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In Colombia’s Saravena, there’s no theft, just murder | International

Night has fallen. Colombian army tanks advance along a dirt road in the dark. Shapes loom menacingly through the bushes and test the soldiers’ nerve.

“This is where most of the killings have taken place,” says General Diego Ducuara from the country’s special forces, indicating a no-go neighborhood.

Saravena has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, amounting to 181 per 100,000 inhabitants. The last remaining active guerrilla force in Colombia, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) rubbed along together until recently but, since the start of 2022, they have been fighting a hand-to-hand battle throughout the Arauca region, with the main focus on this oil-producing town on the Venezuelan border.

In this city of 43,000 inhabitants, no one is destitute and there are no thieves. A cab driver can leave their window open and no one will steal their radio, which is not something that can be said of the capital, Bogotá. Nobody here will snatch your cell phone if you pull it out on the street. Anyone who dares will be found dead the next day, their crime flagged up by a sign reading “thief.”

Military checkpoint during the night on a road in Saravena.
Military checkpoint during the night on a road in Saravena.Camilo Rozo

This year, Saravena has become one of the most violent places on Earth, second only to Ciudad Obregón in Mexico. The authorities have reported 78 murders in the municipality, though it is likely that the figure is higher, with some escaping notice. Almost all the murders have the same modus operandi: two men on a motorbike shoot an unsuspecting pedestrian walking down the street at point-blank range. Often there are no messages left with the corpse. They are not needed. Everyone knows that they are due to the war between the FARC and the ELN.

Questioning the Colonel on how many murders have been solved, he replies, “None,” as he climbs into a SUV protected by a helmet and a bullet-proof vest. Behind him are tanks and vehicles carrying soldiers armed with rifles and hand grenades. So begins a one-hour nighttime patrol that lends the place an air of superficial security, reflected by a child licking ice cream on a terrace as they watch the tanks pass by. But there is another reality, lurking beneath the surface; the one of a corpse whose funeral nobody attends for fear that they will end up the same way. In Saravena, they kill you alone and bury you discreetly. A cloak of silence descends in the same way as happens with the ‘Ndrangheta mafia in southern Italy.

The Colonel and his men stop the driver of a car driving without lights through the center of the city.

– Where are you going?

– Home, says the driver. I’ve just come from work. I just work, work and work and keep my mouth shut.

The man zips his lips closed.

Ducuara arches his eyebrows. He knows that the population will not reveal anything for fear of being found dead the next day with a sign reading snitch on their corpse.

Saravena was founded 50 years ago around the Colombian Institute of Agrarian Reform. The place is so new that the first baby to be born here is just middle-aged. Those who have lived here the longest feel like they belong to the same tribe. The violence is not yet history. It is still fresh, forming a part of everyday life: in that alley they killed four, on that sidewalk seven, and on that sidewalk eleven more. The vehicles once bombed by the guerillas to terrorize the population are still there, burned-out shells scattered across the wasteland, like museum pieces.

Saravena is a militarized town. In certain areas, there are soldiers stationed every one or two blocks.
Saravena is a militarized town. In certain areas, there are soldiers stationed every one or two blocks. Camilo Rozo

The Colonel’s SUV passes sidewalk cafés and bars, discos with phosphorescent lights, restaurants, stores open after hours and a volleyball championship that goes on into the night. Saravena has the air of a cosmopolitan city. But no one bats an eye at the army’s imposing presence; it is part of the landscape. Unlike the rest of the country, there is no paranoia about being robbed. But the inhabitants are as likely as not to witness a shootout on any given evening.

For the criminal gangs, controlling the city means having privileged access to illegal border crossings into Venezuela. Arauca does not grow coca crops, but tons of cocaine come through here every year and end up on the other side of the border. From there, it is sold to the rest of the world. A Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group, the ELN has cultivated a strong presence here and for many years their control went unchallenged. But when drug exports soared, the FARC dissidents gained enough power to contest the NLA’s dominance – these are men who, after the FARC signed a peace treaty in 2016, ignored the demobilization order and took their expertise into the drug business.

For a while, the ELN and the FARC dissidents coexisted in relative peace. In Saravena, the FARC controlled prostitution and gambling establishments, extorting money from merchants in specific neighborhoods. They shared the border crossings over which the cocaine was trafficked. However, the power balance was rocked at the start of 2022 and the fallout has turned the town into a morgue. According to Colombian military sources, the ELN is wiping out the FARC dissidents who have taken refuge in the savannah to try to buy time.

