In recent months, Maranhão’s governor Flávio Dino has sought to fill the leadership vacuum in the movement opposing the extreme right-wing led by President Jair Bolsonaro. Speculation over Dino mounting a 2022 presidential bid has grown following his public criticisms of the president in interview, his inclusion in a national survey of possible candidates, and meetings with hugely influential former president Luis Inácio Lula Da Silva, or Lula, who has determined the left's candidate for the past two decades.
Yet a conflict between Dino’s administration and a local community has become a thorn in the side of the aspirant president. The Cajueiro community near the city São Luis in north-eastern Brazil is being removed to construct a megaport for soy and iron ore built by a Brazilian company and Chinese partner the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC).
Dino has denied responsibility for the case, arguing that his government is only carrying out judicial orders. But as the project gains increasing attention both domestically and in foreign press, the state government has annulled a decree from last year that permitted expropriations of community members. This could provide some welcome relief for two remaining families that still live in Cajueiro. It is still not clear how the decision will impact the completion of the port.
The episode has drawn criticism from environmentalists, academics, and political scientists. They have pointed out that it is not only far right politicians such as Bolsonaro who disregard the environmental agenda. Left wing politicians such as the Communist Party’s Dino, who favour state-led infrastructure development, also push environmental concerns to one side.
With Dino in power, what is happening in Maranhão would be extended nationwide
Bartholomeu Mendonça, social scientist from the Federal University of Maranhão, says that when Dino was first elected in 2014 there were big expectations that his government would support traditional communities and tougher environmental protections. He defeated a candidate backed by the renowned Sarney family, a conservative group that had dominated the state for over 50 years.
"His standard for economic development is to replicate what traditional politicians in Maranhão were doing half a century ago," says Mendonça; "continuing economic development projects with strong impacts on rural, indigenous, and traditional populations."
The Federal Public Ministry says there was no prior consultation with the more than 60 quilombola communities that will be affected by another project to widen the BR-135 motorway to facilitate shipping of grains and ores. In the Santa Rosa quilombola community, 345 were to be removed. The construction of Maranhão’s first wind farm, in the Paulino Neves region, hindered fishers’ access to the ocean. Its transmission lines cross rural communities in nine municipalities.
of Brazil's total soy production comes from the region known as Matopiba
Agribusiness is displacing traditional populations and devouring green space in Matopiba, the region that encompasses Maranhão, Tocantins, Minas Gerais, and Bahia, which accounts for 11% of Brazil’s total soy production. In the Imperatriz region on the border between Maranhão and Tocantins, babassu coconut breakers face displacement by eucalyptus plantations and factories that will produce pulp and paper in their traditional territory.
The dispute for rural populations’ land is also growing as natural gas-powered thermoelectric plants pop-up in the greater São Luís area, inland in the north of the state. The Pastoral Land Commission's latest report puts Maranhão as the leading state in a national ranking of social conflicts in rural areas, with 2,500 cases registered from 1990 to 2018.
Fábio Pacheco is coordinator of the Tijupá Agricultural Association, which supports populations affected by development projects in the state. He says many of the projects began without any dialogue with impacted populations.
"Their removal has become a 'necessary evil' for economic development in Maranhão," he says. "The programmes and state agencies that could best lead these projects and reduce environmental damage have low budgets and few staff compared with agencies linked to the market, like the secretaries of industry and commerce and agriculture."
But the expulsion of traditional communities for a gigantic Chinese-Brazilian port is one of the biggest crises governor Flávio Dino has faced. Since Dino’s term began in 2014, the state government has twice issued decrees expropriating lands from families and supported judicial decisions that could wipe the Cajueiro community off the map, enabling commodity transport projects. Two individuals over 80 years old are among the few remaining inhabitants.
State environmental agencies also granted licenses for the São Luís port despite the devastation it caused the Amazon rainforest and repeated complaints of violence against traditional communities. The state public prosecutor is also investigating whether the complex is being built on land that was occupied illegally and then sold to the companies executing the project.
Another case involved WPR São Luís Gestão e Portos e Terminais and the entrepreneurs Walter Torre Júnior and Paulo Remy Gillet Neto, all of whom are linked to construction of the port. The Maranhão state courts have brought charges including killing animals, clearing protected forests, and failing to comply with environmental licensing demands.
Pacheco, of the Tijupá Agricultural Association, thinks that if Dino is elected president of Brazil and strengthens some of the regulations dismantled by the Bolsonaro government, he will likely bring back some of the more worrying aspects of environmental policy during the left-wing governments of Lula and Dilma Rousseff.
Despite some progress, these administrations did not strengthen agrarian reform, slowed the establishment of indigenous territories and other protected areas, and revived projects from the military dictatorship.
The controversial Belo Monte hydroelectric plant in the north-eastern state of Pará is one such project. Resurrected by Dilma Rousseff, who sealed billions in Chinese investment between the start of her second term in 2014 and impeachment in 2016, Belo Monte has had enormous environmental and social impacts, with an increase in violence, displaced communities, and serious sanitation problems.
"With Dino in power, what is happening in Maranhão would be extended nationwide," Pacheco says; "with development policies that protect the environment and traditional and indigenous populations subordinated to the interests of large markets in dominant countries like China."