Vale's railway to oblivion

| 16th December 2022 |

An indigenous leader of the Awa Guajá , Tatuxa'a brings a toucan to the village together with the children. The bird's feathers will be used in a headdress.

A visit to the Awa Guajá where people have died from sadness as well as guns since their land became a freight line for the world’s biggest iron-ore mine. Part 1 of 2.

A war for the dominion and control of the earth, of its living forces and living kingdoms, which in Excel spreadsheets are simply called 'resources'. 

'The only thing that’s true is the rainforest is being killed.'

After jotting this down in my notebook I walk through the streets of Auzilândia, a town inhabited by a handful of people who seem to have been isolated by the noise and pollution of a mining train.

This story was originally published in SUMAÚMA - a trilingual, rainforest-based news platform that puts nature at the heart of the storyline by amplifying forest voices. Read Part 2 of this report from Monday, 19 December 2022. 

This place also used to be jungle and now it is a spot that seems to be made of heat and rubble: scrawny looking palm trees; a few white cows.


Peaceful and diabolical, poor animals, eating the pasture that remains among the dry earth that has been turned over.

Men, women and children forgotten next to businesses that are becoming more prosperous with every passing day: soybean farms, cattle ranches and mining operations.

Here where I am in the State of Maranhão in Brazil’s northeastern region, where 80 per cent of the forest is gone.

That means a lot of things, but first and foremost the remaining 20 per cent still breathes, beats, dreams, creates and exists.

Beautiful, fierce and overwhelming. Full of leaves, vines, roots, fungi, feathers, scales, skin, fangs, stings, perfume, buzzing, thickets and sweat; and songs, screams, blood, heartbeats and eyes.

The living jungle is in terminal danger. Meanwhle the post-truth that is causing it to disappear announces exports and dollars by the bucketload, even as it worsens poverty and violence.

Three hundred and fifty kilometers separate Auzilândia from the State capital of São Luís, an island that often finds itself flooded because, during its construction, a huge swathe of shoreline was covered with cement.


The city is home to one of the most important ports in South America – and it is here they bring crops from the fields that used to be jungle, passing colonial shacks that are falling apart.

As the trucks rattle past, some of the soybeans fall from the back, on their way to China to feed factory-farmed pigs. At the side of the road, whole families stand out in the scorching heat with brooms and bags to sweep up the grains, collect them and take them home to eat.

It is the agribusiness sector that runs the show in Maranhão. It owns most of the legislative caucuses, the supermarkets, the shopping malls and the media.

It is backed up by militias (armed groups) as well as other local gangs and criminal organisations from the States of São Paulo and Mato Grosso, the United States and Argentina. Powerful networks that cover up the destruction of the jungle and its many lives with the force of fire and bulldozers.

A war for the dominion and control of the earth, of its living forces and living kingdoms, which in Excel spreadsheets are simply called 'resources'. 

As I write it is September 11th and Antônio Cafeteiro Silva Guajajara, who lived in the Araribóia Indigenous Land, has just been shot dead. He was the third of his ethnic group to be killed in the last ten days.


These men who are now dead were part of the indigenous Guardians of the Jungle. They watch over and defend the 20 percent of the forest that remains. They resist.

Some die because what is happening here and in the rest of the planet is a war not of one country against another but one of rural business and corporations against nature and therefore against those who live in nature.

A war for the dominion and control of the earth, of its living forces and living kingdoms, which in Excel spreadsheets are simply called “resources”.

For the ownership of every tree made into wood, every buried mineral made into metal, every square meter of land emptied of animals, flowers, fruits and languages. Emptied of itself, destroyed, and then ready to produce.

When you google the word Maranhão two things pop up: the voices of the economists for whom this productive model seems a success and Lençóis Maranhenses, a desert of white dunes that floods with rain for three months a year, forming green and blue lagoons with tiny adorable fish.

Tourists come to this desert land, the only territory that survives the greed that consumes trees, animals and people but they have no knowledge whatsoever of the rest of the State. They are not aware of the jungle that has been destroyed nor the living jungle with its indigenous peoples.


The Awa Guajá people live in this jungle that is watched. Some 520 men and women who, despite everything, protect themselves (and us) from extinction.

Since the 1970s they have been forced into contact with the white world and have been living in four villages on the banks of mighty rivers, among huge trees and monkeys, tortoises, snakes, spiders, flowers, butterflies and invaders.

