LÁBREA, Brazil — Residents of Lábrea – farmers large and small, descendants of the so-called rubber soldiers, and illegal loggers – have a common refrain to explain why their town, surrounded by protected forests, is one of the most violent and deforested in the Brazilian Amazon: there are no saints here.
There is no official data on violence in the tri-state border region where Amazonas, Acre and Rondônia meet, since few authorities venture here, either to monitor environmental crimes or to investigate the frequent killings of rural Brazilians. Satellites are the only effective tool to accurately monitor environmental destruction in this remote region. What they reveal is alarming.
Lábrea is among the top five worst-affected area in the Amazon biome in terms of forest destruction. Last year, it saw the fifth-largest increase in deforestation in the Legal Amazon, a region spanning all nine states in the Amazon basin. Not by coincidence, it also ranked fifth in the number of forest fires between January and July 2019, according to data from Brazilian research groups IPAM, INPE and IMAZON. Both fires and deforestation were concentrated to the south of the town near the São Domingos rubber plantation.
When traveling along São Domingos’s muddy paths, visitors can see first-hand the causes of the devastation the region is facing. Small clearings appear in the otherwise thick woods. Narrow corridors lead off the track to the heart of the forest where logging can go ahead unchecked – far away from the scrutiny of any inspectors who may decide to pay a visit.
Down the logging paths the valuable timber will be stored for months until they dry. They will be removed and taken by logging trucks to dozens of nearby sawmills to be processed and sent to markets in Brazil and abroad. Then come the fires that blanket the sky with fumes in towns thousands of kilometers away. And, of course, there is cattle – the zenith of the Amazon’s destruction.
Repórter Brasil team visited Lábrea twice last year – in June and November – to better understand the hidden reality of forest destruction. We also wanted to know the harmful consequences of illegal deforestation on people’s lives. The region shares common problems with other deforested Amazon areas: illegal logging, burning, cattle ranching, little or no environmental monitoring, unsolved murders, land conflicts, and an absentee state.
In the São Domingos rubber plantation, the system of forest destruction – and the violence resulting from it – is acute. The combination of its remote location, a lack of law enforcement and a chaotic land tenure system makes this land a laboratory for crime.
While economic interests create a profitable system to destroy the Amazon, the process that destroys lives is more complex. It is an upside-down Macondo – a place governed by tragic surrealism that replaces the cliché of lawless Amazonia with that of an Amazon where there is just one law: entropy.
In June 2019, when we visited the São Domingos rubber plantation for the first time, the families scattered over its 150,000 hectares (370,000 acres) lived their lives in apparent normality.
Six months later, on our second visit, the land had emptied. The houses seemed to have been abandoned in a hurry; dirty dishes were piled up in sinks, personal belongings had been left behind. The people who used to live here had suddenly up and left, as if driven out with little notice. One of the only people remaining was Ivani de Souza Carmo, 53, known as Louro. And that was not by chance. He had something no one else did: a legitimate land title.
Around the wooden shed where he lives, there lay the remnants of a time when there was actually a plantation here, at the peak of the Amazon rubber boom during the Second World War: a cemetery and the remains of the tracks on which carts used to carry latex collected by “rubber soldiers” like Louro’s father, who were forced to work on the plantation under an agreement with the United States following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Louro’s family has lived on the plantation for 64 years. As a settler, he received a title from the government’s Terra Legal program, which recognizes historic occupation of the land and enables him to apply for bank loans. In this place, one of the Amazon’s bloodiest corners, that piece of paper is as valuable as a bulletproof vest. “Nobody has ever messed with me”, he says.
A discreet person, Louro does not speak openly about the mass exodus. People we interviewed in Lábrea, however, say that the former residents of the rubber plantation fled violence.
While we were talking to Louro, who cultivates crops and nuts and thinks about raising cattle in the future, men wearing military uniforms were hunting across the river, carrying shotguns and a carbine. On the opposite bank from Louro’s home is the dense Iquiri National Forest. Not far from there, there are two other protected areas: the Ituxi Extractive Reserve and the Kaxarari Indigenous Land. As usual in the rubber plantation, a recent killing was the main topic of conversation.
Two weeks earlier, a man called Denis had been found dead. The settlers’ WhatsApp groups swarmed with pictures of the body. They assumed it was another murder. The autopsy was conducted in the nearest city, Acrelândia, Acre; the official cause of death was listed as meningitis.
