It’s June, the start of burning season in the Amazon. Fires are beginning to rage all over the forest, the final stage of clearing land for pasture. The smoke gets so thick it’s visible from space, and hard to breathe down here on the ground. But from where I sit, in a dented pick-up headed south, I can barely see through a storm of dust.
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
I’m on a highway called BR-163, a rutted road from hell that has been in some state of construction since Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship 40 years ago. I’m deep in the northern state of Pará — 1,500 miles from the Atlantic coast, and a three-day drive to Rio de Janeiro. For the past two hours we’ve been navigating potholes the size of moon craters and swerving around a caravan of tractor-trailers. Winding south through the Xingu basin, BR-163 starts in Santarém, a muggy port city on an Amazon tributary, and ends 1,000 miles south, in Brazil’s breadbasket, the state of Mato Grosso. Literally translated as “thick jungle,” Mato Grosso is where Colonel Fawcett disappeared looking for the Lost City of Z. Now almost entirely denuded, a lot of it looks like Kansas.
The road we’re traveling points to Brazil’s future as a commodities superpower. No country exports more soy and beef than Brazil. We pass hundreds of trucks headed to the Amazon port, loaded with soy, where they will unload on tankers sailing for Europe and China. Ten degrees from the equator, BR-163 is a dividing line of sorts, a demarcation point between the natural world and what seems to be its destiny: an industrialized monoculture that creeps further north every year.
As a result, BR-163 has become notorious — few areas of the Brazilian Amazon have seen more rapid deforestation over the past 10 years. I’ve been told that if I want to understand the forces that are driving the destruction of the world’s most important curb against climate change, this is the place to go.
Within weeks, fires will be burning all along this highway, intentionally set by the farmers who live here. By August, nearly 80,000 fires will be raging across the southern Amazon, belching a river of smoke that will blacken the skies of São Paulo and spark an international outcry, turning the world’s attention, however briefly, to the ground I’m now on.
As we drive past a rumpled landscape of razed jungle, my fixer, Gabriel, explains to me the pattern of destruction. Precious woods are extracted first, followed by mining, and then cattle ranching, the main driver of deforestation. The final stage is the planting of soy, from which there is no return. Already, huge swaths of what was once a rainforest biome have been transformed into a savannah, and unless something changes dramatically, that seems to be the future of what’s left of the forest along BR-163.
In one way or another, everything grown here ends up in the global supply chain. Forty percent of Brazil’s beef is raised in the Amazon, and most of it processed by the world’s largest supplier of beef, the Brazilian company JBS. Beef from Brazil is sent all over the world, primarily to China, Hong Kong, and Europe, but a good chunk also goes to the U.S. — 31,000 tons last year, most in the form of corned beef, jerky, and pet food. Leather from cattle raised in the Amazon is used by big-name furniture makers and car manufacturers in the U.S, according to Trase, a Stockholm based NGO that tracks supply chains. And most of the tractor-trailers we’re passing on the BR-163 are headed to a big plant in Santarém owned by Cargill, the largest privately held company in the U.S., where soy will be processed into animal feed for cows and chickens, which will then be consumed in fast-food chains around the world. In other words, what happens in the Amazon touches us all.
I’m headed to the frontline of a battle over the forest’s future. It’s a lawless zone where cattle ranchers, gold miners, and timber companies are inching ever closer to one of the largest intact indigenous reserves left in the southern Amazon – a 21,000 square mile area that includes the villages of Baú and Mekragnotire, the home of the Kayapo people. I want to see if the forest can be saved, before industry kills it for good.
FROM INDONESIA to the Congo, the world’s forests, a fragile buffer against climate change, are vanishing. In 2017 alone, 39 million acres of tropical forests disappeared. This is the equivalent of losing 40 football fields of trees every minute for an entire year.
Nowhere are the stakes higher than in the Amazon, which contains 40 percent of the world’s rainforests and has more biodiversity than anywhere else on the planet. Two of the world’s leading climate scientists, Brazil’s Carlos Nobre and Thomas Lovejoy of George Mason University, estimate that if another 3 to 8 percent of the forest disappears, it will begin to consume itself.