Maranhão is a huge state. The routes to get inland are almost impossible. You can drive for hours with no guarantee of reaching your destination. For this reason, the safest way to travel is to take the mining company Vale’s train.

Vale first arrived here about 50 years ago during Brazil’s dictatorship period with a mission of order and progress that translated into a lot of fatalities and deforestation.

With the Vale train, came men who nowadays call themselves businessmen, but who, for the most part, obtained their property deeds by grabbing land that was indigenous land and killing most of the people who used to live here.

Ever since then, this train has been running through the jungle, paving the way for diseases and hired killers. It spreads toxic dust residue and disrupts the lives of 130 villages and communities


I catch the train at 7 a.m. at Anjo da Guarda (Guardian Angel) station, on the outskirts of São Luís. The train is full, clean and the air conditioning is going full blast.

The sealed windows sweat the heat outside and droplets of moisture hide the chilling images of the endangered jungle: fallen trees, herds of cows and thousands of red iron freight cars stationed at the side of the track.

Although there is a passenger service that runs three times a week, the purpose of the 10,756 railway wagons and 217 locomotives that cover 900 kilometers every day is still the same as when it was first founded: to transport what is extracted from the largest open-pit iron ore mine in the world, Carajás, in the neighboring state of Pará, to the port of São Luís. From there it mostly goes to China.

My fellow travelers are all silent. They are workers, grandparents and families carrying loads of stuff. Every now and then they open a package of food, look out the window, or take a peep at the TV sets that are showing the children’s movie Alvin and the Chipmunks visit the jungle at full volume.

I travel for five hours to Alto Alegre do Pindaré, a town which is a stopover en-route to my final destination in Indigenous land.

The itinerary and meeting with the Awa Guajá was only possible thanks to the help of Inês, whose name is not actually this, but I cannot give any more details because it would put her at risk.

Defending indigenous people while Jair Bolsonaro is president is a dangerous thing to do, even for those who are in official positions.

This was the case with Bruno Pereira, who was part of Funai (the National Indian Foundation) who was murdered this year in Vale do Javari along with the English journalist Dom Phillips.


Alto Alegre do Pindaré station stands on an elevated mound surrounded by grass. There are skinny horses, skinny dogs and black crows flying overhead. The heat is humid and it is sticky.

The village consists of small, simple houses and a center of about five blocks that sells cheap clothes and knick-knacks.

A lot of the houses have colorful birds in tiny cages as well as flower beds and motorcycles. There is nothing even slightly touristy here, but this town has about ten hotels for Vale workers.

The company, which just in 2021 generated 24 billion reais more than the GDP of the entire state of Maranhão (121 billion versus 97 billion, according to the latest official figures), brings all of its workers in from other places.

They are young men and women who throng through the town dressed in gray and blue jumpsuits, as they flit between per-kilo restaurants and local stores.

I get a room at the Betsan Hotel which is just a block of cement in front of the village’s main square. Hanging under an arch, in the sunshine, there’s a caged bird singing.

The hotel has 8 modest rooms which for the most part are occupied by Vale’s employees. According to Karen, the receptionist, I’m an unusual guest. “It’s very funny to have you here,” she says.


Maicon — who is going to be my driver — is in another room. He is a bright and solidly built 36-year-old father of two kids that he has left back in São Luís for these few days.

Maicon was also an outsourced Vale worker and used to drive their trucks around the country, but nowadays he is a driver for Fetaema, the federation that represents 7,000 rural workers in Maranhão, peasants who are always under threat.

I met Maicon thanks to Diogo Cabral, who is the federation’s lawyer and knows more about the conflicts in these lands than anyone else.

Their day-to-day life is always together: Maicon drives thousands of kilometers so that Diogo can get to those who want to stay in the forest, on the river, in the living countryside and who for this reason are in danger.

Diogo is 38 years old, with eyes the color of the river, whose roots are in the indigenous Tapuio people, and who has a soft way of speaking that contrasts with the intensity of his work.

He and Inês are people who restore hope. Maicon too: he is sensitive, curious and believes that a better world could emerge at any moment.

Traveling with their help is like having a lucky charm.


I am the only foreigner in Alto Alegre and the locals think I am exotic. They point at me, ask for pictures and invite me to have a chat. It seems like a quiet place.

