“Here, we used to have a lot of water. It became dry due to the deforestation the company made. They deforested and dried everything. They planted pine trees and other things that they benefit from.”
The “things” Eurica Gomes Pestana referred to are pinus and eucalyptus trees surrounding the Geraizeiro Traditional Territory of Cancelas Valley in the northern region of Minas Gerais state. “They” refers to the companies advancing on traditional communities since 1970 and expanding more and more the monoculture of species largely used by the paper, cellulose and civil construction industries.
The scenario the geraizeiro people reported was confirmed by Brasil de Fato, which returned to the area three years after the last visit to produce this special report.
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The creeping vegetation, a characteristic of the Cerrado biome, includes small shrubs where cattle were raised free. They were replaced by trees that easily surpass 30 meters in height. The changes are not restricted to the landscape, but also reflect the way of life unique to geraizeiros, who were pushed from the plateau (“chapada” in Portuguese, the highest areas) to the lowest areas (“grotas”, in Portuguese) with their cattle.
In the grotas, the Gerais (the term used to refer to Cerrado) traditional peoples used to produce most of their food during the drought period, since there were water streams and headwaters in those areas, an old memory to the 2,230 families living in the 73 local communities.
Eurica’s memory goes back to her teenage years, when there was abundant water and land to plant. Today, the 71-year-old geraizeira, whose experience of better days blooms in her face, still fights so that future generations can see the rivers full again.
In the past, the headwater near the family’s house was the source that supplied the community. Now, a trickle of water is the only thing left.
"[The headwater] was five times what we see now because, actually, there were many women taking water from here. Today, they do not come anymore because there is little water. How can we live in a land without water?", said Olivar Pestana da Costa, 36, Eurica’s second son.
The blame for silting headwaters is on reforestation companies in the region, particularly Rio Rancho Agribusiness S/A. The substitution of vegetation covering the hillsides of plateaus affected the natural barrier curbing sediment flood, as highlighted by researchers Gildarly Costa da Cruz, Eduardo Magalhães Ribeiro and Flávia Maia Galizoni in the article “Semi-arid, drought and ‘Gerais’ in the North of Minas: a review of the bibliography on the Upper-Middle São Francisco.”
“With the deforestation of hillsides, these materials were transported to watercourses and a big part of them were buried and contaminated with inputs [used for planting],” the authors explained.
Geraizeira communities corroborate the authors' findings. They fear being “punished” by companies.
“The mud clogs all the hillsides. A lot of people are afraid to talk about it. They fear the companies’ retaliation. If a pesticide is used up there, it all goes down here in the headwaters, affecting the cattle and our health,” said Olivar Pestana staring at the trickle of water that still comes from the headwater neighboring his family’s house.
The impacts of eucalyptus
Science corroborates the impacts of eucalyptus trees on water supply reported by geraizeiros. A 2013 study headed by agricultural engineer Vico Mendes Pereira Lima, PhD in soil science, found that replacing Cerrado vegetation with eucalyptus can reduce water recharge in groundwater by approximately 345 million cubic meters per year.
The data was produced with Eucalyptus grandis species (five-year-old trees) in a semi-arid region of Jequitinhonha Valley, which has characteristics similar to those of Cancelas Valley. The engineer used data showing that the eucalyptus vegetation cover has an evaporation and transpiration rate of six liters of water per square meter. Meanwhile, Cerrado has a rate of 1.5 to 2.6 liters per square meter.
Pereira Lima also took into consideration the annual average decrease of 218 millimeters in water recharge and multiplied it by the area reforested with eucalyptus trees of 158,000 hectares in the Jequitinhonha Valley region. With these data, a decrease in water recharge of about 345 million cubic meters per year was found. Of the 1,060 millimeters of average annual rainfall, Cerrado areas use 49.6% to supply their reserves, while the areas covered with eucalyptus use 29.1%.
The data of Pereira Lima’s study, when transported to the reality of the geraizeiro territory, with approximately 230,000 hectares, indicate that the decrease in aquifer recharge reaches 500 million cubic meters per year. Anthropologist João Batista Almeida Costa, a professor at the State University of Montes Claros (Unimontes), calculated the estimate. Almeida Costa is also a researcher at the Grande Sertão Truth Commission, which dug up land conflicts during the dictatorship period.
“To have an idea of what it represents in terms of cubic meters of water, it would be the same as storing water in a reservoir in the form of a water tank with 100 meters in diameter and 64 meters in height, equivalent to a 22,000-story building,” explains the professor in a rough estimate.
Despite not having consolidated numbers about water consumption in eucalyptus plantations due to the significant number of variables such as soil type and plant species, as explained by geographer Cássio Alexandre da Silva, it is possible to state that the substitution of native vegetation for monoculture causes a “big systemic shock” in nature.
