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Aracruz and the Rain Forest

Bits of glass and brick crackle beneath our feet. Unripe bananas and manioc plants lay spread on the ruins of a field. The military police has cleared the area 10 days earlier on behalf of the gigantic cellulose company Aracruz. We are, in fact, not on the Gaza strip but in Erling Lorentzen’s Brazil.
Artikkelen er mer enn to år gammel. Ting kan ha endret seg.
Bits of glass and brick crackle beneath our feet. Unripe bananas and manioc plants lay spread on the ruins of a field. The military police has cleared the area 10 days earlier on behalf of the gigantic cellulose company Aracruz. We are, in fact, not on the Gaza strip but in Erling Lorentzen’s Brazil.

(First published in Norwegian 2004)

[This story was written after a research trip to Espirito Santo, Brazil, October 2004. Three years later, the Indian tribes Tupinikim and Guarani have won their land dispute with the cellulose company Aracruz. See recent article here.

But a number of the conflicts described in this article still remain unsolved, e.g. the right to water, the Quilombos’ right to land and the situation of the local population in general. ]

By Pia A. Gaarder  

The demolished property is situated not far from the coastal city of Barra do Riacho in the state of Espírito Santo. The world’s largest producer of short-fibred cellulose, Aracruz Celulose, is just a few kilometres away. Four families of 25 people, including children and adults, had their homes and living here.

The owner, whose name is Wilson, had a title deed for the farm land. But that was not of much help when the military police turned up with the guard company Visel and the firm Plantar, which both work for Aracruz. The simple houses were smashed, and the crops were destroyed.

One of the earlier residents, Gilberto Jesus Ferreira, can tell a dramatic story: “Aracruz’s people arrived in a truck filled with timber. They put up tents, took some pictures and then disappeared. We did not understand what was going on.”

Aracruz’s lawyer used the photos to obtain legal permission for clearing the area. The inhabitants were accused of illegal felling on the property owned by the company.

“Aracruz had made a new prospect of its property and had registered it at the local council. In the plan this area was annexed as part of Aracruz’s “preserve for natural forest”. Then they carried out their well-organized plan to get rid of us,” Gilberto explained.

He showed us around the site. The remains of a bed are floating on a pond. People have fled without being able to take their things with them.

Angry Judge
But the case had an unexpected turn: “Just a few days ago we won the case in court. The judge understood that Aracruz had organized the occupation. Aracruz has now been sentenced to give us our land back and, within 10 days, to have it restored to the condition it was in before the destruction. They will be given a big fine for every day they exceed this limit,” Gilberto explained eagerly.

Gilberto also shows us the sentence. It has number 6609/04 and is signed on 21 October 2004 by Ana Cláudia Rodrigues de Faria. She was obviously angry: the judge explained how she during a busy work situation was told that the case was extremely important. During a short break between two cases she was shown photographs of illegal felling and endorsed clearing of the area. Later she considered the matter more closely and concluded that “neither the case papers nor the photos corresponded with reality”. The decision was withdrawn, and Aracruz was sentenced to restore the area to its previous condition.

Nothing had been done yet on the property apart from one thing: in the middle of the ruins a plot had been cleared for some rather frail-looking plants. This was the “natural forest” that Aracruz’s people had already planted. Brazilian landowners are instructed to maintain 20% natural forest on their properties, and in this case Aracruz has solved the order in its own special manner.

No Security
The story of how the local population is thrown out of its homes – with or without the law on its side, to satisfy Aracruz’ need for more land – comes in many versions. The exceptional thing about this episode is not how the military police and the administration of justice were used by Aracruz but that the judge changed her mind: Aracruz was for the first time sentenced to restore house and property.

In Vila Valerio, north in the state, on the other hand, we hear that other families have lost everything to make room for Aracruz’s eucalyptus plantations. Even though the families had lived in the area for a long time, there is no help to be had from prayers if the documents are not in order. And even then, poor people are not safe.

History repeats itself. So it has been for 37 years.

When Aracruz’ started to plant eucalyptus for cellulose production in 1967, the project was sponsored politically by the military dictatorship at the time. Aracruz was given practically free hands to establish itself in the areas of the population groups who at that time had least legal protection – the Indians, who have always been there, and the Quilombos, who are descendents of African slaves.