Completing the triangle in this tale of violence is the army, which is fighting both the ELN and the FARC with helicopters, tanks, US weapons and more than 8,000 soldiers – a force far greater than that of the insurgents. But the ELN is so deeply rooted in the local community that it is far from easy to defeat. It administers justice by punishing criminals, mediates divorces, establishes paternity benefits and settles conflicting inheritances. If someone in Saravena has a problem, they don’t call the emergency services. The ELN is the go-to arbitrator.

The military man in charge of this hornet’s nest is Major General Jorge Eduardo Mora López, also a trained member of the special forces. He offers a firm handshake and a hearty slap on the back despite the fact that his unit’s motto is “Confidence kills.”

“The ELN manages the masses with a very well-structured political strategy,” he says. “They know how to manipulate the public. They play with the heart and mind and they have a lot of support. They are a very special organized group, like ETA [the Basque terrorist group].”

With the help of a drone, soldiers patrol one of the oil pipelines passing through Arauca.
With the help of a drone, soldiers patrol one of the oil pipelines passing through Arauca. Camilo Rozo

The FARC lost its ideals somewhere along the way, Mora explains, but the ELN did not. In fact, it took advantage of the fact that, during the era of former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe, the government focused on the FARC in order to grow. Right now, they act as a very real shadow authority. Their business is in and around Saravena, and their commanders live undercover in Venezuela.

The state presence is conspicuous in Arauca, a region that produces 17% of Colombia’s gas with 284 kilometers of pipelines running through it. But it is unclear to what extent the government apparatus is effective. Citizens have to deal with the taxes and laws of the Colombian government as well as the parallel jurisdiction of the ELN. And, if they are very unlucky, they also have to keep the FARC dissidents happy. “Whoever controls Saravena, controls Arauca regarding the armed groups,” Mora adds.

Since the start of the conflict, the people here have seen the groups massacre one another, resulting in a total of 169 homicides. There are 29 Venezuelans among the dead and 20 more unidentified corpses waiting in refrigerators. When the legal deadline for disposing of them is met, they will be buried in unmarked graves.

-Major General, how many of those dead could be ordinary citizens who have nothing to do with the armed groups?

-Most of the homicides are related to the ELN. Innocent deaths? Yes, perhaps there are some, but I would say few.

The commanders stress that the military put their lives on the line in this cross-combat. Two young soldiers lie in the small hospital that serves Colonel Ducuara’s regiment, wounded by gunfire. They were ambushed by a group that killed two comrades. “Hello!” the boys say with smiles, as if amazed to find themselves still alive.

Colombian cities are often misunderstood, and Saravena is no exception. Bogotá is nicknamed “the fridge,” despite the fact you never need to get into winter clothes. Medellín has been dubbed “metrallo,” or shrapnel due to the era of Pablo Escobar’s cartel, though in fact, it is also a city of culture. Saravena…. Sarabomb. Stigmas shape everyday life in Colombia.

Wounded soldiers at the Saravena military base hospital.
Wounded soldiers at the Saravena military base hospital. Camilo Rozo

Yehin Cañas fights to combat the stigmas and misconceptions. In the mornings, she works in her erotic sex toy store; in the afternoons, she is a presenter on Araucana TV. And, once a month, she organizes something she has called Cultura al Parque, a fair for entrepreneurs.

Days before the fair took place in May, a 10-year-old boy approached her. First, he offered her pies made by his grandmother. Then he grew suspicious of the journalist’s ID hanging around her neck:

-You’re not from family welfare, are you? he asked, referring to those in charge of prosecuting child labor.

The social control wielded by the armed groups means that children can wander about at night without fear. Adults leave their front doors open. But Yehin, like the child, is constantly on the alert. You never know who you are really talking to.

She has been organizing this start-up event since January, determined to turn it into a message of peace. However, when it was inaugurated, two people were killed in the vicinity. Now it is purely a young entrepreneur event where everything from Venezuelan arepas – corn pancakes – to crafts made from plastic bag waste are sold. “In the midst of an absurd conflict, and with the government turning a blind eye, it is a way to show that we want peace, tranquility and harmony, and we want to achieve it through dialogue and culture,” she says.

