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Roberto Araújo Oliveira Santos Junior: The limits of an Amazonian dream

Goeldi Museum anthropologist claims that, although the Trans-Amazonian Highway was a product of mistaken assumptions, it enabled the creation of small farming communities

Santos in front of a kapok tree at the Goeldi Museum

Irene Almeida

In a 1966 article published in Jornal do Brasil, civil engineer Eliseu Resende (1929–2011), then director of the National Department of Highways (DNER), outlined the plan for the construction of the BR-230, the Trans-Amazonian Highway, which began in 1970. The following year, the newly established National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) assigned the first plots of land to small farmers between the towns of Altamira and Itaituba, in the state of Pará. In August 1972, President Emílio Garrastazu Médici (1969–1974) inaugurated its first stretch, comprising 1,253 kilometers (km) and connecting Estreito, in the state of Maranhão, to Itaituba, in Pará. According to the initial plan, the highway was meant to be 5,662 km long, but ended up at just 4,260 km, linking Cabedelo, in the state of Paraíba, to Lábrea, in the state of Amazonas.

Historian and anthropologist Roberto Araújo Oliveira Santos Junior, from the Emílio Goeldi Museum of Pará, explains that the Trans-Amazonian failed to connect the North and the Northeast with other regions of the country, as per the government’s plan. But it enabled the growth of environmentally sustainable agricultural crops, such as cocoa, with lower rates of deforestation than those observed in southeastern Pará, where large livestock farms abound. He first visited the region in 1986, having come from Paris to study the social organization of agricultural communities, and often returned there.

From 2009 to 2014, Santos Junior led projects for the GEOMA Program (Research Network for Environmental Modelling in the Amazon) at the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which first linked the loss of native vegetation to land grabbing mechanisms, thus highlighting a recurrent economic process—the systemic, illegal taking of land—not only by isolated actors. Born in Belém, the capital of Pará, the 61-year-old anthropologist is divorced, has three children (two living in France and one in Uruguay), and a granddaughter. In this video interview, Santos Junior speaks about his research in the region and shares his thoughts on the 50th anniversary of the Trans-Amazonian Highway.

What is your view of the transformations and impact of the Trans-Amazonian Highway? What do you think worked or didn’t work?
The Trans-Amazonian never connected the Northeast and the North with other regions of the country, nor did it ever reach [the state of] Acre, as per the initial plan. The Amazon also never became the “world’s barn,” as the military government intended. They were completely unaware of how agriculture worked in the region. But it did become one of the main axes of regional integration, alongside the BR-316 [from Belém to Maceió]. The Trans-Amazonian Highway also enabled the formation of well-organized communities of small farmers, especially in the 500 km stretch between Altamira and Itaituba.

How did that happen?
It happened in large part due to the liveliness of the people who settled and built their lives there. In this area, family farmers had children who went on to study in rural schools, established thanks to social movements. Many became teachers or technicians who helped implement perennial agriculture involving crops such as cocoa, which requires the preservation of at least part of the primary forest to ensure the cocoa trees have enough shade. Small farmers in this region produce high quality cocoa, used to make chocolates in Belém or Belgium. Agroforestry experiments could advance even further if supported by a sustainable development policy.

It sounds like you’re saying everything is going well in the region…
Of course not. Land grabbing is still widespread. In the early 1990s, my team and I put together a map of land conflicts, which existed in all the municipalities connected by the Trans-Amazonian. I later published an analysis of some cases, in collaboration with the French geographer Philippe Léna, in the book Desenvolvimento sustentável e sociedades na Amazônia [Sustainable development and societies in the Amazon – Goeldi Museum, 2010]. Some areas also have illegal logging, making them extremely dangerous and violent. Deforestation is always a consequence of road construction, as (computer engineer) Diógenes Alves, from INPE, has proven in several studies. But in the area occupied by small family farmers between Altamira and Itaituba, deforestation levels were much lower than on cattle ranches in southeastern Pará or on the edges of the Amazon. In yet another stretch of the Trans-Amazonian, between Altamira and Marabá, there is deforestation, illegal gold mining, coal smuggling, and high rates of violence.

