The municipality of Novo Progresso is situated in the Tapajós region in the isolated southwest of Pará, one of Brazil’s most conflictual Amazon frontiers and currently venue of a number of controversial projects, including the announced building of a “grain railway”, new highways and dozens of large dams, but also the proliferation of illegal gold mining and systematic land grabbing and deforestation. Agricultural expansion and extractivism in the region started only some 40 years ago, but in a way exemplarily illustrate some key dynamics between advancing deforestation and social conflict in the Amazon. The construction of the BR-163 highway in the late 1970 traversed vast forested areas of Pará and Mato Grosso to connect Cuiabá with Santarém; it particularly boosted colonization along the corridor and with that caused a notable part of Amazonian deforestation. Despite still not fully paved, it is today one of the most crucial transport routes for Brazil’s agribusiness, which also hold political power in municipalities such as Novo Progresso. It led to an influx of so-called grileiros – farmers who claimed to own or have purchased public lands with falsified documents – along with landless peasants (posseiros) and other farmers who came with authorization. For Brazil’s military government, the colonization and gaining of “human control” over the Amazon was a matter of national security and was accompanied by policies to incentivize soy cultivation and cattle farming but also came with a resettlement strategy for masses of poor, landless people that were swelling the large coastal cities without economic perspective. The then planned agrarian reform and resettlement was however never fully carried out, which among others brought forward the rise of Brazil’s landless peasant movement MST (Movimiento de los Trabajadores Rurales Sin Tierra).  
A defender of landless peasants along the BR-163 was Aluísio Sampaio, known as Alenquer. He got brutally assassinated on 11 October 2018, as a result of the conflict between posseiros and grileiros.  As of late October 2018, the murder could not be clarified although there were several suspects and an arrested driver reported that the murderers were contracted by people from Novo Progresso. When police came to arrest a local rancher who was allegedly behind the murder, they were awaited with bullets and returned the fire, killing one ranch employee while the suspected rancher became released shortly after due to a lack of evidence. The assassination of Alenquer happened some days before the election of Brazil’s new president Bolsonaro, who has frequently justified the use of weapons by landowners; during one of his campaign visits in Pará - where he enjoys wide support of grileiros and BR-163 settlers – he praised military policemen convicted for killing 19 landless peasants in 1996 and promised to classify the MST as a terrorist organization, which critics regarded as incitement of violence against landless peasants. While not officially affiliated with the MST, Alenquer was the head of the rural workers union Sintraff (Sindicato dos Trabalhadores na Agricultura Familiar) in the neighboring district of Castelo de Sonhos and engaged for an agrarian reform and peasant land rights over more than 30 years, among others helping peasant families to become resettled and defend their land in the area of Novo Progresso – actions that had made him regularly receive death threats, even via the media. The MST lamented his death and attributed it to the agribusiness lobby that seeks to secure its profits. Unionists and friends announced a demonstration and stated that despite the widespread fear among them – as also others saw themselves on the death list - they will not stop the fight. According to local media, the police had not undertaken investigations after a 2017-published video in which he reported about ongoing death threats, accusing three people of having stolen land and planning his assassination - including a former mayor of Novo Progresso and Agamenon Menezes, a rancher and president of the local rural producers’ trade union (Sindicato dos Produtores Rurais de Novo Progresso) – but as of late October 2018, none of them was implicated in the murder. Alenquer had stated that if murdered, which could happen anytime, other syndicalist will come and replace him. 
The dispute centered around the “KM Mil” area, one of the landless peasant occupations organized by Alenquer, situated close to the town of Vila Isol at the 1000 km marker of the BR-163 (from direction Cuiabá northwards). In late 2016 - at a time he was already in a government protection program and wearing a bullet-proof vest - he accompanied a journalist and the researcher Maurício Torres to the recently occupied KM Mil area to raise awareness about the community’s conflict with grileiros. As the researcher argues, landless peasant families are the only legitimate claimants to the Amazon’s public lands, as large areas, including those along BR-163 in Novo Progresso, were set aside by the federal government and designated for the carrying out of agrarian reform, but the program was never properly implemented.  Claiming these historical land rights - as numerous other squatters throughout Brazil - the about 80 landless peasant families of the KM Mil community built up provisory shacks at the beginning of the forest and started to clear trees and the ground. Community members explained that they would have preferred to occupy already cleared areas but doing so would almost certainly bring their lives in danger as these lands have become valuable and are claimed by wealthy, powerful landholders. These enact influence over local authorities and the environmental agency IBAMA and are backed by militias who defend their land at all costs. Thus, landless peasant communities are left without choice and subsequently pushed towards the forested areas. With the support of the trade union, many posseiros felt to have some kind of protection and hoped to establish a small production and escape poverty, but they nevertheless reported about feeling unsafe in the area, as even local media was on the side of grileiros and campaigning against them. According to the KM Mil community, some years ago the supposed owner of the area had been brutally displaced by AJ Vilela, a well-known gunman from a local gang, and after that, hardly anyone who entered the area returned alive. In 2016, Vilela was arrested, and the supposed landowner returned and offered the rural workers union a small share of the land for in turn clearing the forest. They accepted and formalized the deal, but it soon became clear that he was also not the rightful owner but just the first one to claim public land and would now use the community to defend the land against other land thieves. The journalists also interviewed Agamenon Menezes, the rancher and head of the rural producers’ union accused by Alenquer, and he frankly reported about the practice of sending hired militias to get rid of “invading” peasant families. He announced that also the KM Mil occupation has to end but in which way – violently or not - only depended on the community itself. Right after the journalist visit of the KM Mil occupation, a group of six armed men confronted the community and warned them that, if they not vacate the land, they would soon face violence. In light of these threats, accusations made by Alenquer in the 2017 published video were likely also a strategy to shift the confrontation away from the community into the legal sphere, as he was then sued by the rancher for defamation but attacks on the camp had, for the moment, stopped, assumingly due to the raised publicity. 