When she was young, Cañas went to Bogotá to try to become an actress. A few years ago, she returned to Saravena despite the conflict. She is convinced that people have to build spaces that generate normality. But the borders and front lines dividing the armed groups are uncertain, the presence of the groups pervasive. They contaminate the air and are hard to ignore.

Day follows night. The tanks have gone to bed and Saravena’s war imagery vanishes. What the soldiers saw in the dark was the so-called Hugo Chávez neighborhood. The authorities believe that many of the ELN militiamen are in hiding here. Saravena’s inhabitants, on the other hand, consider it has to do with stigmatization, of creating an internal enemy, and seeing Colombians themselves as a threat.

-We are asked: Where do you come from? You give the address, the name of the neighborhood, and at once you’re labeled a guerrilla.

Monchi, a social leader, tells us that the neighborhood was built 10 years ago on illegal land by people who had been displaced by the armed conflict. Poverty, lack of education and opportunities mean teenagers in the neighborhood are tempted to take up arms.

The Saravena bike path ends where the Hugo Chávez turf begins. Both the authorities and locals from other neighborhoods recommend a policy of no entry. This is Comanche territory. But, as an insider, Monchi believes the distrust is mutual. No one here is going to raise their arm to stop the SUV in which Ducuara is traveling and ask for help.

The previous night, the soldiers saw the Hugo Chávez locals as suspicious shapes crouching in the shadows while the locals saw the soldiers as shadows with rifles. An impenetrable glass barrier separates the two.

This report has been produced in a collaboration between EL PAÍS and FRANCE 24.

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As anti-gay sentiment grows, more LGBTQ+ people seek to flee Uganda | International

Pretty Peter flicked through frantic messages from friends at home in Uganda. The transgender woman is relatively safe in neighboring Kenya. Her friends feel threatened by the latest anti-gay legislation in Uganda prescribing the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.”

Frightened Ugandans are searching for a way to get out like Pretty Peter did. Some have stayed indoors since the law was signed on Monday, fearing that they’ll be targeted, she said.

“Right now, homophobes have received a validation from the government to attack people,” the 26-year-old said, standing in a room decorated with somber portraits from a global project called “Where Love is Illegal.”

“My friends have already seen a change of attitude among their neighbors and are working on obtaining papers and transport money to seek refuge in Kenya,” she said.

That’s challenging: One message to Pretty Peter read, “Me and the girls we want to come but things a(re) too hard.” Another said that just one person had transport, and some didn’t have passports.

Homosexuality has long been illegal in Uganda under a colonial-era law criminalizing sexual activity “against the order of nature.” The punishment for that offense is life imprisonment. Pretty Peter, who wished to be identified by her chosen name out of concern for her safety, fled the country in 2019 after police arrested 150 people at a gay club and paraded them in front of the media before charging them with public nuisance.

The new law signed by President Yoweri Museveni had been widely condemned by rights activists and others abroad. The version signed did not criminalize those who identify as LGBT+, following an outcry over an earlier draft. Museveni had returned the bill to the national assembly in April asking for changes that would differentiate between identifying as LGBTQ+ and engaging in homosexual acts.

Still, the new law prescribes the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality,” which is defined as cases of sexual relations involving people infected with HIV, as well as with minors and other categories of vulnerable people. A suspect convicted of “attempted aggravated homosexuality” can be imprisoned for up to 14 years. And there’s a 20-year prison term for a suspect convicted of “promoting” homosexuality, a broad category affecting everyone from journalists to rights activists and campaigners.

After the law’s signing, U.S. President Joe Biden called the new law “a tragic violation of universal human rights.” The United Nations human rights office said it was “appalled.” A joint statement by the leaders of the U.N. AIDS program, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Global Fund said Uganda’s progress on its HIV response “is now in grave jeopardy,” as the law can obstruct health education and outreach.

While a legal challenge to the new law is mounted by activists and academics seeking to stop its enforcement, LGBTQ+ people in Uganda have been chilled by the growing anti-gay sentiment there.

The new law is the result of years of efforts by lawmakers, church leaders and others. Scores of university students on Wednesday marched to the parliamentary chambers in the capital, Kampala, to thank lawmakers for enacting the bill, underscoring the fervency of the bill’s supporters.

The new bill was introduced in the national assembly in February, days after the Church of England announced its decision to bless civil marriages of same-sex couples, outraging religious leaders in many African countries. Homosexuality is criminalized in more than 30 of Africa’s 54 countries. Some Africans see it as behavior imported from abroad and not a sexual orientation.

