As Josimo approaches Augustinópolis he remembers his friends’
repeated warnings. “For God’s sake drive through that place without stopping,
it’s a hornet’s nest if ever there was one.” Augustinópolis is the
seat of the local ranchers’ association—sworn enemies to Josimo and the
CPT. Josimo and his friends are fully aware of this, and they know too
that in this town there are gunmen for hire on every street corner.
Binka Le Breton
A Death Foretold
Everyone knew that Padre Josimo was going to die. The whole town had
been talking of nothing else for weeks. Even the mayor had been overheard
to say, “We’ll have to get rid of that priest, come what may.” And since
the time when an unknown car had overtaken his on a lonely stretch of road
at night and an unknown pistoleiro had pumped five bullets into
his car door, Josimo had come to believe it too.
Josimo was facing a hideous dilemma. He didn’t want to get shot, yet
he couldn’t quite bring himself to run away. He knew full well how much
the local ranchers detested him—all on account of the fact that he had
set himself up as the champion of the miserably exploited peasants. When
they were evicted from their lands, Josimo supported them and encouraged
them to return. He told them about their rights, and helped them set up
unions and join the Workers’ Party. When the peasants were beaten up, Josimo
denounced the ranchers and their strong-men and complained to the police.
He was tireless in the defense of the defenseless. He was a thorn in the
side of the landowners, he was a source of considerable annoyance to the
police and the local authorities, and he was behaving in a manner most
unsuited to a parish priest. Worst of all, he was a black man. This was
the final insult. Josimo’s enemies had been gunning for him for some time,
but recently they’d been getting too close for comfort.
Saturday May 10th 1986 dawns hot and clear. “It was a beautiful day,
not a day for terrible things to happen,” remarked Perpétua later
Inside the parish house in São Sebastião, Padre Josimo
slings his leather bag over his shoulder, grabs a pile of books and adjusts
his new straw hat at a becoming angle. Edna, the young catechist, comes
up behind him humming a few bars from the popular song “Tall, Dark and
“I’ve never seen you in a hat before,” she remarks, “What’s going on?”
“It’s so the pistoleiros won’t recognize me,” he grins, and swings
out through the kitchen to the yard. Last night a group of his friends
had been sitting around the kitchen table eating potato chips and kidding
Josimo about living dangerously.
“Don’t worry,” he told them half seriously, “If they don’t get me when
I’m thirty three, I’ll live to be eighty.”
It’s nine o’clock when Josimo tosses his bags into the back of the blue
“OK, Domingos,” he says to his bearded assistant, “See you tomorrow.”
“Josimo!” His mother, Dona Olinda is frowning sternly up at him. “Aren’t
you going to take Domingos with you? You know I don’t like you traveling
“I’ll be fine, mother,” says Josimo comfortingly. “I’ve asked Domingos
to take a message to the Sisters. Maybe you’d like to go along too.” He
knows that Dona Olinda likes nothing better than to visit the French nuns
in the next village. Olinda brightens, and with a quick “Be back a week
tomorrow,” Josimo jumps into the car and is off.
It’s nothing new for him to spend more time away than at home; he has
a large parish to look after and a lot of traveling to do. Today he is
heading eighty miles down the dirt road to Imperatriz, the nearest town
of any size. It’s the place where the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) has
its office. Josimo is the local coordinator, and Imperatriz is where they
do their shopping, collect their mail and make their telephone calls. A
careful driver, Josimo rounds the corner of the square, waving at a bunch
of women there, and heads off on the long bumpy road to Imperatriz.
“Domingos, I wish you had gone with him. You know I don’t like him to
travel alone,” grumbles Dona Olinda.
“I’ll be seeing him tomorrow in Tocantinópolis,” says Domingos,
humoring her, “Come on now, hop in,” and off they go in a cloud of dust.
One of the women who had waved at Josimo watches the two cars leave,
and hurries to the public telephone. She puts through a call to the next
village, Augustinópolis. “The man has left,” she says, and puts
down the phone.
Shortly after nine o’clock, gunman Geraldo is downing black coffee and
Coca Cola in a bakery in Imperatriz. He is attempting to shift his hangover,
and waiting for his orders to come through from Augustinópolis.