“But I don’t want you to be too trusting,” says Maicon as we eat some of the only food that they sell here: beans, rice, tomato and lettuce salad, some meat, fish and pork tripe. There is also prostitution along with robberies and drugs. There are a lot of people from outside, alone and looking for fun.

The first time I spoke with the Awa Guajá people was during the pandemic, when they decided to come out and publicly accuse the government on account of its lack of action in the face of Covid-19. I found a number of things about them fascinating.

For example: they are hunter gatherers, they have practices of inter-species relations such as breastfeeding the young of different animals that they adopt as another child until they are fully grown.

Also, they are our contemporaries and yet they eat, breed and live in such a radically different way. They have uncontacted relatives numbering roughly 100 people who live in the jungle without any links whatsoever to the white world.

Furthermore, those who we came into contact with recently, in other words, those who were forced to leave and negotiate with “our” world, look after them while they take care of themselves and of the jungle for everyone.


In recent years the Awa Guajá have organized themselves internally and set up leaders. They got hold of some motorcycles and quad bikes to move around faster, and cell phones in order to call for help, although their numbers change frequently due to lack of payment.

They built guard houses at the highest points in the jungle and demanded an education system that could quickly teach them the language in which their death sentence, Portuguese, is written over and over again.

The school turned out to be a place of conflict. Despite the legislation and rules that guarantee differentiated, specific, bilingual, intercultural and community education, these guidelines are not respected.

The Awa Guajá asked to learn how the State works and what rights they have as well as to record their own culture before their elders die, but now they understand the education system does not shape citizens or people who are capable of this.

Except for the will of a few teachers who have decided to accompany them with love and care, the educational system is another bulldozer.

All of their proposals are denied: learning in the jungle, having indigenous teachers, learning about our world without losing their own.


This year, ten non-indigenous teachers who have not received any training have entered their schools. And the State has no plans to provide training courses for teachers.

For this reason, many of the Awa Guajá are becoming teachers in their villages and have been encouraged to visit São Luís to perform their rituals.

Showing and including themselves, recognizing themselves in the eyes and stories of others: that is also what they want so as not to disappear.

Months later, after those long-distance interviews, I suggested the possibility of visiting them. The answer was enthusiastic because they wanted to talk and to have someone listen to them.

I then took the appropriate steps - I requested permission from Funai, but within a few hours it was denied. Inês proposed an alternative: we could meet at the entrance to the village, on the riverbank.


It was two days before the meeting and Tatuxa’a, one of the leaders, sent me a photo that had been taken with a drone.

It showed that the ranchers had carved out a field in the middle of the jungle, on the Araribóia indigenous land where his relatives live. The image shows cows grazing in a huge opening in the trees, as if a bomb had been dropped.

“We are afraid. The invaders are everywhere. We found a lot of dead game and trees that had been cut down. And now this. It is very serious,” says Tatuxa’a.

Without the forest there is no oxygen, no food or medicine. Without the forest, the web woven by biodiversity comes apart, potentially unleashing pandemics.

Without the forest there is less rain: the trees that make the State of Amazonas respire 20 million tons of evaporation every day that become rivers traveling between winds and clouds across South America.

Without the forest there is nothing. That is how serious it is.


I share the photo with Diogo and he shares the statistics with me. According to his group, between January 1st and July 31st, 2022, three peasant leaders were murdered in the forest, one-hundred and eighteen people received direct threats and there were 183 land conflicts, including evictions and invasions.

“In Maranhão there is a permit to practice how to get to the end of the world faster, and that is why this is a threat to the entire human race,” Diogo says.

Ten fresh chickens, three large watermelons, five kilos of bananas, two large drums of water, glasses, a flare gun, matches, a knife, napkins.

Maicon buys the things that we have to take with us to the meeting with the Awa people, and I go down to the Pindaré river.

The sky is full of blue-gray clouds. When the sun comes out, it burns the skin. The center of town is deserted.

From the houses come the sounds and smells of family lunches. The street is empty except for a long line of people waiting to eat the food prepared by Fetaema, the organization where Diogo and Maicon work, for the price of 1 real (20 cents).

Peasant agriculture against the hunger that continues to grow in Brazil: 33 million people have to endure it every day.


