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The plan was to meet in Altamira, Brazil, and travel 1,000 miles across the northern Amazon as a kind of people’s court. The judges would take testimony over 10 days, much like a United Nations fact-finding delegation, and deliver their findings at the 10th Pan-Amazon Social Forum in the provincial city of Belém.
They had come under the banner of the International Rights of Nature Tribunal, promoting a legal movement based on the premise that nature—forests and rivers and wild animals and ecosystems—has inherent legal rights to exist and regenerate, just as humans possess human rights by virtue of their existence.
And so these lawyers and justice advocates assembled one hot night in July at a wooden country home down a long red dirt road 30 minutes outside Altamira to hear an audacious case: The Amazon, “a living entity under threat.”
They would meet with Indigenous people and traditional communities whose intimate relationships with the Amazon allowed them to speak on the forest’s behalf. They would ask questions no one else was really asking, and listen the way no one else was really listening, hoping to change the way the world works.
In Re: The Amazon
Arriving at the country house in Altamira, Cormac Cullinan felt a shot of adrenaline as evening fell on a thin slice of the Amazon. Aside from the passport and travel documents stuffed into his breast pocket, it was hard to tell that he had been traveling for two days straight.
Men and women from the Xingu River basin had come long distances from their farms and fishing villages to meet with him and other members of the tribunal. One older man, an agroforester, wore black leather shoes, dress pants and a crisp white oxford shirt—noticeable because everything else on the veranda behind the house was lightly powdered with the dry season’s rust-orange dust.
An anti-apartheid activist in his youth, Cullinan is now best known as the author of “Wild Law,” a seminal 2002 book championing the rights of nature that has since made him a leading light in that movement. He is the founder of Cape Town’s oldest environmental law firm and spends most of his time defending the rights of local communities and fighting environmentally destructive projects by invoking conventional environmental protection laws—work that Cullinan calls “pulling babies out of the river,” referring to the story of Moses.
But his real passion—why he is here in Brazil—is “going upstream” to stop “why babies are being thrown into the river in the first place.” For Cullinan, laws around the world are based on a flawed logic that became popular during the Industrial Revolution, perhaps best characterized by Francis Bacon’s late-16th-century notion that nature should be “tortured” or “put on the rack” to reveal her secrets. That logic assumes that human beings are separate from and superior to nature. But modern science disproves that idea. Quantum physics shows that the universe is a singular whole composed of many interconnected parts, and Cullinan often compares humanity to one leaf on a tree of life. Still, legal systems remain mired in thinking like Bacon’s, and that, he says, has led to the world’s growing ecological peril.
By way of introduction to the Xingu villagers gathered on this humid summer night, Natalia Greene, an Ecuadorian environmentalist, explained that the tribunal had come to take testimony and evaluate violations of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, a document adopted during a 2010 people’s conference in Cochabamba, Bolivia, following a disappointing U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen a year earlier.
“We want to raise your voices,” she told the men and women seated around them. Then, for two hours, they listened.
One woman reported an increase in snake sightings and bites in her riverine community after a dam changed the ecology of the river. Another said that chemicals leaching from mine prospecting operations had killed off endemic acai and Brazil nut trees in the forest. The man in the oxford shirt described the nightmare of deforestation.
“My name is Idalino Nunes de Assis,” he said, clutching a pile of documents he had filed with the government to obtain title over the land where he and about 240 other families practice subsistence agro-forestry, integrating trees and shrubs into their farming. His community harvests nuts and fruits and cultivates some crops without damaging the forest, he said. But around these families, loggers and miners and ranchers have encroached on the jungle, even building a runway in a remote area to covertly fly supplies in and take the riches of the forest out.
“We want land title so we can protect the forest—we want the ranchers and loggers removed,” Nunes said in a low, quiet voice. “I don’t call what they do progress, I call it social and environmental crimes.”
As Cullinan listened to people talk of harms suffered in small communities and villages, he heard them describing global forces. It wasn’t just Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s right-wing president, making it easier for illegal miners, loggers and poachers to operate in the jungle by scaling back the enforcement of environmental protection laws. There were even larger forces at play. Megadams and mines had been pushed through and supported by politicians across the political spectrum in Brazil. And national and international legal systems were not just allowing the erosion of the Amazon to happen—they were facilitating it.
“I became a rights of nature activist and a judge with the tribunal because I realized that we cannot solve the problems that we face with environmental law, because the legal systems as a whole are part of the problem,” he told the group. Those systems view the forest as a collection of natural resources for human exploitation. “That is not the perspective of this tribunal,” he said.
I listened closely to Cullinan and marveled at the way he was able to keep a foot in such different legal worlds. I had spent 12 years practicing law before walking away from my career to become a journalist covering climate change, and now I found myself questioning fundamental aspects of my education. I’d been trained as a lawyer to see “natural resources” as objects under the law, and here was another lawyer—an eminent practitioner of environmental law—telling this assemblage of villagers from the Amazon that what I’d been taught was part of the problem, and it was clear that they agreed with him. If the training ingrained in me had driven the planet into ecological crisis, I asked myself, were Cullinan and these communities pointing to a way out?
Going ‘Upstream,’ Down the Xingu
Speeding down the Xingu River in a motorized canoe the next morning, Cullinan pulled out his cellphone to take photographs of dead tree branches reaching skyward out of the water, as if making a last grasp at life. Beyond the banks of the river, the living jungle, a thick layer of green, blanketed the rolling hills.