In the case of Gerais, the professor of Unimonte’s Geosciences department explains that soils have difficulties dealing with only one species, which becomes worse when it is an exotic plant, such as eucalyptus, a species from Australia.
Added to this is the fact that the trees' roots are pivoting, which means they do not spread laterally, but penetrate deeply into the soil in search of water. Thus, they reach, for instance, groundwater and influence the characteristics of the "water tank" in the upper part of the plateau, affecting the path areas.
“Any exotic plant in any new environment impacts relationships with other species. We must also remember that the north area of Minas Gerais state naturally has two climate perspectives: drought and a rainy period. If there are four or five rainy months and seven or eight months of drought, the impact is huge with these exotic species,” said Silva.
Cornering geraizeiros and the state’s omission
Pinus and eucalyptus plantations are everywhere in the Cancelas Valley. One can walk miles through the roads that cross the plantations, seeing the Gerais plateau vegetation remaining intact in an immense and homogeneous green.
For those unsuspecting, the swaying of the trees could give the plantation some beauty, were it not for the impacts caused to the region: soil erosion, biodiversity reduction, contamination by pesticides in the surrounding area, excessive use of water resources and loss of soil quality.
Added to this are the social consequences for the local population, such as land concentration, food insecurity and reduced income. “We were trapped there, with no way out,” sums up Dona Eurica, who lives in the region that includes the towns of Grão Mogol and Padre Carvalho.
The cornering of geraizeiros began around 50 years ago as part of an agricultural modernization policy promoted by the Northeast Development Superintendency (Sudene, in Portuguese) during Brazil’s military dictatorship, which completely ignored the existence of the traditional peoples in that region.
Geraizeiros’ situation has not changed since then: the communities keep being ignored by the state as if they did not exist on the ancestral land they have been occupying for at least 200 years.
“The companies invaded the area using tractors. Then I took this paper here, this deed, and went there. They said they would plant and then give us the land. We were fools and afraid to even talk to them. I took the deed and walked back home. Now, the company is taking it all. They removed my electricity pole, and now they are taking my land,” said Alvino Nunes de Araújo, showing the deed of the land where he has been living for seven decades.
The advance of companies in Cancelas Valley took place through public land leasing contracts lasting 23 to 25 years, starting in 1975. Since then, families have lived under serious legal uncertainty.
Geraizeiros report frequent episodes of intimidation. In one of the cases, a video recorded by residents shows the moment employees believed to be from the Rio Rancho company tear down fences built by the community.
“We are tired. Nobody expected it to happen. It was only after a while that we saw them destroying the area, cutting down the forest, destroying things the way they wanted to. Nobody can solve this problem, because they have a lot of money. Nobody has money enough to mess with them," said Josefa Araújo, 70.
Josefa’s hopelessness has a reason given the dispute between disproportional forces. On the other side, there are big companies such as Rio Rancho Agribusiness S/A, owned by Minas Gerais former governor Newton Cardoso and his son, federal deputy Newton Cardoso Júnior (MDB Party). The family’s assets give a tip about its power: besides companies, they have 145 farms, one beach in Bahia state, one island in Angra dos Reis, two aeroplanes, one helicopter and one apartment in New York.
The corporations have the government’s endorsement to maintain their activities in the geraizeiro territory, which was recognized as a traditional community in 2018 within the scope of state law n.° 21,147.
The recognition allowed progress in land regularization and territorial titling, in addition to emphasizing the right to prior consultation on projects that may affect their assets and rights, as provided for in Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), ratified by Brazil.
However, in real life, nothing has changed. Through the State Department for Environment and Sustainable Development (Semad, in Portuguese), the government is still issuing environmental licenses to companies operating on the territory, according to the communities, without residents' engagement.
Public defender Ana Cláudia Alexandre Storch, who works on the case through the Specialized Defender's Office for Human, Collective and Socio-Environmental Rights (DPDH, in Portuguese), states that the consecutive environmental licenses authorized by Semad represent an omission of the state, given geraizeiros’ vulnerable situation.
“There is a possessory action endorsed by the state itself. That’s the central point of this case because the company added to the process the environmental license. That’s the contradiction: geraizeiros are in the final phase of preparing their anthropological report at Seapa [State Department for Agriculture, Livestock and Supply]. But, at Semad, they are authorizing companies to enter the territory.”
Storch explains that registration in the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR, in Portuguese), which is required for all rural properties in the country, is important for the regularization process, even though it is not a mandatory step. Territories for collective use must be registered by the state in the CAR. When it is an individual property title, owners themselves can request it.
