Julgar, Provar, Experimentar: Trying for Justice in the Amazon


Julgamento: trial; from Latin judicare; “jus”: law or right and “dicere”: to say or speak

Marlon Pidde, age 65, was tried in May of this year for a crime he committed thirty years ago. He was convicted and sentenced to one hundred and thirty years without probation. But he will never spend one night behind bars.

Really, he just was tried.

Try: “to examine judiciously, to discover by evaluation, or to test;” mid-14c., “to sit in judgment of,” or “to attempt to do,” from Anglo-French trier (13c.)

Alex (a fellow Fulbrighter) and I were conducting research on the land conflicts in southern Pará, a rural region located in Brazil’s Amazon and often seen as “the last frontier.” The place where people are still shot up cowboy style over land disputes, where mineral extraction and exports make few rich and devastate many, the place where Marlon Pidde, an owner of a huge fazenda (farm) was able to get off scot free after ordering the death of five men who had been given plots of land by the government that bordered his large estate.

What was once an area abundant with cashew trees and natural resources has been turned into a desolate grassland, controlled by a few wealthy cattle ranchers and their private guards who police the land. Travel in this region is made difficult by the maze of rivers that connect cities to one another and the rocky “estradas” (highways) that make travel by bus just bearable, at best.

From our location in Belém, Para’s capital and largest city, we had to travel six hundred and eighty-five kilometers and seventeen hours by bus to reach Marabá, the largest city in southern Pará, and the “capital,” of sorts, of the region’s land conflicts. The geography of the region changed noticeably throughout the journey, as forested areas near and around Belem were traded for grassland, weathered by the sun and browned by the lack of rain during the region’s dry season.

Once in Marabá, we met with volunteers at the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), an organization founded in 1975 to defend the rights of farmers and workers in the region against the large cattle ranchers (and, by extension, government officials who were inevitably tied to these wealthy landlords). Led mostly by volunteers, CPT is the only organization to document and record the cases connected to land violence in the region (death toll, persons involved, information on the trial, etc.).

According to the CPT, there have been over one thousand murders in the Amazonian region in the past decade (not to mention the many that go undocumented every year). In a recent study conducted in 2012, Global Witness, a London-based research organization, deemed Brazil the most dangerous (and deadliest) place for environmental activists and communities fighting to protect natural resources: four hundred and forty-eight deaths were reported in an eleven year period between 2002 and 2013. Unsurprisingly, in the past twelve years, only ten trials have resulted in successful prosecutions.

These numbers are staggering and speak to the breadth of the violence in this region, but they do not reveal what happens after these people are killed and why there seems to be no end to the violence in sight. The days, months, and years victims of families spend waiting for their cases to be taken to trial, waiting for a wealthy landlord to be convicted, waiting for justice in a lawless region where impunity is the only certainty.


Although he fought for his trial to remain in Marabá, Pidde was sent to Belém on May 9, 2014 to be tried by, what was thought to be, a more impartial jury.  (Pidde currently resides in São Paulo and does not give interviews, but his lawyer, Osvaldo Serrão, agreed to meet with us.) 

Osvaldo is a rich man in Belem.  He drives an expensive car and owns a motel chain.  The “pay by the hour” kind, popular here, especially since most children live with their parents until their thirties.  We met Osvaldo there to interview him.  He ushered us in, ordering his empregada to make juice for the three of us, and led us to the back room to converse.  

“Desculpe pelo atraso” (Sorry for the delay), Osvaldo said. (He was over two hours late for our scheduled interview). “Eu tenho uma ressaca terrível” (I have a terrible hangover), Osvaldo said, chuckling.

His hair slicked back and smelling of some too-strong cologne, Osvaldo was wearing an expensive-looking watch, and several gold chains hung around his neck. A curious hand sculpture sat atop his otherwise barren desk. I think Osvaldo must have seen me eying the sculpture because he soon said: “Um momento,” and opened the desk drawer with a tiny key he had drawn from his pocket.

Eu adoro ouro” (I love gold), Osvaldo stated, pulling out no fewer than five golden chains, one to adorn each of the five fingers of the hand sculpture.

Alex and I eyed each other, not knowing whether this was common small talk among Brazilian lawyers or if we were permitted to laugh at this outrageous gesture. Unsure, we kept silent while Alex reached for her recording device to begin the interview.