The river is bright and calm, like a snake that’s asleep. Deep and the color of silver. A creature that sustains the earth and receives its destruction in the form of ever thicker layers of sediment because without trees the shores collapse, the river becomes wider and loses its vitality and nutrients, until it becomes an empty body of spilled water.

I sit on the sand next to some small trees. It smells like rain. A lady, Regina, approaches me. She is sixty-two years old, but seems older, with copper colored hair tied up with a hairclip, a red skirt and a light blue apron on top.

She speaks with a high-pitched, squeaky voice: “Where are you from, what are you doing here, so far away, so pretty, it’s so nice that you are interested in this place. Can I take your picture, they won’t believe me. Let me know if you need anything”.

“I would like to take a tour down the river. Do you know anyone who can take me?” I say to her, and she stands there and she yells out: “Neto, Neto, come here”.

Then two men appeared. The first one Neto, tall and scrawny with skin that looks paper thin. The second one, with gray hair and more heavily built, lifts up his shirt to scratch his belly and reveals an old pistol with a white handle that he strokes like it were a fierce dog.

“We don’t often see outsiders around here,” he says. And then he gets up and goes off without waiting for me to answer.

Neto has got a static glowing smile. I agree to go with him for a ride along the river, to stop on the other bank and look at the jungle for a while.


In his little boat with an engine, we move forward through these waters by ourselves. The wind gets colder, the village fades into the distance and he starts to tell me what is on the other side of the green that we can see.

“Farms and cows and cows and yet more cows. And then Bom Jardim, that’s the name of the place where I come from. Beforehand, I used to live on a plantation, a farm”.

Understand what he is referring to: Neto is one of the invaders who is taking the Awa Guajás’ game.

“But you can’t enter indigenous land, it’s theirs,” I say.

“I go in, yes, I can. I know when they are not around and everything is there. Everything that is not here: there is hunting and fishing. They have all the jungle, that’s why, because the Indians are intelligent.”

“Do you like Indigenous people? “

“I don’t have anything against them, but they have got everything.”

Thick, heavy drops begin to fall. We get back in the boat. We don’t talk anymore. The rainy air is sweet like flowers and fruits.


The road to Caru Indigenous Land is only a short one in terms of the distance but it takes a long time to get there on account of the state of the road. There are holes and mud, and we have to cross the railroad tracks avoiding the cows.

We move forwards in silence. Every now and then we hear birds and cicadas. And every now and then the train goes by: the sound it makes is like blades on metal.

All the freight cars are loaded with the iron ore that the mining company Vale extracts from that open sacrificial crater to make cars vehicles, girders, materials: things, things, things, things.

Maicon is a specialist at finding places to take pictures and videos, especially where you can see that the train is a monster.

He doesn’t talk much about his experience working for the mining company, but I detect a subtle form of revenge in his dedication to denouncing it.

We skirt the little town called Auzilândia and go down to the tiny shore of the river in front of the village.


We are greeted by small yellow butterflies, then huge blue and silver ones. The river is the same one, the Pindaré, but here it is full of little bugs that perch on the surface and swirls that I assume are made by the breathing of the creatures that Neto told me about. And there are mosquitoes of a size I have never seen before.

The plan is for me to cross the river and for Maicon, who can’t swim, to stay on this side. Maicon shoots off the flare to let them know that we have arrived. The roar echoes through the jungle like a cannon shot. We take everything out of the trunk and wait.

Finally Arapio Awa Guajá turns up and swims across the river. To me he is just a teenager, but later I will find out that he was born in 1999 and that he has already got three children; so, for the Awa, he is a man.

He speaks virtually no Portuguese at all, but we manage to understand each other with signs, smiles and sounds that we make in words that don’t even exist. We load up the canoe and cross the river.

On the other side, sixteen people are waiting for me. Panỹxa’a, Arawyta’ĩa, Petua and his wife Amaxika, as young as Piranẽ and Hajkaramykỹa. Irakata-kua, one of the older ones, turns up wearing sun glasses.

One of the best hunters in the village, Takwarixika, and his wife Jaharoa, also came. And Arakari’ĩa, one of Hajkaramykỹa’s two wives.


As well as the leaders there was also Hajkaramykỹa’s son Amiria, Itaxĩa and his wife Takwariratỹa, Tatuxa’a and his son Takwarakỹa. They all have the same surname, that of their ethnic group, the Awa Guajá.