The top Anglican cleric in Uganda, Archbishop Stephen Kaziimba, has publicly said he no longer recognizes the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury as spiritual leader of the Anglican communion. In a statement issued after the bill was signed, Kaziimba spoke of “the diligent work” of lawmakers and the president in enacting the law.

However, he added that life imprisonment is preferable to death for the most serious homosexual offenses.

There were signs a new anti-gay bill was coming in late 2022. There had been widespread concern over reports of alleged sodomy in boarding schools. One mother at a prominent school accused a male teacher of sexually abusing her son.

Even some signs of solidarity or support with LGBTQ+ people have been seen as a threat.

In January, a tower in a children’s park in the city of Entebbe that had been painted in rainbow colors had to be reworked after residents said they were offended by what they saw as an LBTGQ+ connection. Mayor Fabrice Rulinda agreed, saying in a statement that authorities “need to curb any vices that would corrupt the minds of our children.”

In Kenya, Pretty Peter has watched the events closely.

“Ugandans have in recent days been fed with a lot of negativities towards the LGBT, and the government is trying to flex its muscles,” she said of the administration of the 78-year-old Museveni, who has held office since 1986 as one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders.

Pretty Peter said Kenya, a relative haven in the region despite its criminalization of same-sex relationships, is not as safe as she and fellow LGBTQ+ exiles would like it to be. Still, Kenya hosts an estimated 1,000 LGBTQ+ refugees and is the only country in the region offering asylum based on sexual orientation, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

In a secluded safe house on the outskirts of Nairobi, a sense of threat remains.

“We’ve been evicted twice before because neighbors got uncomfortable and accused us of bringing bad values around their children. We also got attacked once at a club in Nairobi so one must really watch their backs,” Pretty Peter said.

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The multinational companies that industrialised the Amazon rainforest | Global development

A handful of global giants dominate the industrialisation of the Amazon rainforest, extracting tens of billions of dollars of raw materials every year, according to an analysis that highlights how much value is being sucked out of the region with relatively little going back in.

But even as the pace of deforestation hits record highs while standards of living in the Amazon are among the lowest in Brazil, the true scale of extraction remains unknown, with basic details about cattle ranching, logging and mining hard to establish despite efforts to ban commodities linked to its destruction.

From the world’s largest iron ore mine to a ranching industry that slaughters more than 6 million animals a year, the Guardian analysis – carried out as part of a joint project with Forbidden Stories to mark the anniversary of the killings of Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips – shows how the world’s most biodiverse land is now also a home to industrial powerhouses. The firms are sources of economic growth and employment for the communities and for the country. But they are operating in an environment – the world’s largest rainforest and a critical carbon sink – that presents unusual challenges.

Aerial view of a deforested and burnt area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaitá in September 2022
A deforested and burnt area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaitá in September 2022. Photograph: Michael Dantas/AFP/Getty Images

These companies’ commitments to Amazon restoration vary enormously. If their operations can be consolidated and made more transparent and accountable, they have the financial power to be part of the solution for the rainforest, rather than the problem – as some have been until now. This is essential because the degradation of the Amazon is approaching a tipping point, after which the forest will start to dry up and lose its globally important function as a climate regulator.

Quick Guide

How we calculated the value of Amazon extraction


How we calculated the value of Amazon extraction

There is no comprehensive data on the economic value of extraction in the Amazon. The Guardian has sought the best-quality data to make estimates for all major sectors. All figures have been adjusted for inflation and presented in 2022 US dollars. The reported value of extraction was not necessarily realised by the company that extracted it.

For the mining sector, we used company reports and market data provided by Refinitiv to estimate the value of production from major projects in the Amazon. For beef, we combined data on slaughterhouse capacity from Imazon research with information on the average idleness rate and its market value, according to Scot Consultoria, to estimate the value of production in Brazil. 

For soya beans, we combined historical market data with research by Trase on soya exports to estimate its value. For pulp, we estimated the value of production using port export disclosures and average annual price data. Palm oil figures were based on the material published by the relevant companies.

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Using company records, financial data and scientific studies, the Guardian has tried to establish the value of goods that are commonly extracted from the Brazilian Amazon, including through gold, iron ore and bauxite mining, cattle ranching, soy farming, pulp production and the logging industry.