In the case of the Geraizeiro Traditional Territory of Cancelas Valley, the state should have registered, but did not. The CAR works as a consultation instrument, which should point to the presence of traditional territory, even if it overlaps with other possessions and registrations. Therefore, the “lack of a mandatory consultation instrument that locates the existence of a traditional people or community on the map means that procedures are being approved without considering the existence of communities and disrespecting the right to consultation,” says Storch.
Therefore, when Semad approves environmental licenses to companies, it acts as if there were no traditional communities on the site.
According to Semad’s technical report, published on February 9, 2022, Rio Rancho acquired Bloco Cancela in 2000. Only 15 years later, the process of regularizing the projects began, in parallel with the approval process of the Geraizeiro Traditional Territory of Cancelas Valley in Seapa. It was concluded in 2020.
The document also shows that Rio Rancho has 24,5 hectares in the Bloco Cancela alone, scattered through seven farms between the cities of Grão Mogol and Padre Carvalho: Batalha/São Francisco, Campinho, Cancela, Carinhanha, Curral de Varas, Lambedor and Ribeirãozinho. The lease contract for one of the farms, Lambedor, was acquired in 2005 from Rio Doce Forest. The contract transfer for the 1,6 hectares area was carried out two years before the contract was terminated.
During the lease process and the contract transfer, the geraizeiros communities say they were not consulted, as provided for in ILO Convention 169. Not even public hearings were organized, as stated in Semad's own technical opinion. Even so, in 2021, the company filed a request to regularize the expansion of its activities, which was granted the following year.
Approval process and anthropological reports
Currently, anthropological reports attesting to the historical presence of geraizeiros in the Traditional Territory of Cancelas Valley – one of the phases of the approval process – are being prepared.
In total, there will be three of them, one for each nucleus: Tingui, Lamarão and Josenópolis. The first, under the responsibility of anthropologist João Batista Almeida Costa, was already concluded. The report for the Lamarão nucleus is under development, while the Josenópolis nucleus is awaiting the hiring of a team by the government to begin preparing the document.
Almeida Costa's report contradicts the state and attests to the presence of the traditional Geraizeira community in the region for at least 200 years. “It is possible to say the geraizeira population has been there since the mining period in Grão Mogol, in the 18th century. The community began with enslaved people running away and forming quilombos,” says Costa.
Alvino Araújo, whose relationship with the territory is a fundamental part of his identity, knows better than anyone that his family's history is intertwined with the history of the Cancelas Valley. “My father, André Nunes de Araújo, and my mother, Almerinda Cardoso, were born in this rose bush. We don’t remember the other grandparents because they died, and we weren’t even born,” says Geraizeiro.
When talking about his ancestors, Alvino states that the cemeteries built by the geraizeiros are silent witnesses to the communities’ long journey in the region. The anthropological report by João Batista Almeida Costa attests to the existence of cemeteries in the Tingui community. They were destroyed to make way for eucalyptus plantations.
Despite the ancestral presence of geraizeiros in the region, the state propagated the narrative of a “population void” in the region to occupy it with reforestation companies. In her doctoral thesis “Traditional Communities of the North of Minas: strategies and access to territorial rights”, researcher Dayana Martins Silveira states that this narrative “has only served to legitimize the processes of dominance, expropriation and exploitation of native populations. Opposing the ideas of the modernizing discourse, it is known that these lands have already been occupied by traditional peoples and communities since the 17th century.”
In fact, a 1998 document from Mineira Rural Foundation (Ruralminas, in Portuguese), shows that the agency considered that “North, Northwest and Jequitinhonha Valley are based on areas of vacant land, owned by the State of Minas Gerais, entirely unoccupied and unused.”
In this context, the anthropologist explains that the anthropological report is the most important part of the Technical Identification and Delimitation Report (RTID, in Portuguese), which must be approved by the community. The document is subsequently published by the government of Minas Gerais state, when the parties involved in the process can oppose the document. Then, Seapa carries out a type of judgment on the contrapositions presented.
After publishing the report, a survey of the ownership chain of properties involved in the community recognition process must be carried out before the Recognition Ordinance. At this time, a study is made of the private properties in the location and their respective values and the compensation for each owner. With the ordinance comes the title of collective property.
The progress of land regularization also collides with the dispute over ownership of the area in individual legal cases. According to the final hearing of the Permanent Peoples' Court (TPP, in Portuguese) dedicated to violations of the human, environmental and territorial rights of the peoples and traditional communities of the Cerrado and their ways of life, which took place in July last year, there is a flood of individual cases in court against geraizeira families, “to mischaracterize conflicts and collective rights.”