“In the trial that we witnessed, you claimed that there was not enough evidence for the prosecution to convict Pidde. The prosecution responded that if you always have to have hard evidence to convict “mandantes” (people who author a crime but order someone else to carry it out, such as Pidde) then no one will ever be convicted. How do you respond to this?” questioned Alex.

“Look,” Osvaldo said. “It took the state eight days to investigate the crime scene. Eight days. They only had enough evidence to prove the identity of three people—to match three names with the five corpses found. Police are being payed a lot of money. A lot of money. But there’s also a lot of corruption.”

Glean: to gather grain that is left after the main crop has been harvested

He paused and took a sip of his acerola juice, a tart fruit native to the Amazon region. (Osvaldo had sugared it up with five packets of sweetener.)

“There are simply not enough judges or prosecutors in Brazil for this system to work as it should. Currently, there is one judge for every three municipalities. Do you know what that means in this region? A one hundred kilometer trip, three different boat rides up a river to reach the nearest court.”

“It is the fault of the state,” he continued. “In the case of Marlon Pidde, it was the prosecution that had to ask Pidde for the names of the victims. That’s right. The prosecution asked the defendant for the names of the people he (Pidde) had ordered to be killed. They didn’t even know.”

We nodded along, puckering our lips at our own tart juices. It wasn’t often that I got the chance to drink a juice without heaps of refined sugar, and I enjoyed experiencing the fruit in its natural state.


There is a famous cookie in Belem called the Monteiro Lopes. It is a chocolate dipped sugar cookie, half of the cookie a chocolate glaze and the other half covered in crystallized sugar. I tried this cookie months ago when one of my students brought it to an English potluck but I only learned of the cookie’s legend a few days ago when another one of my students, working on an English writing assignment to translate traditional Paraense recipes into English, told it to me. (I doubt the accuracy of this story, but as the goal was to produce a translation in English and not necessarily to tell something true about the world, the story serves its purpose). It goes something like this:

Monteiro Lopes” is a tribute to the family that created the recipe for this cookie. Between 1850 and 1890 in Belem, there existed two bakeries: one to the East of Ver-o-Peso and one to the west of this market.  Manuel Monteiro, a mulatto, owned one of the bakeries and Antonio Lopes, of Portuguese descent, owned the other.  They were rivals and each bakery produced different cookies; Monteiro’s produced chocolate-covered biscuits while Lopes’s produced sugar cookies.  When their parents died, Monteiro and Lopes’s children married and joined their bakeries and began producing cookies that blended the two flavors and colors, giving birth to the “Monteiro Lopes.” 

It had been almost a month since I had arrived in Belem before I ordered “mestiço,” arguably one of the most “Paraense” (describes people from Para, the state in which Belem is the capital) flavors on the menu at Cairu, our local icecream shop. I did not just try this flavor, slipping it in in between a taste of passion fruit or mango. I walked up to the counter and said:

“Eu vou querer o mestiço,” without hesitation. Without trying eight to ten flavors first and then settling on chocolate.

When my icecream arrived, I bit directly into the mixture of açaí and tapioca. The tapioca ice cream seemed to overpower the earthier açaí. I wanted them to blend perfectly, but the creamy tapioca took precedence, overriding the subtler tastes of açaí.

I waited. I remembered a story my friend Dylan told me from his experience at a local university. A question that made him uncomfortable, that made him feel his own tapioca-colored skin:

My friend said that we all look like Indians here in Belem. Is that true?” the student persisted.

The earthy flavor of acai with a hint of olive oil lingered in my mouth longer, sending me back to childhood memories of tree-climbing with cousins, vegetable picking with granddaddy, and sharing something homegrown for dinner.

It was the taste of after harvest. Of the fruit gleaned from the ground, already fallen from the tree.

The demographic at UFPA (Universidade Federal do Para) is several skin tones lighter than the general public in Belem. Although the university operates on a system of quotas and reserves spaces for students of African or Brazilian Indian descent, the spots remain unclaimed. In order to enter the university, students must past the Vestibular, a difficult examination somewhat comparable to the SATs in the United States. While the university is free, students of well-to-do (mostly white) families are enrolled in private high schools and almost all of them take expensive “Vestibular courses” to prepare for the rigorous exam.