He’s been offered fifty thousand cruzeiros ($1750) for the job, but they
warned him he’d better not mess up this time around……
In Augustinópolis, town councilor Neném is preparing a
monster barbecue for the seventy military policemen in town. They have
come to collect the body of his brother; a much-feared gunman known as
Donda. Donda was notorious for having an ungovernable temper and when the
mood was on him he would shoot anyone who crossed him. He had recently
been working as foreman on one of the local farms, and had treated the
workers so outrageously that accumulated resentments had finally boiled
over. The workers had ambushed Donda and killed him. Not only that, but
they had refused to allow the family to collect the body. “Let the dogs
eat it,” was the message they sent, “That’s what Donda used to say when
he shot someone.”
Neném’s first attempt to retrieve his brother’s body was met
by a hail of bullets, and he was forced to withdraw. He went to the police
station for help, and the police chief sent for reinforcements. Seventy
military policemen were detached for the job, as well as a helicopter.
Nothing like this had ever been seen in Augustinópolis, and the
town was in a ferment of excitement, with rumors flying in all directions.
“It’s all the fault of that communist priest,” some people were saying.
“This sort of thing never used to happen before he came here. Those church
people are nothing but a bunch of agitators, if you ask me.”
As Josimo approaches Augustinópolis he remembers his friends’
repeated warnings. “For God’s sake drive through that place without stopping,
it’s a hornet’s nest if ever there was one.” Augustinópolis is the
seat of the local ranchers’ association—sworn enemies to Josimo and the
CPT. Josimo and his friends are fully aware of this, and they know too
that in this town there are gunmen for hire on every street corner. But
as luck will have it the only road passes through the center of town, and
even amidst all the excitement, Josimo’s distinctive blue Toyota does not
pass unnoticed. Neném is chewing on a chicken bone, while his brother
Guiomar opens another bottle of beer. Guiomar gestures toward Josimo’s
car, and mutters, “There goes a dead man.” Brother-in-law Vilson grins
at the other two, tosses his cigarette end onto the ground, and climbs
into a yellow car that is waiting in the drive. He slams his foot to the
floor and heads for the open road, overtaking Josimo on the edge of town.
Adstonir Resende, head of the ranchers’ association, notices the two cars
with great satisfaction. He walks in a leisurely fashion to the public
telephone and dials a number in Imperatriz. “The man has left,” he says.
A woman takes the call the other end. She hurries down to the corner bakery
and whispers into the ear of Geraldo the gunman. Geraldo downs his soda
and heads out.
Josimo drives along the dusty road, glad to be past the spot where he
was ambushed not three weeks earlier. Today there is no hurry. His plan
is to leave the Toyota in Imperatriz at the workshop. Later in the day
he will take the bus to Tocantinópolis, at the request of the bishop.
He knows just what Dom Aloísio will say. A cautious man, he will
advise Josimo to leave the area for a time. Things are getting too hot,
and it’s time to leave.
The friendly village of São Miguel comes into sight, and Josimo
pulls in at the house of one of his staunchest allies. Dona Raimunda Bezerra
is a pillar of the local workers’ association, and as usual she rushes
out to greet him. She has a document for him to study, and her habitual
scolding to administer. “How many times have I told you, Padre Josimo,
that you shouldn’t be traveling alone?” she demands. “I’m always uneasy
about you crossing that ferry, and that’s the truth.”
Josimo smiles affectionately at her, and before she can continue he
is saved by the arrival of a young police recruit, football boots in hand,
heading for the Saturday game at the police station by the ferry. A young
woman runs up, asking for a ride for herself and three small children,
and Josimo packs them all into the back. Straightening his new straw hat,
he gives Raimunda a friendly wave, and drives off.
The ferry is always a bottleneck, and the ferry landing is a good place
for an ambush, with its maze of little wooden huts and tortuous paths.
