Letter from Mato Grosso — From the June 2013 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Letter from Mato Grosso — From the June 2013 issue
I’m sitting in the back seat thinking, Nuns can’t drive. Or maybe it’s just nuns with a lot on their minds. Or maybe it’s just Sister Leonora Brunetto, bearing on her sixty-four-year-old shoulders the weight of slavery, kleptocracy, landlessness, lawlessness, forest fires, hit squads, environmental devastation, and the ravages of capitalism. The year is 2010, and she’s driving erratically down a ragged highway in the central Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. She speeds up, slows down, squints into the dark beyond the headlights, then remembers the rearview mirror, then remembers the accelerator.
Half the problem, I think, is Elizete Pinheiro, the woman sitting next to her. She’s filling us in on the political misconduct in the nearby town of Terra Nova do Norte. Pinheiro works for the municipal government there, as coordinator of the environmental department, which means that she’s knee-deep in a slurry of shady deals and embezzled funds. She hates it — and as she speaks, her voice soars with indignation. I’d have trouble driving, too.
But she stops short when Leonora taps the rearview mirror and says, “They’re following us.”
No matter how fast she goes, they stay a few hundred yards behind us. They’ve been with us, Leonora says, since we filled the tank back in Alta Floresta, half an hour ago. We’re still an hour from the next town. Between here and there, the houses are few, the cars rare, the evening sky dark with the smoke of burning pastures. It’s a good place for a hit. There’s no cell phone signal, but that matters little, since there’s no one to call. Certainly not the police. The pistoleiros in the car behind us probably are police — off-duty for the moment but in cahoots with their on-duty colleagues.
Leonora brakes hard as we turn onto the bridge over the Rio Teles Pires. It’s an especially rough span of narrow, cratered concrete, a hundred yards long. The car behind us is suddenly on our bumper, its lights filling our car and flooding Leonora’s face. There’s no backing up, no turning off, no dodging. Only later does Leonora tell us of her fear that this was it, the moment she had been expecting for the past ten years, the moment she found out for sure what God does with the dead.
The pistoleiros stay on us as we rumble over the bridge, then fall back as Leonora picks up what little speed her car can muster. She veers southeast onto the highway toward Terra Nova and swerves around a truck piled with furniture and peasants. Just up the road is the little eatery where we had lunch earlier the same day, run by a family that loves her. The highway dips for a stretch, then rises — and as the restaurant appears, Leonora cuts sharply to the left, scoots behind a tree, and snaps off the lights. Half a minute later, a car screams by. It’s a darkblue VW Gol.
“That’s them,” she says.
Back in 2010, a lot of people wanted Sister Leonora dead. Many still do. But many more — maybe thousands — address her as Mãe: Mother. The latter group includes disenfranchised farmers in roadside camps, fugitive slaves who have hidden in her house, activists of all stripes, and women who have started small businesses under Leonora’s tutelage. This maternal role has given her at least some measure of protection. As cruel, greedy, and ignorant as certain people in Mato Grosso can be, they know what happens when you kill someone’s mother.
At an acampamento on a dirt road near Terra Nova, I asked a few men what would happen if someone killed Sister Leonora. It was dusk at the rickety little camp, which the inhabitants called Renascer. We sat on crates and logs and busted chairs behind the patchwork hut of a man named Nico. Under stars pinked with smoke, we passed around the chimarrão, a bulbous gourd of erva mate tea. Everybody sipped from the same steel straw and rolled thin cigarettes of black rope tobacco in rectangles of notebook paper. Little boys played on the ground, pushing pictures of trucks and honking at one another.
“Nothing would happen,” Nico said calmly. “The Sister is our hope. When she’s gone, so is our hope. No one will do anything, just as they’ve never done anything before.”
Someone else disagreed, saying that the murder of Leonora would spark people into action. The acampados would finally turn violent.