In February 2018, Nobre and Lovejoy released a paper announcing we are at the precipice of a tipping point. In 2016, for the first time in recorded history, the Amazon released more carbon into the atmosphere than it absorbed. The causes — widespread drought and forest fire — were in themselves the effects of climate change, but Nobre and Lovejoy warn that if deforestation in the Amazon continues at its current pace, more than half the rainforest could die permanently, a runaway climate change scenario terrifying in its implications. Weather patterns would change all over South America and billions of tons of carbon would be released into the atmosphere.
The tragedy of what’s unfolding in Brazil, home to 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest, is that under the leftist Worker’s Party, deforestation plummeted by 70 percent between 2005 and 2013 due to a series of aggressive reforms, including setting aside 150 million acres of rainforest, an area roughly the size of France, for protection. Space-agency monitoring triggered alerts of the loss of forest in real time, farmers caught chopping down trees lost access to credit, and an elite squad of environmental cops cracked down on the worst offenders, flying in to areas of destruction on helicopters, where they smashed up machinery for mining, or torched the tractors and bulldozers used to raze the jungle. What they didn’t destroy, they confiscated.
In 2014, the trend began to reverse. This coincided with the worst corruption scandal in Brazilian history, which ousted the Workers Party and gave rise to a far-right political coalition known as the Bible, Beef and Bullets caucus. Under President Michel Temer, a longtime patron of cattle and soy farmers, the Environment Ministry’s budget was slashed and the agency responsible for protecting Brazil’s indigenous reserves, FUNAI, had to fight off attempts by the farm lobby to kill it. Even so, dozens of FUNAI bases were shut down and their budget was cut nearly in half.
Then came Jair Bolsonaro. A former army captain from Rio de Janeiro who has a fetish for Brazil’s years under military rule, he is known as the Trump of the Tropics. A racist and a homophobe, no one took him seriously when he began his run for the presidency; he had once told a colleague on the floor of congress that he wouldn’t rape her because “she wasn’t worthy of it” — she was “too ugly.”
But by aligning the growing evangelical voting bloc in Brazil with the farm lobby, also known as the ruralistas, Bolsonaro tapped into a global populist wave. Like Trump, he expressed an open disdain for science, and he declared climate change a Marxist conspiracy. He promised to open the Amazon for development and vowed to eliminate environmental-impact studies on infrastructure projects bogged down in red tape. Roads that had long gone unpaved, like BR-163, would be finished. And he would not allow for “a centimeter more of indigenous land.”
Since Bolsonaro took office in January, trees in the Brazilian Amazon have been disappearing at the rate of two Manhattan’s a week. This summer, INPE, Brazil’s space-research agency, announced that satellite imagery showed deforestation had increased by 278 percent in July over the previous year. In response, Bolsonaro questioned the data, fired the head of INPE, and threatened to shut down the whole agency.
“What is happening is unprecedented,” Jose Sarney Filho, who served as environmental minister under two presidents, tells me. “This new government is trying to destroy what we built over 30 years.”
With Bolsonaro in charge, cattle barons and farmers in the Amazon are acting with impunity. “What’s really heartbreaking, and really discouraging is that for over 10 years we showed the world that deforestation can be stopped,” the former environmental minister and presidential candidate Marina Silva tells me. “I don’t think people realize how fragile the forest is, and how quickly it could disappear.”
WE’VE BEEN on BR-163 for six hours. Gabriel is driving at a crawl to avoid boulders and unexpected ruts in the road. Riding shotgun is a veteran photojournalist from São Paulo named Lilo. He points out potholes, stops to take pictures of strange roadkill, and helps me recognize the difference between the vultures and other large birds circling the jungle.
“We’re lucky it’s not the rainy season,” Gabriel says. The road is impassable then. Sometimes the soy trucks get stuck out here for weeks at a time. Last winter, the military had to fly in food and supplies, and some truckers simply abandoned their loads.
We’re headed for Novo Progresso, a remote and isolated jungle outpost roughly 10 hours from the port. BR-163 is the only way in and out. Bisected by the highway, the city of roughly 25,000 is surrounded by rainforest and has an Old West vibe. The streets are mostly unpaved and dusty and lined with stores that service gold miners, ranchers, and loggers.
