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Terra Nossa settlement, where illegal logging takes place, September 30, 2019. © 2019 Fernando Martinho/Repórter Brasil

As representatives of the world’s governments arrive in the air-conditioned conference rooms of the UN’s crucial COP28 climate summit in the United Arab Emirates, the future of the Amazon is being forged in remote places where local residents face ruthless forces of destruction. Rainforests are immense carbon sinks and preserving them is key to mitigating climate change.  

One of those places is Terra Nossa, a land-reform settlement in Brazil’s Pará state that is intended to balance small-scale agriculture and forest preservation. Farmers raise crops on small plots and collect valuable Brazil and babassu nuts in the settlement’s forest reserve, and it is in their interest to protect the trees. 

But they have lived in fear for years, as criminal groups seize more and more of the settlement’s lands for illegal logging, cattle ranching, and mining.  

Spurred by civil society, the Lula administration has finally taken some measures to protect Terra Nossa residents, a step in the right direction after the disastrous anti-environment policies enacted by former President Jair Bolsonaro. Still, there is a long way to go.  

The conflict in Terra Nossa is representative of the struggle to preserve the rainforest and uphold the rule of law in Brazil.  In Terra Nossa, criminal groups have been ruthless, displacing settlers through threats, violence, and arson. 

Successive governments have known about illegal activities there. Government inspectors who visited Terra Nossa in 2016 called for “immediate reclamation” of plots controlled by land-grabbers. But no action was taken, and the violence only worsened.  

Community members believe that criminal groups operating inside Terra Nossa have killed at least four people since 2018. Another person is missing and believed dead. Criminals keep threatening community leaders in what federal prosecutors have described as “a regime of terror.” 

Human Rights Watch highlighted Terra Nossa in a 2019 report, at a time when the Bolsonaro administration was effectively empowering criminal groups that wreaked environmental havoc as they plundered the Amazon rainforest.  

In 2022, Human Rights Watch sent seven letters to authorities alerting them to serious problems in Terra Nossa. More than 50 Brazilian organizations also called on authorities to protect the small-scale farmers there. Human Rights Watch and other organizations also urged authorities to investigate reports that certain local police officers were threatening Terra Nossa residents. Pará state’s security secretary responded to our letter informing us they had replaced the whole police battalion covering the area. 

In January 2023, we reported again on criminal groups that were starting fires to destroy the Terra Nossa farmers’ crops and livelihoods. Their aim was to force farmers to leave Terra Nossa and turn the charred land into cattle ranches. 

“They’re taking away our income, killing us little by little,” a resident told us. 

In high-level meetings in Brasilia, we urged the Lula administration to defend the residents and the forest. We also urged federal prosecutors to intervene. The Pará Federal Prosecutor’s Office sent us a letter affirming that the slowness to act by the federal agency in charge of rural-reform settlements had only “heightened conflicts” at the settlement.  

Finally, in September, federal authorities supported by police served notice to people illegally occupying land, a first step to eventually evict them.  

Authorities should carry out that process without delay, as well as take immediate measures to protect residents from retaliation and prosecute those responsible for environmental crimes and violence in Terra Nossa. 

There are many places like Terra Nossa in the Amazon. To preserve the rainforest, Brazil should protect those fighting for it.  

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