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Contesting the Amazon as an ‘Open Space for Development’ by Lee Pegler and Julienne Andrade Widmarck

The use of land for soya cultivation in the Brazilian Amazon has led to compelling debates on the sustainability of the movement of products globally through global value chains (GVC) and the democratic processes surrounding these. All of us, in the Global North and Global South alike, have played a role in stimulating the expansion of GVCs in the Amazon that has led to an increase in the precarity of livelihoods, landlessness, and health/environmental problems. Without sustained and imaginative strategies by local and transnational social movements, this disjuncture between the market, sustainable futures, and democratic processes may simply widen.

The Amazon does not leave the news. Fires of unprecedented scale have devastated the area and are still occurring at a fast pace[1]. The latest wave of fires in the Brazilian Amazon appears to be not just an ecological warning, but also part of a cyclical strategy for land recovery and sale and/or alternating use of soya and cows by farmers[2]. The lungs and waters of our collective ecological future are at stake[3]. Nevertheless, those of us in other parts of the world are not without responsibility for this. At the same time, we are open to the assertion that the fate of the Amazon is none of our business.

What happens in the Amazon is our business, however. For example, energy- and protein-inefficient soya for animal feed produced in the Amazon is promoted as a low-cost input for sale to European farmers from a value chain supported by Dutch capital and the Dutch state[4]. Whilst Dutch farmers react to EU directives to curb emissions[5], Dutch and European consumers continue to purchase meat and dairy products, produced thanks to soya supplied as bulk feed for cattle and pigs from unsustainable and conflictual locations such as the Brazilian Amazon[6].

Amazon squeezed from all sides—can it cope?

The soya Global Value Chain (GVC) emerging from the Brazilian Amazon is threatening local populations’ security, livelihoods, and health as widespread deforestation continues to make room for soya plantations[7]. Various national and multinational companies financing land, sourcing output, and providing infrastructure for this chain (e.g. for local ports) are reacting to an increased demand for soya, thus “doing what the market tells them to do”.

The Dutch government, one of the countries with the greatest demand for soya is, on one side of the chain, emphasizing their country’s sustainable policies, initiatives, and institutions[8]. On the other side of this chain (in Brazil), we have a national regime that sees the Amazon as an “open space” for commerce (for cows, soya, minerals, and tourism) and a civil society that is fighting to raise the voices of indigenous communities and small-scale farmers threatened by these developments[9]. Thus, while there is a push for more responsible soya production practices from outside and from within, this is countered by the Brazilian government’s aim to commercialize the Amazon further[10]. The Amazon is being squeezed from all sides—can it cope?

This particular debate on the soya GVC is being studied within the ISS/EUR Governance of Labour and Logistics for Sustainability (GOLLS) programme[11]. In a project about commodity traders and social movements, we are exploring the link between firms at a global level and their activities in this region/sector. What is evolving is called the Ferrogrão[12] (logistical train/road grain chain) and a waterway silo-platform-barge system (strongly supported by Dutch firms and government) for the more efficient movement of soya along the Tapajos river, up the Amazon River, and then onto Europe/the Netherlands/Rotterdam[13] (Figure 1 below).


Figure 1 – Logistic Plan of Soya GVC in Amazon. Credit: Portal of the Company of Planning and Logistics S.A. (EPL)

Ongoing resistance to land use changes

A key mechanism for resisting these plans, used by local communities, small-scale farmers, indigenous groups, and their social movement supporters, has been a process of participation and rights recognition through ILO Regulation 169[14] (ratified by Brazil in 2003). Along with campaigns urging farmers not to sell their land, this participation protocol process has been one of the flags of resistance of affected parties and their supporters[15]. This reliance on institutional regulation and push for greater transparency on land rights[16] has helped boost the morale of many and put some local players in a position of influence, but also greater precarity[17].

Experiences locally and in other contexts note how such struggles consume many resources and will be met by counteraction by firms and, at times, by the state[18]. This is also happening here. For example, the current Brazilian federal regime is further undermining this rights process via proposals[19] for land area freezes for the indigenous, increased rights to mining in protected territories, and in amended participation rights—groups may still have their say, but no veto over “development” proposals[20].