Nico’s prediction is consistent with the past. The history of the rural poor in Brazil is one of resignation. They suffer the abuse of rich squatters and the Polícia Militar as if blessed with an infinite capacity to absorb punishment. One reason for this, says a colleague of Leonora’s, is that the courageous are the first to be murdered.
In some cases, the poor are not merely abused but enslaved. By law, slavery has been forbidden in Brazil since 1888. But the practice was far more pervasive here than in the United States — Brazil imported at least six times as many African slaves as North America — so the idea of using forced labor for personal enrichment is more entrenched in the culture. Illiterate workers are still regularly tricked into thinking they are indebted to their employers for food and the tools they use. Or they’re forced to keep working at gunpoint. One man at Renascer had been a slave for twelve years. He slept on the bare ground and was fed only enough to stay alive. Once he escaped, he did nothing to report his captors, not wanting to risk his liberty or his life.
But even with the so-called blessings of freedom, the inhabitants of Renascer have been beaten, robbed, and arrested. Six have been murdered. When they tried to occupy some land the federal government had promised them just up the road, one man had his spine broken. Others were whipped with fence wire. Meanwhile, bulldozers flattened the camp. Then local police loaded the remaining residents onto a truck and dumped them in Terra Nova.
It was only with the arrival of federal police that the acampados were allowed to establish Renascer on its present site. But these forces don’t show up on a whim. They don’t step into land disputes without some kind of federal injunction. And to get such an injunction, you need somebody like Sister Leonora on your side, willing to ride herd over the entire process.
For the moment, then, the people in Renascer are safe from expulsion. Yet they deeply resent having to live in shacks on a narrow strip of land across the road from an endless Eden of grass.
“We have nothing, and they have everything,” Nico tells me. They being the cattle, fat humpbacked Brahmas within fifty feet of his hut. They have 15,000 acres while the camp has about five. They have all the food they can eat while the camp lives on minimal nutrition. They get medical care, which the people don’t. They are protected by the police; the inhabitants of the camp are assaulted by the police.
But the cattle are also vulnerable, overseen by no more than half a dozen ranchers. A small group of peasants could do a lot of damage. They could make the ranch impossible to operate. No one at this camp has suggested such action, but it must have occurred to them. There are, however, two obstacles in the way. One would be the consequent bulldozers, broken backs, whippings, and gunfire. The other is a five-foot-one nun called Mãe. She says no. And that may be one reason why no one has killed her.
The principle of agrarian land redistribution was written into Brazil’s new constitution in 1988. It allows the government to appropriate unproductive rural acreage, with compensation to the owner, and hand it off to small farmers. It also calls for the distribution of land that has always belonged to the state, even if that land is occupied by squatters. The program is overseen by the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform, or INCRA.
Because of its remote location in Brazil’s interior, Mato Grosso remained thinly settled well into the twentieth century — even today, it has among the lowest population densities of any Brazilian state. The first Europeans trickled in during the early eighteenth century to exploit the region’s gold, but the state remained populated largely by indigenous tribes until the 1970s, when the federal government began promoting settlement. Desperate to survive and eager to get rich, immigrants from all over Brazil burned off the forest and fenced in enormous tracts of land, which now support several million head of cattle, as well as extensive cotton, soy, and rice fields.
But unless the land has been specifically sold to these ranchers and farmers, it still belongs to the state. Many a millionaire, claiming tens of thousands of acres, is legally a squatter. Some have managed to get the land registered as their own, and fake deeds flutter around Mato Grosso like so many buzzards riding the convection currents. With such flimsy documentation, huge properties have been bought, sold, subdivided, even inherited. And those who cleared the rainforest or think they bought a legitimate piece of land will not easily give it up.
INCRA, meanwhile, moves very slowly. It lacks personnel and political will. It is saddled with a horrendous bureaucracy, and the deeds and documents it handles are complex and often compromised. Judges and politicians, who may be big-time squatters themselves, have little incentive to make the law work. Land transfers that could have been completed in sixty days are still languishing after a decade.