But today is such a beautiful day, hot and sunny. Tomorrow will be Mother’s
Day, and Josimo will meet up with his friends. They’re off to a meeting
down in the south of the state. He can feel the tension draining out of
him at the thought of it. He drives onto the ferry and parks his car in
the space behind Vilson’s. Vilson sees him in his rear-view mirror but
makes no sign. As the ferry draws in, Vilson is first up the ramp, and
disappears into the maelstrom of people in the narrow street. Josimo follows
him slowly, careful not to splash the large crowd of pedestrians, and makes
for the post office. He is just in time to collect the mail. The post office
shuts at midday. Meanwhile Geraldo has sobered himself up, collected his
7.65 mm pistol and has stuffed it into his belt. Vilson and he are approaching
the CPT office on Avenida Dorgival Pinheiro when they see the blue Toyota
coming towards them. Josimo has dropped off his passengers and is alone.
Vilson stops his car outside the barbecue stand, and Geraldo crosses the
street and dives into the copy shop, two doors down from Josimo’s office.
Josimo parks the car and hurries up the first flight of steps. He is
just turning the corner when he hears someone shout his name. “Ei! Padre
Josimo!” He turns and looks back. Below him stands a blond man with long
hair, wrestling with something in the waistband of his pants. In a flash,
Josimo realizes he is pulling a gun, and turns to run. Geraldo fires twice,
hitting Josimo in the kidney.
Josimo is dead, but he doesn’t know it.
The Long Road
to the Amazon
It was February 1993, I was on the trail of Padre Josimo, and I was
sitting in a lawyer’s office in Brasília learning about the time
Josimo had got himself into trouble with the law.
“It was a put up job, of course,” said the lawyer, peering at me through
her pebble lenses. “They brought a case against him for willful destruction
of state property. Never proved a thing, but the case still drags on, believe
it or not. Of course Josimo’s been dead for years, but some of his colleagues
in the CPT were indicted. In fact,” she sniffed indignantly, “There’s a
hearing scheduled for Tuesday. In Itaguatins.”
She pointed to the wall map. I could just see Itaguatins written in
very small print at the northern end of the state of Tocantins, a thousand
miles from where we sat. “Why don’t you come along?” said the lawyer comfortably.
“I’ll be there, and I can introduce you to some of the characters in the
story. It’s on Tuesday, at 2.30 in the afternoon.”
I sailed out of the office in a happy haze. It was Friday afternoon,
and it would take me a good twenty-four hours to get to Itaguatins. Probably
longer. But with luck I’d be able to make it in time, and I’d certainly
meet some of Josimo’s friends. Some of his enemies too, no doubt. Perfect.
A twelve hour bus journey over a bumpy road that had once been paved
took me to the town of Gurupi, halfway up the state of Tocantins. I was
directed to the small, airless office of the Pastoral Land Commission to
talk to one of their lawyers, Adilar.
“Tell me about the CPT,” I began. “What is it that you do that makes
you so many enemies?”
Adilar poured us both a cup of strong dark coffee, and leaned back in
his chair. “Well,” he smiled, “I guess it’s because we get ourselves involved
in the land wars. We see our job as supporting the peasants in every way
we can. They don’t have title to the land, you see. Never knew such a thing
existed. It didn’t matter until the great land rush was on, and all of
a sudden they found themselves served with eviction orders. Well, the law
says they can acquire squatters’ rights under certain circumstances, and
most of them had a far stronger claim to the land than the big ranchers
who got their titles by all sorts of dubious means. Of course the ranchers
do everything in their power to throw the peasants off the land, and that’s
where we come in, make as much noise as possible, and see if we can establish
their tenure. And that’s only a first step. Then we’ve got to figure out
ways they can stay on the land. There’s no infrastructure at all; no roads,
no credit, no nothing. No technology, no marketing, no access to seeds
or fertilizer, no help of any sort from anybody. We do what we can to set
up cooperatives and credit schemes, and give a little technical advice.
So as you can imagine we make ourselves pretty unpopular among the ranchers.
They reckon we’re inciting the peasants to revolution, I suppose. That’s
why we make ourselves so many enemies. Now tell me something; which court
hearing did you say you were going to attend?”
“Something to do with the destruction of public property,” I ventured.
“The case of the telephone exchange?” he snorted. “Let me tell you about
that. It was pure fabrication, from start to finish. You know that Josimo
lived in a little place called São Sebastião? The mayor there
was called Zé Carneiro, and if there was one person Zé Carneiro
couldn’t abide, it was Josimo. I think he thought that Josimo was trying
to build a power base, but he couldn’t have been more wrong. Anyway there’s
another little village up there called Buriti, and the people of Buriti
finally got some money from the state to put in a public telephone. Nobody
had any quarrel with that, except when the mayor started to build the telephone
exchange on a piece of land belonging to the church.
