Death in the Afternoon

      Death in the Afternoon

    As Josimo approaches Augustinópolis he remembers his friends’
    repeated warnings. “For God’s sake drive through that place without stopping,
    it’s a hornet’s nest if ever there was one.” Augustinópolis is the
    seat of the local ranchers’ association—sworn enemies to Josimo and the
    CPT. Josimo and his friends are fully aware of this, and they know too
    that in this town there are gunmen for hire on every street corner.

    By
    Binka Le Breton

    Chapter One


    A Death Foretold
     
    Everyone knew that Padre Josimo was going to die. The whole town had
    been talking of nothing else for weeks. Even the mayor had been overheard
    to say, “We’ll have to get rid of that priest, come what may.” And since
    the time when an unknown car had overtaken his on a lonely stretch of road
    at night and an unknown pistoleiro had pumped five bullets into
    his car door, Josimo had come to believe it too.

    Josimo was facing a hideous dilemma. He didn’t want to get shot, yet
    he couldn’t quite bring himself to run away. He knew full well how much
    the local ranchers detested him—all on account of the fact that he had
    set himself up as the champion of the miserably exploited peasants. When
    they were evicted from their lands, Josimo supported them and encouraged
    them to return. He told them about their rights, and helped them set up
    unions and join the Workers’ Party. When the peasants were beaten up, Josimo
    denounced the ranchers and their strong-men and complained to the police.
    He was tireless in the defense of the defenseless. He was a thorn in the
    side of the landowners, he was a source of considerable annoyance to the
    police and the local authorities, and he was behaving in a manner most
    unsuited to a parish priest. Worst of all, he was a black man. This was
    the final insult. Josimo’s enemies had been gunning for him for some time,
    but recently they’d been getting too close for comfort.

    Saturday May 10th 1986 dawns hot and clear. “It was a beautiful day,
    not a day for terrible things to happen,” remarked Perpétua later
    on.

    Inside the parish house in São Sebastião, Padre Josimo
    slings his leather bag over his shoulder, grabs a pile of books and adjusts
    his new straw hat at a becoming angle. Edna, the young catechist, comes
    up behind him humming a few bars from the popular song “Tall, Dark and
    Handsome.”

    “I’ve never seen you in a hat before,” she remarks, “What’s going on?”

    “It’s so the pistoleiros won’t recognize me,” he grins, and swings
    out through the kitchen to the yard. Last night a group of his friends
    had been sitting around the kitchen table eating potato chips and kidding
    Josimo about living dangerously.

    “Don’t worry,” he told them half seriously, “If they don’t get me when
    I’m thirty three, I’ll live to be eighty.”

    It’s nine o’clock when Josimo tosses his bags into the back of the blue
    Toyota.

    “OK, Domingos,” he says to his bearded assistant, “See you tomorrow.”

    “Josimo!” His mother, Dona Olinda is frowning sternly up at him. “Aren’t
    you going to take Domingos with you? You know I don’t like you traveling
    alone.”

    “I’ll be fine, mother,” says Josimo comfortingly. “I’ve asked Domingos
    to take a message to the Sisters. Maybe you’d like to go along too.” He
    knows that Dona Olinda likes nothing better than to visit the French nuns
    in the next village. Olinda brightens, and with a quick “Be back a week
    tomorrow,” Josimo jumps into the car and is off.

    It’s nothing new for him to spend more time away than at home; he has
    a large parish to look after and a lot of traveling to do. Today he is
    heading eighty miles down the dirt road to Imperatriz, the nearest town
    of any size. It’s the place where the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) has
    its office. Josimo is the local coordinator, and Imperatriz is where they
    do their shopping, collect their mail and make their telephone calls. A
    careful driver, Josimo rounds the corner of the square, waving at a bunch
    of women there, and heads off on the long bumpy road to Imperatriz.

    “Domingos, I wish you had gone with him. You know I don’t like him to
    travel alone,” grumbles Dona Olinda.

    “I’ll be seeing him tomorrow in Tocantinópolis,” says Domingos,
    humoring her, “Come on now, hop in,” and off they go in a cloud of dust.

    One of the women who had waved at Josimo watches the two cars leave,
    and hurries to the public telephone. She puts through a call to the next
    village, Augustinópolis. “The man has left,” she says, and puts
    down the phone.

