Besieged by progress

Painted as ‘anti-development’, communities in Maranhão resist a Chinese port as their rights are trampled
<p>Clóvis Amorim da Silva at the head of part of the port work in the community of Cajueiro, in São Luís (MA). Photo: Ingrid Barros</p>

Clóvis Amorim da Silva at the head of part of the port work in the community of Cajueiro, in São Luís (MA). Photo: Ingrid Barros

São Luís (Maranhão) – The earth trembles in the community of Cajueiro. Heavy machinery advances where there used to be people and dense Amazon jungle. Runoff, red from the soil, flows and buries mangroves and the hopes of those who no longer see the future here – a place that once had very different rhythms and sounds. In São Luís, the capital of north-eastern Brazil’s Maranhão state, the construction of a port to transport grains, fuels and minerals from Brazil to China has been beset by violence against rural populations and suspicions of land grabbing.

China Communications Construction Company and WPR São Luís Port and Terminal Management are building a deep-water port in one of the most coveted regions of the planet. Shipments from here will travel along the Panama Canal, arriving in China faster and a lower cost. Only Rotterdam in Holland has waters as deep as here in the São Marcos Bay, which will accommodate the world’s largest vessels.  

However, the region also has native forests and mangroves, the preservation of which is essential for the reproduction and survival of countless species of fish, crabs and other animals. The northern states of Maranhão, Pará and Amapá are home to 70% of Brazil’s mangroves.

The port is also central to increasing grain production. This part of the Cerrado biome is characterised by smallholders, indigenous people and descendants of slaves (known as quilombolas). Half of the biome has already been eliminated, mainly by agribusiness. Protecting its deep-rooted vegetation is vital to maintaining water sources, fighting climate change and ensuring the survival of these populations.

China Communications Construction Company already operates transport infrastructure connected to the ports of Santos (São Paulo), Paranaguá (Paraná) and Açu (Rio de Janeiro). It is interested in more projects all over Brazil. Again, many are linked to agribusiness. The Chinese state-owned company has an annual turnover of more than US$60 billion and has assets in Africa, Central America, Asia, and the Middle East.

Former President Michel Temer secured a US$700 million loan from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) for the construction of the port. He was arrested in March after being accused by the Federal Public Ministry of leading a corruption scheme that spent US$460 million on bribes.

The São Luís Port project could generate about 5,000 jobs, according to the Maranhão Government’s Secretariat of Social Communication and Political Affairs. The terminal neighbours three other ports, railroads, huge yards to store iron ore and containers, a thermoelectric plant and a highway.

In the middle of all these developments, the Cajueiro community struggles to maintain its way of life. Yet, if they resist, they pay a high price. Since 2014, villagers have reported the destruction of houses and fields, threats and problems fishing and cultivating crops. Armed security guards move through what remains of the village. The area has been devastated by deforestation.

About 2,500 people live in the territory of Cajueiro. At the construction site, the number of residents has fallen from 250 to 50 since works began in March 2018, according to a research group on development, modernity and the environment at Maranhão Federal University.

“We identified irregular links between Brazilian and international capital, the government and the judiciary related with social and environmental crimes, like the destruction of vegetation protected by federal law and mangroves,” said State Congressman Wellington do Curso.

Conflicts grew as private sector pressured inhabitants to leave their lands and homes. In 2017, five people received death threats, three from same family, according to the Pastoral Land Commission, a Catholic Church organisation that has published annual reports on violence in the countryside since 1985, when Brazil ended two decades of a military dictatorship. 

One of those threatened is fisherman Clóvis Amorim da Silva (52).

“We belong to the community, to the region. It is not possible for a company to come in an imposing and coercive way because it has money because it owns the judiciary, the judge and who knows who else,” he said, adding; “We resist [in order] to demonstrate that our rights exist and must be respected. You can’t look only at the rights of big actors. This project has to stop, because of all the social and environmental irregularities.”

Professor Horácio Antunes de Sant’ana Júnior of the Maranhão Federal University was also threatened. He accused private sector actors and state government of disregarding communities’ rights. Pamphlets distributed at his university accused Antunes de Sant’ana Júnior and students of interfering in the construction of the Cajueiro port, which authorities have already granted a license. The authors of the material have not been identified.