On the first full day of the trip, the judges were headed to a riverside community devastated by Belo Monte, the world’s third-largest hydroelectric dam. In a three-decade fight, local communities vehemently opposed its construction, to no avail: it was completed in 2016.
This portion of the river is known as the Volta Grande, once a gushing zone of white water rich in fish and other wildlife. Today, the Volta Grande more closely resembles a lake.
This community of fishermen and women dates back generations. They understood the river’s cycles and knew that the water rose and fell with the seasons—the high-water season coincided with the ripening of fruit like guavas and figs in the forest. The plump, sweet fruit would drop into the water, nourishing spawning fish, turtles and other aquatic life. But when Norte Energia built the dam, that cycle stopped, leaving most of Volta Grande in a permanent state of flooding. At least a quarter of the river’s aquatic life has declined or disappeared.
Fishermen who had caught hundreds of pounds of fish per week now catch so few that they can’t cover the costs of fuel. “We had been a fishing community, but today there are no more fish,” said a young man in flip-flops and an unzipped blue life jacket who welcomed the judges to a village on the riverbank. “Today, the river has no life and we have no life.”
As Cullinan listened to him and six others, four men and two women, his thoughts toggled back and forth between the two legal worlds he inhabits. Damming the river had killed off the fish and hurt these people who were part of the river’s life cycle. He wondered whether the government and Norte Energia, the power company behind the dam, had done anything to help this and other affected villages.
“In most places, if the government forces you to move and you lose your living, they have to compensate you so you can make the same living. Was that promised here?” he asked.
“They just came in and ran over us,” an older man in a ball cap, shorts and a blue collared shirt said. There were 121 families in the original settlement, but many of them have been split up and relocated, some to concrete homes in Altamira’s city center, miles from the river.
“Give me a car, and I don’t know how to drive,” the man said. He had a slight tremor down his right side. “But give me an oar, and I can make a living.”
Felicio Pontes Jr., a Brazilian federal prosecutor and tribunal member, leaned against a tree as he listened. He had been to the village before and knew the history of Belo Monte all too well. The process of destruction started with Belo Monte, he thought to himself, but the worst might be yet to come.
That Night, a Diagram on the Whiteboard: Divide and Conquer
Pontes was a law professor at the University of the Amazon in Belém before he joined Brazil’s federal Public Ministry as a prosecutor in 1997.
He filed 15 lawsuits against Belo Monte’s operator, Eletronorte, for irregularities and illegalities in the dam’s licensing and development, including a suit based on violations of nature’s rights. The judge, not ready to embrace that kind of upstream thinking, had tossed the suit, saying he didn’t understand the concept. Pontes tried other legal theories based on studies showing that the dam’s power generation capacity would, at most, reach one-third of what the company claimed.
“Now, the Canadian mining company Belo Sun wants to open the largest open-pit gold mine in Brazil here,” he said, standing in front of a whiteboard that evening at the country house in Altamira. He had drawn an S-shaped diagram of the Xingu River and then sketched in the site proposed for development. “That mine will pull even more water out of the river,” he said.
At one point, the owner of the house, a Xingu activist named Antônia Melo da Silva, stood up and explained how the mine had divided communities in the area by promising payments to those who sign on to the project.
“Worse,” she said, her voice reaching a crescendo, “last month, a young man who opposed the mine disappeared and hasn’t been found. We don’t know who this company is. They never show their faces.”
Divide and conquer, Cullinan thought to himself. He has seen companies use the same tactic many times in his decades of legal practice. When they can split communities by offering funds or other benefits to some, resistance to the project becomes subsumed by infighting. One of the other judges, Maial Paiakan Kaiapó, echoed his thoughts. Paiakan, a leader of the Kayapó-Mẽbêngôkre and the first lawyer from her people, emphasized that traditional communities needed to band together to stand a chance at maintaining their cultures and protecting the forest, which are one and the same.
Pontes explained the close relations between all levels of government and industry in Brazil. At the federal level, he said, pending legislation would allow commercial mining and other industrial projects in Indigenous territories. Another bill would allow a sort of “self-licensing” for development projects that opponents claim could multiply tragedies like the bursting of mine tailings dams in Mariana and Brumadinho, which killed over 150 people. Those disasters loom large for the people of Xingu, who would be living with a similar tailings dam filled with toxic waste if the gold mine is built.
As Greene listened, she thought about how a rights of nature law could elevate the rights of living communities—people and ecosystems—so that they had a more equal shot against the economic interests behind the mine, which was proceeding for one reason, to make money.
Pontes, after a long career as a prosecutor, understood the connection between people living in the forest and the well-being of nature: Today in Brazil, the most preserved forest lies on Indigenous land, with less than 1 percent stripped of its forests, compared with 20.6 percent on private land.
“The rights of nature need to be connected to the rights of the traditional communities who defend it,” Pontes said.
Cullinan at Dawn, Sifting Evidence
Early the next morning, Cullinan, as usual, was the first to awake. Moving past Pontes, asleep in a hammock, he turned down a dirt road that led farther into the countryside. In the early morning air, his head felt clear, and he was happy to have a moment to process the previous day’s events.
Patches of jungle flourished on one side of the road despite being cut back by loggers and ranchers. In the distance, a group of howler monkeys were making their morning whooping barks. Cullinan, in sandals, moved closer to the sound. Peering into the forest in an effort to spot the primates, he saw a trio of woodpeckers instead and stared up at the treetops for minutes watching the birds climb up and down.
While Cullinan has always been enamored with the natural world, it was an encounter with the writings of the Catholic priest and cultural historian Thomas Berry that ignited his understanding that nature possesses inherent rights to exist and regenerate.