    Shortly after nine o’clock, gunman Geraldo is downing black coffee and
    Coca Cola in a bakery in Imperatriz. He is attempting to shift his hangover,
    and waiting for his orders to come through from Augustinópolis.
    He’s been offered fifty thousand cruzeiros ($1750) for the job, but they
    warned him he’d better not mess up this time around……

    In Augustinópolis, town councilor Neném is preparing a
    monster barbecue for the seventy military policemen in town. They have
    come to collect the body of his brother; a much-feared gunman known as
    Donda. Donda was notorious for having an ungovernable temper and when the
    mood was on him he would shoot anyone who crossed him. He had recently
    been working as foreman on one of the local farms, and had treated the
    workers so outrageously that accumulated resentments had finally boiled
    over. The workers had ambushed Donda and killed him. Not only that, but
    they had refused to allow the family to collect the body. “Let the dogs
    eat it,” was the message they sent, “That’s what Donda used to say when
    he shot someone.”

    Neném’s first attempt to retrieve his brother’s body was met
    by a hail of bullets, and he was forced to withdraw. He went to the police
    station for help, and the police chief sent for reinforcements. Seventy
    military policemen were detached for the job, as well as a helicopter.
    Nothing like this had ever been seen in Augustinópolis, and the
    town was in a ferment of excitement, with rumors flying in all directions.
    “It’s all the fault of that communist priest,” some people were saying.
    “This sort of thing never used to happen before he came here. Those church
    people are nothing but a bunch of agitators, if you ask me.”

    As Josimo approaches Augustinópolis he remembers his friends’
    repeated warnings. “For God’s sake drive through that place without stopping,
    it’s a hornet’s nest if ever there was one.” Augustinópolis is the
    seat of the local ranchers’ association—sworn enemies to Josimo and the
    CPT. Josimo and his friends are fully aware of this, and they know too
    that in this town there are gunmen for hire on every street corner. But
    as luck will have it the only road passes through the center of town, and
    even amidst all the excitement, Josimo’s distinctive blue Toyota does not
    pass unnoticed. Neném is chewing on a chicken bone, while his brother
    Guiomar opens another bottle of beer. Guiomar gestures toward Josimo’s
    car, and mutters, “There goes a dead man.” Brother-in-law Vilson grins
    at the other two, tosses his cigarette end onto the ground, and climbs
    into a yellow car that is waiting in the drive. He slams his foot to the
    floor and heads for the open road, overtaking Josimo on the edge of town.
    Adstonir Resende, head of the ranchers’ association, notices the two cars
    with great satisfaction. He walks in a leisurely fashion to the public
    telephone and dials a number in Imperatriz. “The man has left,” he says.
    A woman takes the call the other end. She hurries down to the corner bakery
    and whispers into the ear of Geraldo the gunman. Geraldo downs his soda
    and heads out.

    Josimo drives along the dusty road, glad to be past the spot where he
    was ambushed not three weeks earlier. Today there is no hurry. His plan
    is to leave the Toyota in Imperatriz at the workshop. Later in the day
    he will take the bus to Tocantinópolis, at the request of the bishop.
    He knows just what Dom Aloísio will say. A cautious man, he will
    advise Josimo to leave the area for a time. Things are getting too hot,
    and it’s time to leave.

    The friendly village of São Miguel comes into sight, and Josimo
    pulls in at the house of one of his staunchest allies. Dona Raimunda Bezerra
    is a pillar of the local workers’ association, and as usual she rushes
    out to greet him. She has a document for him to study, and her habitual
    scolding to administer. “How many times have I told you, Padre Josimo,
    that you shouldn’t be traveling alone?” she demands. “I’m always uneasy
    about you crossing that ferry, and that’s the truth.”

    Josimo smiles affectionately at her, and before she can continue he
    is saved by the arrival of a young police recruit, football boots in hand,
    heading for the Saturday game at the police station by the ferry. A young
    woman runs up, asking for a ride for herself and three small children,
    and Josimo packs them all into the back. Straightening his new straw hat,
    he gives Raimunda a friendly wave, and drives off.