Mining and meat

In terms of revenue, one company stands head and shoulders above the others: since 2010, the Brazilian mining company Vale has extracted more than 4bn tonnes of iron ore from Carajás mine, in the state of Pará, worth $220bn (£176bn), according to the analysis.

Satellite images showing the increasing size of the Carajás iron ore mine in Pará, Brazil. Source: Planet Labs PBC.
Satellite images showing the increasing size of the Carajás iron ore mine in Pará, Brazil. Source: Planet Labs PBC.

Pará is also home to Alunorte, the biggest aluminium refinery outside China, generating about $15.3bn in revenue since 2014 for the Norwegian mining firm Norsk Hydro, which is part-owned by the Norwegian government.

Aerial view of the Norsk Hydro Alunorte refinery in Barcarena, Pará state
The Norsk Hydro Alunorte refinery in Barcarena, Pará state. Photograph: Jonne Roriz/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Alcoa and MRN lag behind these vast numbers, but they too are realising large revenues. Alcoa, a Pittsburgh company that has only recently moved into the Amazon, does not release figures that are easily interpretable. MRN, a subsidiary of Vale, has produced bauxite ore worth $8.3bn since 2013 from its operation in Pará.

The mining sector, by far the most financially lucrative Amazon activity, includes many small firms, with more than $4.2bn of gold extracted between 2018 and 2022 by artisan producers, according to analysis of figures provided by Refinitiv, part of the London Stock Exchange Group. But the lion’s share goes to the big companies at the top.

Maurício Angelo, the founder of the Mining Observatory, notes that the area occupied by legal industrial mining in Brazil has grown sevenfold since 1985. He says this expansion brings huge environmental liabilities, including infrastructure (roads, hydroelectric plants, ports, railroads.) as well as the removal of traditional peoples, and the threat of disaster.

Overall, he says, the industry has never lived up to its claims of sustainability. “Mining did not deliver the development it promised and confined cities and entire regions to underdevelopment, with very low quality of life, few and precarious jobs, with huge environmental liabilities and almost no practical return for society.”

Vale says it is aware that as a company it has a responsibility to “contribute to socioeconomic development and establish relationships of respect and trust in the territories where it is present”. It says it has invested more than 1bn Brazilian reais (about $200m) over the last decade in protection, research, territorial development and cultural incentive actions in the Amazon.

Cattle in a holding pen on a farm in São Félix do Xingu, Pará state
Cattle in a holding pen on a farm in São Félix do Xingu, Pará state. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

The beef industry is far smaller than the mining sector in terms of economic value, though not in impact and footprint. Data is hard to find, but according to the Guardian’s analysis, cattle slaughtered in the Amazon by JBS were worth about $5bn in 2016 while they were still in Brazil, while JBS’s closest competitors, Minerva and Marfrig, processed about $600m and $1bn’s worth respectively. The value fell dramatically in 2022, largely because of exchange rate fluctuations, to $3.9bn for JBS, $547m for Minerva and $709m for Marfrig. But this is just the value of the beef coming out of the slaughterhouse; far more value will be added further along the complex supply chain, and by an overwhelming margin the economic value of this industry is being realised outside Brazil, on dinner plates at restaurants in Beijing and New York.

Paulo Barreto, senior researcher with the Brazilian research institute Imazon told the Guardian: “Although major beef supply companies, including meatpackers, supermarkets and financial institutions, have pledged to decouple from deforestation, the sector has not done all that it should.” He argued that the combination of irresponsible behaviour by some private companies with “the dismantling of public conservation and indigenous policies in the past four years led to a twofold increase in deforestation rates in the region compared to the previous ten years average.”

Ranching is the biggest driver of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions after land grabbing, with which it is often closely associated. By 2018, the Brazilian Amazon had lost 741,759 sq km (about 286,000 sq miles) of its original forest cover, mainly due to agricultural expansion. This accelerated during the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, when forest clearance increased by 59.5%, the fastest rate since at least 1988. More than 2bn trees were cut or burned.

Quick Guide

What is the Bruno and Dom project?


What is the Bruno and Dom project?

Bruno Pereira, a Brazilian Indigenous expert and Dom Phillips, a British journalist and longtime Guardian contributor, were killed on the Amazon’s Itaquaí River last June while returning from a reporting trip to the remote Javari Valley region.

The attack prompted international outcry, and cast a spotlight on the growing threat to the Amazon posed by extractive industries, both legal and illegal, such as logging, poaching, mining and cattle ranching.