“There was no end of a row about it. Josimo protested to the mayor that
it was church land, and asked him to stop construction, but the mayor refused.
He even put a guard on the building site. Well, it so happened that Josimo
had to be out of town for a couple of weeks, and by the time he came back
the work was almost complete. The villagers sent him a message asking him
to do something urgently, but Josimo realized the mayor wouldn’t listen
to him, so he suggested they call in the bishop to arbitrate. But the truth
was that the people didn’t really trust the bishop. They thought he’d sell
them down the river. So one dark night they went in there and knocked the
building down. Josimo wasn’t actually present, although I’m pretty sure
he knew about it.
“The mayor was livid with rage. He called in the police, and they arrested
a whole bunch of people and beat the daylights out of them. They managed
to line up some witnesses to testify that Josimo and three of the nuns
had been in charge of the whole operation, carrying machine guns if you
please! The whole thing was one big lie, from start to finish. Even the
witnesses admitted it was hearsay. The French Sisters were at home twenty
miles away, and Josimo kept his head down that night and never stirred
out of the place he was staying.
“There’s one thing you have to realize in connection with all this.
That whole area was under the jurisdiction of the National Security Laws
at the time. On account of the so-called guerrilla war they’d had there
in the early ’70s. The military government regarded the Araguaia/Tocantins
corridor as a flash point for insurrection, so they put it under military
law. The whole business of the telephone exchange was blown up into an
attack on National Security, exacerbated by the fact that the Sisters are
foreigners. Well, the case continues, although Josimo’s out of it, of course.
The whole thing’s a complete farce. But it’ll give you a good insight into
That evening I marched across town to the bus station and found a bus
heading for Araguaina. “Should get in around 3:00,” said the driver. “You
can pick up another bus from there.” Long experience had taught me how
to arrange self, pack, water bottle, sweater and legs to best advantage,
and I settled down to doze my way along the bumpy Belém-Brasília
At 3:00 a.m. we arrived at the dark and cheerless bus station at Araguaina.
There was no bus waiting. I stared disbelievingly at a wooden board on
which was painted the time of the next bus to Itaguatins. 14:00 hrs. Eleven
hours to wait. It was not an encouraging thought.
I sat down to consider my position. A small child materialized out of
the shadows and began tugging insistently at my arm. “There’s someone who
wants to see you,” he whispered. I didn’t like the sound of that either.
But the someone proved to be the driver of an ancient and decrepit bus
“Itaguatins?” he inquired brightly. “Come with me and I’ll drop you
at Estreita. There’ll be a connecting bus waiting.” It sounded unlikely,
but a lot better than sitting in Araguaina. I fought my way to the last
seat, well to the rear of the bus. It looked as if the bus had been on
the road for several days, there was a thick layer of garbage on the floor
and it had a homely lived-in smell. Luckily no-one had been throwing up
It was still dark when we got to Estreita. There was nothing there at
all; just a muddy little intersection, and, predictably, there was no sign
of the promised bus. I could see no advantage in staying at Estreita; better,
I decided, to throw in my lot with my fellow passengers. At the next town
the driver suggested off-loading me and several others. “You take a canoe
across the river and walk up to the bus station,” he suggested. “You can
get a bus to Itaguatins from there.”
“The bus doesn’t run any more,” objected one of the passengers.
“There’s sure to be a truck,” said the driver cheerfully.
But the idea didn’t appeal. It seemed altogether better to stick it
out until we reached Imperatriz and start over from there. At least it
would be daylight. I settled myself as best I could and dozed fitfully
as far as Imperatriz.
The bus station was ankle deep in garbage, and there were muddy puddles
everywhere. I seized my pack and headed into the humid heat of the morning.
The bus driver pointed to an even older and muddier JAMJOY bus which was
just on the point of pulling out. “That’s your bus,” he said, thumping
on the side of it. “Get off in Sítio Novo and you can hitch a ride
I scrambled aboard the bus, picking my way carefully over sacks and
bundles which were piled up just inside the door. The bus rattled its way
down to the river bank, and the passengers piled out into the mud. I trudged
onto the ferry and staked out a seat next to an overweight Bolivian who
told me that he was a bush pilot working in the gold mines of the interior.
