Taking On Big Cellulose: Brazilian Indigenous Communities Reclaim Their Land

Editor's Note: With solidarity from landless and campesino movements, indigenous Tupinikim and Guarani communities in the Brazilian state of Espírito Santo have successfully reclaimed their land from Aracruz Celulose S.A., a mammoth multinational cellulose company that illegally appropriated it in the 1970s. A NACLA investigation supported by the Samuel Chavkin Investigative Journalism Fund finds that the growing unity of various factions of rural civil society, and their increasing militancy—especially as manifested in the tactic of nonviolent occupations—have greatly boosted the indigenous struggle.

Isabella Kenfield

Aracruz pulp factory.

In late August, Brazilian minister of justice Tarso Genro shocked many with his decision to demarcate about 27,000 acres of land for Tupinikim and Guarani indigenous communities in the southeastern state of Espírito Santo. For almost 40 years, the land has been controlled by Aracruz Celulose S.A., or AC, the world’s largest producer of cellulose made from bleached eucalyptus pulp. Genro’s decision testifies to the growing capacity and organization of the country’s rural civil society, which continues to put Brazil on the map as an epicenter of resistance to agribusiness.

“It is still difficult to believe,” says Winnie Overbeek of the Federation for Social and Educational Assistance (FASE), an NGO based in Vitória, Espírito Santo, which has supported the Tupinikim and Guarani in their struggle since the 1980s.

The surprise comes because AC has enjoyed massive state support since its founding in the Aracruz region of Espírito Santo in 1972 as part of the military dictatorship’s national economic development plan, which centered on agro-­industrial production for export. The dictatorship both subsidized AC and granted it massive tracts of land for its eucalyptus plantations.

But the Aracruz region was also “the last refuge” of the Tupinikim, according to a 2002 report by the Brazilian Platform for Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Human Rights (DhESCA).1 In 1970, there were 40 Tupinikim aldeias, or villages, in Aracruz, according to Overbeek. And in the early 1960s a Guarani community arrived there after a decades-long migration from southern Brazil, where it had been dispossessed of its lands, and joined a Tupinikim aldeia called Caieiras Velhas.

Antônio dos Santos, 71, a Tupinikim chief living in the aldeia of Pau Brasil, remembers how as a child and married man with young children, he and his community lived from hunting, fishing, gathering, and small-scale agriculture in the coastal Atlantic rain forest. “It was a good life,” he says. “We had our day-to-day survival. We had liberty to go into the forest and pass the entire day hunting and fishing, without problems. Our agriculture was in clearings, planting corn, beans, manioc, banana, potato, and yams. We planted everything and lived from that.”

AC illegally appropriated land from the Tupinikim and Guarani, building its first factory in an aldeia called Macacos. This was easy, since there were no formal registers of indigenous populations or their lands. Moreover, the corporation had the full support of municipal, state, and federal governments, and was able to acquire land through a variety of ways, including grilagem, or falsifying deeds.

“When AC arrived, it paid a functionary to go from village to village, house to house, to inform us that AC was buying the land, and that the land had been sold to AC,” dos Santos remembers. “That functionary arrived and said, ‘You have to sell. So-and-so sold, so you must too. Because if you don’t sell, you are going to be a prisoner here. You are going to be without a way to leave.’ Whoever sold was deluded, was deceived, and so sold. We had to leave. Because soon after, AC came with a tractor, a machine, that destroyed everything. AC gave a short time, and if the person didn’t leave, it would go and destroy the house. Destroyed the home and the person.”

In all, AC appropriated about 100,000 acres, or 41% of land in Aracruz, leaving just 100 acres for the Tupinikim. Those who remained found their land increasingly unusable and their livelihoods destroyed, because eucalyptus monoculture creates “green deserts,” growing rapidly and in the process secreting an acid into the soil, killing native plants and animals, and depleting freshwater sources.

In the 1970s, AC continued its expansion to the north of Espírito Santo, where it invaded the territory of about 12,000 quilombola families, rural Afro-Brazilians descended from escaped slaves who had lived in the Linharinhos region since their ancestors migrated there.

With 380,000 acres throughout the state, AC is today the largest landowner in Espírito Santo, and together with its holdings in Bahia, Minas Gerais, and Rio Grande do Sul, it owns more than 1 million acres, most of which are planted with eucalyptus, according to Overbeek.