    The ferry is always a bottleneck, and the ferry landing is a good place
    for an ambush, with its maze of little wooden huts and tortuous paths.
    But today is such a beautiful day, hot and sunny. Tomorrow will be Mother’s
    Day, and Josimo will meet up with his friends. They’re off to a meeting
    down in the south of the state. He can feel the tension draining out of
    him at the thought of it. He drives onto the ferry and parks his car in
    the space behind Vilson’s. Vilson sees him in his rear-view mirror but
    makes no sign. As the ferry draws in, Vilson is first up the ramp, and
    disappears into the maelstrom of people in the narrow street. Josimo follows
    him slowly, careful not to splash the large crowd of pedestrians, and makes
    for the post office. He is just in time to collect the mail. The post office
    shuts at midday. Meanwhile Geraldo has sobered himself up, collected his
    7.65 mm pistol and has stuffed it into his belt. Vilson and he are approaching
    the CPT office on Avenida Dorgival Pinheiro when they see the blue Toyota
    coming towards them. Josimo has dropped off his passengers and is alone.
    Vilson stops his car outside the barbecue stand, and Geraldo crosses the
    street and dives into the copy shop, two doors down from Josimo’s office.

    Josimo parks the car and hurries up the first flight of steps. He is
    just turning the corner when he hears someone shout his name. “Ei! Padre
    Josimo!” He turns and looks back. Below him stands a blond man with long
    hair, wrestling with something in the waistband of his pants. In a flash,
    Josimo realizes he is pulling a gun, and turns to run. Geraldo fires twice,
    hitting Josimo in the kidney.

    Josimo is dead, but he doesn’t know it. 




    Chapter Two


    The Long Road 

    to the Amazon

    It was February 1993, I was on the trail of Padre Josimo, and I was
    sitting in a lawyer’s office in Brasília learning about the time
    Josimo had got himself into trouble with the law.

    “It was a put up job, of course,” said the lawyer, peering at me through
    her pebble lenses. “They brought a case against him for willful destruction
    of state property. Never proved a thing, but the case still drags on, believe
    it or not. Of course Josimo’s been dead for years, but some of his colleagues
    in the CPT were indicted. In fact,” she sniffed indignantly, “There’s a
    hearing scheduled for Tuesday. In Itaguatins.”

    She pointed to the wall map. I could just see Itaguatins written in
    very small print at the northern end of the state of Tocantins, a thousand
    miles from where we sat. “Why don’t you come along?” said the lawyer comfortably.
    “I’ll be there, and I can introduce you to some of the characters in the
    story. It’s on Tuesday, at 2.30 in the afternoon.”

    I sailed out of the office in a happy haze. It was Friday afternoon,
    and it would take me a good twenty-four hours to get to Itaguatins. Probably
    longer. But with luck I’d be able to make it in time, and I’d certainly
    meet some of Josimo’s friends. Some of his enemies too, no doubt. Perfect.

    A twelve hour bus journey over a bumpy road that had once been paved
    took me to the town of Gurupi, halfway up the state of Tocantins. I was
    directed to the small, airless office of the Pastoral Land Commission to
    talk to one of their lawyers, Adilar.

    “Tell me about the CPT,” I began. “What is it that you do that makes
    you so many enemies?”

    Adilar poured us both a cup of strong dark coffee, and leaned back in
    his chair. “Well,” he smiled, “I guess it’s because we get ourselves involved
    in the land wars. We see our job as supporting the peasants in every way
    we can. They don’t have title to the land, you see. Never knew such a thing
    existed. It didn’t matter until the great land rush was on, and all of
    a sudden they found themselves served with eviction orders. Well, the law
    says they can acquire squatters’ rights under certain circumstances, and
    most of them had a far stronger claim to the land than the big ranchers
    who got their titles by all sorts of dubious means. Of course the ranchers
    do everything in their power to throw the peasants off the land, and that’s
    where we come in, make as much noise as possible, and see if we can establish
    their tenure. And that’s only a first step. Then we’ve got to figure out
    ways they can stay on the land. There’s no infrastructure at all; no roads,
    no credit, no nothing. No technology, no marketing, no access to seeds
    or fertilizer, no help of any sort from anybody. We do what we can to set
    up cooperatives and credit schemes, and give a little technical advice.
    So as you can imagine we make ourselves pretty unpopular among the ranchers.
    They reckon we’re inciting the peasants to revolution, I suppose. That’s
    why we make ourselves so many enemies. Now tell me something; which court
    hearing did you say you were going to attend?”

    “Something to do with the destruction of public property,” I ventured.

    “The case of the telephone exchange?” he snorted. “Let me tell you about
    that. It was pure fabrication, from start to finish. You know that Josimo
    lived in a little place called São Sebastião? The mayor there
    was called Zé Carneiro, and if there was one person Zé Carneiro
    couldn’t abide, it was Josimo. I think he thought that Josimo was trying
    to build a power base, but he couldn’t have been more wrong. Anyway there’s
    another little village up there called Buriti, and the people of Buriti
    finally got some money from the state to put in a public telephone. Nobody
    had any quarrel with that, except when the mayor started to build the telephone
    exchange on a piece of land belonging to the church.

