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The Nutcrackers and 'the Chainsaw Queen': The Fight for Control Over Brazil's Amazon

A struggle is underway in northeast Brazil between small-scale farmers, many of whom are descended from slaves, and the federal government, which is opening huge swaths of forest to industrial-scale agricultural projects.
August 7, 2015, 1:50pm
Photo by Peter Guest

"There are deaths all the time now in Codó," Francisca María Perreira said.

Cradled in a huge forest of babaçu palms, the town of Codó is a single stretch of shops, bars, and gas stations along the highway, surrounded by a warren of dirt roads through the trees. An influx of drugs and money has led to a surge in violent crime here in Maranhão, one Brazil's poorest states.

Perreira, 31, is a child of the country's landless poor. Her father is a fisherman, her mother is a quebradeira de coco — a traditional harvester of nuts from the babaçu palm tree that grows across northeast Brazil. They were only granted the legal rights to their land in the 1990s, serving for decades under the quasi-feudal rule of wealthy landlords, paying their exorbitant rent in rice.

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The scars of the long battles over land are deep in places like Codó, and communities are deeply mistrustful of the huge and politically influential agro-industrial companies that succeeded the old "gauchos."

A new fight is coming to Codó. In May, the federal agriculture minister, Kátia Abreu — a former rancher nicknamed "the chainsaw queen" — launched a new investment program that threatens to reignite these simmering tensions. The initiative, MATOPIBA — named for the four states that it encompasses, Maranhão, Tocantiz, Piaui and Bahia — will, in the government's own words, redraw Brazil's agro-industrial frontier, opening up 73 million hectares of savannah and forest to be turned into monocultures of soy, eucalyptus, and teak.

The babaçu palms have long been carved out to make way for cattle, the trees giving way to shimmering gold and green pastures patrolled by bone-white cows and jet-black vultures. Now there are eucalyptus plantations too, created to feed paper and cellulose mills and for charcoal used in steelmaking. They are small, for now, but Perreira has been south to Imperatriz where the plantations stretch uninterrupted for miles.

Someone has been buying up and clearing land across the river from her home — her father Antonio says he is "an orange," a local slang for a frontman or patsy. He is convinced that the orange is acting for someone in government who is positioning themselves to profit from a future rise in the value of real estate.

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"It's already here, and it's not going to stop," Perreira said. "And sooner or later, they're going to try to take our land."

Francisca María Perreira's home in Codó, Marahão is on an increasingly violent economic frontier.

Eucalyptus plantations are encroaching on babaçu forests across Brazil's Maranhão state, feeding the local paper and cellulose industries.

According to a planning document for the initiative, prepared for the government, less than 22 percent of the land covered by MATOPIBA is legally titled for communities and conservation areas; the rest is open for exploitation.

The fight is not just over land and the economic security and opportunity that comes with it. It is about an identity that crosses racial and social boundaries, unifying landless rural families, indigenous peoples, and the quilombolas, the descendants of escaped slaves — it is that of the quebradeiras de coco, the hundreds of thousands of people, mainly women, who harvest and break the nuts from the babaçu palm tree for food, oil, and charcoal.

The babaçu palms are also a symbol of resistance and economic freedom, tightly bound to the struggle for land rights throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Thirty years ago, the quebradeira movement went up against the military dictatorship to demand rights over the land and the forest. In many places, they won, gaining land titles and access to the babaçu, at the same time helping to undermine the power of the landowners and cattle ranchers.

A study from the State University of Maranhão estimates that there are 27 million hectares of babaçu palms standing in the way of MATOPIBA. The government has declared them "secondary forest," distinct from the primary rainforest that it has promised to protect — and ripe for being cleared to make way for the 'green deserts' of industrial monocultures.

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Throughout lean years the cocos de babaçu have been a means of survival and economic independence for rural women, used in the home and sold in the markets for a few extra Brazilian real. In some states the tree has legal special status, and the quebradeiras have access to it wherever it grows — often to the irritation of commercial landowners. As their forests face a new threat, the quebradeiras are stirring.

"Anything that comes from Kátia [Abreu] is bad for us," said Emilia Alves da Silva Rodrigues, a 62-year-old quebradeira from Bico do Papagaio, Tocantins. "We make her nauseous."

Emilia Alves da Silva Rodrigues has been a member of the quebradeira movement since the violent struggles over land in the 1980s.

Trucks haul timber in Coquelândia, Maranhão, where timber plantations are competing for land and resources.

Abreu has been a senator in Tocantins since 2007, and was a deputy before that. Her political power in the state means that it is one of the most enthusiastic adopters of the plan.

The road to Bico de Papagaio runs through kilometer after kilometer of timber plantations. The parched vegetation is so completely coated in deep orange dust that for miles by the roadside the landscape is completely monochrome.

"It's going to be very difficult to beat her," Rodrigues said. "I don't know if we're ready."

Rodrigues joined the struggle in the chaotic 1980s, when ranchers openly sponsored violent attacks on rural workers who organized against them. At first a campaign that sought free access to the babaçu, it spiraled into a political movement that demanded property rights, an end to endemic violence against women, and equal opportunities for the rural poor.

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Today, quebradeiras in six states are united under the Movimento Interestadual das Quebradeiras de Coco Babaçu, or MIQCB. They are determined to use the profile that they have built over the past three decades to slow the advance of the agro-industrialists.

"We will talk to the ministers. If the ministries aren't listening, we'll go to the president," said Francisca da Silva Nascimento, 33, the group's coordinator. "We didn't have that power before. All we had was the police, who would knock on the door."

"Agro-industry is not going to help us," she added. "We aren't against development. We just want a development that lets us keep our livelihoods and our dignity. … It's not going to be the legislators' land, or the governor's land. It's going to be our land, and we have to defend ourselves."

María do Soccoro Teixeira Lima, second left, is a firebrand activist, unable to contain her contempt for agriculture minister Katia Abreu.

Babaçu nuts, seen here in Codó, Maranhão, are a source of economic independence for rural women.

MATOPIBA is driven by economic necessity. In São Luís, the former slave port and state capital of Maranhão, there are wide gaps in the convoy of waiting ships that used to fill the horizon. Exports to China have slowed as that country's economy stutters, and the government hopes that agro-industry will kick-start Brazil's stalled growth and continue the economic development that has dragged the country from a heavily indebted, third-world nation to a global political force.

That growth, principally driven by exports of iron, oil, and agricultural commodities, also financed huge social programs under the socialist government of Luiz Inácio 'Lula' da Silva. In particular, the Bolsa Familia — welfare payments to low-income households — has improved the lives of millions of rural and urban families.

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MATOPIBA is a dramatic reversal, promoting the interests of wealthy agro-industrialists above and beyond those of the poor who put Lula, and then his successor, Dilma Rousseff, into office. Rousseff struggled in the 2014 elections, and her cabinet is a reflection of the political deals she made to stay in power. The compromise that put Abreu into the agriculture ministry feels like a betrayal to the quebradeiras.

"We put Dilma in power, and this is how she repays us?" says María do Socorro Teixeira Lima, a MIQCB activist. "We are going to make Abreu swallow her plan."

Related: Brazil Pledges on Climate Change, Zero Deforestation Are a 'Crushing Disappointment'

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Photos by Peter Guest