This is the home of the so-called King of Deforestation, a man federal investigators have likened to a mafia don who was reportedly investigated for keeping workers in slave-like labor conditions to chop down large swaths of national forest to make way for cattle ranching and land speculation. He owns a car dealership, a chain of grocery stores and is connected to the politically elite who run the town. IBAMA, the agency tasked with protecting the forest, operates out of a base on the outskirts of the city, but does not permit its agents to leave its walled compound. They’ve had their trucks burned, and faced so many death threats that they only carry out operations under the protection of the Brazilian federal police. Informants that work at the behest of land grabbers track the movements of the agents. We are headed to a war zone.
As we near town, Lilo and Gabriel swap stories about what they’ve heard from other journalists who have come to Novo Progresso. One colleague was asked to leave shortly after she checked into a hotel, Lilo says. When she ignored the warning, she found an envelope under her door. It contained three bullets. Gabriel has a friend who came here with an NGO a few years ago. Gunmen surrounded the hotel and ordered them to come out so they could “shoot the environmentalists.” A police escort had to take them out of town.
That night at a pizza joint on the main drag, it’s immediately apparent that most of the town’s residents are transplants from other parts of Brazil, primarily the south. They have German names and European features; Lilo and Gabriel quickly pick out accents from states like Paraná and Rio Grande do Sul. They are the children of immigrants who came here a generation ago in one of the largest resettlement schemes in the country’s history, in which the generals that ruled the country lived in a paranoia that if they didn’t occupy the Amazon it would be invaded by a foreign power.
And so in an ambitious plan the Brazilian government offered large plots of land to anyone who would agree to get on a plane and get dropped off in the forest. Similar to the Oklahoma land rush of 1889, the government didn’t care much that the forest was, in fact, already occupied. The results were disastrous. Dozens of tribes disappeared, and with no forest-management program in place the settlers slashed and burned their way deep into the jungle. When BR-163 cut through the territory of the Kreen-Akrore, 250 members of the tribe were killed by disease within 12 months of contact with the road workers.
“It was all trees and forest and they were mostly people from other parts of Brazil who didn’t have a clue how to live in the Amazon,” Sister Jane Dwyer, a nun I met along the Trans-Amazonian highway, tells me. She’s lived in the Amazon since 1972. “It was nine to ten months of rain. Snakes. Malaria. I don’t know how people survived. They didn’t, mostly.”
Development in Novo Progresso occurred along the road, a pattern followed throughout the Amazon. Cattle were the cheapest way to occupy land, and claim it. Unlike the soy plantations to the south, which required expensive fertilizer, processing machines, and the infrastructure needed for irrigation, cattle required little more than a crude fence and seed for pasture.
The man who would become the King of Deforestation, Ezequiel Castanha, moved to Mato Grosso in the 1980s as a teenager, and by 25 had opened a mini mart that served a gold mine on the border of Mato Grosso and Pará. By the early 2000s so much forest had been cleared in Mato Grosso that land was becoming expensive. Castanha heard that he should follow BR-163 north to what was fast becoming Brazil’s new agricultural frontier.
He arrived in Novo Progresso in 2003, and already tensions over the future of the forest were rising. That year, when federal agents came to mark the boundaries of the newly created Baú and Mekragnotire reserves, a mob of hundreds of ranchers, loggers, and miners, many of them armed, led about 1,000 citizens to shut down the highway in protest. Then, they entered the forest, vowing to hunt down the agents.
“I got tired of trying to keep them on the highway,” a man named Agamenon Menezes later told reporters. Menezes is the president of a cattleman’s syndicate called the Rural Producers of Novo Progresso, and the de-facto boss of the town. He said the situation could have escalated, and that his men shoot to kill. “When a hunter enters the woods behind his prey, the gun is ready to fire.”
By then, President Luiz Inacio da Silva and his Worker’s Party coalition had made Novo Progresso and BR-163 a central focus of their ambitious plan to slow deforestation. The administration, da Silva announced, would finish paving the highway, but only if they could preserve the forest at the same time. In 2006, he created the Jamanxin National Forest, just north of Novo Progresso.
The forest was now off limits to development, but it already contained more than 250 illegal farms, including one belonging to the mayor. There was no way to legally possess property there, even before it was declared a national forest.
