Journalism from the center of the world

Manifestantes que pedem intervenção militar fazem churrasco na porta de batalhão do Exército, com carne doada por empresas de Altamira. Crédito: Reprodução

Altamira has become one of the great centers of Bolsonaroland. If the city reflected Brazil, Bolsonaro would have won the recent presidential election against Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula, without the need for a second round run-off. Right now, there’s a group of protestors camped out in front of the barracks of the 51st Battalion of the Forest Infantry on the edge of town, demanding “intervention” – in other words, a military coup. Smoke is wafting from a number of barbecue grills – Bolsonaro promised the population of Brazil a barbecue if he won the election. Following his defeat, the meat that’s missing from the meal tables of thousands of people on the outskirts of Altamira is being used to tempt “sympathizers” to join the putschist cause. Meat, soft drinks and other products arrive in boxes sent by local stores and businesses to help keep the attempted revolt against a legitimate election result alive.

The day after the second round run-off vote, I went to film the rally twice, believing my presence had gone unnoticed. But when I went back this Sunday, my cell phone was quickly snatched from my hand. When I yelled in protest, a circle of yellow-clad protestors surrounded me. I had to negotiate the return of my phone with one of the leaders, who only gave it back on the condition I deleted the video. He told me that on my previous visits there’d been people who’d wanted to give me a beating. They found out my name, and are now attacking me on social media. I’ve been told a message from a soldier who lives in my neighborhood is circulating on WhatsApp. It says he’d like to shoot me.

I’ve lived in Altamira, one of the main cities in the Amazon’s arc of deforestation, for 14 years. This is the first time I’ve been afraid, to the point where I’ve withdrawn from the political debate with the local society. Several of the businessmen funding the protests have become rich through land grabs, or from corruption schemes in the regional development projects of the military dictatorship (1964-1985). Several are now laying claim to already invaded and deforested pieces of land in the Ituna-Itatá Indigenous Land, around 100 kilometers from the city, where the presence of isolated peoples has been recorded. When challenged, the businessmen claim the indigenous people have “disappeared”. Of course they have – terrified, their land overrun by armed militias, they have fled to more remote areas. At the demonstration in front of the barracks, Bolsonaro’s followers shouted “liberty, liberty”, but those who live in the Amazon know the liberty they want is the freedom to invade public lands, to burn, deforest, mine and extract wood. There is an explicit correlation between the arc of deforestation in the Amazon, the region with the greatest intensity of predatory, environment-destroying activities, and the areas where Bolsonaro is most fervently supported.

I arrived in Altamira in 2008, to study ecology at Pará Federal University. My connection with the Amazon, however, began in 1996, when I first came into contact with the Kayapó people, as a biology student at the University of São Paulo. I fell in love with the Amazon rainforest of the Xingu basin and the combative culture of this people. But the reality I found in Altamira, years later, was totally different: a city that hates the forest, despises the indigenous people and does everything to deny its origins. There are almost no trees on the streets, and the few that exist are quickly being eradicated from the urban landscape. In recent years, I planted a forest around the home I have built, but my land was recently invaded by a neighbor who poisoned trees that partially covered the view of the Xingu River. Instead of protesting, I was forced to silently accept what he’d done, as my neighbor is a grileiro, a land-grabber, who likes to solve his problems the old-fashioned way. I spend a substantial part of my work time trying to garden and plant trees on the UFPA campus, often clashing with those who consider trees a threat to the university’s physical infrastructure.

When I arrived, the Xingu River flowed beautifully and freely in front of my house. Altamira had a restful pace of life, little traffic and white sandy beaches where people relaxed on weekends. That was until the construction of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Power Plant, which disrupted the landscape, flooded the beaches, and spoiled the river, bringing urban and social degradation and an explosion of violence.