Pressure cooker

Sant’ana Júnior was also attacked directly by WPR – São Luís Gestão de Portos e Terminais. The company accused him of acting against the port on behalf of the federal university and demanded an administrative hearing. The institution was threatened with a lawsuit (pictured below) if such “abusive and illegal practices weren’t prevented”.

In the event that the Maranhão Federal University fails to comply with the request in this notification, something not believed to happen, WPR emphasises that it will take appropriate legal action against all involved, either by deliberate action or by irresponsible omission.

The university shrugged off the threats. However, using material it found on social media, WPR accused a public defence lawyer and a state judge of acting with civil entities in defense of the Cajueiro community. The lawyer had received and forwarded residents’ complaints, while the judge followed up on them in state courts. Both were removed from the case.

The Maranhão Court ruled in favour of the private terminal. Judge Lourival Serejo described São Luís as a city with an “obvious port profile”.  This, despite the withdrawal of a request from the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office for public hearings to clarify the ownership of the land on which port works are being carried out. The area is disputed between the traditional community and the companies. 

The Government of Maranhão admitted that it is licensing the port without a clear definition of land tenure. “The State Government points out that the case is pending several trials, (…) in which, among others, the right to possession and ownership of the disputed property is discussed. It is up to the Judicial Branch to decide on the ownership of the property”, the Maranhão Government’s Secretariat of Social Communication and Political Affairs wrote in a letter (see full text in Portuguese).


For the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, no license could be issued without a legal decision about the property. “The formal ownership of the area by traditional residents was not considered during environmental licensing. The invisibility of people’s rights feeds agrarian conflict. This is the most concerning aspect of the licensing,” said Alexandre Soares, a Maranhão state federal prosecutor. 

Marco Antônio Mitidiero Júnior, a researcher at Paraíba Federal University is not surprised by this trampling on rights: “If there is a dispute over unproductive land between a landowner and a peasant collective that wants to produce there, the judiciary always sides with the mindset of landowners and businessmen.”

A land of many owners

Maranhão is no different from the rest of the Amazon, where since the time of the colonial “sesmos” (1500 – 1822), where vast swathes of land were dedicated to agriculture and livestock, multiple land deeds have been allowed to proliferate, enabling opportunists to show documents claiming ownership.

This is in conflict with the “Territory of Egypt” community established by Massinokou Alapong, a slave from today’s Ghana, in Cajueiro in the mid-19th century. The site remains a reference for African religions in Brazil and is protected many descendants of those who escaped the whip of slavery. The sound of drums still occasionally resonates there.

Repairing the fishing net on his balcony, Carlos Augusto Barbosa said that access to the beaches has become more complicated and that fishing has decreased with construction of the port. He arrived in the region in the early 1980s from Guimarães, 200 kilometres away. “Before, we had fish and the beach near us. Over the years, the situation has only gotten worse. Nobody supports us.”

Even with deep roots in the region’s history, its inhabitants are in limbo with many big projects proposed. Brazil’s Suzano, one of the world’s largest pulp and paper producers, already planned to build a port here. Communities were granted reprieve in 1998 when the state government recognised traditional residents’ collective ownership of the territory.


At that time, Maranhão was governed by Roseana Sarney, daughter of former Brazilian president José Sarney. The family has historically wielded power and influence in state and federal politics. Roseana Sarney was elected governor in 1994 and 1998, taking office again in 2009 to replace ousted governor Jackson Lago. One year later, she was re-elected, but resigned in late 2014, citing health problems.

The term ended in the hands of the president of the state’s Legislative Assembly, state deputy Antônio Arnaldo Alves de Melo since the vice-governor had also resigned. On New Year’s Eve, Melo published a decree disposing inhabitants of Cajueiro from land and granting the first license for the private port. Almost 20 houses in the community were demolished by mercenaries at the time.

One of the first actions by the next governor of Maranhão, Flávio Dino, was to revoke the expropriation of Cajueiro. His government tried to balance the already evident conflicts between the community and businessmen, and the need for more studies on the socio-environmental impacts of the port.

