Frontier Towns 4th July 2007

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São Félix do Xingu: Churches are on every street.São Félix do Xingu has had a chequered history. It sits at the junction of the Fresco River with the Xingu, close to the geographical centre of Brazil. Ferries cross both rivers, giving access to areas of land which are nominally protected under Brazilian law, but are some of the most intense areas of deforestation in the world. São Félix grew rapidly from a few houses in the middle of the last century as the timber industry moved into the area.

Today São Félix is a thriving little town, deriving its income from the many cattle ranches which have been torn out of the forest, and the timber which is felled in the process. The internet cafés and computer shops sit uncomfortably next to stores providing saddles and horse-drawn carts. There is an evangelical church on every street, and the town is dominated by a large Catholic church.

Street sign in São Félix do XinguBut São Félix has another side. There remain several large landowners who still use gunmen to frighten away, and occasionally kill, any of their workers who have stepped out of line. Sometimes the violence penetrates to the heart of the town, and the citizens witness the gory end of a gunman who has displeased his boss, right on their doorsteps.

In a recent report, the national newspaper O Globo told of the violence, citing the murder of Pedro Lira following a disagreement with a local landowner. The 23-year-old farmer’s ear was cut off to prove to the person who ordered his murder that the crime had been carried out.

IBAMA , the government environment agency, has no representation in the town. The illegal logging trucks roll through the town with depressing frequency. They are easy to identify; they are ancient and decrepit, and bear no registration plates. If by any remote chance they were to be apprehended, the vehicle might be seized but the owner could not be traced; the drivers are all too aware of their bosses’ reputations to offer any co-operation to the authorities in identifying those behind the destruction.

Illegal logging truckThese are no small-scale backwoods operations. The richest landowner keeps a helicopter at the airport and buzzes above the town just for pleasure during his occasional visits.

It is said that one of the most dangerous men in the area recently arranged for his criminal record, complete with outstanding charges, to be ‘cleansed’; this can only be achieved by someone with connections at the very highest level of the Federal government. The names of senior members of the government are frequently cited as having large holdings of land in the area, albeit often in the names of third party nominees.

Flying over the area reveals the extent of deforestation. There is a law in Brazil that the owners of land in Amazonia may not deforest more than a fifth of their land; yet our overflight let us see that the converse is true; in many areas outside of the indigenous reserves, barely a fifth of the land retains its forest cover.

A further paradox; the density of cattle on the land we flew over seems to be very low. In the past, we would see huge herds of cattle; nowadays there are just a few head spread out over a large area. Admittedly this is merely a casual observation, but it seemed very obvious to us that something has changed in the forces driving land ownership and use. Perhaps buying and selling the land through whatever corrupt channels lead to large funds of government money has taken over from husbanding cattle for meat or dairy produce as a more profitable activity?

Sign at the entrance to Ourilândia do NorteIn the interior town of Ourilândia do Norte, the mining company Onça Puma is preparing to mine a huge reserve of nickel. While mining its mineral wealth is a vital source of income for Brazil, past experience has shown that such activities attract large numbers of people into an area, and result in increased destruction of the forest. In this area where there is already a ‘black hole’ of governance and where laws are ignored rather than flouted, this new development can only be considered dangerous.

The Brazilian authorities must shoulder their responsibilities and bring the policing and regulation of this area out of the Wild West and into the twenty-first century. At present, the activities in this area more than outweigh all of the very praiseworthy efforts of Brazil to protect the Amazon environment.

Street in São Félix do XinguThe huge mining companies – Onça Puma is a subsidiary of Compania Vale do Rio Doce (CVRD), the second biggest mining company in the world – must also be seen to be improving their environmental performance. With their wealth and power, they can no longer ignore their responsibility to minimise the impact of their operations on the wider environment, or ignore the social and economic effects on the local community. CVRD should be pressing the government to intervene to put an end to the deplorable illegal practices which are devastating this area.

© Patrick Cunningham

⇒Next: Loggers and Indians

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