Around dinner time on 21 November 2000, a nervous 19-year-old man knocked on the door of Maria Joel Dias da Costa’s house, located in the backcountry Amazonian town of Vila Rondon. The unknown man asked to see her husband Dezinho, a union leader, but he was out. She invited the visitor to wait, which he did for a while, but then he got up to go. As he was leaving, Dezinho was just arriving home. Seconds later, Maria Joel’s husband was lying dead in a ditch, the life blasted out of him by a .38-caliber revolver.
So runs the centrepiece of Masters of the Lost Land, a compelling and forensically researched piece of investigative reporting by the Spanish journalist Heriberto Araujo. His four-year search to explain the how and why of this cold-blooded murder leaves few stones unturned: 200 face-to-face interviews, 100,000 pages of documentation sourced from a dozen archives and scores of freedom of information requests (the endnotes alone run to 67 pages).
With more than 1,700 murders over the past decade, never has there been a more dangerous time to be an environmental activist. And nowhere is more perilous than Amazonia, as last year’s high-profile killing of the British journalist Dom Phillips and the indigenous campaigner Bruno Pereira illustrated. In that sense, Araujo’s book provides a thorough, yet sadly familiar, chronicle of a death foretold.
The first half takes us up to the moment of the gunman’s appearance at Dezinho’s door. The backstory is one shared by millions of other poor immigrants to the world’s largest rainforest. Attracted by the government-backed slogan ‘A land without people for people without land’, Maria Joel and her husband headed to Pará state to build a new life. It was the 1980s, and Amazonia was finally opening up for business: new highways, abundant investment and a surplus of opportunities for getting rich quick.
The only snag was the promise of land.