Beyond these direct confrontations, this case well epitomizes today’s patterns of deforestation and land conflict along the Amazonian agricultural frontier, and clearly display existing power issues in a region where violence, impunity and land theft are commonplace. Grileiros and large landholders are backed by powerful political lobbies and closely linked to local authorities, allowing them to exert control over disputed land and defend it with illegal but openly admitted armed militia, while landless peasants as well as official land reform colonizations carried out by INCRA are often displaced and pushed deeper into the Amazon rainforest. With their influence over public officials in IBAMA, grileiros can draw attention away from their illegal land thefts, and instead point to the deforestation caused by those without rights and power. Also constitutional regulations such as restrictions on individual land possession of plots of more than 2,500 hectares (before Temer 1,500 ha) are easily circumvented as grileiros divide land into subplots and register it in the name of another, usually poor person, who can be presented as the owner in case of an IBAMA control and earns a small living from participating in the scheme. As many land thefts have been successful in the past and authorities in the BR-163 region rarely reclaim publicly owned land, occupation and deforestation was further incentivized over the last years. Land grabbers usually remain unpunished as long as not other crimes are involved, although there have been scattered operations, as for example against Brazil’s “deforestation king” Ezequiel Castanha who was arrested in Novo Progresso in 2015. Escalating land prices and increasing scarcity in already cleared land have moreover triggered a new type of land grabbing in form of “speculative clearance” along the Amazonian agricultural frontier. In short: land grabbing now involves deforestation which has in itself become a business; forests in federal land are being grabbed and cleared, appreciate in financial value, and are then sold to ranchers and farmers. Contrary to the past, this now common practice of speculative clearance has become separated from farming. As the Castanha case indicates and also a recent study along Novo Progresso’s BR-163 confirms, those who deforest do not start agriculture themselves. Land grabbers do not intend to plant or produce anything but just speculate on the financial gain from claiming land, clearing the forest and rapidly selling it on. Purchasers are either large producers who are aware of the irregularity but powerful enough to maintain and defend the land, or small-scale farmers who have often sold everything to purchase what they believe to be regular land. Landless peasants, however, are also part of the deforestation process as they find constantly themselves in irregularity and are again and again displaced and pushed towards the margins of the forest with every new cycle of colonization. According to calculations of the Public Federal Ministry (MPF), each tract of stolen land brings on average R$ 20 million. Most of the deforested land is used for grazing cattle. As only 30 percent of landowners in Pará have a legal land title, cattle is often the easiest way to make immediate profit and at the same time used as a means to declare ownership of the land. Hence, pastures are usually extensive and unproductive with regard to the consumed areas of newly cleared land, which implies that with different incentives, agricultural production could easily expand without further deforestation. At the same time, as also the recent documentary “Grazing the Amazon” shows, ranchers make use of widespread impunity with regard to violations of environmental crimes and “cattle washing”, the concealing of the origin of cattle (e.g. by using falsified records, or shifting cattle from illegal to legal pastures), is common practice in the Amazon. A 2016 study in Pará has moreover shown that Brazil’s largest slaughterhouses widely ignore regulations. For example, more than half of the cattle detected as illegal was purchased by meat giant JBS and also farmers report to not have difficulties to sell meat from cattle raised on illegally grabbed and deforested land. 
Along the BR-163, soy cultivation and cattle farming have continued to expand from Mato Grosso northwards until today, and with that deforestation has advanced. This trend was slowed down in the early 2000s when the Lula government, under the initiative of environmental minister Marina Silva and after international concern over Brazil’s ongoing deforestation, finally started to adopt more effective measures, including a strengthening of law enforcement and the conversion of vast forested areas into conservation units, also along the BR-163, which significantly reduced speculative land-grabbing and deforestation. However, since a weakening of the forest code in 2012 and a simultaneous increase in meat and soy prices, deforestation rates have been increasing again, and previously adopted environmental regulations such as on deforestation permissions have been reversed or subsequently undermined, especially after the political turmoils in 2014 and the controversial presidential takeover of the Temer government in 2016. Serving the powerful ruralist lobby, the Temer government has among others pushed through an increase of the maximum size of individual land occupation, a de facto amnesty for illegally grabbed and cleared public land since 2004 (within the legislative measure MP 759/2016). Also, budgets were cut by 50 percent for the Ministry of Environment, which is responsible for the already understaffed inspecting authorities IBAMA and the Chico Mendes Institute of Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), as well as for other regulatory bodies such as the agrarian reform institute INCRA. After lobbying from local agribusiness elites, an amendment for the reduction of several conservation units in Pará, including 480,000 hectares of Novo Progresso’s National Forest Jamanxim, was brought forward by ruralists in 2017. After a first veto by Temer because of internal pressure, ruralists mobilized and blocked the BR-163 to then propose a new amendment which is now supported by Bolsonaro. The plans even led to a division among the rural worker unions and posseiros, as some hope to obtain land for agricultural reform in an area that has already been widely invaded by cattle ranchers, whereas critics regard the proposal as one of many unconstitutional legislative initiatives in favor of grileiros and the agribusiness. In 2018, the changes in the forest code were approved by the Supreme Court, leaving the bancada ruralista with satisfaction while environmentalists regarded it as another major setback. Moreover, the area along the BR-163 has seen an increase in agricultural investments and the announced new infrastructure, e.g. roads accessing the hydroelectric dams of Tapajós, is likely to further increase access to the forest and facilitate the advancing of grileiros operating above the law. This makes illegal deforestation an unpunished and lucrative business.