São Luis megaport conflict intensifies

Demolitions of traditional communities’ houses continue amid protests and investigations into the legality of the São Luis project


São Luis port project Brazil

A stone indicating the construction site of the São Luis port (image: Ingrid Barros)

Demonstrators warned police that there was a pregnant woman among them. They stood in front of a queue of diggers, trying to protect their homes against repossession by a private company. But the police pushed through to let the machines pass and soon used pepper spray.

The pregnant woman staggered away from the diggers, her hands over her eyes.

It was August 12. Residents of the Cajueiro community in the Brazilian Amazon were continuing a struggle they have waged since 2014. They are trying to save their houses from a government-authorised plan that will dispossess them – a megaport linking São Luís, in the Amazonian state of Maranhão, to the world’s markets.

The São Luís Port project, headed by China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) and the Brazilian company WPR-São Luís Gestão de Portos e Terminais, and part-financed by a US$2.6 billion loan from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), aims to facilitate the export of Brazilian iron ore and soy.

There are other ports in the region, but this would be the first to be operated by a company from China, the main buyer of Brazilian commodities.

Destruction of a house in the Cajueiro community on August 12 to make way for the São Luis port project
Destruction of a house in the Cajueiro community on August 12 to make way for the São Luis port project (image: Ingrid Barros)


On that August day, 22 tracts of land were repossessed and even more houses destroyed. Today, 34 of the original 250 inhabitants live there. Only seven lots have not yet been repossessed.

Last month, more than 100 Brazilian and international signatories concerned about authorities’ treatment of the community sent a letter in support of Cajueiro residents to Leilani Farha, the UN’s special rapporteur for housing.

The conflict between the police and the community demonstrated the government’s brutal commitment to ensuring that the project go ahead, even as the state and federal prosecution services questioned its legality.

How can the state grant a public deed to the community and then, years later, someone appears claiming to be the owner of the area?

São Luís Port is part of the “Northern Arc” initiative, a recipient of a flurry of public and private investments in ports, railroads, and highways designed to expedite the transit of mining and agricultural products from the Amazon and Cerrado regions.

The project reveals conflicting visions for the Amazon – those who see it as a new frontier for industrial and agricultural development, and those view forest protection as vital.


of the Amazon region's forest cover has already been lost

The Amazon has already lost 18% of its forest cover, while half of the Cerrado savannah’s original vegetation is gone. Preserved areas are often home to indigenous people, quilombola communities of slave descendants, and small rural producers like those defending Cajueiro.

"There used to be community members who had lived there together for decades, who had a good life and helped preserve the forest", explained Ademar Pereira (age 70), one of the villagers who lost his home.

"Now, it is complete sadness."

Investigations and protests

Construction of the port has already deforested an area equivalent to 200 football pitches. In order for the project to progress, it must displace more families from Cajueiro, a community dating back to the mid-nineteenth century.

Houses at the site have been demolished since 2014, some with, others without legal authorisation, as revealed in the investigation Besieged by Progress. Some residents have been threatened to leave by hired gunmen, according to the Pastoral Land Commission.

Criminal activity could underpin much of the venture, as many land purchases and sales are dubious.

Investigations by the Maranhão public prosecutor’s office indicate that a criminal operation has been forging titles for public land in order to enable to work on infrastructure projects in the area surrounding São Luís. In April, prosecutors seized enough computers and documents to fill four pickup trucks.

Carlos Augusto Barbosa, a fisher who lives in one of the communities near Cajueiro fixes a net for fishing crab, which are increasingly scarce in the region (image: Ingrid Barros)
Carlos Augusto Barbosa, a fisher who lives in one of the communities in Cajueiro fixes a net for fishing crab, which are increasingly scarce in the region (image: Ingrid Barros)

The land title scheme appears to be led by a group comprised of companies, deed registry offices, and public servants, according to Haroldo Paiva de Brito, who specialises in agrarian conflicts at the Maranhão state prosecutor’s office.

"How can the state grant a public deed to the community and then, years later, someone appears claiming to be the owner of the area?” he asked.

“From what we have found, private individuals have usurped public land and sold it to companies linked to the port construction project. This can lead to the annulment of the private land deed and project licensing."

No slowing down

According to Ana Carolina Carvalho Dias, a lawyer for the Jesus do Cajueiro Residents Union, land repossession for the port was illegal since it was not determined who owns the land.

Nor were residents given any warning that they would be removed. Dias said they began to be removed on Monday 12, but the court order authorising repossession only arrived the following day.

Taken by surprise, residents soon found themselves and their belongings in the street and with their houses demolished.

"In a democratic state, the parties involved in proceedings should be summoned and informed prior to actions such as these," Dias said. "The repossession was not in line with this process, and treated the residents like squatters."

Days later, as they demonstrated against authorities’ brutality, protesters, residents and former residents of Cajueiro were forcibly pushed back from the Palácio dos Leões, the seat of the local government, by police using rubber bullets and tear gas.

The Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil in Maranhão is investigating the case.

Asked whether the repossession was authorised by the state judiciary, governor Flávio Dino, a member of Brazil’s Communist Party, tweeted: "the military police cannot simply refuse to carry out a court order. There have been several attempts at mediation, which unfortunately were not successful. It is not up to the governor to revoke or suspend a decision by another branch of government".

WPR-São Luís Gestão de Portos e Terminais is offering those removed from the Cajueiro community “a new house, employment, temporary emergency financial assistance, and food assistance", according to a pamphlet distributed by the company. It does not give details, or state how long benefits will be offered.

In a statement, the government of Maranhão says it is investigating allegations of violence against Cajueiro residents and protestors, but didn’t explain why repossessions took place without warning. At the time of publishing, China Communications Construction Company hadn’t responded to requests for an interview. Nor was it possible to make contact with WPR-São Luís Gestão de Portos e Terminais.

Grand Chinese designs

Former president Michel Temer secured ICBC finance for the São Luís Port in September 2017.

Such investments are part of the Chinese government’s policy encouraging domestic companies to expand their business overseas, according to Ariel Armony, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s University Center for International Studies.

As well as encountering resistance locally, Chinese investments in developing infrastructure around the world have been met with opposition on the world stage, with top US officials arguing that China is competing in a new Cold War-style bid for political leadership.

"Although the intent of this policy has been largely economic, Chinese leaders understand that this global expansion has geopolitical ramifications," Armony said.

image: Ingrid Barros
Forest clearing for port infrastructure near the Cajueiro community (image: Ingrid Barros)

On the environmental and social impacts of projects, China has demanded more transparency and respect for local legislation in its Latin American projects, however strict laws may be, Armony said.

However, he noted problems including the violation of indigenous and traditional people’s rights in projects with Chinese involvement in the region:

"There is a dark side of China's expansion in the global South."