ANAPU, Pará state, Brazil – “Dorothy lives!” shouts a student with his fist clenched. Another ten people repeat the gesture and shout: “Always!” The cries of protest close a prayer held round the grave of Dorothy Stang, the U.S. missionary murdered in 2005 in the struggle for Brazilian land reform here in the Brazilian Amazon.
The prayer precedes the second court hearing of Father José Amaro Lopes de Souza, known as Father Amaro. The priest says he relies on his faith to give him strength in the face of yet another round of court charges in a legal drama he’s been enduring since last March.
The priest is Stang’s successor and a member of the Land Pastoral Commission (CPT), an arm of the Catholic Church that works with Brazilian rural workers seeking agrarian land reform. He is charged with conspiracy, threat, extortion, property trespass and money laundering, all in connection with his allegedly being the leader of a criminal organization aimed at occupying land in Anapu in the Xingu basin of Pará state in the Amazon.
These serious charges were made by the president of the Rural Association of Anapu, Silvério Fernandes, a logger and former deputy mayor of the city of Altamira, who ran unsuccessfully for state deputy in the October elections. At that time, Fernandes was also a chief campaigner in the region for then presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who in turn, recorded a video supporting Fernandes’s candidacy.
After Bolsonaro’s win, Fernandes appeared on local Xingu billboards hugging the president elect, with a message thanking voters for their support. As a reward, it is rumored that Fernandes is in line to head the Xingu, Pará, branch of the Brazilian Institute for Settlement and Land Reform (INCRA), which oversees the workers settlements that Father Amaro has helped support in the region.
In addition to being investigated for his participation in a scheme to defraud the federal government known as the SUDAM Mafia in the late 1990s, Fernandes and two of his brothers received R$28.2 million (US$7.2 million) in fines for environmental crimes. “IBAMA [Brazil’s environmental agency] is an industry of fines,” the logger says in his own defense, echoing the rhetoric of the President-elect, who was also fined in the past by IBAMA for an environmental crime, illegal fishing.
Charges and counter-charges
“He is the main organizer of land invasions in Anapu. Father Amaro was behind it all. He was Sister Dorothy’s right hand, and she always encouraged land invasions,” Fernandes says.
Father Amaro denies the allegations: If I did anything wrong it was to direct people to seek their rights at the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office and other agencies, because people were often threatened, they were killed and nothing happened.… If I’ve done anything wrong, it was to help put land in the hands of the workers.”
The charges made by Fernandes and other local loggers and landowners led to a police investigation and a dramatic arrest last March of the priest that involved six vehicles and 15 officers. The operation was even given a name: Eça de Queiroz, a reference to a Portuguese writer whose masterpiece The Crime of Father Amaro is about a clergyman’s illicit relationship with a woman. The Xingu Father Amaro was also accused of sexual harassment, a charge that has since been dismissed by prosecutors.
“Instead of murdering him, they [Fernandes and other residents] found a way to discredit him [Father Amaro] by attacking his image and criminalizing him to drive him from Anapu,” the CPT wrote in a statement, comparing the landowners’ current smear campaign strategy with the one conducted against Dorothy Stang in the early 2000s.
An unfolding dispute
It is still early, but already very hot: a typical day in the Amazon biome. The red dust rising from the roads, and the white smoke from burning rainforest, obscure the blue of the sky above. The smoke causes an inevitable sensation of suffocation in outsiders. Near Dorothy’s grave – adorned with flowers and her photo – a red cross is thrust into the ground. It bears the names of 16 rural workers who have been murdered in the last three years in Anapu, a dark reflection on the region’s escalation of violence.
Stang was assassinated, shot six times, in 2005 while on the road to her major legacy, the PDS Esperança, a Portuguese acronym for the Sustainable Development Project Hope – an Amazon land reform effort that settled small-scale farmers onto plots, with 20 percent of the land intended for agricultural production while the remainder was conserved as forest under Brazil’s Forest Code. That system went – and continues to go – against the interests of Xingu-area loggers.
Supporters of Stang and Amaro say that 13 years ago loggers took aim at Sister Dorothy, and now they target her successor.
At the Anapu courthouse, 51-year-old Father Amaro reads a small book, The Liturgy of the Hours, while the prosecutor questions defense witnesses. Amaro wears a shirt emblazoned with Stang’s photo. The priest didn’t speak at this hearing because he wasn’t to be questioned until later. Amaro seemed calm in court but admitted afterward that he distanced himself emotionally from the proceeding, viewing it as he would a movie.
Amaro first dedicated himself to rural workers and their land rights at the age of 19, after hearing a radio report covering the murder of Father Josimo Tavares, then the CPT coordinator in neighboring Maranhão state. Amaro decided then and there to become a priest and work in the same organization as Tavares. “I didn’t even know what the CPT was,” he recalls.
Three years later, Amaro went on to study at the seminary in Belém. There he met Stang, who invited him to do an internship in Anapu. After being ordained priest in 1998, he went to the local parish and worked with Stang at the CPT until she was murdered.
Father Amaro himself was released from jail in late June. He has since left Anapu and now lives at the church’s headquarters in Altamira, surrounded by security guards. Feeling always threatened, he complains of not being able to walk by himself and shows distress at the uncertainty surrounding his future.