On one occasion, I accompany Leonora to the INCRA office in Colíder. Her goal is to nudge along a transfer that’s been bottlenecked there for years. She’s greeted warmly by the skeleton staff, which is gradually being crowded out by filing cabinets.
The manager sounds sincere in his desire to get the issue wrapped up and done with. Yet it takes him half an hour to explain all the reasons he can’t. They’ve cut his budget, nothing’s computerized, squatters are appealing cases, other people are claiming the land, other agencies are sitting on documents, the courts have to make decisions. What he doesn’t say is that nobody with power, money, or land wants anything to change.
Afterward, on the sidewalk outside the office, we talk with Valdir, an activist under Leonora’s wing who lives in an acampamento outside Nova Canãa do Norte. His cell phone rings. The person on the other end, his number blocked, calls Valdir a shameless dog and tells him that this is the day he will die. He adds a crude comment about Leonora before hanging up.
In the car on the way back to Terra Nova, Leonora tells me that “they” tap her phone, as well as the phones of everyone she calls. By this she means the ranchers, the Polícia Militar, and, she suspects, the Brazilian Intelligence Agency. Once, they bungled the wiretap and she could hear what was going on at the other end. She thinks it was the police station, because the sounds of somebody being beaten in the background were clearly audible. They keep tabs on her. Outside the INCRA office, they know she was talking with Valdir. They know where she’s going now, and they know who’s in the car with her. They make these threats, she says, because they know they’re losing.
If INCRA is so adept at dragging its feet, how do the acampamentos keep multiplying? First, somebody does some research at a local hall of records and identifies a piece of land that has always belonged to the state. As long as this land is not preserved as forest, citizens are entitled to a piece of it.
Next, a bunch of these claimants band together, usually under the auspices of either the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) or the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), with which Leonora works. Then, without warning, the acampados set up shop near or adjacent to the property they are claiming. Since the land alongside highways is always owned by the state, that’s where they tend to establish their beachheads — a few dozen or a couple hundred people on a gravelly swath, with the asphalt on one side and a barbed-wire fence on the other. The idea is that eventually the absentee squatters will be ejected from the state-owned pastureland and the acampados will settle there.
Often, though, they remain on the shoulder of the highway, in ramshackle hovels that swelter and leak. They draw their water from wells, bathe from buckets, cook in clay ovens over wood fires. They light their shacks with homemade kerosene lamps, just twists of cotton stuck in cans, the little flames sending up oily black squiggles of smoke. The men go off to look for field work. The women keep their homes clean, their pots and pans astonishingly shiny. A school bus picks up the children every morning and brings them home a little wiser.
Each acampamento elects leaders and makes decisions collectively, in the manner of a New England town meeting. In CPT camps, drug use, prostitution, and drunkenness are strictly prohibited, and the camp can vote to expel transgressors.
Some people give up. Some persist for years. From time to time, in an explosion of anger and frustration, an acampamento overspills its boundaries and turns into an invasão, an unlicensed expansion into a nearby pasture. This is usually followed by the arrival of local police or hired thugs and a rapid despejo — an ejection. Then it’s back to the acampamento for everyone who survived and decides to stick around.
Every once in a long while, a judge actually grants some acampados permission to occupy the plots they have claimed. The issuance of deeds, however, may take years as INCRA assembles the necessary paperwork. So this phase is called a pre-assentamento: a presettlement. How long a claim can be sustained without a deed, or how long until the deed actually gets issued, depends on how much time attorneys are willing to contribute, how much pressure can be put on INCRA and the courts, and whether judges die, retire, or get bought off. On rare occasions, an assentamento goes through. But most of the acampados in Mato Grosso remain in limbo for years at a time, with only the MST or the CPT between them and the next expulsion.
