By Eliane Brum
Translated By Diane Grosklaus Whitty
Eliane Brum’s The Collector of Leftover Souls: Field Notes on Brazil’s Everyday Insurrections, translated by Diane Grosklaus Whitty and forthcoming with Graywolf Press, features the acclaimed investigative journalist’s reporting on Brazil’s most marginalized groups. In “The Middle People,” she recounts the history and precarious present of an Amazon forest community.
The Middle People
Raimundo Nonato da Silva doesn’t know who Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is. Between the two da Silvas, the latter the president of Brazil and the former a Brazilian without a president, lies a vast world. Raimundo lives in a country unknown to Brazil itself, a land where most men answer to the name Raimundo. His republic lies in the heart of the Amazon and belongs to a region whose name sounds like it has been taken from J. R. R. Tolkien’s mythological universe: Middle Earth. It’s an invisible country because 99 percent of its inhabitants have no birth certificate or identification document. Officially, its Raimundos and Raimundas do not exist. But there they are, insisting on existing, shy on their ABCs, flush with paradoxes. Illiterate or, as they put it, “blind.” They’ve never voted because phantoms only become voters before the ends of the earth, and they reside after the earth ends. The Middle People might vanish before their official country even notices them. Like the forest where they live, and with which they merge, they’re an endangered species.
The Middle People are descendants of the “rubber soldiers” known as arigós, who were drawn from the Northeast to the far reaches of the jungle by the Getúlio Vargas administration during World War II. There they settled and multiplied, eventually forming a single family of fewer than two hundred people entwined in an intricate web of kinships. They live like the Indians did before having contact with what is called civilization. As hunters and gatherers, they eat what the forest gives them, and it gives them a lot: Brazil nuts in the winter; game, fish, and oil from the copaiba and andiroba trees year round.
They would have gone on with their lives like this, in their country without a currency, had they not been discovered by the men known as grileiros, or land-grabbers. As predators who are old acquaintances of the Amazon, the grileiros send in their gunmen, armed and with licenses to kill. Brandishing land deeds forged within a network of corruption that spreads into notary public offices and government agencies, these men proclaim themselves owners of thousands, even millions of acres of forest. Few of them appear to be what they are. Most live in big cities in the Brazilian South, Southeast, or Central-West and rely on front men to commit their crimes, while they, nails buffed, attend classical music concerts.
As in the days of Pedro Álvares Cabral, the representatives of grileiros first offered the Raimundos small trinkets—in this case, a fistful of Brazilian reais—to leave the forest. Then they showed them the barrels of their shotguns. Today the Middle People have been marked for death. One man alone, Cecílio do Rego Almeida, owner of a large construction firm and one of the few landgrabbers in Brazil whose face is known, is fighting in court over an area that may exceed seventeen million acres, a territory the size of the Netherlands and Belgium combined. If he wins, he’ll force all of the Middle People off their lands.
“The only way they’ll drag me out of here is with a gun to my head,” says Raimundo Belmiro, thirty-nine, father of nine children. Raimundo, one of the community leaders, is a quiet man with the courage of someone who does what his character tells him, heedless of fear. “I came back from the woods one day and the outsiders were in my home. Then others came, and they never stopped coming. They offered me $3,500 for my land. I turned it down. Next they started coming at my place from all sides. They go by on the river in rabetas, small motorized canoes, full of armed gunmen. They’ve got reliable rapidfire weapons, not like my twenty-three-year-old shotgun. They want to scare me. And they do. I’ve been marked for death.”
Raimundo and his family had woken up that morning with nothing to eat. Each of them pushed into the bush in a different cardinal direction in search of food. Before noon, Fernando, thirteen, had taken down a tapir that weighed over 650 pounds, while Francisco, fourteen, brought back two peccaries. Raimundo explains: “That’s the forest, rich in everything. That’s why I’ve been marked for death. But I stay.”
A Country of Raimundos
Raimundo’s story is a replay of the story of Chico Mendes, promoted to national hero following a murder foretold, but prevented by no one. Yet Raimundo’s world lies even deeper in the forest. Covering nearly twenty million acres, Middle Earth offers one of the very last chances to preserve the Amazon. Embedded in the state of Pará, the region earned its name because it lies entrenched between the Xingu and Iriri Rivers. Surrounded by indigenous territories and national forests, Middle Earth’s geographical whereabouts have long protected it from devastation—official, in the form of numerous predatory attempts to occupy the jungle, especially by military governments, and private, led by predators in the guise of entrepreneurs, who employ the pretty word agribusiness. This no-man’s-land is claimed by many.
In the 1990s, the grileiros ramped up their border assault through the poaching operations of the mahogany mafia. A decade later, news about the paving of the Trans-Amazonian and Cuiabá-Santarém Highways has heightened the pressure. To the southeast, around the town of São Félix do Xingu, the region has become a Wild West. Most of the cases of slave labor, illegal logging, and deaths caused by the land disputes that feed the national news occur here. Along the northeastern border, where the city of Altamira stands as gateway, the invasion advances apace. It is to the northwest, on the banks of Anfrísio’s Little River, that an entire population of Raimundos lives, every home lying hours or even days away from others by canoe.
