Terra Vermelha

Tommaso Protti

2014 - Ongoing

Brazil; Amazonas, Brazil; Pará, Brazil; Maranhão, Brazil

The Amazon Rainforest is often referred to as the "Lungs of our Planet", still imagined as the unspoiled home of isolated, disconnected tribes. A thick green, green stain on the map - the world's largest - laid there by the hand of God, with no sign of man's.

From up to close, though, it's way more than woods, water and plants; cities have grown out of the jungle, into a green favela. Fields are burning, and the dark, steady stream of the Amazon River, a safe conduct for cocaine. The riverbanks are littered with trash, and bodies.

In Brazil, the Amazon region is by itself bigger than the entire European Union and hosts a population the size of Romania. It’s one of the richest parts of the country, in terms of natural resources, yet one of the poorest. Where the trees are carved into crosses.

Seven years in the making, “Terra Vermelha” is an ongoing long-term project into the dark heart of Brazil’s Amazon that documents the intersecting environmental and social crisis afflicting the region.

The title, which means “red earth”, is a reference to the Amazon’s red soil, but also the savage bloodshed that this forested kingdom has suffered for centuries and which continues today.

The region is the deadliest in the world for land rights, environmental and Indigenous activists who are resisting the predatory advance of the agricultural frontier. Meanwhile, the urban centres have become amongst the most violent in the world, the result of rapid and uncontrolled urban expansion and drug wars as the region has turned increasingly important as a route for the international cocaine trade. Rivers are polluted and destroyed by mining and dam projects. The forest itself, it’s losing a football pitch of forest cover every minute because of deforestation fueled by illegal timber sold for consumer markets and the result of agricultural expansion beef and soy.

All of this has been exacerbated in recent years as Brazil has bounced from political to economic crisis and seen resources to combat these ills slashed. With the rise of an increasingly powerful anti-environmental and human rights orientated congress, this is not a problem that is going away any time soon.

Deforestation, unregulated development, pollution and crime. All of these scenarios are driven by the same forces; poverty, weak institutions, corruption and savage self-interest. More than in other places, in the Amazon region it becomes clear that land is worth more than human life. And on the path towards the destruction of the planet, the first and closest step for mankind is still its own annihilation.

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  • A member of the Guajajara forest guard in a moment of of sad silence at the sight of a toppled tree cut down by suspected illegal loggers on the Araribóia indigenous reserve in Maranhão state. With deep cuts to Brazil’s environmental and indigenous protection bodies in recent years, tribespeople across the Amazon are increasingly forming vigilante groups to protect their lands against unscrupulous farmers, loggers and land grabbers. But it’s dangerous work. Indigenous activists who stand up to powerful interests in Brazil’s Amazon states are routinely threatened, persecuted and murdered.

  • Vegetation at night in Vale do Javari indigenous territory. Javari is the most preserved area of the rainforest where live the biggest population of Indigenous tribes in the world. The region is also home to the world’s largest number of uncontacted tribes but increasingly a new frontier for logging, mining and drug running.

  • Members of the Guajajara forest guard patrolling the Araribóia indigenous reserve in Maranhão state beat another indigenous man who they suspect of collaborating with illegal loggers. The guard conducts thorough patrols of their vast indigenous reserve each month, destroying loggers’ camps and seizing equipment when possible. Sometimes, they catch the loggers red handed, which can be dangerous as both groups are armed. In Maranhão and other Brazilian Amazon states, the vast majority of killings over land or resource conflict go unsolved.

  • Evangelical Christians worship in Crepurizão, While Brazil remains the world’s most populous Catholic nation, it has a significant and fast growing community of Evangelical Christians that today account for about a quarter of the population. In Brazil’s Amazon states, Evangelical mega churches with huge congregations are present in urban centres while tiny churches little more than wooden shacks proliferate in isolated river towns only accessible by long boat journeys.

  • A young man lies dead in the streets of a poor neighbourhood in Manaus, as family members, neighbours and police wait for authorities to collect the body and take it to the morgue. The victim was shot in the head outside of his home. Police and residents suspect the killing was over unpaid drug debts. Manaus has become one of Brazil’s most violent cities. According to local authorities, the majority of homicides are drug related. Manaus is the largest and richest Brazilian city close to cocaine producing nations Colombia and Peru. Over the last decade, the Amazon region has emerged as an important domestic and international trafficking route. At the same time, a lucrative local market has flourished.

  • Kayapo children play behind a waterfall in the Kubenkrãnken indigenous village, in southern Pará state. The Kayapo have only been in contact with non-indigenous society since the 1960s. Their land serves as a crucial barrier to deforestation advancing from the south.

  • These trees died with the opening of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam in Altamira, Pará state, which flooded 400km2 of forest. At the time of its construction, the dam was decried by environmentalists and civil society groups. Today, the project remains mired in controversy with serious questions regarding its viability and accusations of corruption during the bidding process.

