Two Faces of an Amazon Family: Ruthless Speculator Father, Eco Dreamer Daughter

The father, Ariosto da Riva, was a notorious land speculator; his daughter, Vitória da Riva Carvalho built a renowned eco-resort in the rainforest. Both have shaped the Amazon.

Ariosto da Riva was often described as “the last of the bandeirantes”, the violent adventurers who first penetrated the Brazilian Amazon in the 16th century in search of gold. Working with Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985), he owned a million hectares of forest, pushed indigenous people from their lands, and brought in settlers.

His daughter, Vitória da Riva Carvalho, though wealthy, did not buy into his legacy. She is noted instead for her strong defense of the rainforest and for her world-renowned ecotourism destination, the Cristalino Jungle Lodge, located outside the town of Alta Floresta — which her father settled — in northernmost Mato Grosso state.

The evolution of the relationship between father and daughter helps trace the unfolding land conflicts that have smouldered and exploded in the Amazon between indigenous and traditional peoples on one side; and land speculators, land grabbers, loggers, settlers and soy growers on the other.

Today, most of the indigenous people who lived in the region where the Cristalino Jungle Lodge entertains its wealthy guests are gone — dead, pushed into indigenous reserves, or retreated elsewhere. But for now, the rainforest and much extraordinary biodiversity remains, with people like Vitória da Riva Carvalho as its stewards.

The Tapajós River Basin lies at the heart of the Amazon, and at the heart of an exploding controversy: whether to build 40+ large dams, a railway, and highways, turning the Basin into a vast industrialized commodities export corridor; or to curb this development impulse and conserve one of the most biologically and culturally rich regions on the planet.

Those struggling to shape the Basin’s fate hold conflicting opinions, but because the Tapajós is an isolated region, few of these views get aired in the media. Journalist Sue Branford and social scientist Mauricio Torres travelled there recently for Mongabay, and over coming weeks hope to shed some light on the heated debate that will shape the future of the Amazon. This is the eighth of their reports.

We have almost a third of the birds in Brazil in this region, which means about 600 species, and we’re still finding new ones”, says Vitória da Riva Carvalho with quiet pride, sitting by the tinkling waters of a fountain in the lush, elegant garden of her luxury hotel on the outskirts of the town of Alta Floresta (High Forest), in northernmost Mato Grosso state.

It was this vast host of singing and soaring birds that played a key role in establishing Riva Carvalho’s successful — and now world-renowned ­— ecotourism project, Cristalino Jungle Lodge.

“In 1989, Ted Parker [a famed American ornithologist] visited us and loved the place”, remembered Riva Carvalho. He noted that her Amazonian hotel was at the same latitude as Peru, one of the most biologically diverse country on earth, and that its surroundings held a wealth of species.

“We began to take off after Ted’s visit”, recalled Riva Carvalho. Parker spread the word and international birders started visiting, as did other nature lovers. “We have about 1,500 species of butterflies, the greatest diversity in Brazil, and many more extraordinary things”, Riva Carvalho boasted.

“Birds and animals don’t cross the Amazon’s large rivers so we [also] have niches of endemic species. For instance, the white-whiskered spider money (Ateles marginatus), only found in a fairly small area between the Tapajós and Tocantins Rivers.”

A lodge visit is expensive, attracting mainly Europeans and Americans. But for those with money, the eco-resort provides a magical experience.

A biologist guide enhances walks through the exuberant rainforest, describing the many tree species, some towering 30-40 meters (100-130 feet). Walks include a clamber up a 50-meter (160 foot) tower which looms above the canopy, from which guests catch sight of flocks of scarlet macaws, and if lucky, a harpy eagle.

Overnight, visitors stay in the 18-apartment eco-lodge, cleverly designed to make all feel that they’re in the heart of the forest. Great effort has been made to reduce the lodge’s carbon footprint, with the use of solar panels, ventilators and an ingenious sanitation system in which the roots of banana trees and heliconia plants absorb nutrients and detoxify sewage.

Ecotourism Atop a Darker Legacy

To the foreign visitor, lacking knowledge of the clash between Brazilian and Amazonian cultures, the success of the Cristalino Jungle Lodge is, on the surface, a simple feel-good story, perfect for the Sunday Times travel supplement: Local green businesswoman establishes one of the world’s best eco-lodges.

In truth, the ecotourism project, with all its attractive features, sits at the peaceful end of an often violent land expropriation process in which Vitória’s father, Ariosto da Riva, played a key role — he is often described as “the last of the bandeirantes”, the violent adventurers who first penetrated Brazil’s hinterland in the 16th and 17th centuries in search of gold.

It’s a history marked by a vicious struggle over land, with underdog indigenous communities and traditional peasant families on one side; and land speculators, loggers, ranchers, and soy growers on the other — and with both sides seeking support from the authorities.