Berry, a native of Greensboro, North Carolina, taught that humans are interconnected with all forms of life on Earth and that the universe is “a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” It was a radically different perspective of the world and, for Cullinan, an entry point for articulating Berry’s ideas within the realm of the law.
The deeper Cullinan went into Berry’s work, the more he realized that science backed up the ideas. Albert Einstein, for one, had written that human beings are “part of the whole called by us universe” but experience a “delusion” of separateness from other beings.
At 40, Cullinan, by then a well-known environmental lawyer, published “Wild Law.” A crucial work on the rights of nature, the book, with a foreword by Berry, expounds on a concept that Cullinan calls Earth Jurisprudence—a legal philosophy that requires that human-made laws be aligned with the laws of nature, like physics. Recognizing the rights of nature, Cullinan wrote, is a step toward achieving Earth Jurisprudence and Berry’s broader vision of humans living in harmony with nature.
His work and Berry’s are heavily influenced by the worldviews and teachings of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities around the world. Cullinan is quick to point out that when he speaks about his work, he often issues a disclaimer that the ideas he promotes don’t belong to him or anyone else.
He compares his journey with the rights of nature to his experience as a white male born in South Africa under apartheid. He had to go through a process of unlearning beliefs and values that permeated his culture. So now, Cullinan is gentle when introducing the rights of nature to new audiences, knowing it isn’t something that most people can easily wrap their heads around. The entry point, he says, is realizing that there are other ways of looking at the world.
In 2006, just four years after “Wild Law” was published, a group of American lawyers took the ideas and crafted the first on-the-books rights of nature law, written into a rural Pennsylvania town’s municipal code. From there, the movement snowballed, culminating in Ecuador’s 2008 recognition of nature’s rights in its constitution. Today, at least 37 countries and numerous U.S. municipalities recognize the rights of nature in some form.
In 2010, Cullinan played a leading role in the Bolivian initiative to draft the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, a charter similar to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That year, Cullinan, the Ecuadorian activist Greene and others founded the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature to unite organizations and individuals working on defending the rights of nature. The alliance embodies Cullinan’s own theory of change, which holds that systematic shifts happen when activists are able to form strong bonds across a wide range of communities and cultures—“like veins in a body,” he says.
The alliance created the International Rights of Nature Tribunal out of concerns that today’s national and international legal systems are not protecting the natural world. It has taken on the most difficult cases, from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the environmental devastation wrought by Ecuador’s Lago Agrio oil field to the climate change crisis.
Now, Cullinan reached a turn in the dirt path and heard the sound of a nearby motorbike, which gradually grew louder. Suddenly, the moment felt tense. It was a reminder that the tribunal’s work isn’t exactly embraced by some groups, especially in Altamira, a city best known for gang violence and for being “mining friendly.” He turned back.
To Marabá, Via Anapu, a Murder Scene
Later that morning, Cullinan and his colleagues packed up their belongings and piled into a 30-person bus that Greene had hired for the trip to Marabá, a steel town about 300 miles southeast of Altamira. Along the way, the tribunal planned to stop in the town of Anapu, known for illegal deforestation and violent land conflicts.
To get to Anapu, the bus pulled onto the Trans-Amazonian highway, a two-lane road bisecting the rainforest from east to west. Built during the country’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship, the highway was designed to spur exploitation of the forest.
The dictatorship institutionalized a policy called “Operation Amazonia” to colonize the Amazon, with the motto that the region was “land without men for men without land.” It was a lie, given the long presence of hundreds of Indigenous peoples.
Still, the idea attracted migrants from the south and northeast of the country who were looking for land upon which to build a better life. Similar to the U.S. Homestead Act, the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform, known by the acronym INCRA, was created to help settle the landless migrants. The agency created settlements along the highway where migrants were encouraged to clear the forest. The process, like U.S. expansionist policies, raised a question: If land was being forcibly taken from its Indigenous occupants but was being done based on a law written by the government doing the taking, did that make it legal? Or moral?
With the junta unable to meet the demand for accessible land, the region saw an explosion of violent conflicts. By the mid-1970s, the dictatorship’s policies pivoted to promoting large-scale farming and industrial projects like mining, leading to the consolidation of land ownership in the hands of wealthy families and companies. Today, competing claims over land, and related violence, permeates much of the Brazilian Amazon. In Pará state, where the judges were traveling, fake land deeds are so numerous that the property they cover amounts to over four times the actual area of the state.
As the tribunal’s bus barreled down a dirt portion of the highway, the judges had a front-seat view of the consequences of Operation Amazonia. On either side of the highway, rolling pasture land dotted with white cattle had long since displaced the jungle. Sitting in the front seat next to the driver, Pontes felt a pang of grief running from his stomach to the back of his throat. The bus was close to Anapu, where in 2005 two hitmen acting on the orders of a powerful rancher gunned down one of Pontes’ close friends and colleagues, Sister Dorothy Stang, an American nun from Dayton, Ohio. Stang’s work with migrants trying to live sustainably in the rainforest and to even regenerate parts that have been exploited would form the basis for much of the remainder of the tribunal’s visit—and profoundly affect Cullinan’s thinking.
As a young federal prosecutor, Pontes had worked closely with Stang to create one of the federal agrarian reform institute’s first “sustainable development” settlements. The idea was to give selected migrants communal ownership over land to reforest and sustainably farm or agroforest.