The river’s name is derived from Anfrísio Nunes, a man from the state of Sergipe, who, like so many others, received government authorization to exploit the Amazon’s rubber trees. His descendants also claim ownership of the land. “Anfrísio brought more than two hundred families of arigós from the Northeast to tap rubber along the Little River,” says his stepdaughter and daughter-in-law, Vicencia Meirelles Nunes, seventy-four. “Back then, the Indians decimated entire families of arigós. Anfrísio raised eighteen orphans of people who’d been killed by the Caiapó or Arara.”
These Raimundos are the people who descended from the arigós. Left to fend for themselves once rubber was no longer profitable, they molded their destinies far from the presence of the State, without schools, health care, or birth certificates. They don’t want to own the forest, just live in it. Their worldview does not include fences.
To show Brazil that his people exist, a slight man named Herculano Porto, sixty years old, was chosen to travel to Altamira. As the sole head of household who possesses any documents, this man with the profile of a bird and eyes of a cat was the only one of the Middle People suited to undertake the journey, and he became the community’s president. After rowing his canoe for a day, he reached the mouth of Anfrísio’s Little River, and from there took a motorboat. Along the way, he came upon a jaguar that was crossing the river. “We thought it was a deer and drove the boat right over it,” he says.
It was September 7, Brazilian Independence Day, when Herculano began his return trip. He had accomplished his mission. He carried back with him two soccer balls and a document drawn up by the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission, in which the community asked the federal government to create an extractive reserve. At the bottom of the petition, his people would have to record their thumbprints as signatures.
Between Herculano and his country, which is accessible only by boat, stretch 204 miles of waterways. His saga would only come to a close several days later, at the end of a tapestry of rivers leading steadily inland. After leaving the Xingu, the Iriri penetrates deep into Middle Earth over a labyrinth of rocks. Travelers have to conquer half a dozen rapids, getting out at each one and portaging upstream, where they drop their boat back into the current by rope. The task tears their hands until they bleed.
Schooled in the language of water, Herculano had no fear of the river’s traps. The only thing that vexed him was the counsel of his boatman, Benedito dos Santos, who in his sixty-two years of Amazonian life has been a rubber tapper, prospector, pimp, jaguar hunter, and hired gun. There’s not a story he tells in which two or three men don’t die. “I’ve run a lot of people off land for the big guys in this Amazon. It’s easier to handle things with violence. This story’s been repeated over and over, and I’ve never seen a settler win. The world will always have fights over land,” he says, spinning his tales down the river. “Hey guy, sell your parcel fast before they throw you off it!” Herculano gives a little grin lacking in teeth but brimming with perseverance.
It takes seven days by passenger boat to reach the mouth of Herculano’s country during the dry season—if all goes well. Passengers often have to camp alongside trickier stretches for weeks until they can be conquered. Along the way, men like Herculano probe the river and woodlands in search of food, especially a type of turtle known as a tracajá. The forest is their restaurant.
At the close of day, after the sun has gone down and the rocks on the river bottom have become invisible and lethal, the men eat their only meal. They bathe in the waters, dragging their feet along the bottom, careful not to step on a ray armed with a venomous dagger. A few yards away, the flashlight eyes of caimans peer out, waiting for some careless soul to venture a bit closer. Herculano and his folk don’t take any chances. They belong to this world, they are nature. They tie their hammocks to the trees and stretch out for a night of murmurous sleep.
In the wee hours of these nights, the silence of the forest is made up of noises. Herculano Porto knows each by name; he has the forest inside his head. The animals don’t attack. Since the ecosystem is still in balance, there’s food for everyone and humans are predators that not even jaguars challenge without a strong reason. In the water, only anacondas devour people, like creatures from a nearly lost world. Not long after Herculano passed through on this particular journey, one of these snakes killed a man who was out swimming. It crushed his bones and then swallowed him whole.
While Herculano was sailing the rivers of his primitive world, the Sofazenda real estate agency, based in Varginha, Minas Gerais, was offering part of his land on the internet for three million dollars. The ad proclaimed the wonders of Anfrísio’s Little River: “Dozens of types of hardwood stand in thick forests filled with mahogany,” along with “large deposits of ore, cassiterite, gold, diamonds, and the like.” When he was contacted, the real estate agent Aldamir Rennó Pinto explained that the area had been removed from their catalog “because things got held up.” He offered another tract, of 950,000 acres, for nine million dollars. “In fact, the other land was inside this one that I’m offering you now. It belongs to Anfrísio Nunes’s heirs and I’ve already got the titles, all in order.”
Herculano, who is illiterate, confronts the universe of cybernetic land-grabbing with the blows of his thumbprint. When he finally landed back home, he found that his grove of Brazil nut trees had been razed. The only thing left was to fell the biggest trees and then set them afire. For Herculano, a nut grove holds the past, present, and future. It is almost the mirror of a man.