Numerous studies by archaeologists have long confirmed the intense indigenous occupation of the Tapajós and Teles Pires river valleys in which the Cristalino Jungle Lodge now stands.

And a flurry of studies by ethnobotanists have shown that — through careful management over centuries — the Indians played an important role in creating the abundance of the Amazonian forest, a fecundity that led early explorers to regard this region as “an earthly paradise untouched by man”.

But Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985) knew nothing of this and stoutly maintained that no one lived in the rainforest. It was during their rule that one of the most violent processes of indigenous expropriation took place in this region in the 1960s and 1970s as part of a military drive to “occupy the Amazon”.

That story can be told through Ariosto da Riva’s life. Born in 1915, he left his home in São Paulo state at age 17 to prospect for diamonds in the north of Brazil. Ariosto then worked for, and learned well from, Geremia Lunardelli, a fortune hunter who set up suspect land deals and settlements in the north of the state of Paraná.

In the mid-1960s, Ariosto received generous funding from Sudam (Amazon Development Superintendency) to open up a region for settlement between the headwaters of the Araguaia and Xingu rivers in the northeast part of Mato Grosso state. There he established the Suia-Missu ranch, covering 450,000 hectares (1,737 square miles).

From the start, he was embroiled in conflict with the Xavante Indians, who refused contact with outsiders trying to take land that they had occupied for centuries. Ariosto and other new arrivals became increasingly angry at the indigenous resistance, with the Suia-Missu ranch manager complaining that the Indians were stealing knives, axes and manioc flour.

In an egregious abuse of power, the military stepped in and in 1966 airlifted out 300 troublemaking Indians. Shortly afterwards 80 Indians died in a measles epidemic. Indian survivors fled to other areas occupied by the Xavantes in southern Mato Grosso, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) from their original homeland.

Rid of the Indians, Ariosto da Riva increased the size of his ranch to about 800,000 hectares (3,089 square miles) or as much as 1.7 million hectares (6,563 square miles) according to some accounts, making it the largest in Brazil at the time.

But the last of the bandeirantes was far more interested in clinching profitable land deals than in farming, and he sold his ranch in the 1970s to the Italian-owned cattle breeding company, Liquifarm do Brasil, which then sold it to an Italian oil company, Agip Petroli.

During the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, Agip Petroli, under pressure from environmentalists in Italy, handed 165,000 hectares (407,000 acres) of land back to the Xavante, who renamed it Marãiwatséde (“Thick Forest”). The Brazilian Indian agency, Funai, began an anthropological study to decide just how much land rightly belonged to the Indians.

That might seem a happy ending for the Xavante, except that a number of new, supposed landowners, whose property was going to be handed back to the Indians, refused to go.

The Xavante indigenous reserve was created in the 1990s, but the landowners were only forcibly removed in 2015, after years of conflict. The animosity became so intense that it put at risk the life of Dom Pedro Casaldáliga, a left-wing Spanish bishop, who had been one of the Xavantes’ few supporters during their long years of exile.

In 2012, the bishop, by then 84 years old and suffering from Parkinsons disease, received death threats and had to be taken out of the region for his own safety.

The long-running conflict didn’t end there. While the supposed landowners have been removed, they remain strong. And many feel particularly emboldened since 2016, when President Michel Temer began implementing anti-indigenous policies that are causing huge resentment within indigenous reserves.

Cattle raising is still the dominant invasive activity in this part of the state, but soy production is also moving in rapidly.

After he sold Suiá-Missu, Ariosto moved further west in Mato Grosso. He formed a company called INDECO (Integration, Development and Colonization) and, as in the past, bought huge tracts.

According to University of São Paulo geographer Ariovaldo Umbelino de Oliveira, he purchased “500,000 hectares in 1971 for 15 cruzeiros a hectare (that is, the price of six packets of cigarettes)”, and two years later he “bought 400,000 hectares from an area belonging to the state government for only 50 cruzeiros a hectare”.

He set up three colonization projects within this nearly one million hectare (3,861 square mile) area: Alta Floresta, Paranaíta and Apiacás”. According to the government, these projects were efficiently run; a parliamentary enquiry carried out in 1977 reported that INDECO was the only company that surpassed its targets in terms of families it settled.

The next generation

Ariosto is regarded by some critics as a hard-headed, unscrupulous businessman, out for quick profits, but his daughter Riva Carvalho, understandably, has a different view: “My father was often misunderstood”, she told us on a visit to Cristalino Jungle Lodge last November.

“He always wanted to set up a sustainable farming project. Indeed, in the beginning, my brother worked with the settlers to cultivate guaraná and cacao in the forest and to collect Brazil nuts”. But it was a difficult time in Brazil, with high inflation.