  • The Jatobá neighbourhood in Altamira, Pará state. Most of the residents here are Ribeirinhos – Amazon River People - who were relocated from along the banks of Xingu River or from other areas of the city that flooded following the inauguration of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam. The housing was provided by the dam’s operator Norte Energia. Many residents complain that they have struggled to adapt to such a dramatic change in lifestyle. In 2015, Altamira was considered the most violent city in Brazil and Jatobá was one of the worst affected neighbourhoods.

  • A landless peasant leader on the Grotão de Mutum landless peasant camp near Canaã dos Carajás, Pará state. Brazil’s Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra – Landless Worker’s Movement, or MST - fights for agrarian reform across Brazil where land ownership is extremely concentrated. In Canaã dos Carajás, the group is caught up in a dispute with mining giant Vale which operates the world’s largest iron ore mine, the S11D, in the region. MST is occupying lands that they say Vale bought illegally.

  • A chopped tree inside a cemetery along the BR-163 highway. Millions of tonnes of grains from the country’s midwest farming heartland are transported in trucks along the highway each year to Amazonian riverports, before being shipped abroad, mostly to China and Europe. But the highway is also notorious for lawlessness and synonymous with illegal deforestation, wildcat mining and raging forest fires each year in the towns that straddle it, crimes which affect neighbouring Indigenous communities.

  • Drunken garimpeiros – wildcat miners – in a bar in Crepurizão, a gold mining town in southwestern Pará state. The town serves as a base for miners stay and to take small planes to a number of illegal goldmining sites in the region, including on indigenous lands and protected forest areas. The town’s entire economy revolves around illegal gold extraction.

  • Two young lesbians kiss at an alternative bar in Altamira, Pará state. Brazil hosts the world’s largest gay pride parade in São Paulo each year. But it’s also a conservative, religious society. Violence against LGBT people is common. Brazil is one of the world’s most violent countries. More than 65 thousand people were murdered in 2017.

  • A girl passing out inside an overcrowded bus of people leaving an illegal funk party in the periphery of Manaus. People entered inside the bus to escape from the tear gases of the Brazilian military police arrived on the scene to disperse the crowd and close the party. Over the past few years, funk parties have been gradually banned in Manaus because of suspicion that they funnel funds to organised crime.

  • A drunk, homeless man walks waist deep in garbage filled water at the port area of Manaus. Founded by Jesuit priests on the banks of the Rio Negro, a tributary of the mighty Amazon River, Manaus grew from a quiet jungle outpost to a sprawling metropolis of two million people in the middle of the forest. Today, it’s the richest and most populous city of the Brazilian Amazon. But it also has some of the worst socioeconomic indicators of Brazil’s big cities.

  • Crack addicts occupy an abandoned public housing lot in Vila da Barca, Belém, the Brazilian Amazon’s second biggest city and capital of Pará state. Use of crack and other cheap, smoked cocaine derivatives has exploded in the Amazon states in the last decade. Addicts often stay awake for days at a time smoking. While rocks of crack often sell for as little as US$1, addicts regularly rack up large debts with dealers. Those that don’t pay are murdered.

  • Young gang members of A Família do Norte – The Northern Family or FDN –pose for pictures with drugs and weapons in Manaus. The Northern Family is considered the strongest gang in Amazonas state. It controls local drug sales, trafficking routes and prisons. The gang formed in 2006 to ward off the advance of criminal gangs from Brazil’s south. In 2017, leaders commanded a bloody Manaus prison uprising when 56 people were killed; many beheaded, gutted or burned. In 2019, at least 40 prisoners were killed in an internal gang dispute.

  • Kayapo Mekragnotire Indigenous block a highway near Novo Progresso, Para state. Protesters blocked the highway BR-163 to pressure Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to better shield them from COVID-19, to extend damages payments for road construction near their land, and to consult them on a proposed railway to transport soybeans and corn.

  • Kanamari indigenous children living in poverty on the banks of the Javari River in the town of Atalaia do Norte. They arrived here with their families from various villages in the Vale do Javari indigenous territory to look for money, food and medicines.

  • The climactic crucifixion scene of a community Easter nativity play in Careiro Castanho, a small town 100km from Manaus, in Amazonas state, organized by the local Catholic Church. While Brazil remains the world’s most populous Catholic nation, it has a significant and fast growing community of Evangelical Christians that today account for about a quarter of the population. In Brazil’s Amazon states, Evangelical mega churches with huge congregations are present in urban centres while tiny churches little more than wooden shacks proliferate in isolated river towns only accessible by long boat journeys.

  • Destroyed vegetation and burned fields in the Jamaxim National forest, a protected reserve of more than 1.3 million hectares (3 million acres) that is one of the most devastated in Brazil. The Jamanxim National Forest was one of the areas affected by the ‘Fire Day’ last August, when the number of fires tripled in the region. Most of the fires are agricultural, either smallholders burning stubble after harvest, or farmers clearing forest for cropland. Illegal land-grabbers also destroy trees so they can raise the value of the property they seize.