A year after their deaths, the Guardian has joined 15 other international news organisations in a collaborative investigation into organised crime and resource extraction in the Brazilian Amazon. The initiative has been coordinated by Forbidden Stories, the Paris-based non-profit whose mission is to continue the work of reporters who are threatened, censored or killed.

The goal of the project is to honour and pursue the work of Bruno and Dom, to foreground the importance of the Amazon and its people, and  to suggest possible ways to save the Amazon.

Who was Bruno Pereira?

Pereira, 41, was a former employee of the Indigenous agency Funai where he led efforts to protect the isolated and uncontacted tribes who live in the Brazilian Amazon. After being sidelined from his post soon after the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro came to power, Pereira went to work with the Javari Valley Indigenous association Univaja, helping create Indigenous patrol teams to stop illegal poachers, miners and loggers invading their protected lands.

Who was Dom Phillips?

Phillips, 57, was a longtime contributor to the Guardian who had
lived in Brazil for 15 years. A former editor of the dance magazine Mixmag, he developed a deep interest in environmental issues, covering the link between logging, mining, the beef industry and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. His reporting brought him into contact with Pereira, and in 2018 the pair took part in a 17-day expedition deep into the Javari Valley. In 2021 he took a year off to start writing a book, titled How to Save the Amazon. His return to the Javari was to have been the last reporting trip for the project.

What is the Javari Valley?

Sitting on Brazil’s border with Peru and Colombia, the Javari Valley
Indigenous Reservation is a Portugal-sized swathe of rainforest and
rivers which is home to about 6,000 Indigenous people from the Kanamari, Kulina, Korubo, Marubo, Matis, Mayoruna and Tsohom-dyapa groups, as well as 16 isolated groups.

It is also a hotspot for poachers, fishers and illegal loggers,
prompting violent conflicts between the Indigenous inhabitants and the
riverside communities which fiercely opposed the reservation’s
creation in 2001. Its strategic location makes it a key route for smuggling cocaine between Peru, Colombia and Brazil.

What happened to Pereira and Philips?

On 2 June 2022, Pereira and Phillips travelled up the Itaquaí River from the town of Atalaia do Norte to report on efforts to stop illegal fishing. Two days later, members of the Indigenous patrol team with whom Pereira and Phillips were travelling were threatened by an illegal fisher. Early on 5 June, the pair set out on the return leg before dawn, hoping to safely pass a river community that was home to several known poachers. 

They never arrived, and after a search by teams of local Indigenous activists, their remains were discovered on 15 June.

Three fishers are being held in high-security prisons awaiting trial for the killings: brothers Amarildo and Oseney da Costa de Oliveira and a third man, Jefferson da Silva Lima. 

Federal police have alleged that a fourth man, nicknamed Colombia, was the mastermind of the killings.

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JBS, the world’s biggest meat company, has been urged to use its commercial strength to improve environmental and social governance in the Amazon. The last story by Phillips published in the Guardian was a report about a 65% increase in JBS profits in the last quarter of 2020. The story quoted Mauro Armelin, of Friends of the Earth, observing that the results meant the firm had “plenty of money to spend in removing illegal deforestation from its Amazon supply chain”. JBS has promised to do this by 2025, but it has made no commitment to restitution for the damage its operations have already caused. JBS disagreed with the Guardian’s analysis but declined to comment.

Soya and pulp

The soya sector is another powerhouse in the region. Between 2014 and 2020, five multinational food companies – Bunge, Cargill, ADM, Amaggi and Louis Dreyfus – extracted soya worth $18bn on global markets, according to the analysis. The major players have all signed a moratorium to halt deforestation.

Palm oil and pulp production are also growing industries in the Brazilian Amazon. The Brazilian paper maker Suzano produced about $5bn of eucalyptus pulp between 2018 and 2022, according to the analysis. Brasil Biofuels is established entirely in the Amazon, and had revenues in 2022 of about $305m. Agropalma, another biofuel giant, operates mainly in the Amazonian state of Pará and had revenues of about $284m in 2021 and $468m in 2022, with plans to increase production by 50% by 2025.

A eucalyptus plantation and rainforest about 50 miles north of Porto de Moz, Pará state
A eucalyptus plantation and rainforest about 50 miles north of Porto de Moz, Pará state. Photograph: Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace

The companies involved in these activities all claim they are part of the Amazon solution because they only plant on land that was degraded more than 10 years ago. “We have a regenerative business model,” says Suzano, adding that it plants more than 1.2m trees a day and only harvests what it plants.