In northern Mato Grosso, the face of the CPT is that of Sister Leonora: brown-eyed, softly wrinkled, quick to smile. In any situation, her default message is: Don’t give up. And on a June morning in 2010, her goal is to keep several hundred people at the Cinco Estrelas acampamento from giving up. To that end, she has managed to get the national government’s human rights commission to send a team from Brasília.
The team, which stops overnight in Terra Nova, includes an attorney, a psychologist, a sociologist, a security technician, and their director. They will visit Cinco Estrelas, study the legal situation, and assess the psychological impact of living under daily threats of death. Then, in the timeless manner of such commissions, they will conclude something and write a report about it.
Our convoy of four vehicles leaves Terra Nova shortly after dawn, an officer of the Federal Highway Police at the wheel of each car. I don’t know what Brazil feeds its highway police, but these seem a lot bigger than the Polícia Militar and everyone else in town. Dressed in camouflage fatigues and sunglasses, each carries handcuffs, a 9-mm semiautomatic, a tactical knife strapped to the thigh, and enough ammunition for sustained combat. They look grim, alert, suspicious. Leonora rides in the back seat. I get to ride in front with Officer Marco Antônio, who doesn’t seem to like me. I have a feeling I’m a complication.
Cinco Estrelas is outside Novo Mundo, a town twenty miles off Brazil Route 163. There 180 families live in little homes constructed of veneer-thin slats of softwood nailed to hardwood frames. The roofs are plastic sheeting with palm leaves tossed over them to provide a bit of shade and to keep the plastic from flapping. The outhouses have no roofs, but the walls are thick planks of tropical hardwood.
The land that’s been promised is just across the road — a sprawling property called Fazenda Cinco Estrelas. The current squatter, Osmar Rodrigues-Cunha, bought it from Sebastião Neves de Almeida (a.k.a. Chapéu Preto, or “Black Hat”), a notorious pistoleiro who owns several farms and administers various others, hundreds of thousands of acres in all. Chapéu Preto’s men have tailed Sister Leonora for periods of as long as three days. (He, in turn, has accused her of sending hit squads after him.) He has been arrested on a number of charges, including slavery and illegal occupation of land, but has never been held for any significant length of time.
While the highway police hang out in the shade of a hut, a couple dozen residents gather in a circle. Sister Leonora explains why the visitors have come all the way from Brasília. Then, in simple, graphic, ungrammatical terms, the residents report the problems they have encountered. At first they take turns, but the testimonies soon break down and they start completing and elaborating on one another’s stories.
Seven people have been murdered. One young man was granted permission to fish on private property and then was shot for trespassing. Another was axed in the head and took six months to die. Another disappeared. Almost every day they receive threats phoned in or hollered out the window of a car. When they go into Novo Mundo, thugs hound them. Their motorbikes get run off the road. Their children are harassed at the bus stop. Their tarps have bullet holes.
On February 21, 2010, four months before the commission arrived, twenty-two military police and associated goons chased everybody off the land, burned the camp, and razed whatever remained. The acampados fled thirty miles to Guarantã do Norte and stormed the INCRA office there. They stayed for more than a month, demanding the land they’d been promised for so long. Finally some federal support came along, and everyone got to go back and build another camp.
The acampados are mad, they tell the commission, because there’s no justification for the delay in granting land titles. The federal government is sure it owns the property illegally occupied by Fazenda Cinco Estrelas. INCRA has expressed every intention of deeding the land to the campers. Family plots have already been laid out. So why doesn’t it happen?
“We want an answer,” says one man, palms tilted to the sky.
Another offers an answer: “The law here is money. Those who have the money determine the law.”
“Seven years under the tarp is a long time,” says an old man.
“What do they want us to do?” says a younger man. “Go to a slum somewhere and live by robbing people? Do they want us to mine for gold? Do they want us to raise pirate cattle and not pay taxes on them?”
Another says, “We have no security here. They could come any night and kill us all.”
Another has a joke: “We aren’t landless. We have land. It’s under our fingernails.”