In an interview with Repórter Brasil, the first since his 2018 arrest, Amaro blames Fernandes for the ordeal of recent months. He adds that, after the wrongful lawsuit is concluded against him, that he plans to file a countersuit against his attackers, asking for compensation for the psychological pain and suffering that the false accusations have caused. “Did you see how people treat me in Anapu?” he asks, referring to the hugs he received from the local population when he walked out of the courthouse. The case’s conclusion isn’t expected until 2019, and not before Father Amaro and other witnesses have testified.
Land, the source of Amazon conflict
By the time he was released from jail in June, Father Amaro had served 92 days, all of them in the same prison where Regivaldo Pereira Galvão, aka Taradão (Portuguese for Big Pervert) was doing time; he is the rancher convicted of masterminding Stang’s assassination.
“I suspect they set it up [putting me in that particular prison] to kill me in jail,” says the priest.
Local authorities made no attempt to hold the two men separately. “When I got there Taradão was inside. He was the first to wish me a Happy Easter,” Father Amaro revealed. “I didn’t say anything and I didn’t even shake his hand. He [Taradão] said, ‘You’re innocent. I’m innocent. This was something they’ve set up for us.’”
Like so many other killings in the Brazilian Amazon, Dorothy Stang’s murder was motivated by land disputes. Pereira Galvão bought a plot from the Fernandes family. However, that property was already part of the land reform project advocated for by Stang. Then Pereira Galvão sold the plot to logger Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura, aka Bida. Later, according to authorities, Bida and Pereira Galvão teamed up to arrange Stang’s 2005 murder.
After the crime, Pereira Galvão hid on the farm belonging to Silvério Fernandes’s brother Délio. Although Délio was also investigated for allegedly masterminding the crime, he was never charged or tried for participating in Stang’s assassination, even though he had supposedly threatened the nun in 2002. Délio Fernandes once offered Stang a ride, and reportedly told her that no one should ever invade his lands or they “would have blood to their ankles.”
During a telephone interview with Repórter Brasil, which lasted more than half an hour, Silvério Fernandes spoke mostly in a polite tone, though raised his voice several times. At one point, he declared menacingly that he wanted to “look in the eye,” presumably of the inquiring journalist. When asked if Fernandes was making a threat, he replied: “What threat? F__k you, lad.” Fernandes also directed anger at Father Amaro, who he called “a pederast, a fagot and a bum.”
“The Fernandes family is part of the consortium that killed Dorothy,” Father Amaro told Repórter Brasil, noting that the family is responsible for the charges he now faces. “They claim to be the owners of these lands. What makes them angry? It’s that the PDS [settlement] was created within the area Délio Fernandes had sold to Taradão.”
Despite its small population of just 27,000 people, Anapu is larger than some countries, including Jamaica and Qatar. The population there has soared by 32 percent in the last eight years, a demographic boom caused by its proximity, just 80 kilometers (50 miles) away from the controversial Belo Monte mega-dam. With the conclusion of the dam’s construction in 2015, hundreds of families, without jobs or prospects, came to Anapu in search of homes, work and land.
“Many families arrive and are pressured by loggers to invade [established workers’] settlements,” explained Jorge Jatobá Correia, Brazil’s national agrarian ombudsman.
The influx of people hunting for land helped ignite already smoldering disputes between land reform settlers and illegal loggers. Those conflicts had their origins back in the 1970s when Brazil’s military government invited outsiders to settle along the new Trans-Amazon Highway. The government offered provisional land titles that depended on the properties’ production for the deeds to become permanent.
However, in most cases, the land neither became productive, nor were the provisional titles ever cancelled. Eventually the outsiders began selling the properties. The main buyers – including the Fernandes patriarch and his sons – turned to logging, cutting down the rainforest, extracting and selling timber.
It was in this context that Dorothy Stang arrived in Anapu in 1983 and began fighting for the possession of that same land as eventually justified by Brazilian agrarian reform policies. In 2003, during the administration of President Lula da Silva, the first agrarian reform settlements in the area became official. Stang was murdered less than three years later.
After her assassination, international pressure resulted in a stronger Brazilian government presence in Anapu, which provided some respite from the conflicts. But, the Belo Monte dam’s completion and the surge in unemployed construction workers seeking livelihoods and land caused violence to explode again in 2015.
The clash over Lot 44
The escalation of the clashes, which resulted in the arrest of Father Amaro last Spring, has centered around Lot 44, also known as the Santa Maria Farm, an agrarian reform settlement covering an area equivalent to 3,000 football fields whose possession is disputed by the Fernandes family.
Although the Fernandes family continues to claim Lot 44 ownership, the Brazilian Institute for Settlement and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), and the Federal Prosecutor’s Office both requested the property be slated for agrarian reform – a request accepted by a federal justice in Altamira last August. The Fernandes family has appealed that decision.
In October 2016, the encampment of rural workers living on the property was burned, and Public Prosecutors charged Silvério and Luciano Fernandes with the crime. Asked about it on the phone, Silvério said he “demolished” the houses. “Lot 44 is ours. It’s ours!” exclaimed Fernandes, president of the Rural Association of Anapu, and possibly the next head of the Xingu, Pará, branch of INCRA, with authority over the settlements.
