In August 2017 Eliane Brum, one of Brazil’s best-known journalists, moved from the great metropolis of São Paulo to Altamira, a small, violence-plagued city along the Xingu River in the Amazon. Brum worked for the country’s most respected newspaper, Folha de São Paulo, as well as other smaller news outlets, where she was known for a column called The Life No One Sees, about lives that are usually “reduced to a footnote so tiny it almost slides off the page.” She regularly embedded for long periods of time with those who had no obvious reason to appear in a newspaper: a retired school lunch lady who is slowly dying of cancer, a baggage handler who dreams of taking a flight one day.
Born to Italian immigrants in Brazil, Brum was a single, teenage mother when she began working as a journalist in Florianópolis, a midsize beach city in the south. She wrote news coverage, several nonfiction books, and a novel, and codirected three documentaries. During her time in São Paulo, after covering urban Brazil for decades, she decided that the biggest story—not just in the country, but in the world—was in the rainforest. Her new book’s subtitle is “The Amazon as the Center of the World.” The book is about her move, what pulled her to Altamira, and what she found there—her attempt to radically remake her life, which she calls “reforesting” herself.
About three quarters of the Amazonian population live in towns and cities. Altamira—a city in the state of Pará, nearly twice as large as Texas—is not beautiful, it is not picturesque, it is not pleasant. Though the waters of the Xingu River used to run clear, it is now not anyone’s idea of an idyllic rainforest outpost. Once a Jesuit mission, it is now a 100,000-strong city of hulking Land Rovers with tinted windows threatening to mow down those poor or reckless enough to walk in the street. It has the dubious distinction of being among Brazil’s most violent cities, worse than Rio de Janeiro, with its famous street crime, where I was scolded within an inch of my life by an elderly stranger for leaving apartment keys and cash folded into a towel on the beach while I went for a solo swim.
Altamira is territory of the grileiros—whom Brum’s translator, Diane Whitty, glosses as “land grabbers”—and their henchmen. Worth the price of admission is Brum’s detailed explanation of their particular technique of seizing and destroying the Amazon: the grileiros hire private militias to drive out Indigenous peoples, along with anyone else who lives on public preserves in the forest; chop down hardwood trees (illegally—but who is to tell in such a remote area?); and then set the rest on fire. Once that patch of the Amazon is burned, grileiros bring in cattle or plant soybeans to solidify their claim, as well as to turn a profit beyond the value of the stolen land. At the local level, corrupt officials bow to or directly work with the grileiros. The noncorrupt rightly fear them. At the national level, Brazilians have neither the resources nor the will to do much to stop them. Grileiros are, Brum writes with a flourish, “key to understanding the destruction of the rainforest, yesterday, today, always.”
The fires that spread in the Amazon in 2019 and so horrified those of us watching abroad on tiny screens were unusually large, but not unusual in any other way. The Amazon burns continuously in fires set by those working for grileiros, even now, after Jair Bolsonaro, who was elected president in 2018 on a platform of explicit support for the grileiros (his enthusiasm for murdering the rainforest earned him the nickname Captain Chainsaw), was voted out of office. The feverish pace of deforestation of the Bolsonaro years has slowed, dropping by 33.6 percent during the first six months after Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—known to all as Lula—was inaugurated president for his third term in 2023. But less has changed than those of us rooting for the survival of planet Earth might like: the local dynamics, the destructive ways of making money from the rainforest, the permissiveness and lawlessness have remained the same.
Over the past fifty years, an estimated 17 percent of the Amazon has been turned into cropland or cattle pasture. Many scientists warn that, at around 20 or 25 percent deforestation, the Amazon could reach a tipping point, at which the poetically named “flying rivers” that recycle water vapor from the forest into rain in other areas of South America would cease to fly. Huge areas of the rainforest would turn to scrubby savanna, possibly over only a few decades, with potentially catastrophic effects, like severe droughts in places as far away as the western United States.
Heriberto Araújo, a Spanish journalist who has covered China and Latin America for Agence France-Presse and the Mexican news agency Notimex, among others, wrote in his recent book Masters of the Lost Land1 that when he traveled the Trans-Amazonian Highway past Altamira and deeper into the state of Pará, he saw not the thick vegetation of rainforest but rolling pastures and fields of soybeans:
While I had vaguely hoped to see a wild jaguar—a beast formerly so common in these forests that pioneers, unafraid, had even domesticated some specimens and treated them like pets—I was disappointed; the sole animal in sight was the humpbacked, floppy-eared, glossy white Nelore cow, the ultimate conqueror of the frontier.