There is plenty that it is not possible to quantify or measure. The analysis does not include the corporations providing services – the giant seed tech companies, or the construction companies building roads and houses, the hydropower companies and heavy machinery producers. Without measurable assets, it is impossible to estimate the value being produced for those companies within the legal Amazon territory. The timber and fishing industries have remained far more diversified, as have most of the crops (bananas, acai, cacao) besides the ones mentioned above.

And the analysis does not include the most valuable asset of all: land, and the role that the cattle industry has played in converting forest into pasture. The Science Panel for the Amazon concluded that 15.1m hectares (37.3m acres) of public land was taken into private hands between 1995 and 2017, and noted a trend in which “cattle enterprises bought or appropriated forested land at a relatively low market price and, after ‘producing’ land without forest, transferred it at the much higher price of land covered by pasture”.

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Graph showing growth in pasture land in the Amazon

These operations may have yielded $400m a year in profit for that period alone, states the report, arguing that cattle is the perfect way to transform forest into private property.

One of the problems, observers say, is that an extractivist development model has prevailed in the Brazilian Amazon ever since it was opened up by the country’s military dictatorship in the 1970s. The World Bank has belatedly recognised the folly of this approach, with a recent report finding that the losses caused by clearing the Amazon, at $317bn a year, were seven times higher than the gains from commodity extraction.

A satellite view of wildfires in the Amazon in August 2019
A satellite view of wildfires in the Amazon in August 2019. Photograph: Nasa

But the trend has been towards ever greater depletion of the forest to satisfy global markets and shareholders, encouraged by the Brazilian government which has helped things along with easily available finance, tax exemptions and hefty subsidies.

Meanwhile, it is still often impossible to establish the provenance of beef, gold or other commodities from the rainforest, and global market regulators and trade institutions have been criticised for continuing to permit opaque supply chains.

This logic, which has prevailed since the first European colonisers invaded South America more than 500 years ago, is now under intense scrutiny because the Amazon is so degraded that scientists warn this pillar of the global climate is close to collapse. At the very least, companies operating in this region need to be more accountable, more transparent, more efficient and more willing to pass on environmental costs to their customers and shareholders rather than nature.

Members of the Kayapo Indigenous group walk along a highway on the outskirts of Novo Progresso
Members of the Kayapo Indigenous group walk along a highway on the outskirts of Novo Progresso in August 2020 during a protest against a lack of government support during the Covid pandemic and illegal deforestation in and around their territories. Photograph: Lucas Landau/Reuters

‘Giving something back’

In response to the Guardian’s analysis, several of the companies said they contributed to the local economy, followed national laws and tried to minimise their environmental impact. Their responses give an idea of the varying levels of commitment to “giving something back”.

Brazil Biofuels argued it should not be considered an extractive company because it only planted palm oil plantations on land degraded before 2007. “The business model recovers the Amazon biome, contributes to the balance of the forest, stocks carbon, [and] works to recompose the soil cover and the biogeochemical and hydrological cycles. In addition, by generating employment and income for needy communities, it encourages forest preservation and reduces the impact of deforestation,” it said.

Similarly, the eucalyptus firm Suzano said it was a “vocal critic of the lack of action to combat deforestation in Brazil” and had a regenerative business model. “Over 40% of our land is set aside for permanent conservation (nearly 1m hectares), including significant areas in the Amazon, Cerrado and Atlantic Forest biomes,” the company said in an email. It claimed its social programmes had helped 30,000 people out of poverty and generated R$79m of income for local people.

The mining firm Vale stressed the role it plays in the local and Brazilian economy, saying the Carajas complex and other operations in the Amazon accounted for almost half of all Brazil’s mineral exports, and it protected more than 800,000 hectares (2m acres) of rainforest in the state of Pará in partnership with Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade. Vale said it “reaffirms its commitment to transparency and sustainable mining, promoting socioeconomic development and conservation in the areas where it operates”.

Norsk Hydro said it had been established since 1905, with social responsibility as part of its culture. However, the move from joint venture ownerships to becoming an operator of large plants in remote areas of Brazil had been a steep learning curve. “We work closely with the communities where we operate. After the Brazil rainfall in 2018, we realised our relationship and trust from our neighbours wasn’t as good as it should have been, so we have made efforts to improve our dialogue with local communities. We focus in particular on enabling young people to get an education, and on improving and implementing new technologies in our operations to reduce our impact,” it said.