Rio Rancho alone has accumulated 86 lawsuits against community residents. In 2023, the company filed a repossession and maintenance action against six residents of the Curral de Varas region, also known as Meladinho and Forquilha. According to the company, Juversino Nunes de Araújo, Nelson Marques Pimentel, Olivar Pestana da Costa, José Reginaldo Pestana da Costa, Dedio Rosário Ferreira and Sidnei Nunes de Araújo had “violently and arbitrarily” invaded an area supposedly belonging to the company and installed fences. The area in question corresponds to 2,980 hectares and was acquired from the company Rio Doce Forests.
However, on August 30 this year, Judge Nilton José Gomes Júnior, from the First Civil, Criminal and Penal Executions Court of the Salinas District, declared the incompetence of the trial court to deal with the case by considering it a collective conflict over rural land ownership.
“It appears that this is a collective conflict, since the disputed area is within the scope of the discussion regarding the traditional Geraizeira territory of Cancelas Valley, a conflict that covers the Geraizeira Community of Tingui Nucleus,” reads the decision.
Therefore, the judge referred the case to the Belo Horizonte Agrarian Conflicts Court of the Minas Gerais Court of Justice. The public defender of Minas Gerais state, Ana Cláudia Alexandre Storch, who works on the case through the Specialized Defender's Office for Human, Collective and Socio-Environmental Rights (DPDH, in Portuguese), states that the DPE-Minas Gerais defends the collective territory in the possessory demand. At that moment, it may have had the possibility of establishing the possession that geraizeiros already exercised over that territory.
Brasil de Fato sent questions to Rio Rancho about the geraizeiros’ complaints, but received no response from the company. Seapa and Semad were also questioned about the regularization and licensing processes in the Cancelas Valley region, but to no avail.
The process of recognizing the collective territory and its regularization as such faces a structural and historical fact intrinsic to the formation of the Brazilian state and legislation on private property: the practice of land grabbing.
According to geographer Sandra Helena Gonçalves Costa, the occupation by reforestation companies in Cancelas Valley is confused with this way of appropriating land, which is fundamental to understanding how the Brazilian land structure was formed. Rio Rancho Agribusiness S/A itself has already been investigated by the Federal Public Ministry for grabbing unoccupied state land.
When the country was formed, Brazilian land legislation did not include the occupation of native peoples. The 1824 Constitution gave birth to private ownership of land within Brazilian territory. In 1850, it was authorized to buy and sell land in the country. “Anyone who had money could buy land, but there was a population in Gerais who could not acquire land, in whatever context. This right was curtailed,” he says.
In the same vein, the geographer states that, historically, those able to acquire land were and are the same ones who draft legislation. Just look at the agribusiness caucus in Congress. “There are senators and federal deputies who have been an extension of the oligarchs since the 19th century, and branch out across the country, as judges, appellate judges, mayors,” the geographer highlights.
Newton Cardoso Júnior, director of Rio Rancho, is part of the agribusiness caucus and the Agricultural Parliamentary Front. He is the author of Bill 6,411, of 2016, which was dismissed. It provided for exemption from environmental licensing for areas consolidated in reforestation, such as eucalyptus plantations. In 2017, he voted in favor of Provisional Measure 759, known as the “PM for Land Grabbing”, which provided loopholes for the legalization of invaded public areas.
For these reasons, the public defender of the state of Minas Gerais, Ana Cláudia Alexandre Storch, states that the fact that a property is registered with a registry office does not imply the legitimacy of the property, since there are records without sufficient support. She says that it is frequent that these documents are "heated up" by the judiciary.
This is why Storch insists on the need to survey the domain chain of territories to identify the original document in which the state would have transferred the property to an individual. That is the only way to say whether or not there is private property. “In most of the lands where the geraizeiros are located, there was no transfer of properties from the state to the private sector,” says Storch.
While the legal actions to suspend environmental licensing and to recognize collective territory do not progress, geraizeiros live daily with the fear of being expelled from the place their ancestors left as their heritage, tradition and memory.
“We feel sad and angry. There are moments when we don't even sleep at night imagining these people doing all this on our land. We are afraid. If one day you need to leave, where will you go? No one really wants to leave. We were born and raised here, we want to die here,” concludes Alvino Nunes de Araújo, 68, who sums up the collective feeling of the geraizeiro people from Cancelas Valley.
*This news story was made with the support of the NGO ARTIGO 19 and the Brazilian Committee of Human Rights Defenders.
News story: Caroline Oliveira
Production: Carolina Caldeira and Caroline Oliveira
Images and videos: Vitor Shimomura
Edition: Geisa Marques
Visual identity: Fernando Bertolo and Mayara Fujitani
Illustrations: Fernando Bertolo
Programming: Fernando Bertolo, Rafael Cavaletti and Stephanie Heffer
Journalistic coordination: Rodrigo Chagas
Radio and video coordination: Monyse Ravena
Edited by: Geisa Marques