For me, the image of Lula and Tuire Kayapó, clasped hands aloft, captures the 2022 election campaign. Tuire became globally known in 1989, when she put a knife to the face of the Eletronorte director, Antônio José Muniz Lopes, when he argued for the construction of Belo Monte, then known as Kararaô. Lula, meanwhile, who first came to power amidst great hopes for the conservation of the largest tropical forest on the planet, would devastate indigenous peoples and environmental activists by restarting the Belo Monte project, originally planned during the dictatorship.

While the country grew under the undeniable social advances provided by Workers’ Part governments, we in Altamira repeatedly denounced the technical and economic infeasibility, as well as the terrible socio-environmental consequences, of what was considered the electricity sector’s centerpiece in the government’s Growth Acceleration Program. In 2010, our protests at then President Lula’s visit to Altamira to defend Belo Monte were quashed by the army. Ironically, at the time, Lula fraternized with many of those who today slander him, seek to overturn his election and gather at the barbecue grills in front of the army barracks. Belo Monte was built on the Xingu River, and all our worst predictions came true.

Manifestantes em Altamira, uma das principais cidades do arco do desmatamento da Amazônia, protestam contra a vitória de Lula. Crédito: Reprodução

Only an enormous political reversal could convert those who opposed Belo Monte into ardent Lula supporters. The criminal response of Jair Bolsonaro’s government to the COVID-19 pandemic, which was responsible for the death of almost 700,000 Brazilians, was at least part of this. I lost two friends from Altamira and Xingu: the wonderful photojournalist Lilo Clareto, who lived in the city and worked depicting the environmental and human violations caused by the construction of the Belo Monte plant, and my brother in Kayapó culture, chief Paulinho Paiakan, who at the end of the 1980s was the most important indigenous leader in the fight against the construction of the dam. A technicality, however, meant Bolsonaro avoided charges of genocide during a parliamentary enquiry into his handling of the pandemic. According to some, genocide must involve actions aimed at specific ethnic groups, while Bolsonaro’s crimes in the pandemic were against the entire Brazilian people. If we are to accept such a definition, however, the charge could surely be applied to Bolsonaro’s overall treatment of Brazil’s indigenous peoples.

During the 2018 campaign, Bolsonaro promised he would not demarcate one further centimeter of indigenous lands, defying the Brazilian Constitution of 1988, and he has fulfilled the promise to the letter. Worse still, he has encouraged illegal mining on indigenous lands, both in his speeches and in the dismantling of inspection bodies and weakening of the infrastructure of Funai, Brazil’s federal agency for indigenous affairs. Several villages in the Kayapó Indigenous Land, which I know very well, gave in to pressure and opened their territories to mining. Others still resist. Aukre, my village, founded by Paulinho Paiakan and to which I return every year to reconnect with the forest, has resisted mining until now. But it would hardly have resisted another term of Bolsonaro’s government.

This was a violent electoral campaign, with abuses of economic power and the use of the machinery of state by Bolsonaro. In Altamira I saw a lot of working class people – walking or cycling along the streets, or working in the stores, afraid of their bosses – who were scared to show their support for Lula. But even here Altamira is unequal. Just because I have a car, I am considered rich. I thought I was taking a risk by covering my car with Lula stickers. But the only messages I heard were ones of support, from people who wished they could do the same, but were too afraid.

It was my teenage son, enrolled in what I thought was the best school in town, who suffered because of this. When his classmates, most of them the children of Bolsonarists, saw the stickers on my car, they began to bully him. At one point they surrounded him and told him that if he was a “leftist” he couldn’t have a cell phone. It is hard not to worry about a generation that supports the destruction of the forest and defends a politician who praises torturers.

Altamira reminds me of Bertolt Brecht’s famous line on fascism – “the bitch that bore him is in heat again”. Today, in Altamira and in Brazil, the bitch is hungry and ferocious. Despite the cries of relief brought by Lula’s victory, the Amazon is still hanging by a thread.

* Rodolfo Salm. PhD in Environmental Sciences from the University of East Anglia, Professor of Ecology in the School of Biology at Pará Federal University in Altamira.

Translated by James Young

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