- Dead Time
Flaring out across the vast plains of midwestern Brazil known as the Cerrado, the dynamism of the regional economy is transforming the landscape. Technology applied to the management of land and cattle is pushing the agricultural frontier into the dry, arid scrublands of twisted vegetation, sparsely occupied by indigenous peoples for millennia.
Under the crushing sun of these interminable plateaus, Brazilian pioneers first arrived, stirring up behind them a cloud of orange dust released from the dehydrated soil. Ahead they saw an indistinct horizon stretching out seductively. Little by little, this horizon took on its present contours, shaped by rows of transgenic soybeans and other genetically modified crops, harvesting machines directed by GPS, and cattle herds tracked by satellite. Wonderment over these signs of modernity began slipping into the pages of regional newspapers and everyday conversations, gradually becoming routine, until they filled up the present and overwhelmed the horizon.
Long after the settlers came lugging their certainties, after the first conflicts over land erupted, after the blood of the first Amerindians had dried, after the cattle were fenced in, after the plains were transformed into pastures and crops, a newcomer timidly arrived on the scene: the Brazilian State, the ponderous machinery of bureaucracy.
With it came its sister, the justice system, equally slow, fat, and heavy. It neither came in time to judge the murder of the Amerindians, nor in time to witness those who had legitimate claims to plots of land, nor in time to interdict the destruction of the environment. It arrived under the suspicious eyes of the transplanted inhabitants, who waited to see what stand it would take on these incidents. But the system of justice stood by in silence, constructing its fiefdom of papers and ink and cloistering itself behind walls of shelves laden with legal documents.
The yearning for justice—for the punishment of those guilty of massacring the native peoples, for repossession of the lands violently seized and turned into private property, for the indemnification of future generations deprived of millions of acres of the Cerrado and its fauna—this long waiting, which grew old silently, deep within the people who had come with the agricultural frontier, was answered by the arrival not of justice but of the judicial bureaucracy. When [End Page 105] confronted with this longing, muted and toughened by history, the bureaucratic system—which came to the Brazilian midwest too belatedly to register the crimes or establish an institutional memory of them—decided, from within its castle of papers, that all would be judged ex nunc, starting "from now on," with what it found then and there.
This "now" inaugurated a stream of legal documents, flooding the present, free of the weight of memory. The long wait for justice in the plains of the Cerrado thus witnessed the perpetuation of injustice, now committed under the mantle of the State. The yearning to see things put right, long buried under the soil of the plateaus, remained silent.
I was brought to this region of the country, to Mato Grosso do Sul, by the gears of the judicial system, purportedly to serve the public interest. I had never planned on living in these parts, drowning in the dust stirred up by others, walking over dried blood, over properties that were passed down through three generations, over a land that had once been virgin and was devoid of titles archived in some registrar's office. The State assigned me to this frontier as a functionary in a system claiming to bring stability to long-standing injustices.
To fulfill the administrative and bureaucratic demands within the confines of a country that is continually being rediscovered, obsessively opening up new internal frontiers, the State mobilizes masses of civil servants, whom it allocates to government agencies set up in inhospitable places around the country. From one day to the next, offices spring up in these strange outliers, like dogs fallen out of the back of a pick-up truck. To ensure that these servants will stay put for a reasonable amount of time and not stray off on the scent of the familiar, the law stipulates...