In 2006, the company’s production reached 3.1 million tons, amounting to 27% of the global supply. Its pulp factory in Barra do Riacho, Espírito Santo, is the largest in the world, annually producing 2.1 million tons. According to FASE, almost all of AC’s pulp is exported to Europe, the United States, and China (each year, the United States consumes an average 728 pounds of paper per person, Europe 431, and Brazil 132). More than half of AC’s pulp is used to produce toilet paper, tissue, and paper towels, while 22% is used to produce writing and printing paper. In the United States, companies including Proctor & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark purchase its pulp to produce brand-name products like Kleenex, Scott, Charmin, and Bounty. The company’s net income in 2006 was $455.3 million, an increase of 25% from the previous year.


With the support of civil society organizations and rural social movements like the Movement of the Landless Rural Workers (MST), President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva was elected in 2002 on a platform that included agrarian reform, a crucial issue in Brazil, the country with the world’s most unequal land distribution—1.6% of landowners control almost half the country’s arable land, and 3% of the population owns two thirds of it.2

Lula decried this in a 2000 interview with the magazine Caros Amigos. “This is unjustifiable in any place in the world!” he said. “This only occurs in Brazil because we have a coward president.”

But Lula, who accepted more than $200,000 from AC for his two electoral campaigns, has increasingly backed agribusiness interests. Since taking power in 2003, his administration has maintained state support for, and ownership of, AC through the National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES), which owns 12.5% of the corporation. (The majority of AC’s shares are held by foreigners, with the Safra Bank of New York and the Norwegian Lorentzen Group each owning 28%. The Votarantim Group of Brazil also owns 28%.) In 2003, BNDES helped finance the construction of the Veracel factory in Bahia (owned jointly by AC and Stora Enso) with a $546 million loan, the largest given to a private company by BNDES under Lula.3

“These companies are buying lands with public money from BNDES, lands that should be used for agrarian reform,” says Idiane Pinheiro, 34, a member of the MST for 17 years.4 Agrarian reform, she adds, has virtually disappeared from the national agenda under Lula. Indeed, AC’s desire for more land, coupled with its capacity to pay high prices, has driven up land values and increased ownership concentration, so that today agrarian reform is slower than under the previous administration of Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

“Today if you talk about family agriculture, talk about [agrarian reform] settlements, you come up against the problem of agribusiness,” Pinheiro says. “They are two totally contradictory proposals.”

AC’s territorial expansion is part and parcel of the explosion of other monocultures throughout Brazil, including soy and sugarcane, controlled by other giant multinationals. “Every form of monoculture used by agribusiness,” Pinheiro says, “is a problem for agriculture, biodiversity, and water.”

Aerial view of eucalyptus trees.

Eucalyptus monocultures obstruct the viability of small producers on agrarian reform settlements, further compromising land redistribution. According to Maria Morais, another member of the MST, eucalyptus impedes various types of production. “The type of eucalyptus being planted here does not flower, and so does not produce honey because the bees can’t collect pollen from the trees,” she says.

The large amount of water consumed by eucalyptus plantations and cellulose factories also affects production, for example milk, an important source of income for settled families. According to FASE, in 2003 AC consumed 322,000 cubic yards of water a day—the same amount consumed by a city of 2.5 million. The company has never paid taxes on its water use.

AC also impedes agrarian reform by shrinking rural labor markets. According to a report published by the World Rainforest Movement in 2005, the company generates one job per every 455 acres of land, while family farming generates 2.5 jobs per acre.5 The loss of rural livelihoods caused by the expansion of AC and other agribusiness corporations in rural Brazil has expelled rural families, forcing them to move to urban areas that are often plagued by unemployment and violence.


Over the years, the MST, the Tupinikim and Guarani, and, more recently, the quilombolas, have led the fight against agribusiness and land concentration, primarily relying on nonviolent occupations to pressure the state and society. In 1979, the Tupinikim and Guarani occupied 500 acres of AC’s land in Espírito Santo, leading to a proposal from the National Foundation for the Indian (FUNAI), the federal agency that oversees indigenous affairs, to demarcate 16,000 acres for them. But AC refused to relinquish the land and pressured FUNAI to retract the decision.

So the Tupinikim and Guarani “auto-demarcated” the land with a second occupation in 1980. As a result, FUNAI demarcated 11,000 acres for them in 1988. Five years later, they returned to demand more land, forcing FUNAI to initiate the first of several technical studies, officially published in 1997, which concluded that they had a right to 45,000 acres in Aracruz.