Visitors in the nineteenth century described the Amazon as a wall of sound, loud with the bellows of red howler monkeys and the calls of birds and frogs. Now large areas are silent but for the rustling of cows’ tails as they slap flies—except where chainsaws grate against the remaining trees.
The subject of Brum’s book is not the rainforest itself but the human beings who live in it, logging, burning, farming, gathering, tending, replanting. An estimated 30 million people live in the Amazon. This sounds wrong to some outsiders: Apart from Indigenous groups, shouldn’t the Amazon be empty of humans, the better to leave the plants and animals in peace? (Some go so far as to argue that even the Indigenous should be displaced to cities, echoing anti-Native conservationist ideas throughout history and around the world, including in the US.)
But Brum distinguishes between the human residents of the Amazon who harm their environment, like the grileiros and big cattle, oil, and timber, and those who make a less damaging living from farming, gathering, or engaging in renewable or smaller-scale extraction. The latter group, many of whom were driven out by huge development projects like dams, mourn the trees and fish and fruit. Brum thinks that this group should have the right to stay. Her book is an attempt to be more like them, to get up close with those who have merged with the rainforest in a way that she seeks to emulate, and then to try to convey to outsiders what she has heard and felt and learned—with all its sweat and noise and discomfort. She confesses that the “book harbors the desire to make the Amazon a personal matter for those reading it.”
Brum is a useful guide to the people of the Amazon, from the Yanomami in and around Altamira and the “pioneers” who first brought in the cows to the hired guns and the workers who today clear the forest and tend cattle and soy for little or no pay. Some grileiros are small-time cattle rustlers or heads of neo-Pentecostal churches preaching the gospel of prosperity. The most powerful “don’t live in the Amazon or get their hands dirty” at all; they are members of the country’s one percent, from São Paulo, Minas Gerais, and Rio Grande do Sul. “Right now, while I’m writing and you’re reading,” she says, “they might be playing polo or listening to the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra.”
Most victims of the Amazon’s many murders are workers who demand back wages or other rights, activists who demand land for the landless, and foreign or local Yanomami environmental defenders. In 2005 an American-born nun named Dorothy Stang, who was supporting the poor in their efforts to defend land against ranchers so that they could earn a living extracting forest products without cutting down the trees, was killed on the orders of a local cattleman.
The term grileiro derives from the Portuguese word for “cricketer,” because back in the 1970s, Brum writes,
the men used to consummate their fraud by placing new sheets of paper and live crickets in boxes where the insects…produced excrement that yellowed the documents and made them look more believably like old land titles.
Grileiros worked with lawyers and corrupt civil servants who helped authenticate the fake papers: a bribe to officials registering deeds made the title official. Unlike homesteading in the United States, which was also often made possible by fraudulent claims, land grabs in the Amazon are ongoing. In Brazil, scattered notaries public, rather than a centralized registry, oversee land titles, leaving the door wide open to fraud and corruption. The researcher and journalist Maurício Torres found in 2009 that the municipality of São Félix do Xingu, in Pará, would have to be three stories high to make space for all the titles registered at the land deed offices.
This whole set of flora and fauna—cows, soybeans, grileiros—is part of the long story of what in Brazil is called “colonization.” That word, as in other Latin American countries, refers not to overseas colonies but to projects that fill out the population in valuable hinterlands. Since Brazil gained its independence from Portugal in 1822, the country has been preoccupied with keeping control over the Amazon. Brazil claims the largest portion of the rainforest, but it spills over national borders into Peru and Colombia, with smaller portions held by five other nations, as well as 3,344 separate acknowledged Indigenous territories. Beyond symbolizing natural majesty, not to mention mystery, in the world’s imagination, the Amazon represents wealth. Ten percent of all species live there, and the Amazon River, with over a thousand tributaries, holds a fifth of the planet’s fresh water.
The word “colonization” in Brazil once had the sort of positive connotation that “exploration” and “westward expansion” did to North American ears. The violent process still occupies a place among the country’s founding myths: bandeirantes (literally “flag carriers”) are honored with statues all over Brazil. During the colonial period bandeirantes cleared and settled the areas around São Paulo, then explored the interior, pushing land claims well beyond what had been allotted to the Portuguese in their 1494 treaty with the Spanish. In the eighteenth century they set off a gold rush. To grab more land for Brazil, the bandeirantes organized sneak attacks on Indigenous villages and enslaved captives. Their actual and spiritual heirs went on to slaughter Indigenous people and clear lands around the country for centuries.
