The ecocide being perpetrated against the Cerrado and the genocide of the Cerrado peoples are taking place in the context of the most persistent war of our time - and the most difficult to win - which is not between nation states. Rather, it is being waged against nature and the ‘peoples of nature’ by large corporations and the people who run them: the dominant minority, referred to as the “commodities people” by the great Yanomami shaman, Davi Kopenawa. This war is much harder to fight because warlords hide behind the names of conglomerates designed to erase their fingerprints and gain legitimacy day after day by the repetition on the stock exchange trading floors of something intangible called "the market". (Final verdict of the 49th Permanent Peoples' Tribunal Session in Defence of the Cerrado Territories, p.38)
The crime of ecocide
Based on the premise that the Cerrado, the world’s most biodiverse savannah, is not an untouched biome or environment, but is rather a place of diverse territorialities and ways of life as a result of the care taken by indigenous peoples and traditional communities to continuously tend the land for almost 15 thousand years, the final verdict (in Portuguese) of the Cerrado session of the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal (PPT) asserts that "all genocide is also ecocide - and all ecocide is genocide.” i
The PPT goes further in its interpretation of the crime of ecocide, and radically expands the meaning of the term territory as a joint creation between peoples and nature, or rather, as the embodiment of a people's historical fingerprints on the environment. Based on this understanding of territory, guaranteeing the territorial rights of these peoples is both an essential condition for the self-determination of their ways of life, guarding against their physical and cultural extermination, as well as for protecting a balanced environment to ensure the ecological minimum for present and future generations.
Therefore, ecocide is not only an environmental crime that means serious damage or loss of ecosystems, provoking a severe reduction in the environmental benefits enjoyed by the inhabitants of those areas, as the crime of ecocide is defined in the Statute of the PPT. It also implies a systematic attack on the cultural identity of groups that are intrinsically formed in harmony with nature, whose knowledge of managing biodiversity determines their physical and social survival, as peoples who are culturally differentiated from hegemonic society. The crime of ecocide inevitably means cultural genocide; a crime of racism and discrimination against peoples, the denial of identities and of difference itself. In addition to explicitly assuming the cultural dimension of ecocide, the PPT also understands that ecocide can imply genocide in its strict sense, when the reduction of the material basis of social reproduction is likely to lead to the physical destruction of the peoples whose survival is dependent on the environment.
Being without territory amounts to genocide of the peoples
The possibilities for these groups to maintain their ways of life as peoples distinct from general society are undermined without access to traditional lands, without adequate access to water, without biodiversity, without seeds, without fish, without hunting, without food, and without the Cerrado intact. The state apparatus, geared towards development projects in favour of corporations, agro-hydrobusiness and mining investors in the Cerrado, has been stripping the Cerrado peoples of the minimum conditions for physical, social and cultural reproduction. According to the final judgement issued by the jurors in the Cerrado session of the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, the refusal to demarcate the territories of peoples of nature constitutes an offence of genocide as stipulated in article 2 “c” of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide:
“...a people is killed when conditions of life are inflicted that are calculated to bring about its physical destruction. Its members die, or those that survive undergo a process of integration into the dominant culture, assimilating the language and value system of the coloniser. The pre-existing people ceases to exist. (...). Their traditional knowledge, particularly in managing biodiversity and the production of healthy food, is not considered. Their crops, their medicines and their bodies are marked by the presence of agrochemicals. And the Cerrado, a victim of a colonial, predatory, exclusive and unjust economic model, is under serious threat of death. All this with the endorsement of state powers, at all levels, who are even conniving with the barbarism committed by companies, many of them transnational" (Final verdict of the 49th Permanent Peoples' Tribunal Session in Defence of the Cerrado Territories, p. 62).
This ecocide-genocide process has only been possible due to the construction of the Cerrado as infertile and ecologically irrelevant, and the Cerrado peoples as backwards and poor. This is used to justify the “clearing” of the land - of its native vegetation and its people – for it to be included in so-called "development" projects. Although it is home to 5% of the planet's biodiversity and acts as a major continental water regulator, as the source of some of the main rivers and aquifers of South America, the Cerrado is almost unknown to the world. Overlooked even by climate activists, it was deliberately excluded from the European regulation on deforestation-free products. It is kept alive almost exclusively by the strength of its peoples.