“FUNAI decided wrong,” says José Luiz Braga, AC’s legal director and general attorney. He argues that the land the Tupinikim are claiming was originally occupied by the Guaytaches, who were enemies of theirs. “It is not a question of returning the land,” he says, “because those lands didn’t, at any moment, belong to the Tupinikim.”

In 1998, then minister of justice Íris Rezende demarcated only 6,300 acres and brokered a series of accords, as they were called, between the Tupinimkim and Guarani and AC, which were essentially payments from the company in exchange for their land (AC says it has paid the communities about $13 million). According to the 2002 DhESCA report, Rezende’s action was illegal under the Federal Constitution, which states that “the Minister has no legal power to reduce indigenous land already identified as such.” In total, the Tupinkim and Guarani regained only 17,500 acres, or about 40% of the land FUNAI had decided was theirs.

According to Andréia Almeida, a Tupinikim living in Pau Brasil, all the accords did was alienate her community from the land that had provided the basis of their identity, making them dependent on the corporation. But not everyone gave up. In May 2005, about 100 families occupied the remaining 27,000 acres to pressure Márcio Tomás Bastos, Lula’s first federal public minister, to demarcate it. They cut down the eucalyptus trees and built two large community buildings where the aldeias of Corrego d’Ouro and Olho de Água had once been, and people began living there.

“It was really beautiful,” Almeida recalls. “You saw the communities uniting in the decision to construct that aldeia, to recover the old aldeias, and to bring back the Indians who are no longer on the aldeias.” Later that month, a federal judge ordered the property to be returned to AC, but the ruling was overturned by Espírito Santo’s federal public minister because the Tupinikim had occupied an area that FUNAI had declared theirs.

Yet on the morning of January 20, 2006, about 120 federal police raided the two aldeias, attacking the Tupinikim and Guarani with rubber bullets and tear gas from the ground and from helicopters. Twelve were wounded. Valdir dos Almeida Silva, 44, a Tupinikim chief, was shot three times with rubber bullets, including once in the head.

Federal Deputy Iriny Lopes told the newspaper A Gazeta that the relationship between the federal police and AC in the action was “illegal and immoral.” The police had stayed in an AC guesthouse the night before the attack and later used it to detain and interrogate several wounded indigenous leaders. The police also used AC-owned tractors to raze the Tupinikim’s dwellings and then burned the remains. Dos Almeida Silva says the police even burned his shirt.

While the police action allowed AC to retake control of the area, it was politically damaging for the corporation, giving the indigenous struggle increased international attention and support. It also sparked outrage and indignation among the rural social movements, as it symbolized the state’s complete betrayal to rural civil society under Lula.

Two months later, during the second UN International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development in Porto Alegre, about 2,000 members of the Via Campesina, an international movement comprising more than 150 organizations, entered and destroyed AC’s laboratory in Barra do Ribeiro, Rio Grande do Sul, uprooting more than 1 million eucalyptus tree seedlings and costing AC $400,000.6 Participants included members of the six Brazilian organizations that compose the Via Campesina, including the MST, the Movement of Campesina Women (MMC), the Movement of Small Farmers, the Movement of Those Affected by Dams, the Pastoral Land Commission, and the Pastoral Rural Youth. Several foreigners also participated.

The action, for which 38 people are being prosecuted, demonstrated the emerging alliance between Brazilian indigenous movements and those united under the Via Campesina, an alliance that strengthened after the police raid in Espírito Santo. “Of course there are differences of organization, of the peoples, of the indigenous struggles for the demarcation of indigenous areas,” says Pinheiro, who participated in the action. “But due to this process of the advance of agribusiness, and because agribusiness is taking control of the indigenous lands, the struggles of the indigenous become more similar to the struggle of the landless.”

The MST marching on Brasília in 2005. (Credit: Agência Brasil, CC 2.5)

Taking place on International Women’s Day, the action also symbolized the increasing articulation of feminism within the Via Campesina, especially by the Movement of Campesina Women. But most importantly, it represented the growing global resistance to agribusiness. Perhaps because of the MST, Brazil has become a key battleground in this struggle, as multinationals commit crimes with impunity and social movements become increasingly militant. Less than two weeks after the action against AC, the Via Campesina nonviolently occupied Syngenta’s experimental site in Santa Tereza do Oeste, Paraná, which the MST controlled for almost one and a half years. These occupations came in response to these corporations’ illegal introduction of genetically modified crops into Brazil. The Syngenta occupation also drew international support and resulted in state governor Roberto Requião’s attempt to expropriate the site from the multinational in November 2006, though this effort appears to have been stopped by the federal government.


