In an earlier post, I talked about what appeared to be a case of bioterrorism in Brazil, in which someone deliberately introduced a fungus, called “Witches’ Broom” into the cacao growing region of northeastern Brazil. Dilson Araujo posted a comment, in which he talked about the documentary he had made on the topic, which had kindly posted to Youtube. I’ve watched the video, which seeks to describe the immense impact that this event had, and to explore why there the Brazilian state failed to appropriately investigate the crime. More than just a documentary, this video represents an important historical document, which contains eyewitness evidence about events during that terrible period from 1989 through the early 1990s. The film is sub-titled in English, and makes for gripping viewing, in particular in the final twenty minutes.
One of the common beliefs about Witches’ Broom was that if it had been introduced deliberately, the reason likely was a political one, to undermine the power of the great landowners. This idea seems to concern the film-maker, because the documentary began with a fairy-tale history of witches’ broom, in which a female narrator described how this event freed rural workers from the oppression of the northeastern countryside; at the end of this story, the narrator was revealed to be a witch. Paired with the following scene, in which President Dilma Rousseff announced a Truth Commission in Brazil, I at first feared that the documentary might be a polemic. Instead, the director wanted to make the point that in Brazil there are many truths. Sadly, because of the inequality and rural oppression that did exist in Brazil at the time of the crime, those who were victimized seemed at times almost defensive. One of the points that an interviewee made was that the majority of cacao producers were not people of great wealth, as over 90% had fewer than a 100 hectares.
Perhaps for this reason, the film is inverted chronologically. In the opening section the documentary described in detail the horrific impact that the outbreak had on a region with three million people. A woman recounted how her husband committed suicide because he had been financially ruined by the outbreak. He was not alone. The devastation to the region was so complete that perhaps 200,000 people lost their jobs, and many people were forced to move to the cities. The director interviewed one rural worker who had to find employment “recycling” in a dump, after the destruction of cacao. As different people spoke of their losses, an image built of the economic, social and environmental costs of this tragedy.
Cacao had been produced for almost 250 years in the region, during which time a form of production evolved called the cabruca system. In this agricultural strategy the cacao trees had been interspersed with other trees, which encouraged a high level of diversity, and supported wildlife such as golden lion tamarins. After cacao production collapsed, the landowners often turned to selling their wood to survive, which caused a painful loss of Atlantic forest, one of the most endangered tropical forests on the planet.
Dilson Araujo told the sad story of the failed efforts to control the outbreak, which made the argument that the producers were victimized twice, once by the criminals, and then by the government agency CEPLAC. Almost forty minutes of the video have passed before a detailed discussion begins of how Witches’ Broom was deliberately introduced, most likely by employees of CEPLAC, which was supposed to support cacao production. Without revealing too much, this section of the documentary is riveting, as one witness after another gives testimony about this event, including a CEPLAC official who found a bag of cacao twigs infected with Witches’ Broom left on his desk in his office with an angry note.
Every good mystery novel has a twist, and this one has a striking one. It has always been assumed that the crime took place for ideological reasons. Why else would someone do it? But Dilson Araujo includes footage of a former CEPLAC employee confessing to the crime, and for the most unexpected of motives. His confession is stunning, but is he telling the truth? And why would he confess? If it was the truth, who paid him the sum of money that he received? And was their motivation the same? Sadly, we still do not know, because the Brazilian government failed to carry out anything more than the most cursory of investigations. It’s hard not to believe that there was a cover-up after watching the video. I don’t like conspiracy theories generally, but after watching this documentary, one cannot help but feel frustrated that so much remains unknown concerning that an event that was so important.
This event was an important one not only for Brazil, but also for agriculture globally. If this could happen to cacao, why not to rubber plantations in Sri Lanka or Thailand? Or cacao production in West Africa? The film not only described an act of terrorism that took place before our modern age of terror, it also showed the risks of biological globalization on our modern food chain. While it is wonderful that this film is on Youtube, it deserves to be be picked up by an outstanding distributor of documentaries (some company like Bullfrog films, one of my favorites) for distribution through streaming video in North American libraries. It would be an important film to use in courses on Latin America, Brazil, the modern food system, security, or environmental issues. Dilson Araujo has done historians and scholars a service by creating this powerful documentary, which carefully documents the political and social events surrounding one of the great tragedies in modern Brazil. Want to see more posts about organized crime? Click here. To see my own book on military terror in Brazil, click here.