Meanwhile, the open spots sit there, waiting to be claimed.

With fancy equipment to harvest crops, we don’t glean in the same way as did the women depicted in Jean-François Millet’s painting “The Gleaners.” The three women bent over in the field, gathering the remainder of the wheat harvest before the sun goes down.

the gleaners

Agnes Varda’s film The Gleaners and I examines the way in which our modern society gleans—artists glean materials that have been recycled to create new artwork, and we glean our own lives with cell phones and video cameras that allow us to preserve a piece of ourselves. But rarely do we glean out of necessity anymore.

We aren’t accustomed to picking up the leftovers after the harvest. We let what is left of the crop go to waste– to rot unjustly.

O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

** *

It was the murder of Dorothy Stang (2005), an American nun who had been living and working in Brazil for more than fifty years, that brought attention to crimes over land conflict. Protesting against the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest and supporting poor farmers to defend their land against wealthy cattle ranchers, Dorothy was murdered for her activism. Four trials and eight years later, Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura, the man who ordered the murder of Stang, was finally sentenced to thirty years in prison in September 2013. A result of the international attention gained by the trial, the number of cases being brought to trial after years of waiting has surged in the past decade but few will result in imprisonment.

A system of delayed justice. We come to the field too late.

We glean the facts from a crime committed thirty years in the past. Relatives of the victims are old and their memories are fading. We glean them anyway. But we cannot use the material we have recovered.


June 15, 2014 at Coisas de Negro dancing Carimbo

You will never learn to dance. Dancing comes from the soul,” an old man yells repeatedly, waving his cane at me from the corner of the room

Tentar: To try

Music is the instrument we use. Our bodies we cultivate. Music is the instrument we use to harvest our bodies we cultivate. We cultivate during the spring time to dance in the summer. But I was born in the winter when there was no springtime music. I matured in the springtime to the music of the winter. And, in the summertime, my body mature, I could no longer listen to the music of the springtime.

Oh, let me be gleaned from the barren fields. Taken in by the new crops of the spring. (I promise I won’t spoil!)

I try to dance. My arms do not move at the same rhythm as my feet, my feet hopelessly behind my arms or my arms flailing wildly to catch up with my feet. And my mid-section? It stays stiff and rigid unless my dance partner, some kind sixteen year old boy, knows exactly how to guide my torso to move with the music. To undulate to zouke, to roll with bachata, and to bounce with forro.

The music is wired first through my brain where I deconstruct, analyze, and fret:

Brain, send signals to my feet!

“You must ‘sentir a musica’ (feel the music),” Aderson, my dance instructor, tells me. “You are really flexible, but you just don’t use it.”

That familiar territory of yoga—of looking into myself and forgetting my outer, physical existence—is impossible in a dance class in front of a wall of mirrors. Do I look at myself or my instructor? My feet or their reflection? What about when there are three “me’s,” myself, my reflection, and my second reflection, split by the crack in the mirror? Then, where do I look?

I wait for my partner to lead me, always slightly behind tempo because I am waiting to see what he will do next or sometimes I jump ahead of tempo because my brain thinks, “Oh, I know what this sequence will be. We’ve done it before.” Except my partner creates something different, and my brain tells me I cannot follow this new sequence because I do not know. I do not know.

There is no waiting in dance. Your body must follow the rhythm, creating designs in space to the beat of the music. No time to think of what was or what will be, just of what is.

“I’m not going to teach you steps or sequences,” Aderson tells me. If I just taught you “passos” then you would have to learn how to dance them with each new dance partner. “What I’m trying to teach you is how to listen,” Aderson says, placing his hand on my back. “This is our connection.  Here are your ears.”


The seasons. They, too, are in my head. Belem doesn’t have seasons. Or if it does, they vary by degree, not kind. Spring does not prepare you for summer which provides for you to settle into fall to live comfortably in the winter. No, there are just two seasons in Belem: the wet season, where it can rain all day and the dry season, where it rains every day but just not all day. One just blends into the next, no period of waiting in between.

One day, some three months after June 15, 2014, my feet get the signal. I feel the energy pass from my dance partner to me, a subtle touch that speaks to my feet and sends them across the dance floor. We make designs with our bodies for ourselves to feel, the world to see.

And not one thought:

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?



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