Buoyed by the growing solidarity and force of the campesino movements, the Tupinikim and Guarani further radicalized their struggle. In September 2006, they cut and burned several hundred acres of AC’s eucalyptus plantations, and for two days the following December, they and about 500 MST members occupied the port through which AC and three other corporations export cellulose, costing them an estimated $21 million.

Finally, in November 2006, ex-minister Bastos promised the Tupinikim and Guarani that he would demarcate their land by the end of the year. Yet by the time he left office in January, he had not done so. “Our perception is that the federal government is not interested in deciding this question,” Overbeek says, noting that while Lula repeatedly refused to meet with indigenous representatives, he did receive Carlos Aguiar, the president of AC, in December 2006.

The Tupinikim and Guarani returned to occupy the remaining 27,000 acres of their land in July of this year, reconstructing the aldeias of Olho d’Água and Corrego d’Ouro. The occupation had the full support and participation of the MST, indicating the movement’s increasingly confrontational stance toward Lula. Indeed, the previous June, at its fifth National Conference, the MST refused to let the president speak and publicly revoked its support for him with a march of 17,000 through Brasília to the Square of the Three Powers (judiciary, executive, and legislative), where it raised a banner that read “We accuse the three powers of impeding agrarian reform.”

Brazilian justice minister Tarso Genro. (Valter Campanato/ABr, CC 2.5)

Given the overall advance of agribusiness interests in Brazil, Genro’s decision in August to demarcate the 27,000 acres for the Indians was surprising to all. There is no doubt it resulted from the unrelenting pressure on the government from rural civil society, whose growing voice of discontent, especially from the MST, and the threat of further mobilizations and more radical actions, ultimately forced Genro to fulfill his predecessor’s promise. His decision was a blow both to AC and to the power of agribusiness, which until then had seemed unstoppable. According to Overbeek, the MST’s solidarity with the indigenous movement was crucial. “In the decisive moments of struggle by the Indians,” he says, “the campesino movements were there.”

The victory against AC also highlights nonviolent occupations as a powerful tactic to voice dissent and demand radical social and economic change for society’s most excluded populations. It’s a trend that took off in 2004, when various social movements occupied Monsanto’s experimental test site in Ponta Grossa, Paraná, where the MST remained for more than a year. With this latest victory under its belt, Brazilian rural civil society will likely be inspired to further amplify its struggle against agribusiness.

Yet the process of demarcation is far from over, since Lula must still ratify Genro’s decision. It remains to be seen how the president will negotiate these contradictions; so far he has remained silent on the issue. With the latest global craze for Brazil’s ethanol, especially in the United States, his administration is advancing Brazil’s agro-industrial sector full-throttle. With interest in second-generation agro-fuels from eucalyptus growing, AC is set to reap some of the spoils. In May, the government licensed the company to experiment with genetically modified eucalyptus trees, a move that will undoubtedly advance its quest to produce ethanol. Moreover, restoring the Tupinikim’s land, now reduced to a green desert, will take years of work and cost millions of dollars.

Isabella Kenfield is an Associate at the Center for the Study of the Americas (gobalalternatives.net), where she researches agrarian reform, social movements, and agribusiness. She lives in Curitiba, Brazil.

1. Plataforma Brasileira de Direitos Humanos Econômicos, Sociais, Culturais e Ambientais (DhESCA), “Violação de direitos econômicos, sociais, culturais e ambientais na monocultura do eucalipto: A Aracruz Celulose e o estado do Espírito Santo–Brasil,”2002.

2. www.mstbrazil.org/?q=about

3. Alacir De-Nadai, Winifridus Overbeek, and Luiz Alberto Soares, “Plantações de eucalipto e produção de celulose: Promessas de emprego e destruição de trabalho. O caso Aracruz Ceulose no Brasil,” Coleção do Movimento Mundial pelas Florestas Tropicais sobre as Plantações, 2005.

4. The names of MST members have all been changed.

5. Alacir De-Nadai, Winifridus Overbeek, and Luiz Alberto Soares, “Plantações de eucalipto e produção de celulose: Promessas de emprego e destruição de trabalho. O caso Aracruz Ceulose no Brasil,”Coleção do Movimento Mundial Pelas Florestas Tropicais sobre as plantações, 2005.

6. Founded in 1993, the Via Campesina is an international peasant movement representing more than 150 rural organizations from 56 countries from Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas.


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