Stang arrived in Brazil in the 1960s, just as liberation theology—a Catholic movement centered on improving the lives of the poor—was spreading across Latin America. She challenged the military by advocating for the poor and the environment, which she saw as interrelated and up against the same destructive forces. Stang was looking to go upstream, just as Cullinan was, to help protect those protecting the rainforest.
Her advocacy eventually cost her her life when, at the age of 73, she was shot six times in her stomach, back and head on her way to a meeting with rural villagers. Aside from the gunman, Pontes had been the last person Stang spoke with. Her story was captured in the 2008 documentary “They Killed Sister Dorothy.” In one scene, a young Pontes remembers how Stang would come into his office, open a map, show him where illegal ranchers had poached her villagers’ land and demand that they be removed.
Now in Anapu once more, Pontes led the tribunal down a dirt road toward a gathering for the annual memorial honoring the nun’s legacy. A group of young people playing musical instruments greeted them on a pathway leading to two large open-air pavilions that had been set up for lunch, and food was being prepared.
Two of Stang’s colleagues from the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a Catholic institute formed to help the poor, were waiting with four local men. Sister Jane Dwyer, 82, was born in Brighton, Massachusetts, participated in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” march on Washington in 1963—the day she became a Notre Dame de Namur nun—and has been working with the poor in Brazil since 1972. Sister Kathryn “Katy” Webster, 70, joined the order in Ilchester, Maryland, in 1979 and moved to Brazil in 1984. She came to Pará state to work with Stang in 1997 and has been here ever since.
The four local men asked that neither their names nor any photographs of them be used, out of concern for their safety. One of them described the community: Seventy-three families, or about 600 people, live in his “sustainable development settlement,” where they grow cocoa, rice, corn and cassava and have a few dairy cows. About 50 percent of their land is untouched forest. But the community’s established settlement hasn’t deterred the previous illegal owner of the land from aggressively threatening the families living there.
“We have had four houses and a flower production unit burned,” the man said. “Ten gunmen with shotguns threatened some of the families with children. Some families were forced to leave because the men were firing gunshots into the air. No one has been arrested.”
Cullinan had heard about the violence over land conflicts here in the Amazon, but sitting across from these men as they talked deepened his understanding. He saw the grief in their eyes, and sensed something that felt like defiance.
Cullinan asked the man if his community had legal rights to the land.
“Yes, but the ranchers are against us. Our settlement is continually invaded,” he said, explaining that his community won collective title to the land through a federal lawsuit.
“Institutions like IBAMA and INCRA have abandoned us, but the nuns help us,” he said, referring to Brazil’s environmental protection agency, the Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, and the federal agrarian reform institute.
Pontes said that 19 people had been murdered in the area between 2015 and 2019, and two more recently, all over land conflicts. “Not one has been investigated, not one brought to justice,” he said.
Another local man said that people who resist the ranchers and loggers have had their ears and tongues cut off. “An effort to discipline the population,” he said. “A boy who lived with his mother was killed on Mother’s Day.”
“That’s the cruelty involved here,” Sister Dwyer said. “They also try to destroy memories. They cut down the trees Sister Dorothy planted in front of her house. They paint over things to erase her memory and make her work invisible. But people have a way of keeping her memory alive.”
“Look at the young people,” Sister Webster said, glancing back at the pavilions. “They were born after Dorothy was killed, but her story resonates with them.”
In Marabá, After Gut-Wrenching Testimony, a Bond
In Marabá, waiting for a news conference to begin the next morning, Cullinan met Ana Carolina Alfinito, a Brazilian lawyer and tribunal judge who was joining the trip in progress and had just arrived. It did not take long for the two Western-educated lawyers to fall into conversation about Indigenous land rights that challenge the interests of big industry.
“All land here is virtually Indigenous land,” said Carolina, a tall, thin woman with short brown hair and an encyclopedic knowledge of Brazilian history. She now works for the nonprofit Amazon Watch, devoted to protecting the rainforest and Indigenous people’s rights, and has spent years working on land rights in the Amazon.
“There is a latency: if you look hard, you’ll find the memory of Indigenous people on all land in Brazil, traces of their footprints on it,” Carolina said.
She explained that the country’s 1988 constitution recognizes Indigenous peoples’ rights to occupy their “traditional territories,” a novel legal category that is now the subject of litigation pending before Brazil’s Constitutional Court.
Ranchers, right-wing politicians and other industry players argue that the date the constitution took effect, October 5, 1988, marks a cutoff: If Indigenous people did not physically occupy their territory at the time the constitution was enacted or did not have legal proceedings underway to claim rights to it, they assert, the land cannot be considered their “traditional territory.”
But that view, Carolina told Cullinan, ignores that Indigenous people already had rights to their land before 1988, as well as the long and bloody history of forcible removal, killings and other inhumane treatment used to drive Indigenous peoples away from their territories. “The Indigenous movement and lawyers speak about territoriality to say there is something on those lands that shows its importance to Indigenous life,” she said. “Indigenous groups say things like ‘we remember this exact river and how we used it.’ That’s a threat to industries like agribusiness.”
Cullinan nodded his head. “The Western approach sees land as an object, but the Indigenous perspective is relational,” he said. “It’s not important where the demarcation peg is, it is what the relationship with the Earth is. Even when Indigenous people are disconnected from the land, their relationship with it persists.”
Carolina was nodding in agreement. “You can’t get rid of virtuality,” she said. “The wound is still there, underneath it all.”