Amaggi, the largest private producer of soya beans in the world, said it did not recognise the Guardian’s estimates of financial data because they were not based on a precise tool. The Brazil-based firm said it did not sell from areas deforested after 2008 in the Amazon biome, and that it ran social investment projects through foundations, including efforts to improve food security. During the pandemic, it donated more than 150,000 staple food kits.

The grain trader Cargill, the biggest privately owned company in the US, said it had accelerated its commitment to eliminate deforestation in its soya supply chain in the Amazon and two other biomes by 2025. The multinational said it was investing significantly in ending deforestation in South America by running programmes and training to help farmers, increasing technology to improve traceability, and investing in teams in Brazil and throughout South America to accelerate deforestation efforts.

A soya-bean field south of the city of Santarém.
A soya-bean field south of the city of Santarém. Photograph: Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace

Minerva Foods, which operates numerous slaughterhouses in the Amazon, said it monitored the land use of its direct cattle suppliers and worked to get them into a programme to measure and reduce carbon emissions. The company said it used the best available technology to ensures compliance with environmental and land tenure regulations.

Marfrig told the Guardian that under a programme launched in 2020, it now monitored 100% of its direct suppliers, while for indirect suppliers the traceability rates reached 80% in the Amazon biome and 74% in the Cerrado biome. “Marfrig has been recognised as the leading animal protein company in various rankings, indices, lists and reports that serve as benchmarks for evaluating ESG [environmental, social and governance] policies and practices in recent years,” it said.

Agropalma said it had a long history of preserving nature and respecting the communities close to its operations. “We are committed to zero deforestation: through a strict no-deforestation policy, since 2002, Agropalma no longer converts forests into palm plantations,” it said. It noted it also had a longstanding partnership with Conservation International to monitor the biodiversity in its forest reserves.

JBS disputed the Guardian’s analysis but declined to comment further.

  • Research by Gisele Lobato, Pablo Pires Fernandes, Andrew Downie, The Mining Observatory, Refinitiv, Imazon and Trase.

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Tragic Train Derailments in India: Over 240 Lives Lost and Hundreds Trapped in Wreckage

By Satish Sharma | Contributor ‘Voice of EU’

Two passenger trains in India met with a devastating accident, resulting in a death toll of at least 240 individuals and leaving hundreds more trapped inside severely damaged coaches.

The incident occurred approximately 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) northwest of New Delhi, the capital city. Rescue efforts are underway, with around 700 injured individuals already taken to nearby hospitals for urgent medical attention. The cause of the derailment is currently under investigation, as authorities work tirelessly to determine the factors that led to this catastrophic event.

Dattatraya Bhausaheb Shinde, the leading administrator in the Balasore district, confirmed the death toll and expressed deep sorrow over the tragedy. The extent of the devastation prompted an immediate response, with nearly 500 police officers, rescue workers, and medical personnel deployed to the scene. These brave individuals, equipped with 75 ambulances and buses, are diligently working to extricate approximately 200 individuals who remain trapped inside the wreckage.

According to Amitabh Sharma, a spokesperson for the railroad ministry, the derailment involved 10 to 12 coaches from one train, causing debris from the mangled coaches to spill onto an adjacent track. Tragically, another passenger train traveling in the opposite direction collided with the fallen wreckage. As a result, up to three coaches from the second train also derailed, exacerbating the scope of the disaster.

Initial reports indicate that the derailed train, known as the Coromandel Express, was en route from Howrah in West Bengal state to Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu in southern India. The news of this horrific incident reached Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who expressed his distress and offered his condolences to the affected families. In a tweet, he assured that all possible assistance is being extended, having already discussed the matter with the railway minister.

While the Indian government has taken measures to enhance rail safety, accidents continue to occur frequently on the vast railway network, which is the largest under a single management worldwide. India’s railways carry millions of passengers daily, covering an extensive network of 64,000 kilometers (40,000 miles). Despite ongoing efforts to modernize infrastructure and equipment, many accidents are attributed to human error or outdated signaling systems.

This tragic incident serves as a stark reminder of the challenges faced in ensuring the safety of India’s railway system. As rescue operations persist, the nation mourns the loss of lives and hopes for the swift recovery of those injured. The investigation into the causes of the derailment will play a crucial role in preventing similar incidents in the future.

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