.

“The Maranhão government has become complicit in all the irregularities and crimes committed in the Cajueiro and shares responsibility for all the environmental and social disasters that the project has already caused and continues to cause”, says professor and researcher Horácio Sant’ana Júnior, of Maranhão Federal University. 

“The Maranhão government has become complicit in all the irregularities and crimes committed in the Cajueiro”

Horácio Sant’ana Júnior, Maranhão Federal University

Despite the collective ownership granted in 1998 to the residents of Cajueiro, the land where the port is built was acquired by WPR – São Luís Port and Terminal Management during in 2014, in negotiation with BC3 HUB Multimodal Industrial. This company belongs to Helcimar Araújo Belém Filho (49), lawyer and vice president of operational development of the Board of Directors of the Maranhão Regional Accounting Council, and Carlos César Cunha (64), owner of Club CB450, a popular party house in Vila Embratel, on the outskirts of São Luís. Their names are linked to companies authorized to buy and sell land, operate ports, mine, generate energy and trade in timber.

Almost a decade ago, Belém Filho hired consultants from Brazil, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, who devised the Atlântico Ecuatorial project. A company of the same name was then registered in Nova Lima (Minas Gerais state) by Belém Filho and Willer Hudson Pos, former president of the Minas Gerais Environmental Foundation. Pos was also director of the State Institute of Water Management and was part of the British conglomerate Anglo American, one of the largest mining groups in the world. 

As planned, an area equivalent to 1,200 soccer fields in the Cajueiro region will give way to container yards, terminals for trucks and trains, and a port. The project will also promote iron extraction in Tocantins state. “The best business opportunity with a high return on investment”, promises a presentation of the project (see here). After explaining by phone to Belém Filho that we would like to interview him about the port project in Cajueiro, he no longer responded our requests.

César Cunha’s name appears in other conflicts involving land property in Maranhão’s capital, in various legal proceedings and even in reports from port operators in the region. One of the communities pressured by him to leave the place where they live was Camboa dos Frades, near Cajueiro and next to a thermoelectric plant that supplies energy to a substantial part of Maranhão.

“He came saying that he was the landowner, that he would pay for our goods. Many people sold and left, but they haven’t yet been paid yet. We can’t install power, open a road or a small farm. There’s no one to ask for help, only closed doors”, says Maria do Ramo Coelho Santos (44), former president of the Camboa dos Frades Residents’ Association.

According to a research paper published by professors and students of geography of Maranhão Federal University, the first residents arrived in Camboa dos Frades around 1920. In a report by the Maranhão Port Administration Company, manager of neighboring Porto do Itaqui (one of the largest in the country), César Cunha owns more than 240 hectares in the region. “I bought (lands in that place) in 1975”, he told us. At that time, he was 20 years old.

“He came saying that he was the landowner, that he would pay for our goods. Many people sold and left, but they haven’t yet been paid yet”

Maria do Ramo Coelho Santos (44), former president of the Camboa dos Frades Residents’ Association.

A presumed document forgery scheme for the appropriation of communities’ land in the rural area of São Luís has been under investigation for over two years. To move forward, the inquiry requires the support of agencies linked to the Executive and Judicial branches of the State. “Even with precarious deeds over a large part of the territory, it should be in order to resort to usucaption to ensure the permanence of the communities in the territories where they traditionally have lived”, says a source from Maranhão government, which preferred not to be identified so as not to be professionally affected by his words.

United by the port

In addition to the muddle over land ownership and repeated accusations of aggression against traditional residents, the construction of the Cajueiro port is linked to companies investigated for fraud and corruption.

According to Operation Greenfield, launched by the Federal Police in 2016 to investigate fraud in pension funds, at that time WPR São Luís Port and Terminal Management and the São Paulo contractor WTorre were part of a group controlled by businessman Walter Torre Júnior. Greenfield ties his name to seven companies with the same WPR initials, including the one involved with the São Luís Port. WTorre is also linked to projects of commercial buildings, shipyards, vehicle assembly yards and Allianz Parque, the stadium of Palmeiras, Brazilian football champion in 2018. 

Investigations into financial crimes and embezzlement of public funds from the Lava Jato operation – initiated five years ago, also by the Federal Police – indicate that WTorre presumably received R$ 18 million (US$ 4.6 million) in bribes for the construction company OAS to win a public bid, involving a project with state-owned oil giant Petrobras.

Walter Torre Júnior and WPR are also being investigated by the 8th Criminal Court of São Luís for environmental crimes related to the construction of the port of Cajueiro, after complaints were filed by the Maranhão Public Ministry regarding the death of wild animals and the destruction of forests and mangroves in areas protected by federal legislation and outside boundaries authorized by public agencies.

