In October 1996, John Carter flew a single-engine bush plane down from Texas to Belem, Pará – Brazil. There he picked up his wife Kika and, together, they took off on a five-hour flight south across the Southern Amazon for Fazenda Esperança. Located in a predominantly forested region in northeastern Mato Grosso State, this frontier cattle ranch became their new home and training ground for the creation of a land stewardship movement that would go international years later.
It was a land of “nos”: no power grid, no telephone, no police, no hospital, no grocery store, no law. One was on his own in this landscape, every man for himself. Out of necessity the ranch had its own gardener to tend a community garden that furnished vegetables, fruit and greens to all who lived there. The gardener, Luiz, also served as the butcher, and every month he processed the beef to be distributed to all ranch residents. His sister, Dinalva, was the headquarters’ cook. Her job was to kill poultry for butchering, keep snakes out of the house and serve as intelligence chief. Most of the other employees were themselves migrants who had followed the mantra of “Go West, young man” a decade before, immigrating to the Amazon from Brazil’s poverty-stricken “Nordeste.” Most, if not all, were squatters who tried to hack a living out of the forest but gave up and took on jobs at the larger ranches being built across the Amazonian frontier. Yearly, this motley crew of cooks, gardener and cowboys would join together to fight the massive fires that surrounded the ranch every dry season.
The ranches that surrounded Fazenda Esperança were of immense size, tens to hundreds of thousands of acres in size with tens of thousands of heads of cattle. To make way for these cattle, forest had to be cleared to bare ground and seeded with introduced grasses. Cattle drives of thousands of heads frequently would be seen driven down the federal highway BR158, a road which on Brazil’s roadmap appeared as paved — but, in reality, the project money had been stolen and the result was a rut of mud carving its way northward serving as the only major thoroughfare for the region. To drive that road at night was a game of Russian Roulette thanks to the roaming bands of thieves and bandits who preyed on travelers, pests that populated the landscape in the same quantities as snakes and piranha.
The first month on the ranch, John and Kika would sit on their rustic front porch at night to cool off, looking at the red glow rimmings the horizon which represented fires of immense size lit to burn the deforested lands. During the day one would not see red but, rather, billowing plumes of gray smoke rising up like thunderheads to 20,000 feet. Each one represented thousands of acres of tropical forest that had been cleared, dried out over the dry season, and burned right before the rains started in the rainy season. But who were these people?
Well, the Carters did not have to look far to understand. Fazenda Esperança was surrounded on all sides by a cross-section of landowner types that, simply put, represented a microcosm of the entire Amazon Basin. To the east and south was a 140,000-acre ranch owned by an absentee sugar-cane distiller from São Paulo — half the property still in 100-foot-high Amazonian transition forest. That property ran 20,000 head of cattle and had a permanent security force of 10 gunmen led by an ex-sergeant from the Military Police. Their job was to patrol the legal forest reserve to keep out squatters and illegal loggers. To the west was a 75,000-acre property owned by another absentee owner from 900 miles away, with more than half the property still in forest and actively being plundered by illegal loggers. Its manager was more gunman than cattleman, a skill set that in the frontier is higher on the pecking order than agronomist or sustainability manager. To the north was a 25,000-acre property recently purchased by another absentee owner with deep political connections, who decided to clear the entire property by bribing the Federal Environmental Agency with a new 4×4 truck. Next door to the previous two properties was a 640,000-acre Indian reservation that officially had been demarcated in 1998. It had been carved out of a corporate tract of land in which the Vatican had an interest, but this land had been invaded by squatters incentivized to do so by the politicians. Collectively, these five properties, to include Esperança, inventoried 768,750 acres of original Amazon forest in 1996 when John and Kika landed.
Twenty-three years later, hardly a tree remains.
It serves no purpose here to talk about the futility of the environmental movement’s billions spent to “save the Amazon,” nor is it worth the ink to put hope in government’s attempts to enforce law and order in a land whose definition is, well, rather self-explanatory:
1. that part of a settled, civilized country which lies next to an unexplored or undeveloped region
2. the developing, often still uncivilized or lawless, region of a country
Yet, outside of the ring of properties that surrounded Fazenda Esperança were the norm, the vast majority of landowners being simple farmers and ranchers who made their living raising crops and beef rather than via speculation. They loved their lands and their employees and, given a chance, wanted to do the right thing — something counterintuitive in a brutal frontier that was built on illegality. This juxtaposition is not seen outside of the realms of the region. Actually, the punitive measures the international community exercised in conjunction with their environmental NGO handlers and the complicit media created a state of civil disobedience in the group of people who help the keys to change.
A ranch called Fazenda Esperança taught John and Kika all they needed to know to build a viable grassroots effort to support the people in the field by including the region’s indigenous communities — an effort that has subsequently transformed into a movement that established roots on two continents.
Change won’t come from politicians, transnational corporations or environmental non-governmental organizations, it must sprout in the fertile soils of the human spirit that is wed to the land.
Folks need hope, and Hope is, after all, the name of the ranch.