“In the rest of Brazil, a title deed proves who owns the land,” Daniel Azeredo Avelino, a former federal prosecutor in the state of Pará told Brio, a Brazilian online magazine. “The number of people with a title is very small. From 80 to 90 percent of the properties in the region don’t have this document.”
In 2006, IBAMA officials were reviewing satellite images from their office in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital. The imaging from around Novo Progresso was shocking. A chunk of forest had simply vanished in a matter of days. They flew there to see for themselves and found a 1,000-acre clearing between the highway and the Curuá River, which winds through the Bau reserve. Already there were six farms on the land. The land had been cleared by Castanha.
As IBAMA increased operations around Novo Progresso, threats against agents escalated, and in April 2011 a mob invaded the IBAMA compound on the edge of the city. Through informants, they knew agents planned to raid a farm in the Jamanxin forest owned by the deputy mayor. A helicopter was about to take off and the mob tied steel cables to the propellers to stop the operation from going forward.
A few days later, the head of the local IBAMA agency called a meeting with the mayor, the city council, and town leaders to cool things down. This time, IBAMA agents came armed, in case of violence. Midway through the meeting, Castanha stood up. He admitted that he had cleared land in the national park and sold it to a local doctor, who eventually became deputy mayor.
Castanha was unapologetic. “If we don’t clear the forest, our land becomes a reserve,” he said to the IBAMA chief. “You are the one who made us clear the forest.”
IBAMA agents and the federal police began probing deeper into Castanha’s business operations, studying his taxes and financial transactions and wiretapping his phone. They allege he sat atop a sprawling criminal organization that stretched from the Amazon down to São Paulo and southern Brazil.
By 2014, Castanha racked up $9 million in fines, had been charged 16 times for environmental crimes, and had 12,000 acres confiscated for illegal clearing. In 2015, federal officials estimated he alone was responsible for 10 percent of the deforestation in the entire Amazon.
He refused to pay the fines and continued to treat the land as his own. A wiretap showed that through a real estate agent he’d been breaking up land he’d illegally seized into lots and selling it. When a reporter from the national news program Globo Rural interviewed him that spring, Castanha said, “If we didn’t deforest, there would be no Brazil. There would be nothing.”
On August 27th, 2014, just before dawn, 96 federal agents descended on Novo Progresso, wearing bulletproof vests and carrying assault rifles. Dressed in black, they huddled at the IBAMA headquarters, and after calling in reinforcements, split into small platoons and spread across the city. They arrested members of Castanha’s gang, including the boss of his forest-clearing crew and a lawyer who’d spent the last few days shredding incriminating documents, but Castanha had gone on the run. He remained at large for nearly six months. In February 2015, working on a tip that Castanha was back in Novo Progresso, federal agents returned, and this time Castanha turned himself in.
Video footage of Castanha being led in cuffs to a waiting helicopter aired that night on the national news. The King of Deforestation had been caught. Officials estimated his gang was responsible for 20 percent of deforestation in the Amazon in recent years and charged him with environmental crimes and money laundering. But within months, he would be released from prison (his case has yet to go to trial), and before long, deforestation along BR-163, which had dropped 65 percent in the seven months after a warrant was issued for Castanha’s arrest, would begin to climb.
THE KABU INSTITUTE sits just off BR-163, behind a wall of concrete. Officially the headquarters of a non-profit that supports the Kayopo, it’s also a gathering place for members of the tribe who pass in and out of Novo Progresso.
On the morning we visit, the sun is just rising above the jungle. Several Kayopo are sitting on the porch, smoking cigarettes and waiting for the institute to open. The smell of freshly cut timber hangs in the air from a lumber yard next door.
Today, the Kayopo are one of the richest and most powerful of Brazil’s 240 tribes, but in the late 1970s, when the Trans-Amazonian Highway was completed, their population had dipped from 4,000 to about 1,300. In the ensuing decades, a string of legendary chiefs figured out a way to adapt their warrior culture to the modern world. They patrolled their borders and commandeered strategic river crossings. They linked up with nonprofits and joined with celebrities like Sting to protest the construction of a dam that would flood their lands. They also used force: war parties raided ranches and gold mines that illegally occupied their land, taking hostages or warning trespassers that they had two hours to leave, or they’d be killed. Some were killed. Others were sent back to town naked and humiliated.