    “There was no end of a row about it. Josimo protested to the mayor that
    it was church land, and asked him to stop construction, but the mayor refused.
    He even put a guard on the building site. Well, it so happened that Josimo
    had to be out of town for a couple of weeks, and by the time he came back
    the work was almost complete. The villagers sent him a message asking him
    to do something urgently, but Josimo realized the mayor wouldn’t listen
    to him, so he suggested they call in the bishop to arbitrate. But the truth
    was that the people didn’t really trust the bishop. They thought he’d sell
    them down the river. So one dark night they went in there and knocked the
    building down. Josimo wasn’t actually present, although I’m pretty sure
    he knew about it.

    “The mayor was livid with rage. He called in the police, and they arrested
    a whole bunch of people and beat the daylights out of them. They managed
    to line up some witnesses to testify that Josimo and three of the nuns
    had been in charge of the whole operation, carrying machine guns if you
    please! The whole thing was one big lie, from start to finish. Even the
    witnesses admitted it was hearsay. The French Sisters were at home twenty
    miles away, and Josimo kept his head down that night and never stirred
    out of the place he was staying.

    “There’s one thing you have to realize in connection with all this.
    That whole area was under the jurisdiction of the National Security Laws
    at the time. On account of the so-called guerrilla war they’d had there
    in the early ’70s. The military government regarded the Araguaia/Tocantins
    corridor as a flash point for insurrection, so they put it under military
    law. The whole business of the telephone exchange was blown up into an
    attack on National Security, exacerbated by the fact that the Sisters are
    foreigners. Well, the case continues, although Josimo’s out of it, of course.
    The whole thing’s a complete farce. But it’ll give you a good insight into
    Brazilian justice.”

    That evening I marched across town to the bus station and found a bus
    heading for Araguaina. “Should get in around 3:00,” said the driver. “You
    can pick up another bus from there.” Long experience had taught me how
    to arrange self, pack, water bottle, sweater and legs to best advantage,
    and I settled down to doze my way along the bumpy Belém-Brasília
    highway.

    At 3:00 a.m. we arrived at the dark and cheerless bus station at Araguaina.
    There was no bus waiting. I stared disbelievingly at a wooden board on
    which was painted the time of the next bus to Itaguatins. 14:00 hrs. Eleven
    hours to wait. It was not an encouraging thought.

    I sat down to consider my position. A small child materialized out of
    the shadows and began tugging insistently at my arm. “There’s someone who
    wants to see you,” he whispered. I didn’t like the sound of that either.

    But the someone proved to be the driver of an ancient and decrepit bus
    called JAMJOY.

    “Itaguatins?” he inquired brightly. “Come with me and I’ll drop you
    at Estreita. There’ll be a connecting bus waiting.” It sounded unlikely,
    but a lot better than sitting in Araguaina. I fought my way to the last
    seat, well to the rear of the bus. It looked as if the bus had been on
    the road for several days, there was a thick layer of garbage on the floor
    and it had a homely lived-in smell. Luckily no-one had been throwing up
    lately.

    It was still dark when we got to Estreita. There was nothing there at
    all; just a muddy little intersection, and, predictably, there was no sign
    of the promised bus. I could see no advantage in staying at Estreita; better,
    I decided, to throw in my lot with my fellow passengers. At the next town
    the driver suggested off-loading me and several others. “You take a canoe
    across the river and walk up to the bus station,” he suggested. “You can
    get a bus to Itaguatins from there.”

    “The bus doesn’t run any more,” objected one of the passengers.

    “There’s sure to be a truck,” said the driver cheerfully.

    But the idea didn’t appeal. It seemed altogether better to stick it
    out until we reached Imperatriz and start over from there. At least it
    would be daylight. I settled myself as best I could and dozed fitfully
    as far as Imperatriz.

    The bus station was ankle deep in garbage, and there were muddy puddles
    everywhere. I seized my pack and headed into the humid heat of the morning.
    The bus driver pointed to an even older and muddier JAMJOY bus which was
    just on the point of pulling out. “That’s your bus,” he said, thumping
    on the side of it. “Get off in Sítio Novo and you can hitch a ride
    from there.”

