Beto Borges, Director of Forest Trends’ Communities and Territorial Governance Initiative, talks with award-winning Brazilian screenwriter, director, and film producer Estevão Ciavatta on conflicting visions for development in the Amazon, land grabbing, and the role he hopes his film, Amazonia Undercover, can play in spotlighting these tensions and environmental destruction in Brazil.
This conversation has been edited and condensed from its original version.
Beto Borges: Thank you, Estêvão, for making the time to talk to us. Your film, Amazonia Undercover, recently won the 2021 Environmental Impact Award from One World Media. How was the idea for Amazonia Undercover born?
Estêvão Ciavatta: In 2004, I did a specific Amazon season for Um Pé de Quê? (What Tree Is It?), [the TV show I was making at the time]. We did ten episodes, each about a different tree. I think this was very important for me because I traveled through all the states of the Amazon and learned the scale of forest destruction. And after I thought, “I have to do something about the Amazon, about its importance to Brazil.”
Early 2014, a friend of mine called me, said, “Look, I have a project to make an Amazon TV series. I think that you are the perfect guy to do this.” So I said, “Okay, let’s do it.” So back to the Amazon. One of the goals of the series is to document land grabbing in Brazil. I was not seeing anyone else working on the scale of public unprotected forest in Brazil. The numbers range from 60 to 90 million hectares, a huge part of the Amazon forest that is still unprotected because the use of the land is not defined [and protected]. These are not indigenous areas, not conservation units, so they are available for land grabbing. And land grabbing itself was and is responsible for a great part of deforestation in the Amazon.
And the second thing I felt was frustration at how easy it is to be distracted from this issue. Even though the show was presented on Sunday, primetime, and 50 to 60 million people watched it, the series unfortunately came out at the same time as a corruption scandal in Brazil. All the things that we raised were overshadowed by this other issue in the news at the time. So I got a little bit frustrated with the results and I felt the land grabbers were taking advantage of this moment. That’s why I decided to make the film Amazon Undercover, using the series material and continuing the shootings for the following 5 years.
With the film released in 2020, a really important shift has happened: we now see land grabbing in the Amazon being covered [by media in Brazil]. And this was not the case a year or two ago. We wanted to put land grabbing onstage, to say, “Look, we have a problem here.” And now we see the three major banks in Brazil implementing financial restrictions over business in the area, and one of their rules is to not finance land grabbing.
Beto Borges: So you helped raise the issue of land grabbing to a public stage. It’s great to hear how work like yours can start to make a difference, even if it’s only a few hearts and minds at a time.
This brings up a critical question for me: What kind of development is right for the Amazon? What is being proposed now, and what do we think it should look like so that it is as equitable as possible and minimizes environmental impact?
Estêvão Ciavatta: The thing is, we could solve great parts of the problem with land tenure legislation that already exists but is not being utilized. The legalization of smaller properties or landholders and honoring indigenous claims and rights, for example. But politicians in the Brazilian Congress want to expand the benefits of land tenure legislation to land grabbers. This is not acceptable.
What we don’t have in place are public policies that guide land use planning and sustainable development for the cities in the Amazon. This is a problem because there are millions of people in the Amazon that don’t have work. Almost 80% of the Amazon’s population lives in the cities, which have the most poverty and lowest wellbeing of Brazil. And that pressure is causing careful planning to fall through the cracks and forest resources to be overexploited.
Beto Borges: My understanding is that your film also documents how indigenous peoples are affected by land grabbing and other activities in the Amazon. Could you tell us more about what you’ve seen?
Estêvão Ciavatta: I saw the collision of two worlds. One idea of development of the Amazon region has led us to almost 1 million square kilometers deforested in 45 years. And most people have not benefited much from that – there is a lot of poverty in cities near deforested areas.
And on the other side, indigenous peoples have had a relationship with the forest for around 14,000 years. And they not only do not destroy the forest, but help the forest be what it is today. They are defending the forest, defending Brazil. And we wanted to put them in the center, portray them this way. The film presents these two visions and how they are in opposition.
There is a vicious and unsustainable cycle in the Amazon. [Vulnerable people] have to use forest resources because they don’t have work. And they don’t have work because we don’t have a plan. Let’s make one. Let’s fortify familial agriculture. Let’s empower these communities to produce their own products, something with great value so they can deal within the international or the national market. Let’s work with the forest, not destroy it.
Estêvão Ciavatta is a screenwriter, director, and film producer renowned for the award winnings documentaries NELSON SARGENTO and AMAZÔNIA SOCIEDADE ANÔNIMA (Amazonia Undercover). He has directed dozens of television shows, including the award winning BRASIL LEGAL and CENTRAL DA PERIFERIA, both for TV GLOBO. For HBO, he created, directed, and produced the series PREAMAR, official selection FIPA (Biarritz, France), and SANTOS DUMONT, released in 70 countries around the world. Ciavatta is also founding partner of Pindorama Filmes, the first Brazilian carbon neutral company in the cinema/TV industry and a reference in social and environmental issues. Ciavatta led the crowdfunding campaign “Dá Pé,” one of the ten largest in Brazil, that mobilized 7 million people to plant 36,000 trees.
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