Latin America & Caribbean

Brazil's farming pioneers fight to maintain way of life

Soya beans

In recent years, Brazil has been at the frontline of a battle to curb deforestation, but in the 1980s it saw the land as fertile for development. The reversal in policy has angered some of the early pioneers who turned forest into farmland.

"There was nothing when we came here 25 years ago, nothing at all," Gilmar Burnier told me, his eyes twinkling with pride as he led me through Querencia, a small town in northern Brazil.

"Nothing except trees, of course," he added with a laugh.

Gilmar is an easy man to like. He is small and lively with tightly cropped greying hair and a bright, mischievous manner.

"We opened all this up. We cleared the forest and built everything ourselves - roads, houses, everything," he said.

In truth, Querencia is rather ordinary - a sleepy rural town with grey concrete buildings and wide quiet roads - but to Gilmar it was clearly the most wonderful place on Earth.

Image caption Gilmar Burnier is angry at the way the farming community is being treated

He swept his hands wide, gesturing towards a school playground with swings and a climbing frame made from recycled tractor tyres.

"This was one of the first places we built," he told me. "We have three schools now."

We crossed over to a restaurant on the main street.

"This is owned by an Italian," Gilmar said. "He arrived here in 1986 with only a backpack on his back and now just look."

Once again it was nothing fancy - big plate glass windows with neat rows of Formica tables inside. At the back was a counter piled with salads and barbecued beef.

But Gilmar has good reason to feel proud of Querencia. Its creation is a classic story: hardy pioneers risking everything to make themselves a better life on a dangerous frontier.

Yet Gilmar's story, and that of hundreds of thousands settlers like him, is rarely ever told.

The reason is simple. Querencia is in the Amazon, the town is only here because Gilmar and the other townsfolk have burnt or cut down tens of thousands of acres of primary rainforest.

Back in the early 1980s there was a massive government campaign to get people to come out here.

The Amazon was, they were told, a "land without people for people without land". It was a patriotic duty to turn it into productive farmland.

That is when Gilmar came up from the far south of Brazil. Like many of the settlers in this region he is a Gaucho, born into the great ranching and farming tradition established by migrants from Europe.

"We knew how to farm," he told me, "we just didn't have any land. So, when we got out here, we did well."

Just how well he and his fellow Gauchos have done became clear when we finished up our food and Gilmar took me out to his farm.

As we drove, you would never know that just a couple of decades ago this whole area had been dense jungle. Now it is vast open soya fields, with just the occasional dark smudge on the horizon where forest still stands.

Once again, Gilmar swelled up with pride as he described the huge farms he and the other settlers have carved out of the forest.

Image caption Brazil's environment agency uses helicopters to keep a close watch on levels of deforestation

As far as he is concerned, they have simply done what they were told to do. But his community has faced fierce criticism as attitudes to deforestation have changed.

"Now they treat us like criminals," he tells me. "The Environment Agency has come here in helicopters and in trucks with machine guns.

"They behave as if we are bandits and all the people here are very upset."

There has been a lot of illegal deforestation around Querencia, but even so it is hard not to feel some sympathy for Gilmar.

"We didn't know it was wrong," he told me defiantly when I asked whether he feels guilty about destroying the forest.

"We were just doing what we'd been told was right for us and right for our country."

He claims many farmers are now beginning to recognise the value of the jungle.

"My daughter loves the forest", he said, "she wouldn't let me cut any more trees down even if I wanted to."

He told me he has started replanting trees beside the rivers and streams on his land, and improving the management of the forest. There is now much less illegal deforestation in the area.

So how far might this go, I wanted to know. Would he and his fellow farmers consider reforestation?

Gilmar grimaced. "I know some Gauchos who would rather go to prison than to plant forest on land they have gone to so much effort to improve," he said emphatically.

It is attitudes like this which have led to the demonisation of Amazon farmers but actually most of the world's farmers hold similar views, because most farmland was once forest.

Mankind has been destroying the wild places on the planet since the first seeds were sown. The only difference is that in the Amazon it is still happening right now.

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