    I scrambled aboard the bus, picking my way carefully over sacks and
    bundles which were piled up just inside the door. The bus rattled its way
    down to the river bank, and the passengers piled out into the mud. I trudged
    onto the ferry and staked out a seat next to an overweight Bolivian who
    told me that he was a bush pilot working in the gold mines of the interior.
    “I fly out the gold,” he told me confidentially, “And on the return journey,”
    he tapped the side of his nose and looked at me significantly, “I bring
    in the women.”

    The ferry pulled in, disgorging several pickups, a couple of horse carts,
    a host of muddy passengers and the JAMJOY bus. We picked our way across
    the puddles and settled back in our lumpy seats. I lay back and gazed through
    the dirty windows at the strip of land known as the Parrot’s Beak, the
    land that Josimo had died for.

    It lies between the Araguaia and the Tocantins; two of the large rivers
    that make up the Amazon River system. Innocent green palm trees cover one
    of the most violent and bloody regions of a violent continent. The violence
    and the bloodshed come from the land wars.

    In the beginning, no-one bothered to lay claim to the land. Land was
    a gift from God, something to be used, not to be owned. All that changed
    in 1960, with the coming of the first road. Before that, the region had
    been inhabited by small bands of Indians and others of mixed European and
    African descent, who had drifted in by river, attracted by fertile lands,
    or the occasional find of gold or diamonds. To the east lie the great drylands
    of Piauí, Ceará  and Maranhão, and these lands
    have always provided and still provide a steady stream of migrants heading
    west to the green lands by the great rivers. The early settlers cleared
    patches of forest and put in their little fields of manioc, rice, beans
    and corn. They built small settlements and these were named after the first
    arrivals; Firmino’s Center, Ferreiro’s Center, Center of the Mulattos.
    The fields were moved every year or two, and there was land enough for
    everyone. Babassu palm trees grew in profusion, and the women pressed delicious
    cooking oil from the nuts, wove baskets from the leaves, and made charcoal
    from the husks. There were fish in the rivers and game in the forest, and
    the land provided a good living for those who didn’t need to plan very
    far ahead. Although no-one had title to the land, they were entitled by
    law to squatters’ rights, but they never knew about that until it was too
    late.

    The Parrot’s Beak—so named for its shape on the map—lies at the extreme
    northern end of the state of Tocantins, which split off from Goiás
    in 1988. It is more than a thousand miles north of the federal capital,
    Brasília One of the chief ideas behind building Brasília
    was to attract development to the hitherto untouched heartland of continent-sized
    Brazil, and in order to do this it was necessary to build some roads. The
    very first of these, the Road of the Jaguar, was scheduled to cut across
    the eastern edge of Amazônia to the mouth of the Amazon River at
    Belém.

    Construction began in 1960, and for the inhabitants of the Parrot’s
    Beak the good times vanished like the morning mist. People came swarming
    up the new road, looking for land, looking for gold, looking for a new
    life. Since the peasants had no clear notion about the concept of property,
    they were easily persuaded to part from their lands in exchange for a rifle,
    a bicycle, or a piece of paper promising some money.

    The new owners started to fence off the land, and forbade access to
    the babassu palm trees. They moved in, announced that the land was now
    theirs, and produced documents to prove it. Any families in residence were
    ordered to leave, and those who protested soon attracted unwelcome attention
    from hired gunmen. If that didn’t frighten them off, they were served with
    eviction notices. Entire villages were emptied, houses and crops were burnt,
    and the people were intimidated, beaten up and sometimes killed. In their
    bewilderment they found no place to turn.

    But help was at hand. In 1979 a lay missionary from Italy arrived in
    the Parrot’s Beak. His name was Nicola. He started walking from community
    to community, listening to the problems of the peasants, telling them about
    their legal rights, and helping them organize the first elements of resistance.
    He was joined soon afterwards by three French nuns, Mada, Bia, and Nicole,
    and a Brazilian nun called Lurdinha from the far south of the country.
    In 1983 Padre Josimo came to take over the parish of São Sebastião,
    a small village right at the end of the Parrot’s Beak. For a short time
    this extraordinarily talented and courageous group was to challenge the
    power of the establishment, stand up for the dispossessed, and threaten
    the local power structure. It was to be a long hard battle, and Josimo
    was to pay for it with his life.

    This was the story I had come in search of, and as I looked at the faces
    of my fellow passengers on the bus, I tried to imagine which of them had
    known Josimo, and what effect he had had on their lives.