At a local level, NGOs have been asked to explain their activities to public representatives[21]. Indeed, the ambient surrounding our case studies (one where land has been appropriated and soya grown, the other a mainly mining community where soya from other regions is being stored) reflects these local political economy dynamics. In one location, capital accumulation is dominated by “the laws of small-scale mining,” whereas, in the soya production case study, even the more accepted model of concertation (“accumulation by legislation” – i.e. by rules) is under pressure[22].

This situation clearly requires more concerted public awareness and broader level (international) collective responses. This ISS-EUR/Brazilian research programme seeks to widen the scope of awareness and societal action on these themes. We plan to move beyond our present case studies to other logistical points and to carry out further participative studies of local (displaced) communities.

It is essential to take these issues up to centers of decision making in the Global North (much as is being done by indigenous leader gatherings across Europe and by action groups like the “Amsterdam Coalition for Democracy in Brazil”). Local and transnational social movements are under severe pressure to make their cases heard[23]. Without sustained and imaginative strategies by them and others, this disjuncture between the market, sustainable futures, and democratic processes may simply widen.

About the authors:

JulienneJulienne de Jesus Andrade Widmarck has been a PhD researcher at the ISS since 2018 and a PhD student in Applied Economics at the Federal University of Uberlândia from 2019. She was a substitute professor at the Federal University of Viçosa from 2017 to 2019. Currently, she is a consultant in Territorial Development, Agroindustry, and Business Planning. She has experience in the field of agricultural economics, with an emphasis on commodities exportation, econometric methods, and family farming. Outside the academic field, she develops financial empowerment activities and participates in the National Human Rights Movement in Brazil.

Lee 3Lee Pegler spent his early career working as an economist with the Australian Labour Movement. More recent times have seen him researching the labour implications of “new” management strategies of TNCs in Brazil/ Latin America. This interest expanded to a focus on the implications of value chain insertion on labour, both for formal and informal workers. Trained as an economist and sociologist (PhD – LSE), he currently works as Assistant Professor (Work, Organisation and Labour Rights) at the ISS.