In apologetic tones, the attorney explains that his commission doesn’t control the government and can’t resolve agrarian-reform issues. “Our main concern here,” he says, “is to keep you alive and continuing the struggle.”
Leonora tells me later that the only purpose of the meeting was to show some federal presence and give people enough hope to hang on a little longer. The federal presence also makes her feel more secure. She’s less likely to be shot if the locals think the repercussions might reach Brasília.
At Terra Nova’s only decent restaurant, beside the pond that provides its fish, Sister Leonora tells me that she would never venture the half-mile from downtown if I weren’t there. Not that she thinks I’m bulletproof, but a murdered foreigner would draw international attention.
And when she invites me to stay in an apartment attached to her house, I resist until I realize she wants a potential witness. So I move out of the Hotel Avenida, and there I am, rooming with a nun. We have meals with her housemate, Sister Nilza. I do some of the cooking. I wash dishes. We talk a lot. I hear horror stories of priests, nuns, and peasants murdered, widespread slavery, the time her house was burglarized of every single document while she hid in the bathroom. She knew Sister Dorothy Stang, an American in the state of Pará who was shot in 2005, at the age of seventy-three. One of the culprits spent a little time in prison, was released on a technicality, and then was imprisoned again pending further court decisions.
A week after I move in, the situation at Cinco Estrelas heats up. A judge in Cuiabá is about to sign a document that will be sent to the Federal Supreme Court in Brasília. Leonora will have to go to the capital — a bus trip of more than thirty-two hours — to represent her people. If she’s not there, the case, already eight years old, will bounce back down to the state courts, a catastrophic defeat.
Two men from Cinco Estrelas come to the house. Leonora gives them firm instructions. As soon as the Supreme Court judge signs the paper, the acampamento has to move onto the stolen property across the road. Everyone knows where their plot of land is. They are to quickly set up shelters and start planting. They are to stay out of the reserved forest area. Be alert. Form groups and stick together.
“For the love of God,” she says, “do not touch any farm equipment that’s still there. Settle near the main house but do not go inside. Make sure everyone knows what to do and what not to do. No mistakes or we lose everything.”
That night she gets a call from the local police. She has to clear out of town by morning, because someone’s coming to kill her in order to prevent her trip to Brasília. Sister Nilza has to disappear, too. And she’d better get that foreigner out of her house, because how does she know who he really is? So it’s back to the Hotel Avenida for me, and for the next week no one knows where Leonora is. Then she shows up. The judge in Cuiabá failed to sign the document. Cinco Estrelas, she tells me, is on war footing.
The Pastoral Land Commission grew especially active in Mato Grosso in the late 1990s, as the rate of deforestation increased. The greedy had long been exploiting whatever they could get their hands on: first gold, then wood, then the thin layer of soil remaining atop the gravel that underlies most of the Amazonian biome. The forest, however, has taken longer to exhaust, and it is still being burned and felled to make more room for cattle and soy.
A few people have come to understand that the forest must be maintained or replanted, but the rest think these idealists are communists and pot smokers. Ranchers routinely cut down every single tree on an allotment, even though leaving a few for shade would increase the growth of grass and thus the production of beef. It seems they actually hate trees. When the then mayor of Terra Nova, Manoel Freitas, took me to his 1,850-acre ranch, which was covered in forest just a decade ago, he expressed pride in how thoroughly he had stripped away the original vegetation. The property was now treeless, except for a narrow band along a stream. Freitas gave me a wicked, ironic laugh and said, “I am a destroyer!”
This economy, based on theft from nature, is among the most debased forms of capitalism. Not much capital is involved. A ranch, for example, requires little more than a herd and some fencing. And that investment, and the return on it, flow directly out of the region.