    The stony road managed to be both muddy and dusty at the same time.
    We were traveling through a green landscape; low forest, lots of babassu
    palms, small clearings of corn, beans, rice, and manioc, and the occasional
    cattle pastures. The villages are nothing but higgledy-piggledy collections
    of mud huts with thatch roofs, but Sítio Novo has turned itself
    into a town and boasts a large square, a telephone office, and several
    paved roads.

    The local office of the Pastoral Land Commission is just off the main
    square, next to the church. I wander over to check whether Xavier, the
    French Dominican friar who is setting up lines of credit for the local
    village associations, is home. But the office is all shut up, and I stick
    a note under the door and make my way back to the square in the hopes of
    finding a ride to Itaguatins. Several pickup trucks are parked there, but
    they are all going the other way. Itaguatins, it seems, is on the road
    to nowhere. “Best thing is to go wait at the turnoff,” advises one of the
    villagers. “Most of the traffic going through here is headed for Imperatriz.”

    I shoulder my pack and head for the turnoff. Fortunately there is a
    house there, and better still the ancient owner invites me into the shade,
    where there is a rocking chair strung with broken plastic. All the traffic,
    without exception, is going to Imperatriz. The old man gets bored of talking
    to me and goes inside to take a siesta. His rhythmic snores fill me with
    an overwhelming desire to do the same, but the confines of the plastic
    rocking chair do not permit.

    It is one o’clock, the hearing is scheduled for two thirty, and there
    seems to be no way I can get there on time. I am beginning to get a bit
    edgy when a telephone company truck draws up in a cloud of dust and agrees
    to give me a ride. By a miracle we are in Itaguatins by two. I do not find
    the bustle I had expected to see, with lawyers swarming all over the place.
    The town is wrapped in profound silence. I make my way to the Forum and
    inquire. “Hearing?” says the girl at the desk as she listlessly pecks at
    an elderly typewriter. “Oh no, it’s been canceled. The judge is on holiday.”

    I flounce out and look venomously at the small town. It consists of
    two streets of neatly painted houses. Very small donkeys wander around.
    The flooded brown river sweeps past. Everyone is asleep. I seek refuge
    in the priest’s house. He is traveling, but I’m welcome to stay the night.
    There’s no bus before the morning. I dump my stuff and while away the rest
    of the day listening to one of the justice officials telling me about his
    blameless part in the local land evictions. We both know he is lying. It
    is almost too hot to matter. But he does mention, in passing, that there
    were a couple of murders out in Mata Seca a short time back.

    After a restless and mosquito-ridden night, I am up at dawn to catch
    the bus to Itaguatins. I hear the sound of a car engine approaching, and
    to my immense delight who should round the corner but Xavier the French
    friar from Sítio Novo, together with a jeepload of people from the
    Rural Workers’ Union. They are heading for Mata Seca to check out the murders.

    In response to my urgent request, Xavier decides he can squeeze in one
    more. This is far better than attending an audience at the forum. Right
    here are three of the best-known figures of the whole land struggle in
    the area: Dona Raimunda who once lunched with Danielle Mitterrand in Paris—and
    didn’t think much of the food—João Custódio, veteran of innumerable
    standoffs with the police, and Maria Senhora, the articulate black union
    leader from the Centro dos Mulatos. Together with Xavier, his colleague
    Pedro, and a couple of other union officials, we are to spend the next
    forty-eight hours in Mata Seca, hearing the full story of the murders,
    and helping the squatters draw up a plan of action. These are the first
    land-related deaths in this particular area, and the squatters have sent
    out an urgent plea for help.

    “Hey!” shouts Pedro, wrestling with the steering-wheel as the Toyota
    bucks across the ruts. “Tell us the story of Mata Seca, somebody.”

    “I’ll tell you what I know,” says Iran, the union leader from Tocantinópolis.
    “It’s a complex situation. To start with, Mata Seca is Indian land, although
    the Indians have never objected to the squatters. There are sixteen squatter
    families there, and most of them live on their own little plots. Been there
    for more than fifteen years, most of them, and never had any problems.
    Recently this guy Gideão shows up and says he has got title to a
    piece of land in the middle; right next to Zé Barros and Mauro.
    Well, at first he doesn’t bother them, but then he decides he likes the
    look of their lands and so he hires a pistoleiro to go round scaring
    them off. First thing that happens is that Zé Barros’ house gets
    burned down. Luckily there’s no-one in it. Then they set fire to his corn
    crop. Fifteen acres of it. Then this same pistoleiro, Gerínio,
    son of Rattlesnake, goes over to Mauro’s place and starts shooting at the
    fence posts. Intimidation tactics, of course, but pretty effective all
    the same. So the squatters get together and go talk to the police about
    it, and eventually seven families sign a good neighbor statement with Gideão.