After independence, government officials promoted the settlement of more remote areas in the hope of encouraging smallholding farms, not unlike the Jeffersonian ideal for early North America. Who might those farmers be? Not Indigenous peoples. Certainly not Black Brazilians, since slavery lasted for six and a half decades after independence, later than any other country in the Americas. (During the colonial period, Brazilians built an economy of sugar plantations worked by enslaved Africans—over 40 percent of all Africans forcibly brought to the New World disembarked in Brazil.) The land was for whiter Brazilians.
Europeans were shipped in, too, though mostly as workers. As in similar schemes to attract European migrants to Argentina, Venezuela, and elsewhere in Latin America, Brazilian officials in the state of São Paulo engaged in an explicit program of branqueamento, or “whitening,” just as Brazilian slaves became free. They offered free transatlantic boat passage to European immigrants, even sending agents over to impoverished northern Italian port cities to sign up the likes of Brum’s great-great-grandparents.
When Brum was still new to Altamira, she went shopping in a supermarket with an activist who worked on land conflicts, and ran into a tall white stranger. Exchanging pleasantries, she realized they were from the same part of southern Brazil, where people proudly refer to themselves as gaúchos, a kind of Brazilian cowboy. Brum had been proud of this heritage, too. After the man left, the activist told her, “He’s a grileiro.” “Still naive, I replied, ‘Gosh, a gaúcho, how disgraceful.’ Then he explained, ‘You have to understand that gaúchos are known as the Amazon’s locusts.’”
While colonization schemes “integrated” the Amazon into the rest of Brazil, the result was not sweet little farms but a thriving rubber economy. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, men from northeastern Brazil, including many recently manumitted slaves, worked throughout the Amazon as tappers on a freelance basis—affixing drains to trees to siphon off latex, the basis of wild rubber, which was at that time an important raw material for the global industrial revolution. (In 1928 Henry Ford, in an attempt to vertically integrate his car empire, briefly opened a rubber plantation and model city in the Amazon called Fordlândia.)
Escaping harsh work conditions and debts to predatory traders, many of these migrant workers vanished into the forest and settled, intermarrying with Indigenous people and quilombolas, the descendants of runaway slaves. Brum writes about the difficulty of characterizing this group, called the beiradeiros—literally, those who live on the edge of the river—to outsiders. She explains that they are the “third people” of the forest, neither quilombolas nor Indigenous. “The beiradeiros fish and hunt, crack Brazil nuts, pick açaí, plant fields, make flour, sometimes raise chickens,” she writes.
They might tap rubber if the price is good, prospect a little when there’s a new gold strike. They hunted a lot of jaguars and oncillas in the past because whites wanted the hides.
Brum opposes the conservationist groups who would oust the beiradeiros in the name of preserving the ecosystem: “Humans—this generic term invented to conceal asymmetries—are not a threat to the forest; rather, some humans are. Others interact with it, transform it, and even plant it.” Since before the “colonization” of the Amazon, even before the Portuguese disembarked in what is now Brazil, Indigenous peoples of the region have contributed to the richness of the soil and density of the forest cover by cultivating sweet potatoes, peanuts, cacao, manioc, and squash.
Brazil’s military dictatorship, in power from 1964 to 1985, oversaw a new colonization scheme in the Amazon that was much like the old one, but with more chainsaws, more funding, and more paranoia. Their colossal development plan involved displacing almost one million people—rubber tappers, farmers, Indigenous people—to exploit natural resources and build infrastructure like the Trans-Amazonian Highway, a 2,500-mile road connecting the whole basin from east to west. They also offered tax breaks, special lines of credit, and cheap land to those who would relocate to the Amazon from elsewhere in the country. On September 27, 1972, the dictator Emílio Garrastazu Médici traveled to Altamira to cut the ribbon on the project and claimed that it solved two problems: “men without land in the northeast and land without men in the Amazon.” The slogan of the project became “a land without men for men without land.” It is no accident that this sounds much like the Zionist phrase “a land without a people for a people without a land”—both draw on the concept of terra nullius (nobody’s land) that has given a legal veneer to the seizure of land around the world.
There was widespread fear in the government that foreign powers, particularly the US, had designs on the Amazon, as well as cold war concerns that guerrilla fighters might use the remote rainforest as a base. “Occupy so as not to surrender” was one not-so-subtle slogan. There were some guerrilla fighters active in Pará, but they were executed upon capture in the 1970s. After spending some time in Brazil, I was startled to learn that many people still believe that outsiders—now often the European Union and the United Nations—wish to invade, steal, or prohibit Brazilians from profiting from the Amazon, or even from entering it, by declaring it an international reserve.