But the hunters were not convinced. One, who declined to be identified, said he had found the body and claimed it had a gunshot wound to the face and “signs of torture”. “How can someone who is well one day die of meningitis on the next? He was killed,” he says.
Denis’s is just one of the countless unexplained deaths at the São Domingos rubber plantation.
Nemes Machado de Oliveira, born in the state of Minas Gerais, was killed in March 2019 over a plot of land at the plantation.
One Saturday morning on March 30, six hitmen on three motorcycles, all heavily armed, invaded the rubber plantation. Pedro Maciel was born in Terra Roxa, Paraná, and used to live in the first lot, right at the entrance. He was the first to be approached by the gunmen. Two of the men stayed with him as the others carried on deeper into the plantation. “They told me to get my documents because they were going to burn my house down,” he says, standing amid the rubble of his former home.
From there, the other men went to Nemes’s property. It was early, he had tended to his animals and was having breakfast. He did not have time to hide and was shot in the back, dying around 7 a.m. His home was also torched.
By 3 p.m. news of the attack had reached Acrelândia, where several settlers live during the week. The nearest police were in Acre and they couldn’t cross the state line to retrieve the body in the state of Amazonas. Amazonas police, in turn, didn’t attend because they are based too far from the site. Instead Nemes’s son, Kailon, and a group of settlers went to fetch the body. They only got to the rubber plantation on Sunday afternoon. Nemes’s body was blackened by the fire that destroyed his house and was already decomposing. Beside him, lay .38 and .22 ammunition casings.
Nemes’s execution sparked an investigation by Brazil’s Federal Police. The police declined to comment for this story, saying the investigation into Nemes’s killing was ongoing.
Reconstructing the narrative of Nemes’s death based on settler testimonies led to accounts of yet more unsolved killings of people involved with land issues in São Domingos. Porto Velho city councilor Joaquim Vilela, known as Pitico, was killed in 2017. Then his brother, Gabriel, in 2018. And there are many who have been targeted but survived.
One of them is 65-year-old Luiz Poklen, who came from the state of São Paulo. He says that at least 60 people have been killed and injured in attacks over the past five years. On August 1, 2017, he entered the statistics himself. He was on a motorcycle with his son on one of the paths that cross the rubber plantation when he was shot twice with a hunting rifle, once near his shoulder, another time in his mouth. The bullet that pierced his mouth also hit his son’s chest. “I didn’t die because I had a gun myself,” he says. He claims that the hitmen went to the hospital to finish the job, but police officers who were there prevented his execution.
No saints, no villains
In conversations with São Domingos settlers, three names are mentioned almost as often as deaths: Volnei Roberto de Pádua; Valmor Dilli; and Carlos Roberto Passos.
Valmor Dilli is a major businessman in the timber industry of Nova California, located about 70 kilometers from the rubber plantation. In that district alone, he owns two sawmills and a processing plant. A large portion of his exports go to Europe. In addition to extracting lumber in the area, he also has interests in São Domingos since he purchased just over 2,300 hectares of land there in 2018.
Like everyone involved with land in São Domingos, it did not take long for Dilli himself to be attacked. On a Tuesday morning, on April 23, 2019, he counted eight shots fired at him while he was driving his truck. He was hit, but not seriously, and was released from hospital on the same day. “It was a premeditated attack, with everything set up. It was on the news right away,” he says.
According to local media outlet AC Jornal, Dilli was the mastermind of the attack that killed Nemes, a claim he denies. “They [the media] turned the settlers against me, but that has already been dealt with. I have nothing against them,” he said in an interview with the reporting team.
Now the settlers praise Dilli for helping them open and maintain the roads in the rubber plantation.
For his part, Pádua was largely responsible for the arrival of most of the more than 100 settler families that claimed land within São Domingos before they all left. Using a forged deed, he negotiated – and in some cases, even donated – land to the settlers who lived in the area. It was with Pádua that they drafted simple purchase and sale contracts that had no legal basis.
According to the settlers, Pádua is behind the attacks and killings. In interviews in June they claimed that as he had already improved their land Pádua wanted to expel them in order to attract a new group and resell the same illegal lots for profit. Pádua has an extensive criminal record, which includes fraud and theft, but he is virtually never seen in public. He could not be reached for comment.