In early 2015, government representatives listened to residents and participated in community meetings. In May the following year, Dino assured Deborah Duprat, at that time deputy attorney general, that he would seek solutions to the conflict. The promises did not materialise.

“The Maranhão government has become complicit in all the irregularities and crimes committed in Cajueiro and shares responsibility for all the environmental and social disasters that the project has already caused and continues to cause,” said Horácio Sant’ana Júnior.

Despite the collective ownership granted to residents in 1998, the land where the port is built was acquired by WPR – São Luís Port and Terminal Management  in 2014 in negotiation with BC3 HUB Multimodal Industrial. The company belongs to Helcimar Araújo Belém Filho, a lawyer and vice president of operational development of the Board of Directors of the Maranhão Regional Accounting Council, and Carlos César Cunha, owner of Club CB450, a popular venue in Vila Embratel, on the outskirts of São Luís. Their names are linked to companies authorised to buy and sell land, operate ports, mine, generate energy and trade in timber.

Almost a decade ago, Belém Filho hired consultants from Brazil, Switzerland and the UK, who devised the Atlântico Ecuatorial project. A company of the same name was then registered in Nova Lima (Minas Gerais state) by Belém Filho and Willer Hudson Pos, former president of the Minas Gerais Environmental Foundation. Pos was also director of the State Institute of Water Management and was part of the British conglomerate Anglo American, one of the largest mining groups in the world. 

Under the plans, an area equivalent to 1,200 football pitches in the Cajueiro region will give way to container yards, terminals for trucks and trains, and a port. The project will also promote iron extraction in Tocantins state. The project promises “The best business opportunity with a high return on investment”. After contacting Belém Filho for an interview about the port project in Cajueiro, he stopped responding to requests.

César Cunha’s name appears in other conflicts involving land in Maranhão’s capital, in various legal proceedings and even in reports from port operators in the region. One community involved is Camboa dos Frades, near Cajueiro and next to a thermoelectric plant that supplies energy to a substantial part of Maranhão.

“He came saying that he was the landowner, that he would pay for our goods. Many people sold and left, but they haven’t yet been paid yet. We can’t install power, open a road or a small farm. There’s no one to ask for help, only closed doors,” said Maria do Ramo Coelho Santos, a former president of the Camboa dos Frades Residents’ Association.

According to a research paper published by Maranhão Federal University, the first residents arrived in Camboa dos Frades around 1920. According to a report by the Maranhão Port Administration Company, manager of neighbouring Porto do Itaqui (one of the largest in the country), César Cunha owns more than 240 hectares in the region. “I bought (lands in that place) in 1975,” he told us. At that time, he was 20 years old.


A presumed document forgery scheme for the appropriation of communities’ land in São Luís has been under investigation for over two years. To move forward, the inquiry requires the support of agencies linked to the executive and judicial branches of the state. “Even with precarious deeds over a large part of the territory, it should be in order to resort to usucaption [the acquisition of a title or right to property for a prescribed term] to ensure the permanence of the communities in the territories where they traditionally have lived,” said a Maranhão government source, who preferred not to be identified.

United by the port

In addition to the confusion over land ownership and repeated accusations of aggression against traditional residents, the construction of the Cajueiro port is linked to companies investigated for fraud and corruption.

According to Operation Greenfield, launched by the Federal Police in 2016 to investigate fraud in pension funds, WPR São Luís Port and Terminal Management and the São Paulo contractor WTorre were part of a group controlled by businessman Walter Torre Júnior. Greenfield ties his name to seven companies with the same WPR initials, including the one involved with the São Luís Port. WTorre is also linked to commercial buildings, shipyards, vehicle assembly yards and Allianz Parque, the stadium of 2018 Brazilian football champions Palmeiras. 

Investigations into financial crimes and embezzlement of public funds from the Lava Jato (Car Wash) operation that began five years ago by the Federal Police, indicate that WTorre presumably received R$ 18 million (US$4.6 million) in bribes for construction company OAS to win a public bid, involving a project with state-owned oil giant Petrobras.

Walter Torre Júnior and WPR are also being investigated by a São Luís court for environmental crimes relating to the construction of the port of Cajueiro. Complaints were filed by the Maranhão Public Ministry over the death of wild animals and the destruction of forests and mangroves in areas protected by federal legislation.