As president, Bolsonaro floated the idea that international nonprofits had set the enormous 2019 blazes because they “lost money.” Later, when questioned by foreign reporters about his evidence-free assertions about international conspiracies to take over the Amazon, he said, with characteristic indelicacy, “Brazil is the virgin that every foreign pervert wants to get their hands on.” This may be a case of projection—the most successful national land grabs in the Amazon have been by Brazil, which took Acre from Bolivia and a piece of what is now Amapá from French Guiana. The historian Barbara Weinstein recalls that Itamar Franco, Brazil’s president after Fernando Collor de Mello was impeached for corruption in 1992, referred to US organizations that complained about destruction in the Amazon as “palefaces.” The implication was that North Americans slaughtered their Indigenous populations and stole and settled their land. Why shouldn’t Brazilians do the same? Bolsonaro’s views are crude but not new.
Colonization involved the massacre of whole Indigenous settlements: a truth commission report later found that over the course of the military dictatorship, government officials killed at least 8,350 Indigenous people. It also turned out to be an economic disaster for everyone other than cattle ranchers and grileiros, costing billions of dollars, and to this day the infrastructure is plagued by mudslides and flooding. Between 1978 and 1988 the Amazon was deforested by the equivalent of the whole state of Connecticut each year. Ideas of environmental protection have certainly evolved, but the destruction of the Amazon caused an outcry even at the time. The environmentalist Chico Mendes, head of the rubber tappers’ union, opposed the destruction of the Amazon, saying the government should demarcate “extractive reserves” for people to use the rainforest, but cautiously and in sustainable ways. (Dorothy Stang, the murdered nun, echoed this approach.) Mendes was assassinated by a rancher in 1988. In 1989 the prominent Kayapó leader Raoni Metuktire toured the world warning of climate collapse:
If you continue the burn-offs, the wind will increase, the Sun will grow very hot, the Earth too. All of us, not just the Indigenous, will be unable to breathe. If you destroy the forest, we will all be silenced.
In 1988, during the transition to democracy, the new Brazilian constitution granted Indigenous people “their original rights to the lands they traditionally occupy,” making it the state’s responsibility to demarcate these lands and ensure respect for property. Over the next several decades, 690 Indigenous preserves—13 percent of the national territory, much of it in the Amazon—were cordoned off. In addition to representing (insufficient) reparations for past harms, the preserves appear to be by far the best option to prevent deforestation: Indigenous peoples have proved themselves to be the world’s best protectors of the forest in study after scientific study.
Last September, Brazil’s Supreme Court blocked efforts by agribusiness-supported politicians to mandate that groups were only entitled to land they physically occupied when the 1988 constitution was signed, even though many communities had been expelled from their lands during the dictatorship. After nine of eleven judges sided with Indigenous peoples, a member of the Pitaguarí group told news outlets about the celebrations outside the courthouse:
We’re happy and we cry because we know that it’s only with demarcated territory, with protected Indigenous territory, that we’ll be able to stop climate change from happening and preserve our biome.
Then agribusiness struck back. Its allies in the National Congress quickly amended part of the legislation that the Supreme Court had found unconstitutional. Lula vetoed the new bill, but Congress overturned the veto, reinstating the absurd rule, at least until the question returns to the Supreme Court.
Though technically 13 percent of the country’s land is protected for Indigenous groups, in practice people living on these preserves—Indigenous, Black, and a combination of the two groups—are often forced out by violence or extreme poverty. The latest available numbers show 36 percent of Brazil’s Indigenous people living in cities. The Covid-19 pandemic fell hard on Indigenous Brazilians, killing many of the elders who led resistance movements or were among the last to speak their languages.
Before he was elected president, Bolsonaro’s anti-Indigenous views were already notorious. He lamented that Brazil had been less “efficient” than the North Americans, “who exterminated the Indians.” He called the demarcation of Yanomami territory “high treason” and said, “I’m not getting into this nonsense of defending land for Indians,” especially in mineral-rich areas. Brum writes that Bolsonaro “used the virus as an unexpected biological weapon in his plan to destroy original peoples” by refusing to make vaccines available or implement public health measures as it became clear that the virus’s victims were disproportionately Indigenous.
