Journalist Heriberto Araujo spent four years reporting on the destruction of the Brazilian Amazon. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about his new book, which explores the complex web of issues underpinning the deforestation of the world’s largest rainforest.
Last October, when former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defeated the far-right incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, in Brazil’s national election, environmentalists around the world breathed a sigh of relief. Under Bolsonaro, who had weakened environmental protections and pushed to open Indigenous lands to commercial exploitation, deforestation in the Amazon had exploded. Lula has pledged to safeguard his country’s rainforests, but, as Spanish journalist Heriberto Araujo says in an interview with Yale Environment 360, the job won’t be easy.
For his new book, Masters of the Lost Land, Araujo spent four years traveling from his home in Rio de Janeiro to Rondon do Pará, a town in the eastern Brazilian Amazon, to understand how, in less than 60 years, the largest rainforest on the planet has been transformed into an engine of economic growth. Tracing the story of land rights activist José Dutra da Costa, or “Dezinho,” who, before his assassination in 2000, led a revolution among landless peasants, Araujo comes to see how a handful of ranchers managed to grab huge swaths of pristine rainforest and why deforestation, violence, and lawlessness remain pervasive in the region.
When it comes to reining in the destruction, Araujo tells e360, stopping those holding the chainsaws must be only the beginning. “The key issue will be making sure the bad guys are unable to benefit from global markets. Because if there’s a way to launder your deforestation-linked timber or beef and to sell it, you have an incentive to continue doing that.”
Yale Environment 360: What made you decide to write this book?
Heri Araujo: I had begun making trips to the Amazon to report on deforestation, and at one point someone at Greenpeace told me about a town named Rondon do Pará and an activist there whose husband had been murdered — her husband had died in her arms. So I traveled to Rondon and found Maria Joel. Eventually I realized that this little town allowed me to explain the whole story of the Brazilian Amazon. In terms of deforestation, everything is pretty recent. It started in the 1960s. And every time I learned about a new person or event related to the phenomenon, I could always find a link to Rondon or Maria Joel.
e360: It must have been difficult to report.
Araujo: It was a complicated process. It helped that I had been a reporter in China for seven years. I learned to deal with censorship and other kinds of dangers — maybe not the danger of being murdered, but of being expelled from the country. And I learned to avoid announcing my presence as a foreign reporter. I speak decent Portuguese, and I kind of look like an average Brazilian, so people were relatively open to talking with me.
Read the whole interview here.