Title Image Credit: Vinícius Mendonça/Ibama from FotosPublicas
Amazon Aid Foundation. Illicit and Unregulated Gold Mining. Viewed: 21 April, 2020. <>
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van Beek, S. (2018, November 15). All Eyes on the Amazon: the future of protecting forests in Brazil, Both Ends. Retrieved from:
Brum, E. (2019, August 13) In Bolsonaro’s burning Brazilian Amazon, all our futures are being consumed, The Guardian. Retrieved from:
CAMPELO, L.; VECCHIONE GONCALVES, Marcela. Terras na Região do Cerrado Viram Alvo de Especuladores. Brasil de Fato, 06 fev. 2017.Retrieved from:
CAMPELO,  L.; VECCHIONE GONCALVES, Marcela . Pará atende agronegócio e ignora comunidades as construir ferrovia, dizem lideranças. Brasil de Fato, Belém, 22 ago. 2017. Retrieved from:
FERN25 (2019, August 29). NGOS CALL FOR NEW LAWS TO END THE EU’S COMPLICITY IN AMAZON FIRES. Viewed: 23 April 2020. <>
Fonseca, A., Cardoso, D., Ribeiro, J., Salomão, R., Souza Jr., C., & Veríssimo, A. 2019. Boletim do desmatamento da Amazônia Legal (setembro 2019) SAD (p. 1). Belém: Imazon. Retrieved from:
Friedman, A. ( 2016, October 16). RELEASE: Secure Land Rights in Amazon Brings Billions in Economic and Climate Benefits, Says New WRI Report, World Resources Institute.  Retrieved from:
Global Forest Atlas, Cattle Ranching in the Amazon Region, Yale University, viewed 22 April 2020, <>.
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Grossman, D. ( 2016, June 13). Q&A: How a Soybean Boom Threatens the Amazon, Pulitzer Center. Retrieved from :
Harari, I. (2018, March 06).Xinguanos insistem em consulta antes da concessão da Ferrogrão, Intituto Socioambiental. Retrieved from:
International Institute of Social Studies. Global Value Chains in Brazil and Netherlands/Governance of Labour & Logistics for Sustainability. Viewed: 28 April 2020, <>
James, C.H. (2019, August 30). As the Amazon burns, cattle ranchers are blamed. But it’s complicated.  Retrieved from:
Krauss, C. Yaffe-Bellany, D.and Simões M. (2019, October 10). Why Amazon Fires Keep Raging 10 Years After a Deal to End Them. Retrieved from
Kuijpers, K. (2018, April 25). Investigation Dirty hands in Brazil ‘Sustainability is just a story’,  De Groene Amsterdammer. Retrieved from:
Londoño, E. Casado, L. ( 2020, April 19). As Bolsonaro Keeps Amazon Vows, Brazil’s Indigenous Fear ‘Ethnocide’, The New York Times. Retrieved from:
Passos, R. ( 2018, December 17). New Brazilian government to back rail freight development, International Railroad Journal. Retrieved from:
Phillips, D. ( 2018, December 10). Illegal mining in Amazon rainforest has become an ‘epidemic’, The Guardian. Retrieved from:
Phillips, D. ( 2020, March 10). ‘Project of death’: alarm at Bolsonaro’s plan for Amazon-spanning bridge, The Guardian. Retrieved from:
Relatório Reservado, As próximas rotas do Farallon no Brasil, viewed 22 April 2020, <>.
Schaart, E. (2019, October 16). Angry Dutch farmers swarm The Hague to protest green rules. Retrieved from :
Smith, K. (2020, Feb 20) Forest Fire: An update on the Amazon wildfires. Georgia State University. Retrieved from: https://news.gsu .edu/files/2020/02/fire-4429478_800.jpg
Terra de Direitos. Filme sobre a experiência de protocolos de consulta no Tapajós será exibido em Instituto na Holanda, viewed 28 April 2020. <>
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Indigenous and environmental rights under attack in Brazil, UN and Inter-American experts warn. Viewed: 23 April 2020, <>.
Urzedo, D. I. (2019, August 24). Amazon, the ‘lungs of the planet’, is on fire – here are 5 things you need to know. The Print. Retrieved from:
[21] Also noted in author interviews with social actors in Santarem, October/November, 2019.


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Countering attempts to undermine the rule of law through lawfare in Suriname by Jeff Handmaker

In November 2019, an all-women panel of judges presiding over a decade-long court martial in Suriname convicted Desiré Delano Bouterse, the country’s current president, for international crimes that include torture and extra-judicial executions. While legal mobilisation can legitimately be used to bring about justice, Bouterse and his supporters have used lawfare to try to prevent his trial from proceeding. The trial eventually took place and Bouterse was sentenced to 20 years in prison, while some of his co-accused were acquitted. Bouterse remains in office following the judgement, and it now remains to be seen whether legal mobilisation will triumph over ongoing attempts to use lawfare to undermine the rule of law.

The December Murders

Apart from its historic significance, the case against Bouterse and his co-accused for international crimes is a vivid illustration of the use of lawfare and legal mobilisation, both of which I have been following closely as an independent trial observer and as a researcher generally. The case concerns events that took place in December 1982, referred to by many as the so-called December Murders, at the time when Bouterse served as a commander in the Suriname army after having participated in a military coup. Various accounts of the events reported that 16 men, a combination of civilians and soldiers, all of whom were openly critical of Bouterse, were arrested in the middle of the night, brought to a military base at Fort Zeelandia (dating back to the colonial era), lined up against a wall, and shot. The bodies were brought to a local hospital for investigation, where it became evident that the men who perished had not only been executed without a trial, but had also been tortured.

A trade unionist who managed to survive the incident, Fred Derby, later filed an official statement about what had happened in 1982, which became a crucial part of the evidence presented once the court martial was established in 2007. Three years later, in 2010, despite the ongoing trial, Bouterse was elected president, a position he subsequently used to hinder the trial’s development.