After the news conference, which started an hour late, an auditorium at the university filled up with leaders from the states of Pará and Maranhão who had come to testify. They represented Indigenous peoples, migrant villages and the Quilombolo communities, made up of the descendants of escaped slaves.
For the judges, their testimony was gut-wrenching: emotional accounts of targeted killings and environmental devastation related to steel plants, railroads and hydroelectric dams.
When they finished their stories, Cullinan sensed a connection and wanted the men and women he had spoken to understand that the tribunal’s members, like them, saw the world differently than the mainstream culture does.
“When I was studying law,” he said, “we were told that all we needed to know was in the law library. It was the laws, it was the cases, it was what academics had written about the laws and the cases.”
“Nobody ever mentioned the laws of nature,” Cullinan said. “In other words, the understanding was that the law all came from human beings, and you didn’t need to know anything about how nature works…But what I have learned from the Indigenous people all over the world is that the first law comes from nature.”
Cullinan’s formidable skills as an orator, honed as a lawyer and activist, were evident, foreshadowing what would come in six days during his closing remarks at the Pan-Amazon Social Forum in Belém.
“The legal systems we have in most countries are based on the understanding that humans are separate from nature, are superior to nature and in a way are colonizers of nature,” Cullinan said. “Our task is to change that perception.”
When he finished, the auditorium erupted in applause. It was a momentary high, fueled by a newly formed bond. But ahead were hellish depths.
To the Vale Mine, ‘Where the Problem Begins’
The scale of the Carajás iron ore mine is so enormous, its chasms so deeply carved into the Earth that it is almost inconceivable that humans created it.
Owned and operated by the Brazilian mining giant Vale, the mine sits in the center of a protected forest, appearing in aerial photographs like a giant wart on a blanket of green.
To arrange for a visit to the mine, the tribunal had to agree to hire two local guides associated with the Carajás Forest, a protected area with borders enforced by armed guards. At the gates of the park, the two guides hopped onto the bus before the group chugged up a serpentine-like hill cut through thick jungle.
“You’re in the Carajás Forest now,” one of the guides said. “It is a conservation area where Vale has the right to mine in a sustainable way.”
The bus wound its way through Vale’s company town, built to house its workers and their families. Nicknamed “Brazilian Belgium” by locals, the town features perfectly paved streets and cookie-cutter houses. The center of town, which the guide calls the “nucleus,” has a large open-air dining hall and a swimming pool, tennis courts and other leisure activities.
The bus rumbled along for another 15 miles through the jungle, until the greenery suddenly gave way to raw red earth—the color of soil rich in iron and aluminum oxides. It stopped at a lookout point above one of the mine’s five major pits. The gash was so vast that the judges could only see part of it.
“It looks like Mordor,” Cullinan whispered to himself, climbing off the bus and thinking of J.R.R. Tolkien’s realm for the evil Sauron. He walked up to the chain string separating onlookers from the mine and stared down at the rows of excavated earth. He reflected on the iron ore taken out of the mine and what society does with those minerals, creating steel to build bridges, buildings and machines. And then he thought to himself, I am responsible for this.
He walked a few steps and huddled with Pontes and Green.
“This is one of the main places where the problem begins,” Pontes said. “From here, we see a lot of other problems like deforestation and the violation of human rights and of nature’s rights. All those violations emanate from this place. This is the origin.”
“So, what are the other things that are causing problems?” Cullinan asked. “The railway line, and then the cities and then people coming in because of the mine?”
“This is a mine for exportation,” Pontes said. “This is a mine that people say built the new Beijing. Some could say that the only impact from this mine is here where the mine is. But that’s not true because they have to send these minerals to the port, and the port is hundreds of kilometers from here.”
The Carajás Railroad that connects Vale’s mines in Pará to the port in the neighboring state of Maranhão is about 550 miles long. The tracks cut through more than 100 communities.
Pontes noted that the mine has helped to accelerate deforestation. “Do you remember the first plant we saw when we were leaving Marabá?” he asked. “That plant needs charcoal to transform the iron ore into pig iron. So, all the forests around Marabá need to be cut down to make charcoal for use in these types of plants.”
“Ahh, now that makes sense to me,” Cullinan said, scratching his beard and adding, “It seems to me that there’s also a political impact of having such a powerful mining company here?”
“In Brazil, we have a very strong relationship between economic power and political power,” Pontes said.
“And we’ve heard,” Cullinan said, “that the mining interests have an alliance with the farming interests, is that right?”
“So let’s back up,” Pontes said. “I think the most important cause of deforestation in the Amazon is the highway. Because if you don’t have a highway, it’s very difficult to get to remote areas. Now, this area has become very favorable to people raising cattle because they can easily transport their cattle to meatpacking plants.
“For the mining company, it’s good not to have traditional people in their area and having cattle ranchers there keeps traditional people and the poor out. The ranchers aren’t impacted by the mining company, they can work together.”
One of the guides yelled out that it was time to leave. Amid the shuffle back onto the bus, Cullinan asked if they would be allowed to go into the forest. “I still haven’t seen our client,” he said plaintively.
Someone translated his request to one of the guides.
“The forest is closed today,” the guide responded.
Speeding Through the Night, a Reckoning
As the bus winded back through the forest, Cullinan and Greene wrestled with the idea that mining in some form will continue to benefit humans.
“I don’t have an answer to that,” Cullinan said, shaking his head, adding that it’s something he thought about before. “To be honest, I don’t think mining can be sustainable.”