This social dependence [on the settlers’ part] perpetuates the father-boss figure, among other domestic analogies, as a form of political domination

Why is the stretch between Altamira and Itaituba different?
Because the federal government placed small landowners there instead of large farms. In this section, there were and still are many small farmers thanks to the National Integration Program, which [sociologist] Octavio Ianni [1926–2004] analyzed in his book Colonização e contra-reforma agraria na Amazônia [Colonization and agrarian counter-reform in the Amazon – Petrópolis, 1979]. With the 1970 Bill No. 1,106, which established the program, plus the 1971 construction of the Trans-Amazonian, the government carried out an agrarian counter-reform. At that time, the issue of land was, as it still is, one of Brazil’s greatest problems. In the South, the issue was rural properties that were too small: settlers of German or Italian descent had to divide the land amongst their children, leaving progressively smaller pieces that slowly became unworkable. In the Northeast, however, large rural properties were the issue. Since the 1950s, there has been a large exodus of northeastern migrants hoping to escape these large properties and find land to work on, slowly crossing the great tributaries of the Amazon River. [Anthropologist] Otávio Velho describes this in his book Capitalismo autoritário e campesinato [Authoritarian capitalism and peasantry]. Many of these migrants ended up working on the construction of the Belém-Brasília Highway and then tried to settle along that road. At the time, small landowners were called posseiros [squatters]. These were landless peasants who would occupy an area to work the land and were soon faced with the appropriation and privatization of land by those favored by tax breaks to raise cattle.

This probably helped stoke conflict.
It caused many territorial conflicts from the late 1960s onwards. The conflicts and the position of the Catholic Church, which had launched a campaign called “Land for those who work it,” became radicalized. To solve this problem without touching the agrarian structure, the government created the national integration program, starting with the Integrated Colonization Project, or PIC, which adopted a different land model from that of southeastern Pará, which had large farms. In the PIC-Altamira area, land plots were established between 1972 and 1987. The government had assigned a 100 km strip of land on each side of the planned or constructed federal highways to be distributed in these settlement programs. INCRA had been established in 1970 precisely to implement the first national plan for agrarian reform, as defined by the 1966 Decree No. 59,456, but this never happened.

What is your view on the role of INCRA?
The institute had been tasked with helping 100,000 families settle during the first phase of the settlement project in the Altamira region. There were quotas: 75% of the settlers had to be from the Northeast, while 25% would be from the southern states. There was also a plan for the establishment and diversification of urban centers: side roads were to be constructed every 5 km across the main road; there would be an agricultural village every 15 km with small shops and markets where farmers could sell their products; every 50 km there would be a medical clinic and secondary schools; and, every 100 km, a city would be developed with hospitals and more elaborate urban structures. This hierarchy of urban centers was supposed to make social life possible, but it didn’t work, because the settlers would avoid leaving their properties at all.

What happened to the 100,000 families?
Much fewer than 100,000 families settled in the region; they received plots that ranged from 100 to 500 hectares, which is small considering the size of the large rural properties in the region. The implementation of the plots consisted of providing a house, basic food baskets, and rice seeds. But they faced many challenges; the seeds were not suitable for the local climate, the roads were bad… The Pastoral Land Commission found that, in the stretches between the municipalities of Altamira and Itaituba and between Marabá and Altamira, 48% of the first 1,187 land plots had been abandoned by their occupants by the early 1980s. In the PIC-Altamira area, INCRA recorded that 12.69% of settlers had left their land by 1971 and 32.97% by 1977. Later, between 1988 and 1995, new settlement projects were created, based on individual plots of 100 hectares assigned to families. In the 1990s, other types of land units began to appear, such as those for direct use conservation, which are inhabited. In 2006, the Sustainable Development Projects [PDS] were established, inspired by the Resex, the extractive reserves in Acre. Nowadays, 100-hectare plots are no longer assigned to individual families; instead, a larger area is assigned to a neighborhood association, where each family gets a piece of land. The PDS are granted through the Real Usage Right Concession [CDRU] to avoid the concentration of land that took place with the individual plots.

When did you first visit the Trans-Amazonian Highway?
In 1986. I had been living in Paris since 1981, pursuing my master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Paris X. I had written a paper on basic ecclesial communities for the magazine Braise, as part of a thematic dossier on religion in Brazil. One of my advisors, Patrick Menget [1942–2019], liked my paper and told me: “We need someone to study basic communities along the Trans-Amazonian.” These communities, supported by the Catholic Church since the establishment of the CNBB [National Conference of Bishops of Brazil] in the 1950s, were very strong. These groups would meet after mass and in schools to discuss issues such as poor health care and the lack of good bridges and roads. The Trans-Amazonian was 16 years old by then, but the main road was still bad, and its connecting roads were even worse. Cars, buses, and trucks would often get stuck in the mud whenever there was heavy rain. Drivers and passengers had to dig holes to free the buses and got stuck themselves in the process, losing shoes etc.