Here’s how it works. It takes about two and a half acres of grass to feed one head of cattle. A pasture of 25,000 acres yields a lot of beef. But the beef gets exported and the profits go to a wealthy absentee squatter. The whole business employs only a handful of locals. During the dry season — which used to be June and July, but now extends from May through October — the ranchers burn the fields to put nutrients back into the soil. But the nutrient cycle, too, is subject to diminishing returns, and eventually the grass stops growing. As vegetation disappears, the streams and springs dry up. When this process can wring nothing more from the land, the rich will leave and the meek will inherit their dry and desolate parcels.
This scenario isn’t some distant, dystopian nightmare. It’s already happening. The agronomist Epifânia Rita Vuaden gives the region another five or ten years. “The dime has dropped,” she says. “Terra Nova has already lost fifty-six springs. Some areas cannot be farmed anymore, and people have just abandoned their land. It’s dead.”
She knows twenty-year-olds who have never seen a forest. When their parents were that age, there was nothing here but forest.
In collaboration with Sister Leonora and a number of social organizations, Vuaden launched a project to begin reforesting the area. In 2010, landowners were obliged to keep 80 percent of their property as natural, native forest. Virtually no one in Mato Grosso obeyed the regulation, and to be fair, it was unrealistic to expect them to do so. If the farmers of the American Midwest let 80 percent of their land revert to its natural ecosystem, the United States wouldn’t have much of a breadbasket.
Vuaden says that two and a half acres of forest produces more economic benefit — nuts, fruits, wood — than the single cow that requires that same land for grazing. But while just a handful of people can oversee thousands of acres of pasture, harvesting the forest is more labor-intensive. An absentee landlord in São Paulo can’t easily direct such an operation from afar. It’s a job for a family farmer with 250 acres of land — a scale that would allow farmers to maintain 80 percent as forest, with the rest dedicated to a garden, a small field for cash crops, and a couple of dairy cows. A 125,000-acre ranch, which destroys the region’s environment without returning a penny to its inhabitants, could instead support 500 family farms.
Such a transformation, which flies in the face of almost every vested interest in Mato Grosso, will not take place without a struggle. It will require time and an almost inhuman level of patience. Meanwhile, Vuaden and her colleagues have created the Seed Project, which pays people to bring native seeds to a depository in Terra Nova. Many of the seed gatherers are rural workers who know the forest, have time to seek out seeds, and can use the cash. The project then mixes up a muvuca, a carefully formulated blend of seeds. Some will sprout early and provide something that can be harvested relatively soon — corn, for example. That early growth then produces shade for fast-growing trees such as balsa and pine, which can be harvested within a few years. And that shade will support slower-growing trees.
Come rainy season, the muvuca gets planted in carefully spaced patches, each slightly more than a yard square and a few inches deep. The result: a nascent rainforest. This new growth must be thinned every once in a while, but apart from that, it’s on autopilot. The plan is to plant 220 tons of seed on around 3,000 acres.
Leonora, like Vuaden, recognizes the utility of free enterprise. What she objects to is the greed at the base of it. She has a better idea: solidarity economics, a do-unto-others brand of capitalism that can thrive in the nooks and shadows of the current system. It takes the form of co-ops, nonprofits, neighbors or friends starting microbusinesses, and associations of local entrepreneurs who have decided that the betterment of the community is in everybody’s interest.
From time to time, Leonora organizes two-day seminars on solidarity economics, one of which I attend in Colíder. Among the several dozen attendees, I recognize several people from acampamentos I’d visited. Others are college or high school students. We break for periods of song, a prayer, lunch in the cafeteria, siestas in the dorm. Everyone drinks water from the same jelly jars at the water fountain. We write and act out pageants of righteous lower-class life depicting solidarity economics in action. It’s all unabashedly touchy-feely, warm and fuzzy — and, to an outsider, even a little silly. But in Leonora’s hands, it seems a perfect way to teach business to simple people with good hearts and close to zero entrepreneurial experience.