Humans have mined for thousands of years, he noted, but the scale at which humanity is pursuing it now is problematic. He mentioned “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man,” a book written by a former World Bank economist who recounted how he was ordered to rewrite economic analyses until the numbers worked to justify extraction projects in developing countries. The goal was to convince them that extractive projects would enrich them. Instead, the projects left those countries beholden to international donors, Cullinan said.
“If the only way to mine iron ore is to devastate the forest, it shouldn’t be done,” he said. “I think Indigenous people who have such a close relationship to land will be opposed to all mining. It’s hard for people like you and me who weren’t brought up with that understanding to comprehend that.”
He paused in thought.
“I think mining probably is one of the hardest problems that we have to solve,” he said. Before arriving in Brazil, he had been reading reports about the destruction of cities in Ukraine by the Russian military. He now thought that Indigenous peoples’ view of destruction of the Amazon might parallel the way some Westerners feel about the shelling of Ukrainian cities—both were obliterating life and culture.
Cullinan acknowledged that humanity would continue mining in some form for a long time. But he deplored the way most countries made decisions about how and where that mining takes place. Those decisions, he said, produce “sacrifice zones” where the people who benefit from the mining aren’t the people sacrificed.
Greene nodded. “We have already taken so much from the Earth; how do we recycle it?” she said. “We’ve already extracted about 80 percent of the Earth’s gold. Much of that is in bars inside of banks. Why do we keep taking more out? The reserves are already there. It’s absurd—it doesn’t make sense, causing all of this destruction.”
“Felicio said that modern Beijing came out of that hole,” Cullinan said. “It’s quite a thought, isn’t it—how interconnected the whole globe is?”
His question hung in the air as the bus sped through the night toward the town of Canaã dos Carajás, another battleground.
A Community’s Challenge, and an Epiphany for Visitors
The next morning, Blanca Chancosa, an Indigenous leader and tribunal judge from Ecuador, came face to face with anguish. In a community where 150 families from across Brazil have grown fruit and planted trees for seven years, a legal battle was raging.
About 50 villagers had gathered to meet with members of the tribunal in the hot midday sun in an area shaded by trees filled with wild parrots. Nearby, across a dirt road, were rows of fruit trees on what had once been ranch land. The villagers applied for communal title under federal law so they could continue to reforest and to plant cassava, papaya, guaba and other crops on what they say is public land. But Vale, wanting to expand its vast mine here, purchased deeds from nearby ranchers and farmers—deeds that the villagers claimed were forged—and was moving to evict the community.
“Vale never showed us proof they owned the land, they just claim they do,” a woman in a pink ball cap said, extending both of her arms outward with her palms up toward the sky.
Chancosa, 61, fought a similar battle back home in Ecuador. Founder of the Confederation of Peoples of Kichwa Nationality, Chancosa once called the president of Ecuador a “puppet” of the World Bank as part of a political struggle that included her defense of Indigenous land rights. She was familiar with the feeling that the law seemed to have two tracks, one for powerful companies and one for everyone else. And here in Brazil’s Pará state, she empathized with these villagers who had followed the correct INCRA processes only to have Vale pull the rug out from under them by suing to evict them in civil court rather than working through the land reform agency.
“Everything you see here is our own effort,” said a man in a brown cowboy hat with long white hair. “The big companies export. We don’t. We support ourselves and sell to other communities. We’ve had no support from the government. Vale wants to pay us to shut up. But this will be just a big hole if Vale wins.”
Chancosa listened, then rose to speak. “It’s very emotional hearing these stories, but you give me a lot of hope,” she said. “Protecting nature is defending life. The Earth gives us life. I’m part of a movement called the ‘Living Forest.’ Protecting the forest is defending ourselves.”
She paused. “Now. You can have money, or you can have land to grow and cultivate,” she said.
Another pause. “Do not accept the money alone,” she said, before sitting down.
During a lunch break, Chancosa, Cullinan and the other judges gathered and shared their thoughts. “That’s what mining companies do,” Chancosa said. “They divide communities, divide families. It’s a major threat—I hope this community can resist.”
Cullinan remarked: “When I hear people saying, ‘We’ve invested in this place and we live here and that’s why we have the strongest claim,’ I think that’s true. But the main legal system doesn’t recognize that.”
“Companies only care about the needs of the company,” Chancosa said. “This is very important because land isn’t elastic, land doesn’t grow more land. That’s why it needs to be defended, for the people and for their children and the children who will come after them.”
Chancosa, Cullinan and the other judges had now visited four communities that were attempting to reforest the Amazon to some degree. Their regenerative work impressed Cullinan, triggering an idea. Would it be possible to restore the forest, and what would that take? The next day, he and the other judges would find out.
Outside of Marabá, a Defiant Community
On the edge of the forest, Chief Katia Silene Valdenilson sat in a listening circle late in the morning with the judges and told the story of her people, the Akrãtikatêjê. About 30 yards away from the open-air pavilion, small controlled fires burned through brush on the ground, and the smoke occasionally wafted through the group.
The struggle began in the late 1960s when the Brazilian dictatorship’s development plan targeted the Tucuruí River, which ran through the Akrãtikatêjê’s 17,300 acres of mountainous territory, a “land of plenty,” said Silene, 54. She was wearing Western slacks and a blouse with traditional face paint.
Then, one night, Silene recalled, she and her family were thrown onto a truck and forcibly removed to make way for what would become Eletronorte’s Tucuruí hydroelectric plant, a project designed to provide energy to the new industrial mines in the Carajás corridor.