What was it like to be there, after years of living in Paris?
I’m from Belém, but I had never visited the west side of Pará. I once got lost in the jungle and spent an entire day going around in circles until I found my way. I fell down a cliff, impaling a machete into my foot in the process. Later, the man whose home I was staying at teased me: “You’re a dunce; you know nothing about how to survive in the woods.” It was only when I went to bathe in the nearby stream and took off my boots that I realized my foot was covered in blood. I applied the copaiba oil I had brought with me, and it healed. I went to Altamira, an old town from the rubber boom era, unlike the towns that emerged with the construction of this stretch of the Trans-Amazonian. I was on my way to the INCRA head office in Brasil Novo, 40 km from Altamira. Once there, I explained I wanted to go as deep into the rural lands as possible to work with recent settlers, to see how they organized their social life and how they took ownership of the land and formed the basic ecclesial communities. An INCRA employee replied: “What for? What could you want with those animals?” He was referring to the riverside and settler communities. “These people are lazy! All they do is fish every once in a while; they can’t produce anything,” he said. I later learned this opinion was shared by more than just prejudiced workers. In January 1977, the SUDAM organized the first integrated rural development seminar in Belém to assess the Trans-Amazonian, where it was decided that it was necessary, and I quote from the minutes of the meeting, “to bring to the area men from the southern region of the country,” where there had been a greater influx of European migrants, “who would instill a unique soul into the settlements.” That “unique soul” was their entrepreneurial spirit, which was missing. This is the so-called frontier ideology, which I analyze alongside ecologist Ima Vieira, also from the Goeldi Museum, in a chapter of a book organized by geographer Wagner Ribeiro and economist Pedro Jacobi, to be published soon. I think about the consequences of that view to this day. It’s as if we determined, at a certain point, that the capacity to produce goods on a large scale is the most important thing, and, therefore, those who do not have this capacity must make room for those who do. Bill No. 490, currently under debate in the House of Representatives, allows the federal government to reduce the size of conservation units and lands belonging to indigenous peoples, riverside groups, and quilombola communities in order to profit off of them. The frontier ideology remains strong, especially in recent years.

Personal archives Santos Junior (right, wearing a hat and white shirt) at a meeting of the GEOMA program in the Santarém area, 2007Personal archives

Did your experiences in the field corroborate the view that they were “animals”?
Not at all. Anthropologist Emílio Moran [from Michigan State University] was one of the first researchers to study the Trans-Amazonian, and he examined this situation up close [see Pesquisa FAPESP no. 125 and no. 249]. He and his cousin Millicent Fleming-Moran, a physician specialized in public health, wrote the article “O surgimento de classes sociais numa comunidade planejada para ser igualitária” [The emergence of social classes in a community designed to be egalitarian], published in 1978 by the Goeldi Museum—one of the first I ever read on the Trans-Amazonian settlement. They show that people from the Northeast were just as capable as settlers from other regions, or perhaps even more, because they had a support network and often knew more about the environment, which helped them find good land to work.

Did your theoretical assumptions apply to the field?
Menget, who became a great friend of mine, always told me: “Field work is decisive. You’re going to use theory to explain what you find and not stuff what you see into theory.” Nevertheless, I came in heavily influenced by structuralism. I ended up using a lot of Max Weber’s [1864–1920] theory of charisma and social representations of the collective imagination, as proposed by Jacques Lacan [1901–1981]. In 1996, with some of my French colleagues, I organized a special issue of Lusotopie magazine focusing on paternalism in Brazil. I pointed out that, along the Trans-Amazonian and in the state of Acre, where I also did some field work, patronage relationships were strongly characterized by a paternal signifier, meaning the boss becomes a father figure to his dependents. The figure of the “good boss” is still strong and ambiguous today, even within conservation units and the PDS, created precisely to avoid market domination. But, since agroforestry production systems are undervalued, logging companies gain ground. When a company builds a road for illegal logging, it benefits settlers because they get jobs and a way to travel to larger towns when they need to take family members to the hospital, for example. This social dependence perpetuates the father-boss figure, among other domestic analogies, as a form of political domination.