A few years ago, the Kayopo helped in an operation against a man named AJ Vilela, who succeeded Castanha as the new king of deforestation. Based in Castelo Dos Sonhos, a city a couple of hours south of Novo Progresso, the contours of the scheme were similar: land speculators who illegally seized forest worked with real estate agents to offer properties to investors in the South. But unlike Castanha, Vilela didn’t even live in the area — he directed the operation from one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in São Paulo, Jardim Europa.
The son of a cattle baron accused in the 1980s of trying to poison Indians with arsenic, Vilela was a fixture of society columns (he married a famous Brazilian jewelry designer in St. Barths; his sister has appeared in the Brazilian edition of Vogue) and had family connections to some of the biggest players in Brazilian agribusiness.
Vilela operated for years before IBAMA even detected forest loss because his crews left the canopy intact by sparing the tallest trees, shielding the cleared fields from showing up in satellite imagery. Then in April 2014, members of the Kayopo showed up in the capital in full war paint, carrying bows and arrows. They waited for the head of IBAMA to leave work and confronted him in the parking garage. Land inside their reserve was disappearing, and they needed IBAMA’s help.
Together, they started Operation Kayopo. IBAMA agents studied wire transfers and land deeds, and the Kayapo roamed the forest looking for timber-clearing camps. Eventually they captured 40 people clearing the forest, and with IBAMA agents, interrogated them to understand the operation.
By the time Vilela was arrested, his gang had cleared 74,132 acres, an area five times larger than Manhattan. The head of IBAMA, Luciano Evaristo, declared the operation a rare success story, and said cooperation with tribes was the only way to stop deforestation. They were the true intelligence force of the jungle, able to spot what satellites would only pick up after the fact. But this all happened under previous presidential administrations, before IBAMA had been crippled and its operations essentially ground to a halt.
Inside the Kabu Institute, a staff member shows me how ranchers are encroaching closer every year to the villages of Baú and Mekragnotire. He points to a map on a computer screen, with green marking the forest and red dots designating cleared land. The buffer between BR-163 and the reserve had once covered roughly 70 miles, he says. Now, it’s almost entirely gone. Ranchers are clearing forest at the border of the indigenous reserve, and he worries that any day, they will invade the reserve itself.
We are introduced to one of the Kayopo who helped catch Vilela, but the man declines to say anything about the operation, and when we bring up Castanha the room falls silent.
No one wants to talk to us about Castanha, it seems. North of town, we’ve heard there’s a squatters settlement, and that a land activist who lives there wants to talk to us, but she texts to say it’s too dangerous and that she is afraid to come into the city. We offer to drive out to the settlement, and then she stops communicating.
A rancher who promised to talk off the record about the criminal network in Novo Progresso tells us he’ll meet us for dinner one night and never shows up. The next morning we get a cryptic text from him and then he ghosts us.
I’ll need an introduction to Castanha, Lilo suggests, and the place to start is with Agamenon Menezes, the president of the Rural Producers of Novo Progresso, the local cattlemen’s association. There is a similar group in nearly every city in the Amazon, and they all wield significant political power. Menezes reportedly has his own militia.
We find him in a dank office downtown. The walls are grimy and the place has the musty smell of the jungle. There are posters on the walls of cattle and tractors. A bushel of soy is on a file cabinet. Menezes is in a back office, sitting behind a big desk. He’s a slim, reedy man with dark eyes and short-cropped hair. He speaks in a low mumble and peppers his sentences with a smile that seems menacing. His hands tremble from what looks like early-onset Parkinson’s.
He explains that like most of the “pioneers” in the city, he arrived in the 1980s, when there was nothing here but dense forest. He says he contracted malaria more than 70 times and remembers when the road was so bad he got stranded and had to walk for 17 days to get home. As he talks it’s clear he’s proud of what Novo Progresso has become. He doesn’t see himself as someone who ushered in an unprecedented destruction of forest. He sees himself as someone who brought civilization to a frontier his government wanted settled.