“I fly out the gold,” he told me confidentially, “And on the return journey,”
he tapped the side of his nose and looked at me significantly, “I bring
in the women.”
The ferry pulled in, disgorging several pickups, a couple of horse carts,
a host of muddy passengers and the JAMJOY bus. We picked our way across
the puddles and settled back in our lumpy seats. I lay back and gazed through
the dirty windows at the strip of land known as the Parrot’s Beak, the
land that Josimo had died for.
It lies between the Araguaia and the Tocantins; two of the large rivers
that make up the Amazon River system. Innocent green palm trees cover one
of the most violent and bloody regions of a violent continent. The violence
and the bloodshed come from the land wars.
In the beginning, no-one bothered to lay claim to the land. Land was
a gift from God, something to be used, not to be owned. All that changed
in 1960, with the coming of the first road. Before that, the region had
been inhabited by small bands of Indians and others of mixed European and
African descent, who had drifted in by river, attracted by fertile lands,
or the occasional find of gold or diamonds. To the east lie the great drylands
of Piauí, Ceará and Maranhão, and these lands
have always provided and still provide a steady stream of migrants heading
west to the green lands by the great rivers. The early settlers cleared
patches of forest and put in their little fields of manioc, rice, beans
and corn. They built small settlements and these were named after the first
arrivals; Firmino’s Center, Ferreiro’s Center, Center of the Mulattos.
The fields were moved every year or two, and there was land enough for
everyone. Babassu palm trees grew in profusion, and the women pressed delicious
cooking oil from the nuts, wove baskets from the leaves, and made charcoal
from the husks. There were fish in the rivers and game in the forest, and
the land provided a good living for those who didn’t need to plan very
far ahead. Although no-one had title to the land, they were entitled by
law to squatters’ rights, but they never knew about that until it was too
The Parrot’s Beak—so named for its shape on the map—lies at the extreme
northern end of the state of Tocantins, which split off from Goiás
in 1988. It is more than a thousand miles north of the federal capital,
Brasília One of the chief ideas behind building Brasília
was to attract development to the hitherto untouched heartland of continent-sized
Brazil, and in order to do this it was necessary to build some roads. The
very first of these, the Road of the Jaguar, was scheduled to cut across
the eastern edge of Amazônia to the mouth of the Amazon River at
Construction began in 1960, and for the inhabitants of the Parrot’s
Beak the good times vanished like the morning mist. People came swarming
up the new road, looking for land, looking for gold, looking for a new
life. Since the peasants had no clear notion about the concept of property,
they were easily persuaded to part from their lands in exchange for a rifle,
a bicycle, or a piece of paper promising some money.
The new owners started to fence off the land, and forbade access to
the babassu palm trees. They moved in, announced that the land was now
theirs, and produced documents to prove it. Any families in residence were
ordered to leave, and those who protested soon attracted unwelcome attention
from hired gunmen. If that didn’t frighten them off, they were served with
eviction notices. Entire villages were emptied, houses and crops were burnt,
and the people were intimidated, beaten up and sometimes killed. In their
bewilderment they found no place to turn.
But help was at hand. In 1979 a lay missionary from Italy arrived in
the Parrot’s Beak. His name was Nicola. He started walking from community
to community, listening to the problems of the peasants, telling them about
their legal rights, and helping them organize the first elements of resistance.
He was joined soon afterwards by three French nuns, Mada, Bia, and Nicole,
and a Brazilian nun called Lurdinha from the far south of the country.
In 1983 Padre Josimo came to take over the parish of São Sebastião,
a small village right at the end of the Parrot’s Beak. For a short time
this extraordinarily talented and courageous group was to challenge the
power of the establishment, stand up for the dispossessed, and threaten
the local power structure. It was to be a long hard battle, and Josimo
was to pay for it with his life.
This was the story I had come in search of, and as I looked at the faces
of my fellow passengers on the bus, I tried to imagine which of them had
known Josimo, and what effect he had had on their lives.
The stony road managed to be both muddy and dusty at the same time.