Although Pádua is thought by locals to be responsible for ordering the killings at São Domingos, another name also inspires fear: Carlos Roberto Passos, a logger who started operating in the area in 1999.
“São Domingos is a fraud and I can show you the ways of this fraud. The 150,000 hectares are already more than 1.5 million,” he says, referring to the alleged land grabbing by settlers.
According to Passos, the high death toll is correlated with the massive land grabbing that it has accompanied. “I’m telling you and I’m sure of it: from 2010 until now, well over a hundred people have died,” he says.
Another striking figure is the number of attacks that Passos claims to have suffered himself. By June 2019, he said he had been attacked 10 times; by early December, 15 times. He says he was under such sustained attempts on his life that he had to switch up his security routine daily. The first time we talked, in Rio Branco, a guard kept watch outside his home. When we returned, Passos kept a gun tucked in his waistband.
Passos provides logging services. He knows the trade like no one else, from machinery to management plans to the trees themselves. “I’ve done a lot of illegal logging, but not anymore,” he says. The second time we talk, he shows me a video on his cell phone. It is his eldest son, riding a truck, listening to romantic music in the middle of the night, transporting timber. Passos gets emotional. “This is our dream,” he says.
The mother of all crimes
The São Domingos rubber plantation is a microcosm of the problems facing the Amazon. The lack of reliable information about who owns the land enables illegal expropriation, whether by force or creative administration. In São Domingos, both methods seem effective.
Joel Bogo, a federal prosecutor in Rio Branco, says that land grabbing is based on a simple equation. “It is a risk and return calculation,” he says. Stolen land sells for much less than its market value. But if an operation is successful and the land is registered after the fact, violators’ profits are huge. “They invade new areas hoping that regularization frameworks will be relaxed,” he adds.
And regulations are frequently relaxed, and land grabbers end up getting away with it, often with government support. Lábrea’s land grabbers are about to reap a big return as a result of Provisional Measure 910, a temporary decree issued by the government of President Jair Bolsonaro in December, which allows for regularization of public areas deforested before December 2018. “This measure rewards those who occupied and deforested, when we should be doing the opposite,” says Brenda Brito, a researcher at The Institute of Man and Environment of the Amazon (IMAZON).
Another cause for celebration may also be in the pipeline for those who occupied the land in São Domingos. The Iquiri National Forest was included by the government in the Investment Partnerships Program (PPI) and can soon be granted to the private sector for development, including logging. The 1.4 million-hectare area is larger than the Eastern European nation of Montenegro.
The bloody saga of this part of the Amazon began more than a century ago. On November 15, 1899, the fate of the area was sealed. Back then, borders were still in dispute between Brazil and Bolivia and there was territorial blur. So, it was common for Bolivian notaries to issue titles inside the actual Brazilian territory, and the other way around.
That day, in Riberalta, Bolivia, a title was registered “of the place called Santo Domingo,” as the original document puts it. It had vague geographic boundaries but covered an area of approximately 150,000 hectares (370,000 acres). That Bolivian document was the basis for creating the Seringal São Domingos real estate development, but the first Brazilian deed dates from 1976.
In practice, the rubber plantation was nothing more than an abstraction. But that did not prevent many land titles from being issued, expanded, divided, overlapped, reallocated, and illegally sold and resold based on the Bolivia document.
“It is an endless region. Nobody knows who is right or wrong, and whether the land is public or private,” Acre’s state public defender Celso Araújo says.
Amid the chaos in land tenure, the settlers’ greatest hope is that INCRA, Brazil’s National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform, will clarify the official status of the land once and for all. But Acre state’s agrarian ombudsman, Antonio Braña, does not offer much by way of encouragement. “The legal status is complex and INCRA is not sure about these people’s land tenure situation. Lábrea’s property registration office is – or used to be – a mess. But I’d say that both large and small [owners] occupy it irregularly,” he said.
In 2004, INCRA filed a lawsuit in a Federal Court in the state of Amazonas challenging the validity of the Bolivian deed and requesting that registrations based on it be nullified. In 2013, the request was granted in a first-level court decision and 28 titles were voided. The land would return to the state, but several parties filed appeals and procedures continued in the regional federal court.
Among the registrations that were thrown out perhaps the most famous is 1741, which Pádua acquired for 8,000 Brazilian reais (US$1,450) in 1994 – equivalent to about 61,000 reais (US$ 11,000) today.