People who had withdrawn into the forest and survived on the outskirts of society suddenly found themselves on land that was attractive for growing eucalyptus.

The first thing Aracruz did was to destroy the Atlantic rain forest where the Indians lived. The Indians were driven away from their villages, by forcing them to move, and many were forced to flight. According to Funai, the government Directorate for Indian Affairs, Tupinikim Indians had 40 villages in the area when Aracruz arrived. Today there are four left. Aracruz’s manufacturing plant is actually situated on the ruins of the Tupinikim village of Macacos.

The Tupinikim tribe of 1700 persons today exists only in Espírito Santo and constitutes the last descendants of the Indians whom the Portuguese met when they went ashore for the first time in South America. Despite the long-term contact with the invaders and their culture, the Indians have managed to retain their own identity and cultural traditions.

Together with the small Guarani tribe of 300 individuals, they live in a crowded preserve that amounts to a fraction of the area they lived on before Aracruz’s arrival.

For the first time since “the discovery” of America the number of Indian inhabitants is increasing. It has been estimated that at that time the Indian population was 5 million. After 570 years of persecution the number was reduced to 170,000.

In today’s Brazil there are 350,000 indigenous people living in traditional villages and half a million in the cities. There are 230 different Indian tribes who speak 185 different languages, and new tribes are still being discovered in remote areas.

The two Indian tribes in Espírito Santo have also grown during the last few years and now include altogether 2000 persons divided among 454 families. What do they think of Aracruz?

Like a Wolf
“Aracruz is a large company. It provides work, and the export provides a large income.
But the consequences of Aracruz’s presence here are so great that it is difficult to find the words to describe it. Aracruz is like a wolf. Everywhere the company appears, it will swallow everything”, the Indian woman Deusdéia explained.

Deusdéia leads the women’s organization Comil, which unites the indigenous women in the seven Indian villages left in Espírito Santo. We met her in the Tupinikim village Pau Brazil, which is located just 3 km away from Aracruz’s factory. She is married to a Tupinikim Indian. Her mother was one of the few survivors of the Botocudo tribe, which was the most persecuted tribe in Brazil. Deusdéia was born 45 years ago in a camp established to protect the last survivors of the Botocudo tribe. Her tears flow as she tells her story.

“They did precisely the same with our villages”, Deusdéia said when she heard about the ruined property not far off. “They arrived in large vehicles with iron chains and destroyed our whole existence, the forest. Even the tree Paubrazil has been demolished. We can no longer show our children the tree that gave our village its name”, Deusdéia related sadly.

To clear areas for eucalyptus plantations, the natural forest was destroyed with large logging machines that felled everything it their way.

For even though Aracruz today strikes poor people without any kind of ethnic affiliation, the first victims were primarily Indians and Afro-Brazilians. Pedro from Vila Nova north in Espírito Santo is of Afro-Brazilian heritage and comes from a Quilombo family. “One day Aracruz arrived and destroyed our crops. They chopped down the forest and planted eucalyptus everywhere”, Pedro related. As opposed to many others, his father had a document proving that the land belonged to him. The family fought hard, and Aracruz was forced to give them another piece of land in compensation.

The Quilombos descend from escaping and emancipated slaves and have kept their own culture, which is evident in their building traditions, religion, communal traditions and festivals. Before Aracruz arrived, about 50,000 Quilombos lived in the area. Today there are only 6000 left. Almost 90% of the inhabitants were in other words forced or tricked into moving. Everyone ended up in the slum areas – the infamous “favelas” – outside the large cities.

“When Aracruz invaded the area with its large project, it happened without planning and led to total destruction of everything we had. At the beginning of the seventies the population here was not used to money, and many received a small sum from Aracruz. It wasn’t until later that they realized it was just petty cash. Ninety per cent were illiterate. Aracruz also used a local leader who persuaded many to move into the towns, where they were made to believe that life would be better and that their children would go to school. But that was a lie”, Chapoca, a well-known Quilombo leader, related.