At the time the court handed down its judgement in November 2019, which had been twelve years in the making, Bouterse was abroad on a trade mission in China. He returned to Suriname a few days later, perhaps after obtaining confirmation that a warrant for his arrest had not been issued, receiving a large and enthusiastic welcome at the airport from his supporters. Statements made through his lawyer questioning the legitimacy of the court’s judgement, and which undermine the rule of law, have been published in the local media.

Using lawfare to bend the law in one’s favour

As head of a trial observation mission appointed by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in Geneva, I have been following this trial closely since May 2012. The case has revealed several examples of lawfare, whereby numerous law-based manoeuvres on the part of Bouterse himself, as well as his legal representative, his appointed officials, and members of his political party in the legislature have sought to undermine the rule of law in Suriname, and, more specifically, to stop the trial from taking place.

The court martial took over a decade to issue its judgement, during which period there was extensive use of lawfare to either delay or completely shut down the trial. These included legislating an Act of Amnesty (later declared by the court to be unconstitutional), ordering the prosecutor to suspend the trial, and otherwise seeking to interfere with the prosecution process through replacing the Minister of Justice. Neither of these lawfare efforts were successful and the court’s judgement stands.

The case has also revealed many examples of legal mobilisation, whereby various actors have played different roles to counter the use of lawfare and uphold the rule of law. The families of those who were murdered have continually campaigned to have Bouterse and his accomplices brought before an independent criminal tribunal. During the trial itself, international organisations such as the ICJ have called for the respect of international fair trial standards, and journalists (mostly local) have consistently sought to ensure that the case was correctly reported. In all instances, rigorous attention to the correctness of law-based arguments were a prominent feature during the trial that spanned several years; this proved to be an effective strategy, aimed at preserving the fair and equal application of justice and the rule of law in Suriname, values that are widely shared in the country following hundreds of years of colonial rule.

Reactions to the trial

While several prominent news outlets, including several in the Netherlands, as well as the Associated Press, Al Jazeera, the New York Times, and the BBC briefly reported on the judgement, the trial itself has not enjoyed much attention outside of Suriname. Inside Suriname, however, there have been extensive reactions from various actors who have been closely involved in the case, either seeking to uphold or undermine the rule of law.

Betty de Goede, a leader/founder of the Organisation for Justice and Peace (OJP) in Suriname, which represents many families of those who were killed in December 1982, observed at an inter-denominational service organised by the OJP that the rule of law held much value to the people of Suriname, and hence “the judgement (against Bouterse) cannot be ignored”. At the same service, Soeshila Baldew-Malhoe, a prominent Hindu theologian in Suriname, was more strident, declaring that while “Bouterse had no respect for the rule of law” he was warned that

… people must know that every action has consequences. Mr. Bouterse should have known then that the truth would one day come to light … it gives a good feeling to know that the rule of law is alive… everything depends on the rule of law, and when justice is given, everyone must adhere to it, regardless of the person’s social position.

Ignoring potential repercussions against them, the legal community in Suriname has been active and outspoken, including attorney Gerold Sewcharan, who represented Edgar Ritfield, one of Bouterse’s co-accused. Ritfield was one of those acquitted by the court, and characterised Bouterse as a “convicted felon”.

However, a warrant for Bouterse’s arrest has yet to be issued, and in the meantime, there have been efforts to politicise the judgement and undermine the judiciary. One of the main opposition parties, the “Democratic Alternative” (DA), published an Open Letter to the president, calling on him to resign. This has, however, not caused Bouterse to reconsider his decision to remain in power, nor has he lost credibility within the political party he chairs, the NDP, which has condemned the judgement as being “politically motivated”. Whatever happens next, it is certain that many more people, both in Suriname and abroad, will be following the outcome with considerable interest and anticipation.

Image Credit: sunsju on Flickr

About the author:

Jeff Handmaker is a senior researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and focuses on legal mobilisation.

He is a regular author for Bliss. Read all his posts here.