Seeking political support for its businesses, WTorre invested almost R$ 10 million (about US$ 2.6 million) in the 2010 and 2014 Brazilian elections, betting on candidates from all regions of the country. Flávio Dino received one of the company’s largest individual donations in its victorious 2014 campaign – more than R$ 250,000 (US$ 64,000) – right behind contributions of gas, mining and civil construction companies. Almost 40% of Dino’s campaign resources came from these sectors. The rest was provided by his political party.

The following year, private financing of election campaigns was banned by the Federal Supreme Court, which in practice had seen it as an escape valve for corruption. Elections in Brazil now rely on donations from citizens, public resources and a political party fund, also sponsored with private resources.  

As former federal judge, Dino is the first and only governor of the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB) in the country. Born in São Luís, his first mandate began amid expectations of rapprochement with social movements and rupture with decades of political domination of the state by the Sarney, Lobão and Murad families. In his first interviews as an elected official, he promised a “bourgeois democratic revolution” and a “capitalist shock” for Maranhão, amongst the national leaders in rural poverty and violence rates.

Once in office, the governor multiplied efforts to attract private investment to the state. He participated in the signing of the agreement between China Communications Construction Company and WPR São Luís Gestão de Portos e Terminais for the construction of the port of Cajueiro. Escorted by government secretaries, Brazilian and Chinese businesspeople, he also celebrated the launch of the private terminal works, one year ago. 

According to Horácio Sant’ana Júnior, the professor of the Maranhão Federal University,  the presence of the governor in these business ceremonies sent a message that the rights of local communities would be violated. Since then, he argues, the government has been sweeping under the carpet complaints of assaults on local leaders, irregularities in licensing, environmental crimes and opaque land transactions in the port area.

“The company began acting with much more freedom, advancing in deforestation, continuing with the demolition of houses and attempting to blackmail residents who wanted to stay in the territory. The Maranhão Government is complicit in the irregularities and holds on its shoulders the responsibility for all the environmental and social disasters that this company has already caused and continues to cause. The residents were left to their own devices”, says the researcher.

An extractive reservation is blocked

Another political campaign benefited by WTorre was that of José Sarney Filho, brother of former governor Roseana Sarney. The R$ 300,000 (US$ 77,000) donated by the company was the largest private sector contribution the candidate received in the 2014 campaign. He assumed his ninth mandate as a federal deputy the following year, as part of the Maranhão Green Party.

After being appointed Minister of Environment by former President Michel Temer, Sarney joined the chorus against the creation of an extractive reserve that would protect up to 16,000 hectares of forest and a dozen communities, including Cajueiro.  

“As far as I can see, the state government is against it, the city hall is against it, the senators are against it. I have already commissioned studies, but in this case we have to listen to everything, and in times of crisis, like we live today, we cannot block the growth of Maranhão. I’m against the way this reservation is being proposed and I will ask ICMBio to review this issue”, said the minister at a meeting in the Maranhão Federation of Industries.

The ICMBio – Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation is responsible for the creation and management of National Parks and other federal Protected Areas. In an extractive reservation, communities coexist with preserved environments, a model whose origins go back to the times of rubber tappers such as Chico Mendes, the historic union leader who fought against the advance of large single-owner properties in the Amazon and was shot dead in 1988. 

The inhabitants of Cajueiro have been waiting for the creation of the Tauá Mirim Extractive Reservation since 2003, which would allow them to maintain their way of life. Until now, they have been individually compensated and relocated to give way to the port’s  construction, destroying what was once a community. Many have accepted compensation for land and houses, facing a future far from the forest and far from the sea.

“With compensations you have an expectation of life improvement, however, money runs out, and many people don’t know how to live outside here. Without any skills, women will work as cleaners and men will live out of short-term jobs”, says Lucilene Raimunda Costa (61). She has lived in Cajueiro for more than two decades and visited the community since she was five years old. 

For state congressman Wellington does Curso (PSDB), a rare critical voice on Flávio Dino’s government in the Legislative Assembly, the extractive reservation would mitigate the port’s impacts on the forest and the population. However, he does not see a bright perspective for Cajueiro’s future, because the voice of those who resist within the community does not resonate with the federal and state institutions that must watch over their rights.

“People are taken from where they were born or lived from fishing or agriculture to a completely different place, a house, an apartment. What will they live off now? No job, no daycare, no school, no quality of life. Misery, crime, violence, prostitution and drug trafficking often accompany the future of forcibly displaced populations”, he protests. 