We were traveling through a green landscape; low forest, lots of babassu
palms, small clearings of corn, beans, rice, and manioc, and the occasional
cattle pastures. The villages are nothing but higgledy-piggledy collections
of mud huts with thatch roofs, but Sítio Novo has turned itself
into a town and boasts a large square, a telephone office, and several
The local office of the Pastoral Land Commission is just off the main
square, next to the church. I wander over to check whether Xavier, the
French Dominican friar who is setting up lines of credit for the local
village associations, is home. But the office is all shut up, and I stick
a note under the door and make my way back to the square in the hopes of
finding a ride to Itaguatins. Several pickup trucks are parked there, but
they are all going the other way. Itaguatins, it seems, is on the road
to nowhere. “Best thing is to go wait at the turnoff,” advises one of the
villagers. “Most of the traffic going through here is headed for Imperatriz.”
I shoulder my pack and head for the turnoff. Fortunately there is a
house there, and better still the ancient owner invites me into the shade,
where there is a rocking chair strung with broken plastic. All the traffic,
without exception, is going to Imperatriz. The old man gets bored of talking
to me and goes inside to take a siesta. His rhythmic snores fill me with
an overwhelming desire to do the same, but the confines of the plastic
rocking chair do not permit.
It is one o’clock, the hearing is scheduled for two thirty, and there
seems to be no way I can get there on time. I am beginning to get a bit
edgy when a telephone company truck draws up in a cloud of dust and agrees
to give me a ride. By a miracle we are in Itaguatins by two. I do not find
the bustle I had expected to see, with lawyers swarming all over the place.
The town is wrapped in profound silence. I make my way to the Forum and
inquire. “Hearing?” says the girl at the desk as she listlessly pecks at
an elderly typewriter. “Oh no, it’s been canceled. The judge is on holiday.”
I flounce out and look venomously at the small town. It consists of
two streets of neatly painted houses. Very small donkeys wander around.
The flooded brown river sweeps past. Everyone is asleep. I seek refuge
in the priest’s house. He is traveling, but I’m welcome to stay the night.
There’s no bus before the morning. I dump my stuff and while away the rest
of the day listening to one of the justice officials telling me about his
blameless part in the local land evictions. We both know he is lying. It
is almost too hot to matter. But he does mention, in passing, that there
were a couple of murders out in Mata Seca a short time back.
After a restless and mosquito-ridden night, I am up at dawn to catch
the bus to Itaguatins. I hear the sound of a car engine approaching, and
to my immense delight who should round the corner but Xavier the French
friar from Sítio Novo, together with a jeepload of people from the
Rural Workers’ Union. They are heading for Mata Seca to check out the murders.
In response to my urgent request, Xavier decides he can squeeze in one
more. This is far better than attending an audience at the forum. Right
here are three of the best-known figures of the whole land struggle in
the area: Dona Raimunda who once lunched with Danielle Mitterrand in Paris—and
didn’t think much of the food—João Custódio, veteran of innumerable
standoffs with the police, and Maria Senhora, the articulate black union
leader from the Centro dos Mulatos. Together with Xavier, his colleague
Pedro, and a couple of other union officials, we are to spend the next
forty-eight hours in Mata Seca, hearing the full story of the murders,
and helping the squatters draw up a plan of action. These are the first
land-related deaths in this particular area, and the squatters have sent
out an urgent plea for help.
“Hey!” shouts Pedro, wrestling with the steering-wheel as the Toyota
bucks across the ruts. “Tell us the story of Mata Seca, somebody.”
“I’ll tell you what I know,” says Iran, the union leader from Tocantinópolis.
“It’s a complex situation. To start with, Mata Seca is Indian land, although
the Indians have never objected to the squatters. There are sixteen squatter
families there, and most of them live on their own little plots. Been there
for more than fifteen years, most of them, and never had any problems.
Recently this guy Gideão shows up and says he has got title to a
piece of land in the middle; right next to Zé Barros and Mauro.
Well, at first he doesn’t bother them, but then he decides he likes the
look of their lands and so he hires a pistoleiro to go round scaring
them off. First thing that happens is that Zé Barros’ house gets
burned down. Luckily there’s no-one in it. Then they set fire to his corn
crop. Fifteen acres of it. Then this same pistoleiro, Gerínio,
son of Rattlesnake, goes over to Mauro’s place and starts shooting at the
fence posts. Intimidation tactics, of course, but pretty effective all
the same. So the squatters get together and go talk to the police about
it, and eventually seven families sign a good neighbor statement with Gideão.