Márcio Rodrigues dos Reis, the primary accuser against the Fernandes brothers in the encampment fire, was himself arrested in March 2017 while trying to rebuild the camp at Lot 44. Reis was accused of trespassing and illegal possession of a firearm. Silvério Fernandes accompanied the police when they came to arrest Reis.
Another accuser of the Fernandes family, Valdemir Resplandes dos Santos, was murdered in January 2018. Two of his relatives have also been killed, as has a witness to the crime. Of the 16 murders of rural workers since 2015, police investigations have led to the arrest of suspects in just one case. Another 15 remain unsolved.
The CPT calls the Civil Police “inoperative” in their failure to identify, arrest and charge perpetrators. “The police act in a partial way, without hiding their proximity to the landowners and land-grabbers who illegally occupy public lands. The impunity of these crimes is one of the causes of continuing violence,” the Catholic organization says.
The press office of the Civil Police was asked to comment for this story, but failed to reply.
Bolsonaro enters the fray
Tensions between landless rural workers and illegal loggers were further fuelled by the May 19 murder in Anapu of Silvério Fernandes’s brother Luciano.
After his brother’s death, Silvério recorded a video asking for assistance from then presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro. The shirt displayed in the film, stained with Luciano’s blood, was emblazoned with an image of retired army captain Bolsonaro, who has long expressed his opposition to the landless workers’ movement, and likened its participants to terrorists.
“We have to fight these land invaders, these criminals, these thugs. Anapu has become a place of thugs. You are our hope,” Silvério Fernandes said in the video, which went viral on social media among Bolsonaro supporters. Fernandes accuses Luciano’s murder on social movements, whose actions, he says, are locally led by Father Amaro.
This view, however, is not confirmed by the police investigation of the killing. According to the Chief of the Xingu Civil Police Superintendence Walison Damasceno, the motive behind Luciano Fernandes’ killing is allegedly a dispute between loggers. Damasceno, who is in charge of the nearly finished investigation, says the current crime suspects have no connection whatsoever with Brazil’s social movements.
A month after the murder, the police arrested a person alleged to have ordered the killing. Later, they also arrested Josiel Ferreira de Almeida, aka “The Booted Cat,” accused of acting as a middleman in the crime. In October, Almeida’s two sons were murdered in an Anapu bar.
When asked by Repórter Brasil if he had any involvement in the Almeida sons’ deaths, Silvério Fernandes denied it: “We don’t endorse this terrorism of taking anyone’s life. We are good people. We were defending our property. My brother was murdered and now I become a suspect?”
Instead of sacred images and a cross, the altar of the local church in Anapu displays a painting of a rural worker crucified on a cut tree. Sister Dorothy Stang and Father Josimo Tavares, both members of the CPT, both assassinated, stand on either side. The altar divides the town and even the church, since some parishioners want the painting replaced by a conventional altar.
The Amazon: a tinder box, ready to explode
The disputes in Anapu echo ideological struggles between the left and the right that in recent years have polarized Brazil as a whole, and which some say helped put leading presidential Workers Party presidential candidate Lula behind bars, while catapulting far right candidate Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency.
Now analysts fear that these tensions, especially between Amazon land-grabbers and agrarian reform settlements, could explode into violence in 2019.
In Anapu, most believe that Silvério Fernandes will become the next head of the INCRA Xingu regional branch sometime after Bolsonaro takes office on 1 January. Asked about this possibility, Fernandes says he isn’t aware of it, but he did reveal his intentions if appointed: “I want to solve the land problem in the region. We came here to guarantee the sovereignty of the Amazon.” In his view, the 1970s land contracts need to be honored, whether their requirements were fulfilled or not, with the land settlements claimed by landless workers handed over to the outsiders.
The dream of accomplishing land reform in Anapu will be more distant if Fernandes is appointed as head of INCRA, according to 78-year-old Sister Jane Dwyer. Born in the United States, she decided to become a missionary when she participated in the historic 1963 March on Washington led by Martin Luther King. Dwyer is still active in the struggle for land democratization, despite the prosecution of Father Amoro, escalating violence in Anapu, and Bolsonaro’s threats against rural activists.
Attending a baptism ceremony in Mata Preta – occupied land expected to become a land reform settlement – the nun, who belongs to the same order as Stang, expresses resistance: “We cannot panic. We have to be patient, keep a cool head and at least preserve what has already been achieved.” Dwyer sees no solution, however, if parishioners paint over the controversial altar in the church: “If they do that, I’ll never set foot in there again.”
As for Father Amaro, he remains outspoken and unbent: “It’s time for a united struggle; for believing in life even when everyone is losing faith; for resisting wherever we are; for believing in the small, because they have their strategies for struggle and resistance.” Amaro is also resolved to follow through to the end: “Suddenly these people [have] found a piece of land. If I have to die defending them, I guess I’m ready.
This story was written by Repórter Brasil with support from DGB Bildungswerk, and is co-published with Mongabay.