Maranhão is no different from the rest of the Amazon, where the agrarian chaos has allowed multiple lands deeds to proliferate and allows opportunists to take out of their pockets documents suggesting ownership since the times of the "sesmos", vast swathes of land dedicated to agriculture and livestock in colonial times (1500 - 1822). A boiling room that threatens the future of those who have no economic or political power.
A stark contrast with the landscape that Massinokou Alapong found in Cajueiro in the mid 19th century. The black woman brought from the Gold Coast (today’s Ghana) saw so much beauty in that landscape of forest and sea that she set up the "Territory of Egypt". Although claimed by the forest, the site remains a reference for African religions in Brazil and protected many fugitives from the whip of slavery. Every once in a while, the sound of drums still resonates there.
Repairing the fishing net on his balcony, Carlos Augusto Barbosa (62) says that access to the beaches has become more complicated and that fishing has decreased with the construction of the port. He arrived in the region in the early 1980s from Guimarães, 200 kilometers away. "Before, we had fish and the beach near us. Over the years, the situation has only gotten worse. Nobody supports us", he complains.
Even with deep roots in the region’s history, the continuity of its inhabitants here is on a limbo. They remain invisible to projects "packaged" by governments and private sector. Brazil's Suzano, one of the world's largest pulp and paper producers, was already planning to build a port in the same area. There was some solace in 1998, when the state government recognized the collective ownership of the territory by the traditional residents.
At that time, Maranhão was governed by Roseana Sarney, daughter of former Brazilian president José Sarney. Her family has historically wielded power and influence in state and federal politics. She was elected governor in 1994 and 1998, taking office once again in 2009 to replace ousted governor Jackson Lago. One year later, she was re-elected, but resigned in late 2014, alleging health problems.
The term ended in the hands of the president of the State Legislative Assembly, state deputy Antônio Arnaldo Alves de Melo, because the vice-governor had also resigned. On New Year’s Eve, Melo published a decree eliminating possession of Cajueiro's from its inhabitants and granted the first license to the private port. Almost 20 houses in the community were demolished by mercenaries at the time.
One of the first actions by the following governor of Maranhão, Flávio Dino, was revoking the expropriation of Cajueiro. His government tried to balance the already evident conflicts between the community and the businessmen, and the need for more studies on the socio-environmental impacts of the port.
In early 2015, government representatives listened to residents and participated in community meetings. In May of the following year, Dino assured Deborah Duprat, at that time deputy Attorney General of the Republic, that he would seek solutions to the conflict. In practice, they were innocuous promises.
"The Maranhão government has become complicit in all the irregularities and crimes committed in the Cajueiro and shares responsibility for all the environmental and social disasters that the project has already caused and continues to cause", says professor and researcher Horácio Sant'ana Júnior, of Maranhão Federal University.
Despite the collective ownership granted in 1998 to the residents of Cajueiro, the land where the port is built was acquired by WPR - São Luís Port and Terminal Management during in 2014, in negotiation with BC3 HUB Multimodal Industrial. This company belongs to Helcimar Araújo Belém Filho (49), lawyer and vice president of operational development of the Board of Directors of the Maranhão Regional Accounting Council, and Carlos César Cunha (64), owner of Club CB450, a popular party house in Vila Embratel, on the outskirts of São Luís. Their names are linked to companies authorized to buy and sell land, operate ports, mine, generate energy and trade in timber.
Almost a decade ago, Belém Filho hired consultants from Brazil, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, who devised the Atlântico Ecuatorial project. A company of the same name was then registered in Nova Lima (Minas Gerais state) by Belém Filho and Willer Hudson Pos, former president of the Minas Gerais Environmental Foundation. Pos was also director of the State Institute of Water Management and was part of the British conglomerate Anglo American, one of the largest mining groups in the world.
As planned, an area equivalent to 1,200 soccer fields in the Cajueiro region will give way to container yards, terminals for trucks and trains, and a port. The project will also promote iron extraction in Tocantins state. "The best business opportunity with a high return on investment", promises a presentation of the project (see here). After explaining by phone to Belém Filho that we would like to interview him about the port project in Cajueiro, he no longer responded our requests.
César Cunha's name appears in other conflicts involving land property in Maranhão’s capital, in various legal proceedings and even in reports from port operators in the region. One of the communities pressured by him to leave the place where they live was Camboa dos Frades, near Cajueiro and next to a thermoelectric plant that supplies energy to a substantial part of Maranhão.
"He came saying that he was the landowner, that he would pay for our goods. Many people sold and left, but they haven't yet been paid yet. We can't install power, open a road or a small farm. There's no one to ask for help, only closed doors", says Maria do Ramo Coelho Santos (44), former president of the Camboa dos Frades Residents’ Association.
According to a research paper published by professors and students of geography of Maranhão Federal University, the first residents arrived in Camboa dos Frades around 1920. In a report by the Maranhão Port Administration Company, manager of neighboring Porto do Itaqui (one of the largest in the country), César Cunha owns more than 240 hectares in the region. "I bought (lands in that place) in 1975", he told us. At that time, he was 20 years old.
A presumed document forgery scheme for the appropriation of communities' land in the rural area of São Luís has been under investigation for over two years. To move forward, the inquiry requires the support of agencies linked to the Executive and Judicial branches of the State. "Even with precarious deeds over a large part of the territory, it should be in order to resort to usucaption to ensure the permanence of the communities in the territories where they traditionally have lived", says a source from Maranhão government, which preferred not to be identified so as not to be professionally affected by his words.