As a result of the 2013 case, criminal proceedings were opened against some of the landholders in São Domingos. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office accused them of conspiracy, fraud, crimes against the environment, and invasion of public land. The agency’s charges describe the activities of the group in detail.
“This is land grabbing with a peculiar MO [modus operandi], as it consisted of cloning legal documents by registering the property again in a different location in order to allow for logging and sale of the timber so that the land could be used as a cattle farm,” according to a court document.
The defendants included the late Antônio Luiz Mendes da Silva, then an official at the Lábrea property registration office and the person responsible for issuing title 1741, among many others. Also named in the case was Carlos Celso Ribeiro, the former mayor of Senador Guiomar, Acre, who according to people in São Domingos holds land bordering the rubber plantation.
According to the prosecution, another defendant in the criminal nexus, Arnaldo Vilela, was a “master in the art of land grabbing”. He would alter the description of the land until it reached the point that the “the property with registration number 1637 would actually be 71.56 km from its previous location,” the document says. The lawsuit has already resulted in a number of convictions but several appeals are pending.
Dreaming of cattle
“There were only a few meters of fence to go before we could put cattle here,” Nemes’s son, Kailon, says with regret. His father became another victim of this trans-generational conflict a few months before he left the rubber plantation for fear of succumbing to the same fate. Kailon had a plot next to this father’s. To obtain the cattle, they planned to partner with the owner of a large farm nearby.
Whether they are small or large landowners, all of the settlers in São Domingos aspire to rear cattle. Unlike other regions with land conflicts in the Amazon, there are no organized agrarian social movements here and the struggle over land has no grassroots resistance.
Some even depend on the government’s poverty relief scheme, Bolsa Família, while simultaneously laying claim to hundreds of hectares of land. “Cattle takes men out of poverty,” says Agrecino de Souza, a radio broadcaster and former councillor from Acrelândia, who guided us on our second visit to São Domingos.
The settlers all share the view that the forest is an obstacle to that goal. While large landowners may risk their positions despite the near-complete lack of monitoring and enforcement, the smaller landowners have no such qualms and completely disregard environmental regulations. Without legal rights to the land, they feel they have nothing to lose.
The death of the forest
In the district closest to the rubber plantation there is evidence of what drives the local economy today. Entering Nova Califórnia, part of the city of Porto Velho, Rondônia, what we see is a glimpse of a dystopian future. Sawmills flank both sides of the road; to one side is a workshop littered with logging machinery. Along the main street, repairs on the machines go on throughout the day. In the distance, a huge oven from a sawmill is visible.
A few kilometers along the road, there is another major wood processing enterprise: Madeireira São Pedro. A local businessman says that the company’s real owner is Chaules Volban Pozzebon, the man considered the greatest deforester in Brazil. Arrested in 2019 as part of the Federal Police’s Operation Deforest, he has 120 timber companies throughout Brazil’s northern region, registered either to himself or to front men.
Although some logging can be seen along the road connecting Nova California to São Domingos, there are few visible clear-cut areas. At the entrance to the rubber plantation, a clearing opens before us with only small patches of primary forest remaining. Almost all the valuable timber is gone. Some majestic kapok trees remain, which are considered second-rate timber, as well as smaller species.
The meager stocks of hardwood remaining in their lots are seen as currency. In June, the settlers collected money to lease machinery, fuel and to pay for an operator for the day. Some contributed cash while others paid in logs.
That November, the haze from the Amazon forest fires could still be felt as we spoke to a settler known as Carneiro on his 100-hectare plot. He cleared most of the vegetation in his area, much more than the 20% he would have been entitled to if the land was legal, to plant 40,000 banana trees. “I want to plant another 20,000,” he says.
Carneiro also has a long criminal record, which notes his alias of “Werewolf”, that includes a charge of possession of 1.84 kilograms of cocaine. His son is from Bolivia, from where he says he exports nuts to Brazil, though the other settlers suggest he is exporting more sensitive cargo. Despite his alleged links to drug trafficking, the settlers say Carneiro is a good worker. As the saying goes, no one here is a saint, and when you arrive in São Domingos your past doesn’t haunt you.
Despite the lack of enforcement and monitoring at São Domingos, the major players in this modern day saga of frontier life have accumulated millions of dollars in environmental fines over the years. Cattle is king here and the forest suffers as a result. But the perpetrators are also the victims of a chaotic land tenure system and unbridled violence – and no solution is in sight.