For many years Brum resisted writing directly about Indigenous groups, including the Yanomami who occupy the area nearest to Altamira. She felt she didn’t know enough, worried that she didn’t speak the language. After moving to Altamira, she got over her reticence. Some of the most intriguing quotations in her book are from the Yanomami shaman and diplomat Davi Kopenawa, who refers to outsiders to the forest as “commodities people” or “forest eaters.” He describes our books as “paper skin” where words are imprisoned, but nevertheless agreed to write one, as told in Yanomami to a French anthropologist named Bruce Albert. I followed Brum’s book into Kopenawa’s The Falling Sky (2013),2 thinking I would read just a few sections, and then tore through its six hundred pages. “I gave you my story so that you would answer those who ask themselves what the inhabitants of the forest think,” he tells Albert at the beginning of the book. Kopenawa hopes that outsiders can come to understand the following:
The Yanomami are other people than us, yet their words are right and clear…. Their forest is beautiful and silent. They were created there and have lived in it without worry since the beginning of time. Their thought follows other paths than that of merchandise.
In quoting Kopenawa extensively, Brum wants the reader to see that everyone outside the Amazon, not just gaúchos, are the locusts. Through our consumption patterns—the voracious global appetite for red meat, construction materials, new furniture, new paper created from pulped trees—most of us are preying on the Amazon and by extension on people like the Yanomami. In a place like Altamira, Brum writes, the “chain of relations is short or even nonexistent. Here it’s impossible to play innocent, or play innocent so well that we believe it ourselves, as you can do in cities like São Paulo or New York.” Brum could have included a bit more information from further up the supply chain—many of the “forest eaters” are not individual consumers but agribusiness firms unchained in Brazil, where regulations often go unenforced—but the point stands.
Brum finds plenty to criticize in Lula’s mixed record on environmental issues, and reserves her sharpest words for his support of the Belo Monte dam. The dam is a hydroelectric power plant built on the Xingu River, a project that she wrote about with rage and at length in a previous book, The Collector of Leftover Souls (2019). The fifth largest in the world, the plant was first dreamed up by the military dictatorship, but fiercely opposed by inhabitants of the Amazon because the plans required diverting rivers, destroying animal habitats, flooding huge sections of the rainforest, and displacing at least tens of thousands of people. Construction of a slightly modified plan went ahead anyway during Lula’s first term and was completed in 2019, with builders digging more earth than was moved to construct the Panama Canal. Critics say that even aside from large-scale environmental destruction, the engineering of the plant meant it would never produce the amount of energy originally promised.
Lula is of course better on Amazon policy than Bolsonaro. So is a potato, or a child. But like other Latin American leftists, he paid for extensive social spending, especially successful programs fighting malnutrition and hunger, with income from high-priced global commodities. Producing and exporting these commodities, like soybeans, takes a high environmental toll. Nonetheless, there is reason for modest optimism. His environment and climate change minister, Marina Silva, is an extraordinary woman who was born in a rubber-tapping region of the Amazon and became an environmental activist alongside Chico Mendes. But the National Congress is still dominated by agribusiness and with many earlier land grabs already laundered into legality with false paperwork, one of the most effective strategies has been not taking back stolen land, but slowing deforestation and ongoing land theft in less frequently claimed parts of the Amazon.
Though she lived a daring life even before her move to the Amazon, Brum has written a semi-memoir surprisingly low on memoir, heavy on close readings of other people, and appealingly self-deprecating. “Any journalist who makes themself out to be a great adventurer is simply foolish,” she writes.
Just live alongside the pilots and bowmen of Amazonian motor canoes and you’ll retreat into your inescapable insignificance. They can spot tracajá eggs where I see only sand, pointy rocks where I see only water, rain where I see only blue. I could barely manage to hang my hammock in a tree at bedtime.
She points out what should be obvious: that those best equipped to care for and report on the Amazon are those who are native to it and know it best.
Her projects in the Amazon now go well beyond journalism, extending into activism. She writes that her first marriage did not endure the move to Altamira, and she later married a British journalist named Jonathan Watts, who covers the environment for The Guardian. The couple, along with four other journalists, founded the Rainforest Journalism Fund in 2018 to promote reporting initially in the Amazon, and then in the Congo Basin and Southeast Asia as well. Brum and Watts have since set up an experimental 1.2-acre reforestation scheme in Altamira, on lands that had been devastated by burning for cattle grazing.
In El País in 2014, Brum interviewed the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, who told her, “The Indigenous are experts in the end of the world.” Brum’s recommendation—really, her plea—is that as the planet warms and the Amazon turns to savanna, outsiders “listen to the people who have been called barbarians…. Listen [out of] an ultimate survival instinct.” She writes:
Perhaps, if we are fortunate, those whose lives have so often been destroyed by those who label themselves civilized will agree to teach us to live after the end of the world.