Their outfits were specially designed for today, with feathers and necklaces. There is also Inês, who will be the interpreter, and children who look at us while bathing in the river.

The greenery that surrounds us is the most intense that I have seen in my life.

The young people put mats made from green leaves on the ground for us to sit on. The men arrange themselves in front of me in a semicircle and one by one they introduce themselves.

We are at the distance from each other that this virus continues to require and are wearing the usual face masks.

“Hi there, my name is Tatuxa’a Awa Guajá. I am the chief of the Awa village and I live here in the Caru Indigenous Land.”

Then Itaxĩa and Irakatakua introduce themselves. Irakatakua is the biggest one among them and is wearing glasses.

He speaks softly and no one translates for him. Amiria is next, but he barely manages to say anything before we start to hear the noise of the train.


The metallic sound grows louder and louder until it becomes an overwhelming presence, like a beast made of noise. Everyone looks at each other.

They stop talking as the train from hell goes past. They remain silent for a time that felt like forever to me at that moment, but later, when I transcribed the recording, I found out that it was 12 minutes.

A repetitive, piercing sound like that, which forces us to stop talking, is known as a mind worm: a stimulus that gets into the ears and eats away at the brain.

There is a wealth of scientific evidence showing that repetitive exposure to something like this affects the central nervous system and the brain, contributing to an increased risk of neuropsychiatric disorders.  

Such disorders can include strokes, dementia and cognitive impairment, neurodevelopmental disorders, depression and anxiety.

Particularly sensitive problems in childhood: infants and children do not have the ability to anticipate stress factors of this type and suffer the consequences in a way that is still under study.


The Awa Guajá know what this noise does to the felines and the monkeys, to the birds and to the fish, to the river the banks of which are falling, making it a little bit wider with every passing day.

“The land is falling apart, the animals flee, they run away, and we cannot hunt and so we go hungry,” explains Tatuxa’a.

Ever since the train first came, life here has been worse for everyone.

Vale is supposed to pay compensation. The Mining Observatory (Observatório da Mineração) explains that the company pays a 3.5 percent tariff to the National Mining Agency (ANM).

By law, since 2017, 15 percent of this amount should be set aside for those municipalities that have been affected by mining, i.e., those where there is a railroad, pipeline or any other sort of infrastructure. This amount is peanuts in relation to the estimated US$1.27 billion annual evasion.


When the noise stops, Inês suggests they tell their story. Tatuxa’a goes first. He has small, almond-shaped, black eyes and is wearing a blue T-shirt, an orange feather armband and a black seed necklace.

“This territory we are in is and was Awá territory. It used to all be one big forest, a lively jungle where there were no invasions. But when the Karaí, the whites, came, they tried to wipe out the territories.

All this was told to me by my mother who came here one day fleeing from them and when she wanted to go back there everything was different.”

Tatuxa’a says ‘here’ and ‘there’ marking out with his finger everything that surrounds us, what still exists as jungle and what is nowadays town and road.

“All of this was Awa land,” he says.

“And the river could be crossed on foot,” adds Itaxĩa. But as the train goes by, the banks fall into the water and that’s why the river is getting wider and wider.

“My mother left and when she came back there was no more jungle,” Tatuxa’a continues. The Karaís came with their dogs. They would let them loose to attack us, they would try to divide us. My father also told me stories. All of this was our land.”


The Amazon region’s deforestation maps for Maranhão show this. Historically the Awa occupied the area from the upper Pindaré River (about 500 km south) to the lower Pindaré River where we are.It is a 720 km long river that coincides with the State of Maranhão’s Amazon region. 

Eighty percent of the forest that is no longer there was its territory. A mere 50 years ago the forest was still there. In the region where Itaxĩ was born just 35 years ago, there is no forest whatsoever left.

Tatuxa’a’s parents are two orphans from the region where the Alto Turiaçu Indigenous Land is located. They lost their entire family and rebuilt their lives alone, joining other people who were in the same situation.

This Author

Soledad Barruti is a journalist and writer. She specialises in issues related to nutrition and the food industry for the radio, television and the printed press and also gives talks and courses at universities and institutions in Argentina and across the world.

This story was originally published in SUMAÚMA - a trilingual, rainforest-based news platform that puts nature at the heart of the storyline by amplifying forest voices. Read Part 2 of this report from Monday, 19 December 2022. 

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