As for the two former governors of Maranhão, Jackson Lago gave green light to the extractive reserve, while Roseana Sarney opposed the protected area. That means the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office is waiting for a tie breaker on Tauá Mirim’s future from Flávio Dino’s government.

The studies for its creation are ready and do not include the Sino-Brazilian port area, although it does clash with additional plans for more logistics and transportation infrastructure, and even a naval base. There is also political pressure to turn almost the entire island of São Luís into an industrial zone. After years of waiting, in 2015 the communities declared a de facto reservation. The measure however has no legal or practical effect, even though it does magnify the cry of these populations for permanence in the traditional territory.

“The communities have the right to a response from public authorities, but the scenario is unfavorable to the reservation since the protection of the environment and the communities were subject to an unequal game of forces. These populations are underrepresented in the political aspect when facing companies that have great influence, without forgetting the Maranhão Government, which speaks on behalf of these business interests”, says Alexandre Soares, Attorney of the Republic in Maranhão.

“These populations are underrepresented in the political aspect when facing companies that have great influence”

Alexandre Soares, Attorney of the Republic in Maranhão

According to a public declaration by the State Government, “all measures (…) are taking into account the importance of investment, as well as the safety of the residents of the area, the preservation of the environment and respect for ethnicity and the exercise of worship of religions with African origin”. It also points out that “in relation to the complaints raised by the community, the State Government reiterates the full follow-up of the Secretariat of State for Human Rights and Popular Participation in public meetings and hearings, as a means of dialogue with the local population”. 

We contacted China Communications Construction Company and WPR – São Luís Gestão de Portos e Terminais by telephone and e-mail to inquire about the aggressions denounced by the Cajueiro community, the opaque land deals and the environmental license for the construction of the Port of São Luís. Up until publication of this story, we had not received any response from either company.

A global board game

Crises such as the one tormenting the community of Cajueiro could have another storyline if the legislation were respected and the population was allowed to participate in planning of the territory overseen by private companies and public institutions, argues state congressman Wellington do Curso (PSDB), who was former president of the Human Rights Commission of the Legislative Assembly. 

“No one is against development, as long as it takes place in an orderly and sustainable manner”

Wellington do Curso, congressman

“No one is against development, as long as it takes place in an orderly and sustainable manner. If a broad debate had preceded the construction of the port, it would not have forced down by the throats of society and the traditional community. São Luís and Maranhão don’t need to grow up by turning their backs on people’s future”, he says. 

At the same time, Marco Antônio Mitidiero Júnior, from Paraíba Federal University, defends that the social and environmental aggressions registered in Cajueiro cannot be separated from the growing global investments in the production of soybeans, meat, iron and other agricultural and mineral commodities in Brazil.

“These investments clash with the livelihoods and rights of peasant communities, quilombolas (descendants of slaves), riverbank dwellers and indigenous peoples, usually seen as obstacles that must be removed from where they live, with violence and with the participation of the state and the judiciary”, explains Mitidiero.

Rising food prices that shook the world a decade ago anchored China’s appetite for imports and investment on productive land. At same time, the country expanded its global investments in infrastructure for transport and energy, vehicle manufacturing and telecommunications. It was in this scenario that it overtook the United States as Brazil’s largest trading partner. Today, a quarter of Brazilian exports end up in the Asian country. 

According to Mitidiero, concern about the disproportionate influence of international economic power on the fate of Brazil’s rural communities grew with the election of the extremist Jair Bolsonaro. Elected Brazilian President in 2018, Bolsonaro is building a militarized government, reluctant to respect the way of life of traditional and indigenous populations and ever more open to the expansion of agribusiness.

In his speeches, Bolsonaro promised that “there will not be one more centimeter to demarcate” indigenous lands, that these populations will be integrated into urban society and that their lands will be opened to mining and agriculture. He also compared the indigenous people of his reserves with the animals in zoos and said that the quilombolas aren’t worthy “even for reproduction”. 

“Everything (in the new government) points to a greater concentration and appropriation of territories, with the suppression of the rights of indigenous peoples, the quilombolas and the conservation of nature, opening more spaces for international markets of lands and commodities”, says the researcher from Paraíba Federal University.

  • *The photos we use in the reportage of Maranhão are from “Ingrid Barros”, “Aldem Bourscheit”, “Reprodução de Redes Sociais e CRC/MA”, “CCCC” and “Fiema”. The video, is a production from “Debate Luta”.
Tierra de Resistentes

Base de datos de Tierra de Resistentes

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