“Many settlers went off to pan for gold, thinking they would get rich quick. Of course, they didn’t. But when they came back, they didn’t want to plant crops [in the Amazon rainforest] so they cleared the land and reared cattle. The whole project lost its original intention.”

But this story is disputed: geographer and professor Ariovaldo Umbelino de Oliveira reports that the influx of garimpeiros, the wildcat goldminers, benefited Alta Floresta.

“When the garimpo [gold mine] grew, the city grew”, he explained, and Ariosto knew this and profited from the growth: “While he publicly defended the settlements and tilling the land, even waiters in restaurants in the town can tell you stories that tell you something very different.”

When Riva Carvalho began thinking about ecotourism in the late 1980s, huge swathes of Amazon rainforest were still being felled by cattle ranchers, and the rural district of Alta Floresta alone had 700,000 head of cattle, the fourth highest in the state of Mato Grosso.

Rapid development there was alarming environmentalists, as the region around Alta Floresta had been classified by biologists as “one of extreme importance for the conservation of biodiversity”.

That is because it is located on the edge of the so-called “arc of devastation”, a band of largely protected forest that marks the transition from cerrado — now mostly developed savanna — to the much more intact Amazon rainforest.

This arc sweeps in a crescent from east-to-west across northern Brazil — beginning in eastern Pará state, running through the north of Tocantins and Mato Grosso states, ending in Rondônia and Acre in the west. It earned this name because for many years it was the region where the most deforestation was occurring, with the arrival of the agricultural frontier.

In 2011 the government created the Parque Estadual do Cristalino (Cristalino State Park), covering 118,000 hectares (450 square miles). It is part of a gigantic buffer zone that includes to the west a biological reserve and the Kayabi/Munduruku indigenous territory, as well as a military facility to the north of 2.2 million hectares (8,494 square miles), known as the Cachimbo Air Base; along with the Menkragnoti indigenous territory to the east and northeast. It is hoped that this zone will act as a major barrier to future illegal deforestation.

Riva Carvalho, an enthusiastic supporter of this government land protection effort, owns 11,399 hectares (28,167 acres) of rainforest directly adjacent to Cristalino State Park, which she has dubbed the Cristalino Lodge Forest Reserve. However, most of her land isn’t a reserve in the official sense.

Despite the impression given on the lodge’s website, Riva Carvalho only turned a fraction of her property, 670 hectares or 1,655 acres, into an RPPN (Private Natural Heritage Reserve) in 1997 — an irreversible step, with no logging permitted now or in the future. The website claim is easily discounted by a look at the measure creating the RPPN lote Cristalino.

Toward an Uneasy Peace

The creation of the Cristalino State Park was not enough to preserve it fully in this lawless Amazon region. The government failed to provide adequate park protection, and land thieves began to invade. In 2005, SEMA, the state government’s environmental department, fined 17 people for illegally clearing land within the park.

Those fined included Antônio José Junqueira Vilela, known as AJJ, a notorious land thief and a national icon for the amount of beef he produced. AJJ received SEMA’s then largest fine ever for illegally clearing 40,000 hectares (154.4 square miles) of park land.

Then in 2006, state deputies pushed a bill through the Mato Grosso State Assembly to remove an area from the park (almost certainly the territory wanted by AJJ), and, in compensation, attached Riva Carvalho’s Cristalino Lodge Forest Reserve to the park.

However, after loud protests — including an “SOS-License to Deforest Cristalino” plea distributed in Brazil and abroad by Riva Carvalho and others ­ the state governor, who by then was Blairo Maggi, decided to veto the bill.

It was reported in the press at the time that to placate AJJ (one of Maggi’s backers) Blairo Maggi made a deal with him, giving an official stamp of approval to two small hydrodams AJJ had built illegally near the park.

Maggi’s veto was, in turn, overturned by the legislative assembly. But in January 2007, a state judge, José Zuquim Nogueira, intervened suspending the reduction in park size.

Since then, there has been an uneasy peace. And Riva Carvalho has pushed ahead with her eco-lodge. But ecotourism in a region that was so recently emptied of most of its indigenous people is an issue that provokes passions.

To some, particularly foreign birders and tourists, Riva Carvalho is a courageous eco-warrior, valiantly defending her beloved rainforest from further devastation.

To others, particularly Brazilian social activists, she is judged more harshly as carrying on in her father’s tradition of exploitation, except that she knows that money made from the Amazon forest today needs to be greenwashed.

Whatever the truth, Riva Carvalho told us that she reconciled with her father just before his death in 1992; Ariosto da Riva said then of her Amazon vision: “Vitória, you are right.”

This articles appeared originally in Mongabay –


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