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Brazil: Corruption, oppression in Sirinhaém

The following article was written by Maryknoll lay missioner Jonathan Yu-Phelps and published on Brazil Justice Net.

Driving along highway PE-060 through the northeastern state of Pernambuco to the small city of Sirinhaém on the coast, one is struck by the beauty of the green fields and blue skies on a sunny day. Before they are harvested, the fields of sugarcane plants are bright and verdant. The fields stretch to the horizon, going around and over low lying hills and steep banks. As captivating as the scenery is, the sugar cane is planted illicitly, without respecting the legal boundaries of a thirty meter margin around existing forests, to the road or the many rivers in the area. But there is more to the view than the aggressive overplanting of an environmentally harmful crop, these fields are part of the violence and misery that constitutes the sugar cane industry in Brazil.

The Comissão Pastoral da Terra (Catholic Church’s Land Pastoral Commission, CPT) has been active in confronting the violence of the sugar mills for 30 years in Brazil. The CPT has as part of its mission to “value and protect the lands and waters [of Brazil]… and basic human rights [of the Brazilian people.]” Further it seeks to “denounce and combat all forms of corruption, violence and attack on the dignity of persons.” As a Catholic organization it is inspired “by the subversive memory of the Gospel of life and hope” to be “faithful to the God of the poor, the land of God and the poor of the earth, hearing the cry that comes from the fields and forests.” The Trapiche Sugar Mill in Sirinhaém, Pernambuco gives the CPT ample opportunity to exercise its mission.

Luis Antonio de Andrade Bezerra bought the Trapiche Sugar Mill in 1998. Since that time the mill has planted sugarcane on state land that it does not own, has polluted nearby rivers and streams and harassed local inhabitants of the islands of Sirinhaém to leave the land they have lived on for generations. The local residents have sought protection and advocacy from government organizations whose purposes included protecting the natural resources of Brazil and the rights of its citizens. Trapiche continued to act with impunity as the government agencies’ actions were ineffectual.

In 2006, the CPT got involved with the local residents of Sirinhaém and started a plan with IBAMA, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources. The plan was to establish what is called an extravist reserve or “resex.” Under the resex, the state lands that Trapiche has been invading would be guaranteed to the original community that lives there. The residents would protect the lands through their traditional way of life that respects and maintains the environment.

It would seem that the resex initiative would be quick and easy to accomplish, after all the lands in question where not owned by the mill but were public lands. In reality, the Trapiche Sugar Mill saw it as a threat and responded forcefully. The sugar mill has influence at all levels and in all branches of the Brazilian government and it used those connections to slow down the process. Not only corrupt but violent, the sugar mill sent armed men to the homes of the residents to intimidate them into leaving. In two respects, Trapiche has been successful. The first way is that the resex has been effectively stalled. Originally, there was hope that the resex would be complete by the end of 2006. But the process still has not gotten off the ground. The second way is that after years of arbitrary imprisonment, destruction of their homes, threats from hired thugs and the police only two of the original 53 families living on the islands of Sirinhaém remain there.

The CPT continues to accompany the people of Sirinhaém in their journey for the right to maintain their way of life and protect the natural resources around them. On June 1, 2008 Trapiche along with 23 other sugar mills in Pernambuco were charged with environmental crimes and fined millions of Brazilian reais (approximately US$2.5 million). Much of the pollution that Trapiche has generated has come from its involvement in producing ethanol. One liter of ethanol also produces fifteen liters of stillage, a toxic substance that the mill was dumping into local waterways.

On July 14, 2009, members of the CPT were present at a meeting between the association of fisherfolk and a representative of the federal government. In attendance was a functionary of the Chico Mendes Institute (ICMBIO) which is responsible for protecting the natural resources of Brazil. The CPT gave a written and oral request that the resex be implemented as quickly as possible and that the government hold a public audience as required by law as part of the resex process. The ICMBIO responded that they may be able to hold a public audience in August. While people in Sirinhaém were disappointed by the delay, they are use to waiting.

In the last week, it was learned that the public audience was cancelled and that the federal government has not immediate plans to schedule a new one. Additionally, threatening phone calls have been made to the association of the fisherfolk telling them to give up on the resex.

Below are links to two videos produced by the CPT (with subtitles in English) that present the testimonies of the two women who remain on the islands with their families.

Video 1

Video 2

You can help support the struggle of the people of Sirinhaém. The CPT is asking people to send emails to the ICMBIO’s president, Rômulo Mello, and director, Paulo Maier. If you are willing to send an e-mail, please send the second one which is in Portuguese.

English language translation:

The Presidency of the Chico Mendes Institute – ICM-BIO
President Rômulo Mello

The Directorate of IUSP
Director Paulo Maier

We are aware of the latest events in the region of Sirinhaém, PE., a region which is being contemplated for a Extrativist Reserve (RESEX) decree as a result of ICMBIO studies, a decree which will guarantee the preservation of the environment and the sustainability of the fisherfolk community who are part of the environment.

The Prefecture of Sirinhaém and the local (Trapiche) Sugar Mill are exerting pressure against the RESEX decree. Anonymous phone calls are made to the Directorate of the Fisherfolk Colony. The lives of those who assert the right for the creation of a RESEX are at risk.

The Public Audience arranged for 15 June 2009 was cancelled. No new date has been arranged. If this is not done immediately (arrange the date, hold the Audience) the RESEX process will come to a halt. The 15 June 2009 Audience was cancelled – according to ICMBIO information – because of interference from the state government which asked for a meeting with ICMBIO to resolve the differences.

Why has this meeting not yet been arranged?
Until when will it be delayed?
Will it only be arranged after the “announced deaths” of those threatened by anonymous phone calls?

It is for this reason we ask for what is demanded by this situation: the immediate realization of the public audience.

Yours sincerely,


Please use this one in your email:

À Presidência do Instituto Chico Mendes
Presidente Rômulo Mello

À Diretoria de IUSP
Diretor Paulo Maier

Tomamos conhecimento dos últimos acontecimentos na região de Sirinhaém, PE., região contemplada pelos estudos do ICMBIO para realizar uma Reserva Extrativista (RESEX) que irá garantir a preservação do meio ambiente na região e a sustentabilidade da comunidade de pescadores que fazem parte deste meio ambiente.

As pressões por parte da Prefeitura do Município de Sirinhaém e da Usina Trapiche contra a criação da RESEX, as ameaças anônimas por telefone feitas a Diretoria da Colônia dos Pescadores põem em risco a vida das pessoas que reivindicam a criação da RESEX.

A Consulta Pública que seria realizada em 15 de junho 2009 foi adiada, segundo informação do próprio ICMBIO, por interferência do governo estadual que solicitava uma conversa com o ICMBIO para sanar desencontro de informações entre governo estadual e federal.

Por que ainda não foi realizada esta conversa?
Até quando será adiada?
Será marcada depois da morte anunciada pelas ameaças anônimas?

Por isso, pedimos o que a situação exige: a realização da Consulta Pública, imediatamente.


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