The Akrãtikatêjê and two other peoples were moved and consolidated onto a 15,000-acre reserve called Mãe Maria, or “Mother Mary,” Indigenous land. At the time, and until Brazil adopted its post-dictatorship constitution in 1988, the law treated the Akrãtikatêjê and other Indigenous people as wards of the state, similar to minors. Separated from their land, the Akrãtikatêjê had to beg for food in Marabá, which made them sick because they weren’t used to processed food.
American missionaries placed the children, including Silene, in Western schools, forcing them to take Western names and forbidding them from speaking their native language. (Today, Silene is known as Chief Katia, though her given name is Tônkyré Akrãtikatêjê).
Then, in the early 1980s, without consultation with the three communities, the Carajás Railroad was built through the Mãe Maria land. Silene’s father, Payaré, then chief of Akrãtikatêjê, defiantly moved his family back to their traditional village. He was violently assaulted, she said, and forced from his people’s land a second time. She gestured toward a portrait hanging on a beam of the pavilion. “This is my father, Payaré, he had a dream to fight for our land,” Silene said with emotion behind her eyes.
In 1989, with the help of Indigenous rights groups, Payaré filed what would become a decades-long lawsuit against the dam’s operator, Eletronorte. In 2008, a federal court ordered Electronorte to compensate the Akrãtikatêjê with land comparable to what had been taken from them. It took the company 10 more years to do so—long enough that Payaré never saw the 9,000 acres of ranch land near the Mãe Maria reservation that would be deeded to the Akrãtikatêjê in 2019. He died in 2014.
“We are reforesting that land, that is how we are healing the Earth,” Silene said. “It will be for future generations. They destroyed the land and gave it to us and told us to use it for cattle. They provided us with incentives to farm like that. But we want to do the opposite. We want to reforest. I won’t be able to see the forest, but perhaps my grandchildren will.”
In rehabilitating the ranch land, the Akrãtikatêjê planted 600 seedlings of native Brazil nut and acai trees. Its members are working with nonprofit and university partners on an artisanal well and fish hatcheries. Healing the land is a means for them to recover its autonomy, Silene said.
When she had finished, Cullinan told her that seeing her people’s care for the Amazon was like a tonic for the tribunal after days of seeing endless environmental damage. Then he raised his hand to signal that something was on his mind.
“My question is about how you experience the forest as a living being,” he said. “I have come across other cultures who see the forest as having a consciousness that can communicate to people. Do you have that understanding, too?”
Silene said nature was a being that her people are able to understand and that understands her people.
“It’s like a vein that runs through our body,” she said. “When a tree is cut down we feel it. The tree is shouting for help. We see through the songs of the bird and we can see the imbalance in nature now.”
Chancosa raised her hand to speak, locking eyes with Silene. “Your story is the story of my people,” she said. “It’s the same suffering and it’s still happening with Indigenous people all over the world. The government thinks it has the right to decide over our land.”
Silene nodded back at her.
“I’m really happy to hear what you say,” Chancosa said. “Your power, your strength, you don’t accept what’s happening. We are the workers and we need to defend the Earth. We’re the reason why the forest is still living, because we protect it. My question is, how many families live here, and what dangers do they face?”
The first part was easy for her to answer: “Twenty-three families and 87 people total,” Silene said.
Describing the dangers was much more complicated. In addition to the Carajás railroad, a major highway and the Tucuruí hydroelectric plant’s power lines now bisect their land, Mãe Maria, she said.
Vale has plans to build a second railroad through their land, and the city sprawl of Marabá is now near them, she said. The three communities on Mãe Maria recently fought off the installation of a sewage treatment plant in their backyard.
Silene described how her people were forced out of self-sufficiency and into reliance on Western systems like the use of money and the “white man’s supermarket.” That forced change has had lasting consequences, she said, making it easier for companies to get communities to sign off on polluting projects in exchange for payment. But her people, she said, are fighting to hold onto and revive aspects of their culture.
“It’s not for me,” she said, looking directly at Chancosa. “I’m opening the way for the next generation. Women have double power not only because their energy is high, but because they’re also always on the front line to fight for the environment and their families. We have all the power and this is our job, to fight.”
Thorny Issues, Sage Advice and the Verdict in Belém
Later that day, back in Marabá, they gathered to start their deliberations.
“What do you guys think,” Greene asked from behind a silver laptop. “Should we treat Indigenous settlements and migrant settlements differently?”
There was no easy answer.
They needed to make sense of what they had witnessed and start crafting the bones of the preliminary judgment they were scheduled to deliver in two days at the Pan-Amazon conference in Belém. Pontes, who had a family obligation, had left and would meet up with them there.
Already, several key issues were crystallizing, with land rights the thorniest. Theoretically, all Amazonian land belonged to Indigenous people. But today the ground reality was that migrants, some second- or third-generation, called the Amazon their home. And similar to Indigenous peoples, those migrants cultivated an intimate relationship with the Earth and viewed themselves as her guardians.
Greene framed the issue: “The Indigenous people we visited, that’s not their original land,” she said. “They were removed from their land. And we’ve been in migrant camps where they aren’t Indigenous. But what’s happening to them now is similar. It’s happening to both groups of people.”
Carolina acknowledged the distinctiveness of Indigenous peoples’ struggle but made the case for a unitary judgment: “There are the original, Indigenous people. But many communities also call the Amazon their home. They’re not Indigenous, but they want to preserve their lives in the forest. Together these people can become stronger. The struggle for nature has to be the fight of all these people.”