In this region, covering a third of Brazilian national territory (including the Cerrado and transition zones), the intention is to wipe traditional territories off the map, making them invisible to a series of public policies. According to data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), the Cerrado and its transition zones are home to 220 indigenous lands, whereas data from specialised civil society puts this figure at 338 territories (Indigenous Missionary Council -CIMI), which is 53% higher. Of the 1,555 identified quilombola territories (territories of populations of African descent), total or partial collective titles were granted for only 32 (around 2% of territories). Despite over 26 peoples and traditional communities being recognised in Brazil - most of them Black communities, including harvesters, women babaçu coconut breakers, vazanteiros, traditional farmers and pastoralists, geraizeiro peoples and many others - there is no official survey of their territories at the federal level.ii
While compiling documents for the Tribunal, the Campanha Nacional em Defesa do Cerrado (Campaign in Defence of the Cerrado) presented a preliminary survey in order to tackle this institutional (political, economic, cultural) omission, which is part of the Brazilian state’s policy of structural racism (environmental and agrarian), which has served and continues to serve the colonisation of the Cerrado by capitalists.iii If the Cerrado is seen as "no man's land", with no biological or socio-cultural value, huge swathes of land can legitimately be grabbed for exploitation of grain monocultures, cattle pastures and mining, fundamentally for export. In 2021, 77.2% of the soybean produced in the country was exported. About 30 million hectares - equivalent to the territory of Italy - are needed to meet the international demand for soybean being supplied by these transnational companies, particularly to China and the European Union. Along with it, the soil is stripped of its water and nutrients and a trail of devastation and violence is left in the Cerrado peoples’ territories. On 8 December 2022, the Associação de Fundos e Fechos de Pasto and the Campanha em Defesa do Cerrado denounced the systematic attack by gunmen, acting on the orders of companies and landowners in Western Bahia, against some of the 25 communities in the municipalities of Correntina and Santa Vitória. This is one of the cases heard by the PPT.
Transgenic soybeans and the Cerrado as a sacrificial land
For the first time, it appears that soybean is being harvested in areas larger than 1 million hectares, in Alto Teles Pires and Parecis in the state of Mato Grosso, Barreiras in Bahia and in the southwest of Goiás. Moreover, colour plays a role in land ownership in the country: over 88% of soybean producers are white (Furtado, Kato and Barros jr, 2022).iv In the same region, more native vegetation has been lost over the last 20 years (13.47 million hectares) than in the 500 years since the colonial invasion up to 2000 (10.76 million hectares).
The scale and intensity of this agro-mining-exporting model and the measures and infrastructure required to turn the Cerrado into a major global grain exporter, means that agro-hydro-mining-business activities are becoming economic and ecological crimes, to the point of putting the very ecosystems and associated ways of life at risk of extinction. Whether or not intentional, these agents agree to sacrifice the Cerrado for production, assuming the potential or probable risks linked to their business activities and the type of “development” pursued: environmental devastation and extermination of ethnic and racial groups that have been historically regarded as inferior.
Apart from mining projects that cover approximately 60 million hectares (ha), with 30% of the total number of active cases in the country, and disaster crimes such as the dam collapses in Mariana and Brumadinho by the Vale S.A. company, the PPT highlights a particularly clear case of ecocide and genocide in the Cerrado: the spread of transgenic soybean monocultures. At the epicentre of this economic activity, which treats the Cerrado as land to be sacrificed, are the global commodity chains. These are controlled by transnational corporations from the soybean-meat complex (almost all the soybean produced in Brazil is earmarked for animal feed) and financial corporations that speculate on land and agricultural commodities.
The overwhelming transformation of the Cerrado landscape, representing around 45% of the area dedicated to national agriculture and cattle-raising, is mainly due to the rapid expansion of transgenic soybean monocultures (legalised in 2005), followed by corn, cotton and sugar cane, which now occupy about 47 million hectares. This has transformed the country into the second largest area planted with transgenics in the world, with over 50 million hectares: 35 million ha of soybeans, 15 million ha of corn, 1 million ha of cotton and 400,000 ha of sugarcane (ISAAA, 2020). It has also become a major consumer of agrochemicals, with almost 80% of the total volume used only for these crops (Sindicato Nacional da Indústria de Produtos para Defesa Vegetal –Sindiveg).
