“Scorched land is basically vacant land, it has nothing on it. This allows speculation to come in to play. Forested lands can be made in to preservation areas, but once scorched, the lands become empty, and ready for more people to come and grab them.”

This is Sávio Freitas Araújo, a peasant farmer and student at the Casa Rural Familiar agricultural school in Santarém, at the heart of the heavily forested Pará state, Brazil, explaining the real reasons behind the Amazon fires. His video is one of several in a new investigation by Friends of the Brazil, exploring: “What really happens in the Amazon rainforest?”.

The Brazilian Amazon has been heavily militarised, and the state institutions which are supposed to ensure its conservation now face the same fate. The reason? To clear land and let in a growing number of capital investments from the agribusiness, hydropower, timber and large-scale mining sectors. Black communities, peasants, indigenous peoples and quilombolas (afrodescendant peoples), among others, are being displaced in the process and often pay with their lives for resisting.

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Events in the Brazilian Amazon took the world by surprise in 2019. The period from January to August 2019 saw 34% more wildfires, a 55% rise in deforestation and 11% more rainfall, compared to the same period in the previous three years. Agribusiness simply swept forests away.

Militarisation of the Amazon comes as no surprise under the current militarist government. Jair Bolsonaro’s administration has been characterised by class hatred, racism, misogyny, and sweeping support for the interests of capital. It has followed the logic of a development model that eliminates traditional ways of living and imposes the capitalist logic.

“The only possible role the Army could play would be to support the institutions charged with the protection of the Amazon. To provide tactical, operative and logistical support to inspection agents, always under instructions from technicians,”

said Fernando Campos, from Friends of the Earth Brazil.

The environmental justice organisation warns that Military Commanders in Brazil’s northern and Amazon regions are currently refusing to provide this type of support. Furthermore, in April the government fired several long-term civil servants who were working on environmental regulation at the Brazilian Environment and Natural Renewable Resources Institute (IBAMA), following their attempts to combat illegal mining and to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Bolsonaro’s administration replaced them with appointed former military officers from the Rota, a violent squad of elite military police from Sao Paulo State.

Backed by the military machine, capital interest sectors are now advancing unrestrained into the Amazon. Agribusiness is a case in point:

“Near Santarém, soya bean fields stretch to the horizon. Schools are surrounded by plantations, whose owners don’t even respect school hours to spray agrotoxics,”

states the Friends of the Earth Brazil report.

“People end up selling their lands due to the lack of jobs and move to the cities looking for better opportunities. This has happened extensively here,”

explains rural farmer Dorilene Pereira de Lima.

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For decades, Brazilian social movements and organisations have denounced the enclosure of lands through a practice known as grilagem, in several regions in Brazil. This old but ever-present practice involves making forged documents look old and worn, using crickets (grills in Portuguese) to chew on the papers, then submitting these as old land titles and thereby taking ownership of certain areas. Friends of the Earth Brazil’s new report exposes grilagem as one of the preferred practices of agribusiness corporations wanting to grab land in the Amazon.

The reality for family farmers who have been settled there for generations is legal persecution and expulsion from their lands. The bureaucratic processes that are very slow to secure official land tenure titles for families with traditional rights to land, seem to be very quick when it comes to evicting them. This is often with ‘help’ from gunmen, hired by interested parties to attack and kick out the peoples living and working in the fields.

João Gomes da Costa, Vice-President of the Rural Workers Union of Alenquer, in Pará state, explains:

“In my view, the State is responsible for the conflicts taking place nowadays in the countryside. Or rather, the absence of the State. When the State does not deliver public policy in the countryside, families are left in a vulnerable situation. Without secondary schools, electricity, running water and proper roads, households have to leave their lands and move to the city.”

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In May 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an advisory body to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, observed that the role of Indigenous Peoples and local communities in protecting ecosystems and biodiversity is critical to confronting the current threat of global environmental collapse and mass extinction of species.

“We will carry on developing ties with Friends of the Earth groups around the world. We rely on internationalist solidarity, and on strengthening our local actions and alliances with peasant, indigenous, feminist, and trade union movements that have similar political projects to ours. Truly defending the Amazon requires radical system change, putting life at the center of the economy and politics. System change will happen through class struggle and by building peoples’ power to bring about peoples’ sovereignty and self-determination,”

concludes Lucia Ortiz, from Friends of the Earth Brazil.

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Images by Carol Ferraz, Friends of the Earth Brazil.