Chancosa seemed to agree, with a distinction: “Indigenous people have been displaced, and that’s a crime. They were here first. They’re affected from all sides. But now other populations are affected—they’re all groups of an Earth nature.” She called the situation an “ecogenocide,” destroying the diversity of both ecosystems and human cultures.
Cullinan agreed that both groups needed protection, and when the discussion turned to remedies, he spoke passionately about the big idea that had taken root in his mind during the trip: restorative justice.
“In terms of our recommendation, if you look at it from the perspective of Mother Earth, you need to be expanding the Amazon—it’s not just about stopping [the deforestation], it’s about restoring it.”
After an overnight bus ride to Belém, where the conference would take place, the judges had a closed-door strategy session with Ailton Krenak, a renowned Brazilian Indigenous leader and influential author. In 1987, Krenak famously painted his face black in protest while addressing Brazil’s National Congress, and he played a critical role in securing Indigenous rights in the 1988 constitution.
In his 2019 book, “Ideas to Postpone the End of the World,” he wrote that the dominant thinking that humans “stand apart from the great big organism of Earth” is flat wrong. In his writings and speeches, Krenak pushes back forcefully against “city folk” who poke fun at Indigenous ways of thinking. To him, a culture that purposefully carries out widespread environmental destruction isn’t just wrong, it’s psychotic.
His advice: Focus on the big picture of the systemic, coordinated ruination of the Amazon premised on the notion of “progress,” not on land rights involving different groups of aggrieved people.
And so, onstage the following day, with Sisters Dwyer and Webster seated in the front row, each of the judges delivered a portion of the verdict.
Pontes, who spoke about the Xingu region, recommended that the corporate officers and investors in Belo Sun, the Canadian mining company, meet face to face with the people of Xingu “so they know what is being done with their investment dollars.”
Carolina spoke about Carajás, detailing the cascading rights violations emanating from the Vale iron ore mine.
Greene said that if nature had a voice over decision-making in these areas, the Amazon and its people would be more protected: Back home in her country, the constitutional protection of nature’s rights has been used to block a mining project in an ecologically sensitive forest, among other things.
And, Chancosa told the audience, the companies and people destroying the Amazon have duties to repair the forest and all humans have a responsibility to protect the Earth. “The defense of nature is not just for Indigenous people and the poor. It is a responsibility for everyone,” she said.
When his turn came, Cullinan spoke of the diverse communities the tribunal had visited—their images danced across a screen behind the judges—and again returned to the idea that had come to captivate him since his arrival back in Altamira, restorative justice for the Amazon. “Unlike ordinary courts, the tribunal is not about punishing people,” he said. “The justice we seek is restorative justice to restore the health of the damaged relationships between humans and nature.”
Standing behind the lecturn, he assured the crowd, filled with Indigenous and traditional people, that they were right to view nature as a close relative and that the Western legal system was wrong.
“Today no scientist believes that the world is a mechanism, but that false thinking is still in the law,” he said. “The rights of nature is about correcting that delusion.”
The room, once more, erupted in applause.
A Postscript: Sitting With the Sisters
On the last day of the conference I found Dwyer and Webster sitting under the shade of a vendor’s tent watching final presentations on the outdoor stage. It was a hot, sunny afternoon, but about 10 degrees cooler in the shade. Nearby, shoppers rummaged through intricate hand-made beaded jewelry, artwork and hammocks.
Then suddenly a crowd started to gather at the bank of the Guamá River, where a barge the length of a football field chugged downstream with timber piled a story high. People in the crowd booed and snapped photographs.
I asked Dwyer and Webster, who were eating popsicles of local fruit, if I could sit with them. Watching them in Anapu, I was impressed by both their strength and softness. They are literally staring down the barrel of a gun to defend the poor and protect the forest.
I wanted to know what they thought of the tribunal’s presentation.
“I agree with everything they said,” Dwyer said flatly. “But, I’d like to see someone try to tell that to a room full of angry ranchers.”
This year just one logger took down more than 1,000 protected Brazil nut trees in Anapu and faced no penalties for it, she said. She and Webster had witnessed depraved violence and cruelty—all with impunity. Outside of Stang’s killers, not one person has been arrested.
“They can do it and get away with it,” Dwyer said. “Because you’re in an economic system that works on profit and money. And so the value isn’t human life or nature’s life. The value is money.”
When Dwyer finished her popsicle, I asked her if she had seen the barge of timber go by on the river. Out of habit, she answered me in Portuguese, then switched back to English.
“In Anapu, 10 ships like that go by a day,” she said. “When they leave Anapu, the timber is illegal, but by the time it arrives here in Belém, it’s legal.”
Her comments made me think back to a conversation I had with Cullinan on the bus toward the end of the trip.
He told me that his thinking had changed since he arrived in Altamira. Before the trip, he thought deforestation was a consequence of passivity by the government—a sort of unintended consequence of failure to enforce environmental laws. But now he saw the problem as more deliberate. “They want to increase production and want Indigenous and local communities out of the way,” he said. “It is important for us to portray what is happening as systemic. The system is set up for this.”
But it goes beyond Brazil, he said, to the global system of state sovereignty over natural resources. International law, in theory, should protect the Amazon, but those laws are created by states, which are only bound by international laws that they agree to. And even though governments can see that failure to protect the Amazon is a problem for everyone, states have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
“We’re faced with a situation where the international legal order is entirely an inadequate way for dealing with the challenges of the 21st century,” he said. “What the tribunal is doing at some level is challenging that paradigm. We may not have the power, but in the world of ideas we’re saying we need to recognize ecological realities and our interdependence with nature.”