Not Slaves
The last of the Quilombos have stuck to their small land areas, but with great problems. They live surrounded by eucalyptus; the soil has dried out. Few are able to keep larger animals than hens. Aracruz strikes hard if the animals stray into the eucalyptus woods. They have been persecuted by the police if they collect useless wood remains from the Aracruz plantations, which they need for cooking. Many have been arrested and imprisoned.

“The police treat us as if we were still slaves, but we are not!” Miúda showed us the dry manioc orchard and related how the police terrorises them with accusations that they steal timber and wood from Aracruz.

Not far off stands a water tower, but it can not be used. The firm that is preparing Aracruz’s roads for logging machines tore up the water pipe. Repair or compensation is out of the question, and the Indians can not afford it themselves. But in spite of the difficulties, life is far better here than in the “favelas”.

It was not until 1988, a hundred years after the abolition of slavery, that the Quilombos were officially recognized.  “But after the law had been passed, the interpretation problems arose. Not until the past few years has the right to own land become better defined”, says Daniela Meirelles, who has participated in making a survey of the extent of and the problems of this part of the population in Espírito Santo.

Pedro, on his behalf, is critical to whether Aracruz ever will give back the land they took from the Quilombos: “Aracruz has the power to change decisions. When they were sentenced to restore the river São Domingo, they managed to stop the project and have the decision changed. They have so much power that they can tell the judges what to do.”

Stolen Land
But at the same time the Quilombos know that Aracruz is worried about the law that gives them the right to the land. Aracruz consistently refers to them as “the black community” and never as Quilombos.

A large part of the Aracruz plantations is on land that really belongs to others, and the company now runs the risk that the demands will pour in. For, in contrast to what Aracruz maintains, the Indian problems are not solved. The Indians’ property claim is also a time bomb under the Aracruz plantations in Espírito Santo. After many fights and conflicts during the nineties the official Indian directorate Funai concluded that Aracruz is situated on 13,000 hectares, or 130 square kilometres, of Indian territory.

“Two independent commissions reached the same conclusion. But both times Brazil’s minister of justice overruled the conclusion that Aracruz was to return this area”, explained Winfried Overbeek from the grassroots organization FASE-ES, which has worked a great deal with the problems of the Indians in Espírito Santo.

The result was that in 1998 the Indians were put off with 2500 hectares, a social program and a compensation in cash of about 10 million dollars, which was to be paid out over a period of 20 years. Every hectare that was not returned to the Indians was thereby paid for with 4 dollars monthly for 20 years. It became even less because the whole compensation was changed into local money that lost it's value quickly.

Even though the seven chiefs in the Indian villages signed in the end, this occurred under such great pressure that the majority of the Indians have never accepted the agreement.

“Aracruz’s power does not frighten us. We have a trump card: the 10,500 hectares of land that is ours and which Aracruz has taken from us. Aracruz is not in a strong position as long as the company occupies the indigenous population’s rightful property”, the Indian woman Deusdéia claims. She becomes almost prophetic: “The earth is our great mother: from her we were born and to her we will return. And it is the earth herself who now asks for justice.”

Deusdéia does not for one moment doubt that the Indians will win the fight and get back the areas that have been taken away from them with the blessings of the minister of justice.

Mata Atlantica
Today Aracruz is a large landowner.  Totally, the company owns 247,000 hectares, or 2470 square kilometres, of eucalyptus plantations. The plantations are always established on the flattest and the best part of the agricultural land and lie mostly in Espírito Santo, where the company possesses 18% of the farm land. In addition, according to their own calculations, they are supposed to own 1280 square kilometres of natural forest in between the plantations.

At these latitudes the natural forest is called Mata Atlantica, or Atlantic rain forest. Earlier it covered half the Brazilian east coast, but now only about 5% remains. There are no reliable figures for how much of the Atlantic rain forest Aracruz itself has destroyed. On the basis of the indigenous population’s stories and the few aerial photos that exist, the amount has informally been estimated to be 50,000 hectares or 500 square kilometres.

No independent body has ever made a survey of the natural forest that Aracruz claims to own today. Many of the locals doubt Aracruz’s figures. On our travels through Espírito Santo we saw enormous plantation areas where eucalyptus trees stood militarily lined up in long rows. There was markedly less of the natural forest.