    “But it doesn’t end there. Seems that Zé Barros and one of his
    sons—a young lad of fifteen or so—are out in the field one day and they
    hear that the pistoleiro Gerínio is around. So they go and
    hide in the little shelter they have there, and when Gerínio comes
    along Zé Barros plugs him with his shot-gun. What he doesn’t see
    is that Gideão’s son, Gidevan, is right behind, and when Zé
    stands up to take a look, Gidevan shoots him dead. Zé Barros just
    has time to shout to his boy, and he takes a shot at Gidevan, but
    fortunately he misses.

    “Rumor has it Gideão has hired a whole lot more gunmen, and he’s
    as mad as a snake because they had a go at his son; half of the squatters
    are in fear and trembling and the other half are hell-bent on revenge,
    and, if you ask me, I’d say the thing could blow up any time.”

    I closed my eyes and wondered what I was getting myself into. I’d known
    what was going on in the Amazon land wars. I’d actually volunteered to
    come to the Amazon and investigate them, and one of the things that had
    triggered my quest had been the figure of twelve million landless peasants,
    in a land the size of the United States. Twelve million people forced to
    take to the road in search of a living. It was as if the entire population
    of Calcutta had packed up its bags and bundles and was off to find a new
    life. I knew that hundreds of thousands of families had landed up in the
    cruel cardboard slums of the huge cities, others had drifted into poorly-paid
    jobs in construction and industry, others had succumbed to gold fever and
    rushed like lemmings to the subhuman conditions of the gold mines. And
    countless thousands had swarmed to the agricultural frontier as it swept
    up into the empty spaces of Amazônia, where they had cleared their
    patches of forest, planted their crops, and watched their dreams die as
    the soils were exhausted. I had spoken to families who had doggedly moved
    on; five, ten times; leaving their lands to be snapped up by the wave of
    speculators that followed them like a pack of hyenas. But I could sense
    that here in Mata Seca things were different. The people here were making
    their last stand. They had found fertile lands, they had raised their crops,
    and they intended to stay put.

    They were facing a group of people that was equally determined to move
    them on. Nine out of ten squatters had never heard of the Greater Carajás
    Project—the multi-billion dollar scheme to develop one of the richest mineral
    areas in the world. But they all knew about the gold strike at Serra Pelada;
    most families had at least one member who had tried his luck there at one
    time or another. What they didn’t know was that, as part of the Greater
    Carajás Project, government planners had zoned their area for cattle
    ranching. The idea was to raise beef for export and send it out on the
    Carajás railroad to the port at São Luís. On a still
    night the inhabitants of São Sebastião could hear the train
    whistle as it passed by on the other side of the river. But they were completely
    unaware of the implications of the government’s mammoth development plan.
    Cattle ranching requires capital, and it requires large stretches of land.
    Cattle ranching is inimical to small squatters on their subsistence plots,
    and that is why the government had given its tacit consent to their expulsion.
    There were only two organizations fighting for the dispossessed; the church
    and the unions. Without support from these, the squatters would have been
    wiped out.

    After several wrong turns we arrive at a clearing in the forest, and
    park the car in front of a small house of wooden stakes with a thatch roof.
    This is the house of Mazoniel; head of the recently formed squatters’ association.
    During the course of the morning several of them drift in, and finally
    the meeting gets under way. The men are thin, sharp-faced, watchful as
    a pack of wolves. Each one props his rifle up against the wall, within
    easy reach. We sit on benches made of tree trunks, ranged round the wall.
    The women huddle in the kitchen. One or two small children and dogs play
    on the beaten earth floor. There’s a table, a shelf with a water filter,
    a few posters on the walls. Half partitioned off is the bedroom and next
    to it the kitchen, with its mud stove and its shelves full of plates and
    mugs. A stout board outside holds a tin wash-pan and the gourd of washing-up
    water. Bathing is done in the river. Anything else in the forest.

    The squatters reconstruct the story for us. They are jittery, expecting
    more violence. There is a stir when one-eyed Mauro comes in, he has come
    out of hiding for the occasion. The tension is cut by the calm voice of
    João Custódio, speaking from his long experience. He explains
    that the trick is for people to stay together. To work together. One man
    makes an easy target, but a gunman won’t take on a group. If people stick
    together they won’t get killed.