“We came here because this same government, which now calls us bandits and criminals, sent us here,” he says. “We were pathfinders, and now they put us on the news as villains.”
He tells me Castanha is a local hero who stood up to a tyrannical government that would fly into cleared land and destroy tractors and burn fences with no due process.
“He arrived at an opportune moment and did what a lot of people wanted to do but had fear to do,” Menezes says. “He opened farms and sold farms. He’s a leader here, well respected.”
Things are different under Bolsonaro, Menezes says. The president understands the rural producer is the engine that makes Brazil go. He’s reined in IBAMA, an agency that Menezes says exaggerates reports of deforestation, or simply makes them up. “They came here in a violent fashion burning equipment and so on, always with the media in their helicopters,” he says. “Now, because of Bolsonaro, they have been taught to have manners. They came over here and talked to me the other day, with respect, and told me they’ve been taught how the government should act.”
Menezes lists a few of the actions he’s ordered over the years, like the time he sent his men out to an airstrip where a documentary crew was set to leave for home. They’d been flying around, filming farms cleared from the forest. Menezes tells me his men smashed the crew’s cameras and destroyed their footage.
He also tells me he’s the reason that the NGOs active in preserving other parts of the Amazon have been unable to establish a presence here.
“The NGOs, and you, the media, come here and paint us as villains. This is why I won’t allow any of them to come here,” he says of the NGOs. “I’ll go to any means necessary to keep them from establishing themselves here.”
“Like what?” I ask.
“Like burning their cars,” he replies.
An awkward, tense silence fills the room.
He folds his gnarled hands across his stomach, an old man’s potbelly, and leans back in his chair.
“We will preserve our way of life.”
ONE MORNING we rise before dawn and head east, toward the Baú and Mekragnotire reserves. We are traveling with Kudjekre Kayapo, a member of the Kayopo tribe who works at the Kabu Institute.
As we bump along a thin dirt road, the forest closes around us and a mist rises from the canopy. I roll down the window and take in the air, which is moist and rich and cool. Kudjekre looks over at me and smiles. “The air feels different here, right?”
We drive for about three hours before we arrive at a small river, marking the boundary of the reserve. Kudjekre makes a call on his cellphone and a few minutes later we hear the low rumble of a small fishing boat and a member of the tribe takes us across the river.
In Brazil, indigenous communities are called aldeias. Typically, they are small clearings of land in the forest where about a dozen thatched roof huts fan out in a semicircle. When we arrive, most of the tribe, who had heard we were coming, are gathered under a pavilion of sorts called the warrior’s council. All the men are painted black. The women have adorned themselves with black tattoos that will fade after a few weeks.
While the Kayopo have maintained their traditional customs, and for the most part live as their ancestors did, it’s clear the modern world has seeped in. A group of young men are whittling sticks, checking Facebook now and then on their smartphones. A man leaning on a motorcycle smoking a cigarette waves and points to the front of the pavilion, where the chief is sitting on a bench roughly hewn from a massive log.
His name is Cacique Ireo Kayapo, and he motions for me to sit down next to him. He has painted a thick strip of black paint across his eyes and down his belly, which is beaded with small drops of sweat. Another man in the tribe sits next to us, translating.
Ireo speaks wistfully of the years before the tribe had seen any miners or loggers. In the 1980s, the land of the reserve wasn’t even marked, and the only white men they saw were from FUNAI.
The miners came around 2009, Ireo says, and at first, the tribe thought working with them could be a good thing. But before long, the money they brought had pitted neighboring tribes against each other, and the alcohol the miners introduced had ruined men and families. After the miners came the loggers, then the cattle men, with their burning and slashing and smell of smoke and destruction.
“We don’t want to mix with these people anymore,” Ireo says. “We don’t want white men coming to our land.”
He worries that ranchers in Novo Progressso have their eyes on the reserve. In a compromise, the Kayopo had already agreed to reduce the size of the reserve, hoping it would stop the encroachment into the forest. But nothing changed. They get closer every year, and gobble up more and more land.
The future Ireo fears can be seen about 800 miles east, on the other side of Kayapo land, down another highway that stretches from the capital of Pará to Mato Grosso, where the jungle is almost entirely gone. This highway, BR 155, is mostly paved, and its ranches are stately and orderly, run by men who fly in consultants from Brazil’s best universities to test the quality of their soil. It’s a vision of cowboy nirvana, with big, rolling pastures as far as the eye can see.
