Documentary presents stark reality of the Amazon at the World Water Forum (Fórum Mundial da Água)

How the message of a film was able to overcome the organizational limits of the world's biggest water event

By Lucas Lacerda

Brasília received more than 100 thousand people for the World Water Forum, wich took place at the Mané Garrincha Stadium and the Ulysses Guimarães Convention Center between 18th and 23rd March. The magnificence of the eighth and biggest edition ever of the event contrasted with the fragile situation of water supplies in the Brazilian capital. Since January of 2017, inhabitants of the Federal District have faced rotating supply implemented by the Environmental Sanitation Company of the Federal District (Companhia de Saneamento Ambiental do Distrito Federal - Caesb) due to water scarcity. The event area, however, was spared from rationing.

Devastating image of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazonia Rainforest in the production of a soybean field flanking the National Forest of the Tapajos (FLONA) Photo: Santarém/PA 2017 © Beyond Fordlândia.

Devastating image of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazonia Rainforest in the production of a soybean field flanking the National Forest of the Tapajos (FLONA) Photo: Santarém/PA 2017 © Beyond Fordlândia.

Contradictions marked the conception and the 274 discussions programmed for the Forum. While agropop representatives – united around the Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock (Confederação da Agricultura e Pecuária do Brasil - CNA) – demonstrated the strength of their business, which represents the highest and least efficient consumption of water in the country, participants in the Alternative World Water Forum (Fórum Alternativo Mundial da Água - FAMA) denounced the shadowy interests behind the official discourse with the cry “Water is a right, not a commodity!”.

Marcos Colón during the Q&A at the World Water Forum

Marcos Colón during the Q&A at the World Water Forum

In this scenario, Marcos Colón's production, Beyond Fordlândia, sought to enhance one of the most urgent discussions in relation to water, human beings and Amazonian vegetation. The film was presented at the showcase of the Green Film Program, held at Cine Brasília, with 46 other productions selected for the WWF. Conceived with an approach of processes of slow violence, the first foray of the director makes a historical connection between the failed venture of Henry Ford's rubber plantation on the banks of the Tapajós river and contemporary agribusiness driven by the soy industry. 

The eco-critical approach of the director revisits episodes of devastation in Fordlândia from 1927 – today the Aveiro-PA district – and its implications in the imagery of a period of bonanza grafted on the Amazon rainforest. Besides the failed rubber project, Ford would also leave a legacy in Belterra, the place of the first experimentation with soy. 

Amazon in Check

On the morning of March 21st, there was a lecture with the director of the UnB College of Comunication (Faculdade de Comunicação da Universidade de Brasília), mediated by Professor Dr. Rose May Carneiro. The lecture dealt with some of the points from the doctorate research being developed by Colón, such as the idea of slow violence, from researcher Rob Nixon, and its link to ecocritical concepts, of Rachel Carson, for the formulation of a new approach to similar processes to those reported in the film.


In the midst of the great economic cycles imposed upon the Amazon, Beyond Fordlândia grasps the remnants and demonstrates to the public the interrupted futures of the traditional communities, the Quilombolas, the Indians and their relatives in the region in dispute. For the president of the  Historical and Geographical Institute of Amazonas (Instituto Histórico e Geográfico do Amazonas), Marilene Corrêa, this is a panorama that is not receiving the attention it is due. 

“We don't have a public political focus or research funding aimed at this theme of large-scale ventures and their impacts on the biomes and ecosystems. It is a story deserving a permanent critical perspective as a task of the Brazilian intelligentsia – the University”, criticized the researcher, reinforcing that it is necessary to have “a direct line of investigation to measure the impact of agribusiness on the extremely fragile cerrado biome and the part of it bordering the Amazon”.

Professor Marilene Corrêa during the Master Class at the University of Brasília (UNB).

Professor Marilene Corrêa during the Master Class at the University of Brasília (UNB).

The professor refers to a crucial point of Amazonian environmental policy. It is known that soy could spread across the south of the country and advance through the cerrado – as it did with well-known aggressiveness. It could not, in any hypothesis, reach the region of the forest. It has not only invaded, but has been slowly installed there, being able to reach a level of indigenous accumulation, that is, an irreversible process of environmental destruction and sociocultural impact.

Old Ghosts

During the lecture, Colón exposed some points from his doctorate research applied to production of the documentary, which would also be picked up again in the screening session at Cine Brasília, on the night of March 21st. Based on the critical approach of the invasion of economic capital in the Amazon, Colón proposes new perspectives and methodologies for the observation of these processes.

“We have reached a moment to stop, think and intervene in the process in some way, or the future will contemplate a wide variety of hardships. Differently to rubber, soy destroys the landscapes, contaminates the ground waters, wipes out family agriculture and, at its greatest extent is killing humans, the last element in these chains”, he began.

The director, who is researching Amazonian representation in literary works of the 20th century, indicates that this process is one of slow violence. It passes right before the eyes of society, but happening almost imperceptibly, against the environment, against culture, against human beings, following its path in silence. It is therefore necessary to look at the Amazon in different ways. 

It would be an approach of slow seeing, to understand how these processes were designed and engrained in the region, so that other ways and less aggressive models may be proposed for the forest. 

Interview with the director of Beyond Fordlândia, Marcos Colón, in the day of the screening.

“And this is the approach of the film in relation to water: the agribusiness industry is the highest consumer of water in Brazil. The process of pesticide infiltration contaminates groundwater and bodies of water. The central issue in agribusiness, as well as in the cases of Juruti and the Bacarena episode, are all linked to the theme of water. It is a political divestment of the State”, criticized Colón, demonstrating that leniency with these problemas is related to the lack of a slow perspective capable of grasping the entire complexity of the processes.

Beyond Institutions

In all its contradictions, the Forum, participation in which came at a price (455BRL - approximately $135), had limitations to its discussions. As a mega event, it was necessary to discuss in institutional terms, with the aim of perfecting the use and preservation of water. In his column in the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo, journalist André Trigueiro attested to the excellent legacy of the Forum and indicated the challenges to water management, besides the challenges of renewed confrontation of water and sanitation problems from the sense of urgency garnered at the Forum. 

However, the message from institutions consolidated and committed to their own interests is limited, despite the good intentions and necessity of survival. It is at this moment that the filmic language manages to reach far beyond and bring a sense of raw local urgency to the world. 

“Interviewed [in the film], a gaucho owner of one of the soybean farms, defends that three or four more ports be built! According to him, ‘there's just a load of trees in the Amazon and we have to make money..." This interview translates how the majority of Brazilians, until today, see the forest, the ecosystems, nature, as an ‘obstacle' to development, without ever questioning this model of agro-exporter of raw materials that only brings disastrous consequences to the country”, commented historian Jane de Alencar, present at the screening.

That night, the message was for the audience at Cine Brasília. If there was one word to define the session, it was perplexity. The message of Beyond Fordlândia is clear: The irrational exploitation of natural resources is going full steam ahead, and it is down to a conscious society to seek alternatives to this process.