Green Desert
The eucalyptus plantations are not forests with game, fish and wild birds. On the contrary: the monoculture creates what has been called “a green desert”, which absorbs water and makes life difficult for everything and everyone who tries to survive in and around the plantations. This is because eucalyptus makes everything bone dry. The water problem for the local population around the eucalyptus plantations in the whole state is therefore precarious. The eucalyptus itself needs enormous amounts of water to grow. The problem has become even worse since the growth time has been reduced from 15 to 7 years. Thousands of small farmers must hope for rain so that the crops will get water. There is simply not enough water for anything but personal needs.

In addition, Aracruz has made large hydraulic encroachments to ensure enough water for the cellulose. Rivers have been re-routed, canals and pumps have been built, all to ensure more water for Aracruz’s enormous water reservoir.

The result for the local population is dry riverbeds, drought, little water flow and ruined freshwater fishing. Aracruz has promised the Indians to restore two rivers that disappeared after the radical intervention, but nothing has been done.

Such agreements are, moreover, established exclusively with the Indians because they have a minimum of rights that are guaranteed by the federal authorities. The local population does not even get the empty promises.

The Drinking Water
Jorge tells what happened to the drinking water of Vila do Riacho’s 5000 inhabitants after Aracruz built the latest canal. We are standing in the burning sun looking into a muddy pool that the drinking water comes from: “The water was never completely good, but now it has been spoiled. One day it can be clear, but the next it can contain lots of dirt.”

Health problems have started to appear. Eczema and skin problems are turning up among the children. There is no support to be had from the local physician: “At a public meeting about the water problem recently, the doctor said the health problems were not caused by the water quality but that we did not wash ourselves enough. That is not true”, Jorge protested and wondered why the water quality improved a little after the protest. “Aracruz pays nothing for the water they use, while we must pay for this dirty drinking water”, Jorge continued.

The water tax is not connected to the use but to the treatment of the water – in other words, cleaning and adding chlorine. This creates a large injustice in an area with permanent water scarcity. Ordinary people pay dearly for their small consumption, whereas Aracruz pays nothing for their huge use. In fact, the company has its own water treatment plant.

New Prohibitions
But the greatest issue of contention between Aracruz and the local population is at present the firewood collection in the plantations. Aracruz lately forbade the local population and the Indians to collect the wood left after felling. This wood constitutes the remains not included in the cellulose production, which the local population collects, uses for cooking, and sells for charcoal burning. Some locals also make their own charcoal in clay ovens.

After Aracruz has taken the land away from population groups, monopolized the water, undermined the freshwater fishing trade, and made farming and animal husbandry difficult for the small farmers, the prohibition against firewood collection is a catastrophe for thousands of poor families. They have been stripped of their only means of income, and many are no longer able to provide for their families.

Aracruz’s opinion is that the company provides work and prosperity to the local society. In Espírito Santo 1510 persons work directly at the factory and 5916 work indirectly through other companies that carry out work for Aracruz. A permanent job at the factory is highly sought after, and the employees have their own housing area with small gardens. But that is just a minority; jobs at Aracruz are constantly becoming scarcer. In addition, there are few Indians and Quilombos among the employees.

Earlier, many got work as woodcutters, but now the machines have taken over. Large Komat’su machines do the work of 70 men: they chop, debark and divide the timber into suitable logs all in a matter of seconds.

Wood collection therefore represents one of the very few ways of earning money. Through its prohibition Aracruz now risks forcing a new wave of poor people into the “favelas”.

Will Not Risk
We were present at the meeting between the Indians and Aracruz which was entirely about wood-gathering. Out of desperation over the prohibition the Indians had chopped down eucalyptus trees to force Aracruz to negotiate, but Aracruz’s answer was always no.

To Norwatch’s question as to why, the director of the environment at Aracruz, Carlos Alberto Roxo, said that they have so many problems with the charcoal activity that they had to put an end to it.

“The value of these remains has increased since the authorities obtained better control of the illegal chopping. Now there are too many who want to collect the wood. In addition, according to Brazilian law we are legally responsible, if we give the wood away, for everything from injuries to lacking tax payments. We can not risk being further prosecuted”, said the director of the environment.