A week before I arrived in Novo Progresso, I was on a ranch there, outside the boomtown of Redenção, where I met Jordan Timo. Tall and lean, dressed in cowboy boots and a white straw hat, Timo tells me he built his first herd of cattle just outside the Kayopo reserve, near a town called São Félix do Xingu, which has become synonymous in Brazil with explosive deforestation (in 1980 the city had a herd of 22,500; its herd is now the largest in Brazil: a mind-boggling 2.8 million).
When Timo arrived in São Felix, it was surrounded by nothing but forest. When he went into town, he traded a cow to hungry miners for gold, and then slept all night with a Winchester rifle across his lap to avoid being robbed by the drunks leaving the bars and whorehouses.
“It was very violent,” Timo tells me. “A great problem of the frontier is there’s no state, there’s no electricity, no water, no school.”
And nobody to track how much forest he or anyone else was clearing. And so he rounded up men from brothels and street corners in São Felix and promised to pay their bills. He then led them to a shed. Once he had about 200 huddled there, hired gunmen led them to a ferry that took them up a river leading to his ranch, where they were forced to stay until they’d cleared the forest.
“Was this forced labor? Perhaps it was,” Timo admits. “But there really wasn’t an alternative, that was the reality of the world.”
Timo tells me he regrets how much forest he cleared and that he used slave labor to do it.
“When I came here, what existed, the only path, was deforestation. Even if I wanted to legalize one of my workers, I had to travel 700 miles to sign a work card, so I used methods everyone used. But there arrives a point in your life when you think between what’s right and wrong, what’s the law and not the law.”
Now he fights against deforestation, running a software company that tracks supply chains. It’s used by slaughterhouses that want to make sure the cattle they buy weren’t raised on illegally cleared land, indigenous territory, conservation units, or on ranches that use slave labor. In 2016, 46 percent of the meat sold in Pará passed through his software tracking system.
That number should be higher. By law, slaughterhouses that operate in the state of Pará, which has over 250,000 farms, are required to track their supply chains, but only 63 meatpackers have complied, while 65 refuse. As a result, roughly 18,000 cattle a day are slaughtered in the Amazon without any environmental monitoring.
“There are some who are trying to follow the rules and others who don’t really try,” Timo says. “It’s cheaper and easier to clear the forest than comply with the law, and there’s no real punishment for those who don’t.”
Even those who do monitor their supply chains, like JBS, the largest beef producer in the world, have no way of knowing where all the cattle they slaughter come from. Illegal ranchers can raise calves up to a certain weight, and then sell them to an approved rancher, who in turn sells to the major slaughterhouses. (In a statement, JBS said, “We have a zero deforestation policy in the Amazon and prohibit cattle from deforested farms in the region from entering our supply chain,” adding that they monitor more than 50,000 suppliers and have blocked more than 7,000 for non-compliance.)
Timo says this problem of “leakage,” or laundering illegal cattle through clean pasture, would be easy to fix. It would simply mean affixing an ear tag with a microchip to every cow born in the Amazon, a system used for years in the U.S. and Canada. He says it would cost under $5 per cow.
“We don’t have to create any more monitoring tools,” Timo says. “The tools are there. The laws are there. What we lack are police resources to crack down on this”
Timo says most cattle ranchers in Pará try to comply with the law. The problem is poor farmers often do not have the means. Because the Amazon is so vast, trucking in fertilizer that can keep a pasture green months after the rainy season is prohibitively expensive. It’s much easier to simply clear the forest, and then move cattle to another pasture once the forest is degraded. Most pasture in the Amazon is abandoned within 10 to 15 years.
“We have a lot of sticks, and not enough carrots,” says Marcelo Stabile, an agronomist at IPAM, the Amazon Environmental Research Institute. “There needs to be more of an investment in the rural producer, to help him get more out of his land.”
Timo agrees, but says the only thing that will really pressure the Brazilian government to enforce the law are market forces.