“But it doesn’t end there. Seems that Zé Barros and one of his
sons—a young lad of fifteen or so—are out in the field one day and they
hear that the pistoleiro Gerínio is around. So they go and
hide in the little shelter they have there, and when Gerínio comes
along Zé Barros plugs him with his shot-gun. What he doesn’t see
is that Gideão’s son, Gidevan, is right behind, and when Zé
stands up to take a look, Gidevan shoots him dead. Zé Barros just
has time to shout to his boy, and he takes a shot at Gidevan, but
fortunately he misses.
“Rumor has it Gideão has hired a whole lot more gunmen, and he’s
as mad as a snake because they had a go at his son; half of the squatters
are in fear and trembling and the other half are hell-bent on revenge,
and, if you ask me, I’d say the thing could blow up any time.”
I closed my eyes and wondered what I was getting myself into. I’d known
what was going on in the Amazon land wars. I’d actually volunteered to
come to the Amazon and investigate them, and one of the things that had
triggered my quest had been the figure of twelve million landless peasants,
in a land the size of the United States. Twelve million people forced to
take to the road in search of a living. It was as if the entire population
of Calcutta had packed up its bags and bundles and was off to find a new
life. I knew that hundreds of thousands of families had landed up in the
cruel cardboard slums of the huge cities, others had drifted into poorly-paid
jobs in construction and industry, others had succumbed to gold fever and
rushed like lemmings to the subhuman conditions of the gold mines. And
countless thousands had swarmed to the agricultural frontier as it swept
up into the empty spaces of Amazônia, where they had cleared their
patches of forest, planted their crops, and watched their dreams die as
the soils were exhausted. I had spoken to families who had doggedly moved
on; five, ten times; leaving their lands to be snapped up by the wave of
speculators that followed them like a pack of hyenas. But I could sense
that here in Mata Seca things were different. The people here were making
their last stand. They had found fertile lands, they had raised their crops,
and they intended to stay put.
They were facing a group of people that was equally determined to move
them on. Nine out of ten squatters had never heard of the Greater Carajás
Project—the multi-billion dollar scheme to develop one of the richest mineral
areas in the world. But they all knew about the gold strike at Serra Pelada;
most families had at least one member who had tried his luck there at one
time or another. What they didn’t know was that, as part of the Greater
Carajás Project, government planners had zoned their area for cattle
ranching. The idea was to raise beef for export and send it out on the
Carajás railroad to the port at São Luís. On a still
night the inhabitants of São Sebastião could hear the train
whistle as it passed by on the other side of the river. But they were completely
unaware of the implications of the government’s mammoth development plan.
Cattle ranching requires capital, and it requires large stretches of land.
Cattle ranching is inimical to small squatters on their subsistence plots,
and that is why the government had given its tacit consent to their expulsion.
There were only two organizations fighting for the dispossessed; the church
and the unions. Without support from these, the squatters would have been
After several wrong turns we arrive at a clearing in the forest, and
park the car in front of a small house of wooden stakes with a thatch roof.
This is the house of Mazoniel; head of the recently formed squatters’ association.
During the course of the morning several of them drift in, and finally
the meeting gets under way. The men are thin, sharp-faced, watchful as
a pack of wolves. Each one props his rifle up against the wall, within
easy reach. We sit on benches made of tree trunks, ranged round the wall.
The women huddle in the kitchen. One or two small children and dogs play
on the beaten earth floor. There’s a table, a shelf with a water filter,
a few posters on the walls. Half partitioned off is the bedroom and next
to it the kitchen, with its mud stove and its shelves full of plates and
mugs. A stout board outside holds a tin wash-pan and the gourd of washing-up
water. Bathing is done in the river. Anything else in the forest.
The squatters reconstruct the story for us. They are jittery, expecting
more violence. There is a stir when one-eyed Mauro comes in, he has come
out of hiding for the occasion. The tension is cut by the calm voice of
João Custódio, speaking from his long experience. He explains
that the trick is for people to stay together. To work together. One man
makes an easy target, but a gunman won’t take on a group. If people stick
together they won’t get killed.
