São Luís (Maranhão) - The earth trembles in the community of Cajueiro. The heavy machinery advances on where there were people and the Amazon jungle. The red of the soil flows with the heavy rains, burying the mangroves and the hope of those who can no longer see the future where life went on with such different rhythms and sounds. In São Luís, capital of Maranhão state, the construction of a port for transport grains, fuels and minerals links Brazil and China in cases of violence against rural populations, legislative negotiations and suspicions of land grabbing.
China Communications Construction Company and WPR - São Luís Port and Terminal Management are building their deep-water port in one of the most coveted regions of the planet. The loads sent there will arrive faster and at a lower cost to the Asian country, crossing the Panama Canal. Waters as deep as the São Marcos Bay are found only in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. They can ensure the arrival of large vessels linked to world trade.
However, the region has other values, such as native forests and mangroves, whose preservation is essential for the reproduction and survival of countless species of fish, crabs and other animals. The northern states of Maranhão, Pará and Amapá are home to 70% of Brazil's mangroves.
The port is also central in the increase of grain production in the Northeastern region, in a large preserved Cerrado area punctuated by small producers, indigenous and descendants of slaves (known as quilombolas). Half of the biome has already been eliminated, mainly by agro-industry. Protecting its deep-rooted vegetation is vital to maintaining water sources, fighting against climate change and ensuring the survival of those populations.
China Communications Construction Company already operates transport infrastructure connected to the ports of Santos (São Paulo), Paranaguá (Paraná) and Açu (Rio de Janeiro). It’s interested in further projects in the North, South and Northeast regions of Brazil, many of them linked to agribusiness. The Chinese state-owned company has an annual turnover of more than US$ 60 billion worldwide, doing business in Africa, Central America, Asia, and the Middle East.
A loan of US$ 700 million (about $ 2.6 billion Brazilian reais) from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) was secured for the construction of the port in an agreement signed by former President Michel Temer. He was arrested in March after being accused by the Federal Public Ministry of leading a corruption scheme that moved R$ 1.8 billion (US$ 460 million) in bribes to influence contracts with state and public agencies.
The São Luís Port project "can generate about 5,000 jobs", according to a letter sent by the Secretariat of Social Communication and Political Affairs of the Maranhão Government. The terminal has as neighbors three other ports, a couple of railroads, huge yards useful for iron ore and container production, a thermoelectric plant and a federal highway. The circulation of commodities produced in the Amazon is frantic.
In the middle of this land of giants, the Cajueiro community struggles to maintain its lifestyle. But, if you stand firm, you pay a high price. Since 2014, the villagers have denounced the destruction of houses and fields, the threats of the criminals and all sorts of difficulties to continue fishing and sowing. Armed security guards move through what remains of the village, devastated by deforestation.
About 2,500 people live in the territory of Cajueiro. At the construction site, the number of residents fell from 250 to 50 people since the beginning of works in March 2018, according to the research group on development, modernity and the environment of Maranhão Federal University, which studies socio-environmental impacts of policies and economic development projects in the Amazon.
"We identified irregular links between Brazilian and international capital, the government and the judiciary related with social and environmental crimes, like the destruction of vegetation protected by federal law and mangroves", says State Congressman Wellington do Curso.
In this arm wrestling, conflicts grew along with pressure from private sector and public power for inhabitants to leave their lands and homes. In 2017, five people received death threats, three from them hailing from the same family, as reported by the Pastoral Land Commission. This Catholic Church organization publishes annual reports on violence in the countryside since 1985, when Brazil left behind two decades of military dictatorship.
One of the threatened locals is fisherman Clóvis Amorim da Silva (52). An active voice in defense of Cajueiro residents, he saw the front of his residence taken over by demonstrators, who arrived there in two dozen of cars and motorcycles.
"We belong to the community, to the region. It is not possible for a company to come in an imposing and coercive way because it has money, because it owns the justice, the judge and who knows who else more. We resist to demonstrate that our rights exist and must be respected. You can't look only at the rights of big actors. This project has to stop, because of all the social and environmental irregularities", says Silva.
Another threat reached the Professor Horácio Antunes de Sant'ana Júnior, Ph.D. in human sciences and member of the Maranhão Federal University’s research group. His accusations of disregard for community rights by the private sector and state government were answered with intimidation. Pamphlets distributed at the public education institution accused the teacher and students of interfering in the construction of the port in the Cajueiro area, where the competent bodies have already granted the license. They also promised that the "unemployed workers of Maranhão will protest against this action, 1,600 unemployed personas ready for whatever happens". Its authorship has not been identified.