“If there’s not a commitment from consumers, and not just in Brazil, but around the world, to seek out beef that’s sourced ethically, then farmers here will continue to seek out the easier path, and right now that’s deforestation.”
ON MY LAST morning in Novo Progresso, I decide to pass by Castanha’s supermarket to see if we can find him. I figure it’s our last chance. So far no one has agreed to broker a meeting; just bringing up his name makes people nervous.
His store, called Castanha Supermercado, occupies an entire city block. He has two or three scattered around Novo Progresso, but I figure the one just off BR-163 is our best bet to find him.
It’s a Catholic holiday today and the supermarket is one of the few places in town still open. Most of the city’s businessmen have left for their ranches to barbecue and drink beer. Gabriel, my fixer, says it’s unlikely Castanha will be around.
We enter the market and ask for Castanha. The woman sitting outside his office looks up at me and raises her eyebrows. She glances over her shoulder, at a large corner office that sits behind tinted glass so dark I can’t see if anyone is behind it. She scribbles down my name and passes the note to another worker, who disappears into the office.
I’m sitting in a row of chairs in the front of the supermarket when Castanha suddenly emerges. He’s a big man, much taller than I expected, at least 6 foot 3, with meaty hands and broad shoulders. He’s wearing cowboy boots and a blue button-down tucked into his jeans. There’s a big smile spread across his face as he shakes my hand and welcomes me to his store.
“I can’t talk to you,” he says. “My case is still in court and my lawyer says it’s better if I don’t talk to the press.”
But then he talks so quickly I’m fumbling to get my tape recorder out of my pocket. He admits that he cleared forest, but questions whether it was actually illegal. He loves the forest. He points to the signage over his store, which includes a collage of pictures of rivers and crocodiles and leopards. His name, after all is Castanha, which is the Portuguese word for Brazil nut and the tallest tree in the forest.
The people in this town only want to make a living, he says. He brings up a story I’ve heard over and over here, that the government sent people like him here, to settle the land. Now, they suddenly change laws, declare farms off limits, issue fines, destroy equipment. It’s only because he stood up to IBAMA that they came after him.
His case has yet to be resolved. He did a brief stint in prison, but thinks the worst is behind him.
Either way, he’s out of the forest clearing business, he says. He’s got his grocery stores and a small ranch. His children are in college.
Before I can ask him anything else, he looks at his watch and tells me he has to go. He puts his hand on my shoulder and thanks me for visiting Novo Progresso. He is not the King of Deforestation, he tells me. The media here, like in the United States, prints a lot of fake news.
A FEW MONTHS later, I get a text from a rancher in Novo Progresso. Farmers are conspiring on WhatsApp to set fire to the forest along BR-163. The local paper quotes a rancher saying, “We need to show the president that we want to work.” The only way to do that, they argue, is by clearing forest. They declare August 10th the “Day of Fire.”
A few days later, more than 1,000 miles away, the sky goes dark in São Paulo at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. “Imagine how much has to be burning to create that much smoke!” a journalist named Shannon Sims tweets, along with a picture of blackened skies. “SOS.”
Soot falls from the sky. Massive plumes of smoke are captured by the European Space Agency. By the end of the August, 80,000 fires are burning across the forest.
The president of France, Emmanuel Macron, declares it a global crisis. “Our house is burning,” he tweets. At the G7 summit days later, a $20 million aid package is offered to Brazil to help stop the fires. President Bolsonaro brushes it back, saying the Amazon is of Brazil’s concern, and any attempts to interfere amount to colonialism.
Gabriel is back home in Manaus, the biggest city in the Amazon. He’s on a trip along the Rio Negro, a major Amazon tributary, and sends me a picture of skies darkened by the fires above a national park. Brazilian news is reporting that most of the smoke is from fires burning near Novo Progresso, he tells me. The nun I met along the Trans-Amazonian texts me to say it’s hard to breathe where she lives, but this is usual in the dry summer months. This is when farmers always burn the forest.
There’s a hint of resignation in her text, and I sense that attempts to help by celebrities and world leaders, however well intentioned, are futile. I think of one of my last days Novo Progresso and what Menezes, the head of the rural syndicate, told me.
“We will preserve our way of life,” he had said. Any attempts to stop them from clearing the forest would be met with force.