Letter from Mato Grosso — From the June 2013 issue

Promised Land

Will Brazil’s rural poor ever inherit the earth?

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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.

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is the author of more than twenty books, including, most recently, Love and Death in the Kingdom of Swaziland.

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