Seeking political support for its businesses, WTorre invested almost R$ 10 million (about US$2.6 million) in the 2010 and 2014 Brazilian elections, betting on candidates from all regions of the country. Flávio Dino received one of the company’s largest individual donations in its victorious 2014 campaign, more than R$ 250,000 (US$ 64,000). He was also supported by gas, mining and civil construction companies. Almost 40% of Dino’s campaign resources came from these sectors. The rest was provided by his political party.

The following year, private financing of election campaigns was banned by the Federal Supreme Court. Elections in Brazil now rely on donations from citizens, public resources and a political party fund, also sponsored by private entities.  

Dino is the first and only governor of the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB) in Brazil. Born in São Luís, his first mandate began amid expectations of rapprochement with social movements and rupture with decades of political domination of the state by the Sarney, Lobão and Murad families. In his first interviews as an elected official, he promised a “bourgeois democratic revolution” and a “capitalist shock” for Maranhão, which has some of the highest rates of rural poverty and violence nationwide.

Once in office, the governor multiplied efforts to attract private investment to the state. He participated in the signing of the agreement between China Communications Construction Company and WPR São Luís Gestão de Portos e Terminais for Cajueiro port. Escorted by government secretaries, Brazilian and Chinese businesspeople, he celebrated the launch of the private terminal works one year ago. 

According to Horácio Sant’ana Júnior, the governor’s participation in these ceremonies sent a message that the rights of local communities would be violated. Since then, he argues, the government has been sweeping complaints of assaults on local leaders, irregularities in licensing, environmental crimes and opaque land transactions under the carpet.

“The company began acting with much more freedom, advancing in deforestation, continuing with the demolition of houses and attempting to blackmail residents who wanted to stay in the territory,” he said. “The Maranhão Government is complicit in the irregularities and bears responsibility for all the environmental and social disasters that this company has already caused and continues to cause on its shoulders.”

Extractive project blocked

Another political campaign that WTorre supported was that of José Sarney Filho, brother of former governor Roseana Sarney. The R$ 300,000 (US$77,000) donated by the company was the largest private sector contribution the candidate received in his 2014 campaign. He assumed his ninth mandate as a federal deputy the following year, as part of the Maranhão Green Party.

After being appointed Minister of Environment by former President Michel Temer, Sarney joined the chorus of voices against the creation of an extractive reserve that would protect up to 16,000 hectares of forest and a dozen communities, including Cajueiro.  

“As far as I can see, the state government is against it, the city hall is against it, the senators are against it. I have already commissioned studies, but in this case we have to listen to everything, and in times of crisis, like we live today, we cannot block the growth of Maranhão. I’m against the way this reservation is being proposed and I will ask ICMBio [the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation] to review this issue,” Sarney said at a meeting of the Maranhão Federation of Industries.


ICMBio is responsible for the creation and management of National Parks and other federal Protected Areas. In an extractive reservation, communities live in protected environments in a model whose origins go back to the times of rubber tappers such as Chico Mendes, the famous union leader who fought the advance of large single-owner properties in the Amazon and who was killed in 1988. 

The inhabitants of Cajueiro have been waiting for the creation of the Tauá Mirim Extractive Reservation since 2003, which would allow them to maintain their way of life. Until now, they have been individually compensated and relocated to give way to construction of the port. Many have accepted compensation for land and houses, facing a future far from the forest and from the sea.

“With compensations you have an expectation of life improvement. However, money runs out, and many people don’t know how to live outside here. Without any skills, women will work as cleaners and men will live off short-term jobs,” said Lucilene Raimunda Costa, who has lived in Cajueiro for more than two decades and has visited the community since she was five years old. 

For state congressman Wellington does Curso of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), a rare critical voice on Flávio Dino’s government in the Legislative Assembly, the extractive reservation would mitigate the port’s impacts on the forest and the population. However, he does not see bright prospects for Cajueiro, because the voices of those who resist within the community do not resonate with the federal and state institutions that preside over their rights.