Leonora takes me to an acampamento hunkered down alongside Brazil Route 163. The people there have planted a veritable farm in plastic bags, paint cans, old tires, a busted tea pot, and anything else that will hold soil. A thin, eager, bright-eyed man named Sílvio shows me dozens of seedlings that he’s going to plant as soon as he gets his piece of land. Half of these I’ve never heard of, among them cajá, cupuaçu, bacaba, camu camu, jataí, jabuticaba, fruta pão. The promised land (in every sense of the phrase) is on the other side of a barbed-wire fence, already bought from a rancher and approved for redistribution, pending confirmation that it can be used for farming rather than forestation.
On the way home, driving through an indigo dusk, I’m at the wheel, an eye on the rearview for anyone following, an eye ahead for bandits and potholes, and finally dare ask Leonora something I’ve wanted to know since I first met her. Did she believe God would protect her from the bullets of pistoleiros?
“Não,” she says with a wag of her finger. “God has already done everything he’s going to do.”
“Does prayer work?”
“We shouldn’t ask more from God. The question is not whether to expect anything from him. It’s a question of expecting something from man. God did his part. Now man is making a mess of it.”
The mess in Mato Grosso, she says, is the fault of os ricos — the rich. The concentration of natural resources in so few hands is the ultimate cause of the poverty, corruption, and environmental devastation. The only possible solution is the distribution of land to family farmers.
“That’s God’s plan,” she says. “That’s what he wants for us.”
And that’s what she’s working for. She isn’t dodging pistoleiros and prodding bureaucrats to spread the Gospel or save souls. She’s trying to save the earth and its people, and I hear those words — a terra e o povo — from her lips a lot more than I hear Deus.
“And the new pope?” I ask, referring to Benedict XVI, who had been elected five years earlier. “Good one?”
Another wag of the finger. “I don’t like him much. He doesn’t have the right idea. As soon as I get time, I want to organize a strike by all the women in the church, all around the world. The church won’t function without women. We can make it stop until the pope reorganizes the rules. Slow down up here.”
I downshift into a tight descending curve. The headlights pick out a cluster of wooden crosses and plastic flowers on the bank. Leonora touches her forehead and both sides of her chest and says, “A lot of people die here.”
We’re quiet for a while. I’m thinking about drunk truck drivers and families packed onto motorcycles. She’s still thinking about the Church.
“Some of the bishops help us,” she says, “but most don’t. They just want money.”
And there they are again: os ricos. The upper class, the dairy cow that the Church has been milking since colonial days, doesn’t want to see change, she says. It wants the clergy to stick to the Gospel and stay out of politics. She’s disappointed in the Church’s failure to use its global power to overthrow tyrants, force corporations into submission, effect the equitable distribution of land, and otherwise resist civilization’s urge to exterminate itself. This is, of course, a tall order. But Leonora sets her sights high, and shows no sign herself of flagging.
“I could be at peace,” she says. “I could retire, have a more tranquil life. But it’s impossible to be tranquil when you see your brother humans suffering. Impossível.”
Nearly three years later, tranquility seems no closer than ever, with the mighty and the meek still locked in their customary tug-of-war. Elizete Pinheiro was fired from her job in Terra Nova do Norte for her involvement in social-justice and conservation campaigns. A warrant was issued for the arrest of Sebastião “Chapéu Preto” Neves de Almeida on various charges, but he was still free and making no effort to hide. Five farms were caught employing slave labor. A plane sprayed something toxic on the homes and gardens at the Renascer camp, killing crops and sending people to the hospital, and someone shot up a house occupied by children and elderly people. A bomb blew one wheel off Leonora’s car. And while the Brazilian congress debated (and eventually passed) a new law that indirectly allows significant increases in deforestation, Leonora and activists all over the country were peppered with death threats. A priest to the north of Terra Nova received several, but Leonora, in what has to be viewed as a sign of progress, got only one.
You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year. Or purchase this issue on your iOS or Android devices for $6.99.
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!