Likewise marked to die, Herculano had accomplished his mission. But when the document bearing his people’s fingerprints finally reaches the official country, in Brasilia, no one there will have any notion of how enormous his odyssey was.
The Dispute over Souls
Before the invaders arrived, Middle Earth had functioned without money. Then land-grabbers brought in currency and covetousness, penetrating cracks in souls and dividing to sow discord. Francisco dos Santos, the man most familiar with the river and its whims, was the first to be assailed by temptation. Chico Preto, as Santos is known, sold himself for seven dollars a day, bringing workhands and gunmen in and out of the region of Anfrísio’s Little River. “I fight for the reserve, but they pay on time and it’s tough to make money here any other way,” says Chico. “They’re cheerful folks, obliging, doesn’t even seem like they’d kill people.”
Chico’s stepson, yet another Raimundo, became right-hand man to a land-grabber known as Goiano, legendary for the atrocities he has committed. At the mouth of the river, he works the radio that warns when strangers are arriving. “Better to sell the land, because they’re going to take it anyway. Then they kick us off empty-handed,” argues this dissident Raimundo.
Taking advantage of government neglect, the landgrabbers offer what the State doesn’t. “I want to improve things for these people. A school and a clinic. I’ve made sure there’s a car at their disposal,” says Edmilson Teixeira Pires, who claims ownership of a few dozen square miles. He has already cut in a road, off the Trans-Amazonian Highway, where he put up more than one house and dozens of workhands. He failed to reach the river solely because his path was blocked by Luiz Augusto Conrado, known as Streak in honor of the lock of gray hair he has sported since infancy. “You can back right up. On my land, you guys don’t set foot,” he warned.
Streak is quite familiar with the loving-kindness displayed by the big guys. Before marrying Francineide, a midwife from Anfrísio’s Little River, he was a slave on large farms and ranches in Pará for more than ten years. Then he was a prospector in Serra Pelada. He’s seen everything except enough gold to change his fortune. He knows full well what his resistance is made of: “The forest is the only place where there’s abundance for the poor. The man starts fencing us in, and we need Brazil nuts, game, fish. They’re killing us off because they’re shrinking the land. When just one of those roads that they’re cutting in here reaches the river, that’ll be the end of us and the forest.”
Targeted for Extinction
If the invaders win, the forest will vanish, along with 346 species of trees, 1,398 types of vertebrates, and 530 kinds of fish. A good share of these varieties are endogenous, found nowhere but in Middle Earth. The world will be poorer in biodiversity—poverty of an irreparable sort. Besides losing thousands of species, the planet will also be less varied in people. The Middle People are among the last of their breed, mowed down along with the forest. In the far reaches of Brazil, isolation has produced the extravagance of an imageless culture that has persisted into the twenty-first century.
This is why it has become a land of Raimundos. With no television to watch, these people never name their children after foreign celebrities, transcribing Michael as “Maicon” or Jennifer as “Dienifer,” nor have they heard that João and Maria are now stylish names elsewhere in Brazil. They are devotees of Saint Raymond Nonnatus, who was pulled from his dead mother’s womb and so became the protector of midwives when he reached sainthood. Their social imagination is pieced together entirely by ear, its visions drawn from bits and pieces broadcast by Rádio Nacional da Amazônia, their only contact with Brazil. This is how they reinvent soccer plays, from moves they hear but never see.
Ronaldo and Ronaldinho Gaúcho are faceless idols, their feats reinterpreted in the mind of each Raimundo. Soccer is how these men of the forest earn their Brazilian IDs. Their identity is the ball, traded for 440 pounds of Brazil nuts at the regatão, a kind of floating shopping market that stops by half a dozen times a year so people can barter local products for merchandise from the city.
Raimundo Nonato da Silva, the Brazilian who doesn’t know who Lula is, has a soccer field across from his wattle-and-daub house, roofed with palm fronds. On Sundays his boys swap their tapping knives for the ball. It is at this dirt-floor notary office that they register their births. “It’d be nice to know the name of the president of Brazil just to know it, but it doesn’t make any difference,” their father says.
Anyone unfamiliar with Raimundo’s lot in life might think he’s a bit touched in the head. Heir to a rubber soldier who dropped dead among the trees—“My dad’s name was Zuza, last name Zé”—he has lived a Stateless life since he was born. All he knows is that beyond the river lies a place called “city,” which he enigmatically conceives of as “a kind of movement.” For him, the name of the president really doesn’t matter. The idea of country has no place in his social imagination. It is Brazil who needs to discover Raimundo, before it’s too late.
Excerpted from The Collector of Leftover Souls: Field Notes on Brazil’s Everyday Insurrections by Eliane Brum, published by Graywolf Press. Copyright © 2019 by Eliane Brum. Translation copyright © 2019 by Diane Grosklaus Whitty. By arrangement with the publisher.
Published Sep 30, 2019 Copyright 2019 Eliane Brum