“People are taken from where they were born or lived from fishing or agriculture to a completely different place, a house, an apartment. What will they live off now? No job, no day care, no school, no quality of life. Misery, crime, violence, prostitution and drug trafficking often accompany the future of forcibly displaced populations,” he said. 

Former governor, Jackson Lago gave the green light to the extractive reserve, while Roseana Sarney opposed the protected area. This means the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office is waiting for a decision on Tauá Mirim’s future from Flávio Dino’s government.

The studies for its creation do not include the Sino-Brazilian port area, although it does clash with additional plans for more logistics and transportation infrastructure, and even a naval base. There is also political pressure to turn almost the entire island of São Luís into an industrial zone. After years of waiting, in 2015 communities declared a de facto reservation. The measure however has no legal or practical effect, though it does serve to amplify populations’ calls for permanence in traditional territory.

“Communities have the right to a response from public authorities, but the scenario is unfavourable to the reservation since the protection of the environment and the communities were subject to an unequal game of forces. These populations are underrepresented politically when facing companies that have great influence, not to mention the Maranhão Government, which speaks on behalf of these business interests,” said Soares.


According to a declaration by the State Government; “all measures (…) are taking into account the importance of investment, as well as the safety of the residents of the area, the preservation of the environment and respect for ethnicity and the exercise of worship of religions with African origin”. It also points out that “in relation to the complaints raised by the community, the State Government reiterates the full follow-up of the Secretariat of State for Human Rights and Popular Participation in public meetings and hearings, as a means of dialogue with the local population”. 

We contacted China Communications Construction Company and WPR – São Luís Gestão de Portos e Terminais by telephone and e-mail to enquire about aggressions reported by the Cajueiro community, the opaque land deals and the environmental license for the construction of the Port of São Luís. At the time of publication, we had not received a response from either company.

A global board game

Crises such as the one tormenting the community of Cajueiro could be avoided if legislation were respected and the population was allowed to participate in the planning that is overseen by private companies and public institutions, according to Wellington do Curso (PSDB), a former president of the Legislative Assembly’s Human Rights Commission. 

“No one is against development, as long as it takes place in an orderly and sustainable manner. If a broad debate had preceded the construction of the port, it would not have been forced down the throats of society and the traditional community. São Luís and Maranhão don’t need to grow by turning their backs on people’s future,” he said. 

Marco Antônio Mitidiero Júnior from Paraíba Federal University, said social and environmental aggressions registered in Cajueiro cannot be separated from the growing global investments in the production of soybeans, meat, iron and other commodities in Brazil.

“These investments clash with the livelihoods and rights of peasant communities, quilombolas (descendants of slaves), riverbank dwellers and indigenous peoples, usually seen as obstacles that must be removed from where they live, with violence and with the participation of the state and the judiciary,” he said.

Rising food prices that shook the world a decade ago were driven by China’s need for imports. The country expanded its global investments in infrastructure for transport and energy, vehicle manufacturing and telecommunications. It was in this scenario that it overtook the US as Brazil’s largest trading partner. Today, a quarter of Brazilian exports go to China. 

According to Mitidiero, concern about the disproportionate influence of international economic power on the fate of Brazil’s rural communities has grown with the election of the extremist Jair Bolsonaro in 2018. Bolsonaro is building a militarised government that appears to disrespect the way traditional and indigenous populations’ way of life in opening up more land to agribusiness.


In his speeches, Bolsonaro promised: “there will not be one more centimetre to demarcate” indigenous lands, that populations will be integrated into urban society and that their lands will be opened to mining and agriculture. He also compared indigenous people with animals in zoos and said quilombolas aren’t worthy “even for reproduction”. 

Mitidiero said:

“Everything (in the new government) points to a greater concentration and appropriation of territories, with the suppression of the rights of indigenous peoples, the quilombolas and the conservation of nature, opening more spaces for international markets of lands and commodities.”

This article was produced as part of ‘Land of Resistants’ a series focusing on environmental defenders in Latin America. It is republished here with permission.

The photos in this report are credited to “Ingrid Barros”, “Aldem Bourscheit”, “Reprodução de Redes Sociais e CRC/MA”, “CCCC” and “Fiema”. The video, is produced by “Debate Luta”