I managed to ask him some quick questions while the Indians discussed amongst themselves and the Aracruz people were waiting in the corridor. The company’s information department had, in fact, never answered our request to visit the factory and interview them.

Problematic Charcoal
Charcoal burning is a difficult problem in Brazil, where many participants are operating on the black market. They have been responsible for forest fires and illegal felling.  These doubtful participants move quickly to where there is wood to be found, are not reluctant to use child labour, pay miserable wages and dodge paying taxes. Their activities have nothing to do with the local inhabitants’ need to gather wood for cooking and to earn a day’s salary.

“By treating everyone alike and bringing wood-gathering to an end on large parts of their territory, Aracruz is making life even more difficult for those who are already struggling. Aracruz should rather organize wood-gathering in a different way. So far the company has only reluctantly tolerated that the poor collect the wood remains, whereas they have given away the right to collect to professional firms. And it is these firms who have the means to sue Aracruz and who disappear without paying taxes”, Marcello Calazans, the leader of FASE-ES, explains.

A couple of years ago it all tipped over for the Quilombos after new arrests for gathering wood. Their rage was so great that Aracruz was forced to enter into a compromise which at least gives 15% of them the opportunity to gather wood under controlled conditions. With regard to the Indians and the local population further south, however, Aracruz would not even enter into a similar agreement.

Environmental Contempt
This may be because Aracruz has a “green” solution to the problem to fall back on; they plan to introduce machines that will grind up the remains from the chopping and then spread this material over the ground in the plantations.

This environmentally friendly recirculation will look good in the company’s environment report and may earn it another “environment award”. But the consequence for thousands of poor families is that they will lose their only livelihood. The prohibition against wood collection and the introduction of such machines will, in other words, have great negative social consequences.

Brazil has an enormous poverty problem: 50 of 180 million live below the poverty line. In this situation it is not too much to ask that multinational companies like Aracruz take into consideration the social consequences of their decisions.

When tens of thousands of Indians, Quilombos, those without property and small farmers try to live in Espírito Santo surrounded by eucalyptus and pressured by Aracruz’s expansion plans, it is because the alternative is the large cities’ “favelas”. Here, however, they can live poor but decent lives. The decision to forbid wood-collecting therefore undermines one of the few possibilities they have to avoid the slum.

Historical Ballast
Today Aracruz prides itself on contributing to the world’s cellulose need by planting eucalyptus and not by destroying natural forest. The company presents itself as having an environmentally friendly profile and claims it has established a good relationship with the local population, bringing work and prosperity to the community.

On our journey in Espírito Santo, however, we have seen how Aracruz obstructs and makes life difficult for all those who do not participate in the production of cellulose.

The question is whether Aracruz has historical ballast that is not apparent in its reports on the environment and the responsibility towards the community; the company came to Espírito Santo as part of a government project and expanded in perfect union with the military dictatorship. Obviously, the methods were accordingly.

Perhaps even worse is that Aracruz in 2004 seems to have developed a corporate culture that has incorporated both enforcement by military dictatorship and the slave owners’ lack of respect for those who struggle most. The arrogance with regard to ordinary people’s life and needs seems to be the rule and not the exception in the areas where Aracruz has its plantations.

Changing Times
But in the local population there is renewed hope today. The Indians have gotten back their fighting spirit; the Quilombos are waiting for the right to own land. Together with small farmers and fishermen, wood gatherers and the unemployed, they have again started to unionize.

Deusdéia of the Tupinikim tribe had a special wish, which she expressed without being asked just as we were to leave the village: “I strongly hope that the Norwegian king gets to hear what is happening here!”

And I promised – to Deusdéia’s great enthusiasm – to send the article to His Majesty the King.

Deusdéia gave me and the photographer, Kristin, warm hugs and said that it had been good to talk: “Strange. Earlier the white people came to kill us. Now they come to talk and to understand.”

As the twilight quickly descended over the village and we were getting ready to leave Deusdéia’s small house, she called cheerfully: “The next time you come, we shall have gotten back our river!”