The men eye one another uneasily. Dona Raimunda marches into the center
of the room and looking over her glasses she addresses them as if they
were a bunch of unruly schoolchildren. She bends over to draw a triangle
on the dirt floor. “This,” she announces, “is called a pyramid. It shows
us how the world works. At the top here, the pointed bit, are the very
few people who live at the expense of all the others at the bottom. And,
deep down, we all want to be at the top. But we can only climb up by treading
on our companions. And if we do that, we’ll be on our own.
“Do you know something? We human beings aren’t nearly as smart as the
animals. They know they can’t be safe if they’re alone. They know they
need to be together; they do it by instinct. But we keep wanting to do
things by ourselves. That’s why people don’t join the union,” she looked
round fiercely, “because they can’t see what’s in it for them. I tell you
what’s in it. If we’re all together we can get what we want. If we try
on our own we’ll never get anywhere.”
Maria Senhora isn’t the combative type. Soft-spoken but firm. “What
we have to remember about the union is this,” she begins. “It doesn’t matter
how few you are so long as you all act together. Let me tell you the story
of Zé Antônio. The ranchers came to him and said they wanted
his land. They even said they’d indemnify him. Then they looked a little
closer and saw that Zé Antônio had a lot of fruit trees, so
they’d have to pay a lot more than they’d planned. They sent round a pistoleiro
to see the lie of the land. Pretended he wanted to buy some chickens.
Well, Zé didn’t like the look of the pistoleiro so he told
him to come back in the morning and the chickens would be ready. Meantime
he sent for all his friends. Next morning they were all waiting when the
pistoleiro came and they caught him and made him confess. Well,
if they hadn’t got together and made a plan someone would have been killed.
Anyone can see that.”
“I use the picture of the swarm of bees,” said Mazoniel, “Mess about
with one and the rest will be after you.”
“Right!” said Raimunda. “That’s why you must move your houses. Build
them close together. Put them so close you can smell each other’s food
cooking. You never know when you’re going to need each other. The pistoleiros
won’t go after you if you’re all together, but if you’re alone they’ll
pick you off one by one.”
The squatters discuss the matter over lunch, bowls of rice and beans
with roasted manioc. Halfway through the meal there is a commotion as three
strangers ride up. Mauro slips into the kitchen, and four or five of the
men pick up their rifles and go outside. Through the wooden stockade walls
we can see the strangers approach. One of them takes out a bottle of the
local firewater and passes it round. There is a short, stilted conversation,
and they turn to leave. No sooner are they out of sight than Raimunda lays
into the men. “I don’t know what you boys were thinking of!” she harangues
them. “Accepting a nip out of the bottle like that! Anybody’d think you
were born yesterday. I suppose they asked you your names?” Bashful silence
and averted eyes confirm her suspicion. “You never do that again, do you
hear me? They’re only trying to find out who’s here. Looking for Mauro,
I don’t doubt.” Mauro shrinks into his corner. He’s blind in one eye. I
feel heart sore for him.
Later that evening I talk to Dona Antônia, Zé Barros’ widow.
A frail woman, she is still in shock.
“We’d been married thirty years,” she whispers. “Zé Barros was
as good a man as you’ll find. Never harmed a fly. And there am I with seven
children and no food in the house. I haven’t had the nerve to set foot
in the fields since that day.” Her ravaged face bears eloquent testimony
to her suffering.
“Never harmed a fly.” The thought haunts me as I lie in my hammock that
night. We string our hammocks in a row, and I put mine well in the middle,
convincing myself that Raimunda is right and there will be no shoot-out
tonight because we are all together. Zé Barros never harmed a fly.
But he killed the pistoleiro. Had it been just like killing a snake,
something done on the spur of the moment? Had he planned it? My thoughts
whirl round and round. THOU SHALT NOT KILL. What then shall we do?
A Land to Die For by Binka Le Breton, Clarity
Press, 1997. Published by permission. Price: $12.95 plus $3.95 shipping.
The book can be ordered COD or by credit card by calling (800) 626-4330.
Binka Le Breton is a British journalist living in Brazil.
She also wrote Voices from the Amazon and The Rain Forest.
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