Amazon Land Grabbers Assail Ecotourism Paradise in Brazil

ALTER DO CHAO, Brazil (AP) -- Brazil's Alter do Chao, a sleepy village that blends rainforest and beaches, bet on tourism and scored big. Visitors flocked here to eat Amazonian river fish while gazing out over the water, and to take day trips offering the chance to meet Indigenous people and see pink dolphins.

But this once pristine place is discovering that the perils of becoming a can't-miss destination extend beyond hordes of weekend warriors sapping its unspoiled charm. Problems rife throughout the Amazon region — land grabbing, illegal deforestation and unsanctioned construction — are plaguing this ecotourism hot spot.

By 2018, land grabbing had grown so pervasive that one of Brazil's environmental protection agencies said Alter do Chao needed “urgent interventions against the rise of invaders” so it could preserve 67% of its protected areas.

One month later, President Jair Bolsonaro, who has pledged to promote development of the Amazon, was inaugurated.

Alter do Chao's struggle with land grabbers has only worsened since, residents and activists say, with lawbreakers more brazen about occupying land, then slashing and burning forest to make way for houses and fields. Meanwhile, dozens of projects in this riverside village known as the “Amazon Caribbean” have advanced despite being built within protected areas or lacking proper permits.

Most newcomers say they want to buy land legally and cheaply, said Ederson Santos, a motorboat driver. Failing that, however, many are happy to fence off any unoccupied area and claim it as their own.

Santos brought The Associated Press to a recent development near the so-called Enchanted Forest, where a massive pier now links to an expansive home beside a stream. Land grabbers like this have seized many of the 17 nearby waterways, he said.

“The family that lives there never asked permission for any of this. The house, the construction, nothing. Everyone knows,” said Santos, 47. “Now they are putting wooden stakes in the water. Soon there will be a net so no one else can come here.”

The residents weren't home the day the AP visited, and Santos said he doesn't know the owner's name.

Land grabbing consists of invading public areas and getting documents, forged or not, to certify their possession. Brazil doesn't have a registry consolidating all municipal, state and federal records for landowners, making it easier for criminals.

Historically, Brazil has done little to stop land grabbing in the vast Amazon. But Alter do Chao should be easier to monitor; it has a total protected area of only 66 square miles (170 square kilometers) and has several non-profit organizations dedicated to its defense.

City Hall in the municipality of Santarem, which runs the village, said in a statement that its agents are constantly conducting preemptive raids to stop land grabbing, but provided no details. Residents said local environment enforcement agents are hardworking, but too few.

Rilson Maduro, owner of a restaurant dishing up Amazon cuisine like the tucunare fish, says development is also erasing the area's origins. Ceramics and bones from his ancestors, of the Borari Indigenous group, have been found there over the years.

“Some land grabbers went there because they like the view, others because it is good for agriculture,” he said. “We want to keep it intact because of our history.”

A seven-story tower under construction near the waterfront will be Alter's tallest building when it is completed; projects like it will house a growing population of tourists and residents.

The village of some 7,000 people attracts about 100,000 tourists during high season. A picture-perfect spit of sand jutting across the water in front of its central plaza — known as Love Island — is the biggest draw for selfie-snapping visitors. And it's easily accessible, located only 20 miles from Santarem's airport.

These days Alter do Chao more closely resembles the idyll of the pre-tourist boom era, when it still felt untapped. The coronavirus has dried up much of its tourism, though its central square still features stalls serving regional dishes like tacaca, a shrimp soup. It's easy to socially distance while sipping caipirinhas made from Amazonian fruit.

João Romano moved here in 2017 from Sao Paulo, Brazil's biggest metropolis, in search of a slower-paced life. He and his wife watched monkeys swing past their wooden home, and their daughters pick fruit dangling from trees. He became a volunteer firefighter for an environmental group, and believed he'd found peace.

But fighting fires put him in developers' cross-hairs. His world was turned upside down late last year when local police accused him and three fellow firefighters of setting a protected forest area ablaze. Intense media coverage followed: They were jailed for three days and, upon release, threatened by those who accused them of being radical environmentalists who set the fire to sully Bolsonaro's reputation and undermine his plans to develop the Amazon.

“There is a big pressure here for what they believe development is. They don't see potential for sustainable growth,” said Romano, 28.

Bolsonaro trumpeted the police allegations, claiming that scheming non-profits — not farmers, loggers or land grabbers — were responsible for deploying arsonist firefighters, funded by actor Leonardo DiCaprio. Non-profits working to protect the Amazon are a “cancer,” he asserted in a recent Facebook live broadcast.

But a recording of Santarem Mayor Nelio Aguiar revealed that he told Para state Gov. Helder Barbalho that in fact local police were behind the fire.

“This is about people setting fires so they can later split the land, sell it,” the mayor said in the recording. Local police denied the allegation and continue to blame the firefighters for the fire.

The area that was devastated now features several houses visible from the water, with even more hidden from view.

Last month, Federal Police exonerated the firefighters of any possible involvement. The findings of their investigation were sent to the Para state prosecutors' office, which has yet to announce whether it will drop the case.

The federal prosecutors' office confirmed to the AP that the fire was started in an area where a major land grabber has previously operated. Silas da Silva Soares was sentenced to six years and 10 months in prison in 2018 for seizing land in protected areas, but remains at large.

Caetano Scannavino, coordinator of the non-profit Health and Happiness, where the firefighters worked, said the episode has only emboldened the region's land grabbers.

“The economic pressure is growing, and if nothing is done now ... it might be too late for Alter to keep its natural beauty. It is that beauty that brings people here,” Scannavino said. “Economically there will be short-term benefits, but a lot of the value will be lost in the long run.”

In June, federal prosecutors sent a recommendation to Santarem City Hall urging that it not grant permits for any construction in protected areas. They highlighted at least 40 “irregular” projects under way, among them the seven-story tower near the waterfront.

“The Alter I once knew is changed and I don't like many of those changes,” said 71-year-old fisherman Alfredo José Branco, as he slowly moved from a hammock to a plastic armchair in his tiny backyard. His family is among the last of a group that has lived for decades near the beach.

“I will stay, but I wonder if my children and grandchildren will be able to,” he said. “Everywhere I go has invaders now.”