As the Amazon falls, the people suffer

A new book by Heriberto Araújo reveals the human crises—the deaths and displacements—behind the exploitation of Brazil’s rainforest
January 25, 2023
Masters of the Lost Land: The Untold Story of the Fight to Own the Amazon
Heriberto Araújo (RRP: £20)
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Few places are more closely associated with the climate crisis than the Amazon rainforest—but in this intensely detailed book about deforestation and the people driving it, Spanish investigative journalist Heriberto Araújo tells a story you likely haven’t heard before.

Masters of the Lost Land is a book about chainsaw murders, gunslingers and debt bondage. It is a brutal account of what happened after Brazil’s military government urged workers to colonise the country’s canopied interior in the 1960s, and the impunity that those who succeeded—who’ve killed to hold on to what they claimed—still enjoy.

At its heart is the story of Maria Joel and her husband Dezinho, who in 1984 were among those seeking their fortunes in the frontier town of Rondon do Pará, but then became prominent union leaders and activists. As Araújo details the networks of power and retribution that underpin society around Rondon, it becomes clear that this was a dangerous path to choose. The family’s fate and Dezinho’s eventual murder begin to feel almost inevitable.

But this is no ordinary true crime thriller. Set against the backdrop of Brazil’s “economic miracle”, Masters is a story of intersecting human tragedies: for Maria Joel; for indigenous peoples such as the Gavião -Kyikatêjê, who were forced from the forest they stewarded into reservations where they struggled; for the forest itself, which was slashed and burned by settlers; for workers who became nameless corpses, burned among tyres, reduced to fragments of bone. 

This book is not an easy read, but it is uniquely informative about one of the most important social conflicts of our time. President Lula—himself a flawed defender of the Amazon—must now stabilise Brazil’s democracy and account for the damage done to the rainforest under his and Jair Bolsonaro’s previous governments. Araújo shows this will be no easy task.