The Cerrado has become one of the major consumer markets of the biotech industry's technology monopolising the industrial seeds and agrochemicals market: Bayer/Monsanto (Germany), Corteva (USA, the outcome of the merger of Dow Cropscience and Dupont), ChemChina/Syngenta (China/Switzerland) and Basf (Germany). It is also the main market for processing and exporting agricultural commodities, which impose an array of infrastructure on the land, set up by foreign agro-industrial conglomerates, along with various foreign investment funds, some as notable as Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America or Harvard’s Endowment. The TIAA and Harvard funds have been major foreign buyers of agricultural land in Brazil since 2008, accumulating a total of almost 750,000 hectares, most of it in the Cerrado.
For justice that springs from the earth
In a monumental resistance effort, the Cerrado peoples are constantly reinventing themselves, politically reorganising their culture to establish protest rights, a right that springs from the earth, to assert their right to have rights. They occupy land and public buildings, hold marches, take back lands and set up their own demarcations, create legislation recognised by the state, and even convene a Peoples' Tribunal, empowered by nothing less than their right to (re)exist as a culturally distinct group. Based on this right that springs from the earth, during the PPT session, these peoples declared that land is not a property nor a commodity, that it cannot be taken by someone who simply holds a deed, by someone who can pay or who has a monopoly on force. According to the Cerrado natives and resistants, invaders are those who seize and destroy the reproductive capacity of the land. The Cerrado campaign, therefore, is renaming this development model, which turns the Cerrado into private property and a commodity to line the pockets of corporations and financial investors - they are calling it a crime of ecocide and genocide.
After 3 years, from the petition to establish the Tribunal up to its final hearing (2019-2022), and having reviewed the evidence presented on the 15 representative cases, the TPP jury condemned:
- The Brazilian state for the crime of ecocide, that inevitably involves the process of genocide against Cerrado peoples; as well as the current government of President Jair Messias Bolsonaro, for economic and ecological crimes aggravated by repeated measures of structural adjustment and the dismantling of policies and laws that represented historical rights gains;
- Foreign states and international organisations. Among the foreign states, Japan was condemned for its contribution to implementing the green revolution of the Military-Business Dictatorship in the 1970s, through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA); as well as China and members of the European Union, for their large-scale purchase of products based on monocultures grown in the Cerrado. Special mention was made of the danger of the European Union-Mercosur Trade Agreement for accelerating the ecocide and genocide underway. The following international organisations were condemned: International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and, in particular, the World Bank, for promoting and legitimising neoliberal reforms that have exacerbated the ecocide and cultural genocide in the Cerrado.
- Transnational companies and investment/pension funds, whose economic activities are linked to the violation of fundamental rights that cause and benefit from ecocide-genocide in the Cerrado, such as Amaggi & Louis Dreyfus Commodities, Bayer-Monsanto, Bunge, Cargill, ChemChina/Syngenta, China Communications Construction Company, China Molybdenum Company, Condomínio Cachoeira Estrondo, Horita Empreendimentos Agrícolas, Mitsui & Co, Mosaic Fertilizantes, SLC Agrícola, Sul Americana de Metais S.A., Suzano Papel e Celulose, TUP Porto São Luís, Vale S.A., and the investment funds TIAA-CREF, Harvard and Valiance Capital.
To read the indictment in full and the role of all of the accused, please click here (only available in Portuguese).
To read the set of recommendations made to the Brazilian state to stop the ecocide and genocide in the Cerrado, please click here (only available in Portuguese).
i Ecocide as a crime has been worked on since the 1960s, especially in the face of the consequences of the massive use of Agent Orange and other herbicides during the Vietnam War. In 2021, a group of jurists presented a definition of the crime of Ecocide to be incorporated into the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
iii The Land Law of 1850 (Law no. 601/1850) created the right to private ownership of the land by means of the purchase and sale transactions or transfer through inheritance, excluding possession and occupation as means to acquire land, and as such, all poor people from legal access to land. It was only in 1888 that slavery was abolished, which included the blatant intention to exclude the Black population from the right to land. Preventing access to land for Black populations was a condition for the end of slavery and the declaration of the republic.
iv For the first time the 2017 Agro-ecological Census included race indicators to analyse the Brazilian land-ownership structure. It revealed that labour in the countryside is black, but ownership is white. On large properties, with an area equivalent to amost 10 thousand football pitches, 79.1% of owners are white, holding 208 million hectares (59.4%).