    The men eye one another uneasily. Dona Raimunda marches into the center
    of the room and looking over her glasses she addresses them as if they
    were a bunch of unruly schoolchildren. She bends over to draw a triangle
    on the dirt floor. “This,” she announces, “is called a pyramid. It shows
    us how the world works. At the top here, the pointed bit, are the very
    few people who live at the expense of all the others at the bottom. And,
    deep down, we all want to be at the top. But we can only climb up by treading
    on our companions. And if we do that, we’ll be on our own.

    “Do you know something? We human beings aren’t nearly as smart as the
    animals. They know they can’t be safe if they’re alone. They know they
    need to be together; they do it by instinct. But we keep wanting to do
    things by ourselves. That’s why people don’t join the union,” she looked
    round fiercely, “because they can’t see what’s in it for them. I tell you
    what’s in it. If we’re all together we can get what we want. If we try
    on our own we’ll never get anywhere.”

    Maria Senhora isn’t the combative type. Soft-spoken but firm. “What
    we have to remember about the union is this,” she begins. “It doesn’t matter
    how few you are so long as you all act together. Let me tell you the story
    of Zé Antônio. The ranchers came to him and said they wanted
    his land. They even said they’d indemnify him. Then they looked a little
    closer and saw that Zé Antônio had a lot of fruit trees, so
    they’d have to pay a lot more than they’d planned. They sent round a pistoleiro
    to see the lie of the land. Pretended he wanted to buy some chickens.
    Well, Zé didn’t like the look of the pistoleiro so he told
    him to come back in the morning and the chickens would be ready. Meantime
    he sent for all his friends. Next morning they were all waiting when the
    pistoleiro came and they caught him and made him confess. Well,
    if they hadn’t got together and made a plan someone would have been killed.
    Anyone can see that.”

    “I use the picture of the swarm of bees,” said Mazoniel, “Mess about
    with one and the rest will be after you.”

    “Right!” said Raimunda. “That’s why you must move your houses. Build
    them close together. Put them so close you can smell each other’s food
    cooking. You never know when you’re going to need each other. The pistoleiros
    won’t go after you if you’re all together, but if you’re alone they’ll
    pick you off one by one.”

    The squatters discuss the matter over lunch, bowls of rice and beans
    with roasted manioc. Halfway through the meal there is a commotion as three
    strangers ride up. Mauro slips into the kitchen, and four or five of the
    men pick up their rifles and go outside. Through the wooden stockade walls
    we can see the strangers approach. One of them takes out a bottle of the
    local firewater and passes it round. There is a short, stilted conversation,
    and they turn to leave. No sooner are they out of sight than Raimunda lays
    into the men. “I don’t know what you boys were thinking of!” she harangues
    them. “Accepting a nip out of the bottle like that! Anybody’d think you
    were born yesterday. I suppose they asked you your names?” Bashful silence
    and averted eyes confirm her suspicion. “You never do that again, do you
    hear me? They’re only trying to find out who’s here. Looking for Mauro,
    I don’t doubt.” Mauro shrinks into his corner. He’s blind in one eye. I
    feel heart sore for him.

    Later that evening I talk to Dona Antônia, Zé Barros’ widow.
    A frail woman, she is still in shock.

    “We’d been married thirty years,” she whispers. “Zé Barros was
    as good a man as you’ll find. Never harmed a fly. And there am I with seven
    children and no food in the house. I haven’t had the nerve to set foot
    in the fields since that day.” Her ravaged face bears eloquent testimony
    to her suffering.

    “Never harmed a fly.” The thought haunts me as I lie in my hammock that
    night. We string our hammocks in a row, and I put mine well in the middle,
    convincing myself that Raimunda is right and there will be no shoot-out
    tonight because we are all together. Zé Barros never harmed a fly.
    But he killed the pistoleiro. Had it been just like killing a snake,
    something done on the spur of the moment? Had he planned it? My thoughts
    whirl round and round. THOU SHALT NOT KILL. What then shall we do? 


    A Land to Die For by Binka Le Breton, Clarity
    Press, 1997. Published by permission. Price: $12.95 plus $3.95 shipping.
    The book can be ordered COD or by credit card by calling (800) 626-4330.

    Binka Le Breton is a British journalist living in Brazil.
    She also wrote Voices from the Amazon and The Rain Forest.

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