Justice in a water world: The law of the Amazon jungle

In a remote corner of Brazil, at the mouth of the world's largest river, a judge and her legal staff journey by boat to serve the isolated rainforest communities. Shawn Blore reports from Macapá

Wednesday 25 January 2006 01:00 GMT

It's a small pig, probably no more than 20kg, but as the sheriff lifts it over his shoulder and sets off down the boardwalk it lets out a high-pitched scream that scatters parakeets from the palm trees and brings residents of this Amazon fishing village to their doorsteps. The screeches continue as the pig is set down carefully in the bottom of a motorboat, and the sheriff zooms off, twisting and turning through narrow back channels to arrive at a small dock at the village of Vila Progresso, where the courthouse rides at anchor.

"That may be the first time I ever had to order the arrest of a pig," says Justice Sueli Pereira Pini, presiding judge of the justice boat, a single-room courthouse located on the top deck of a riverboat, afloat in a channel of Bailique archipelago at the mouth of the Amazon.

Boat, court and judge are all part of a programme called Itinerant Justice, which Judge Pini created in 1996, when she was 36 years old, to bring the structure and services of government to the isolated rainforest communities of the state of Amapá. Often forgotten even by Brazilians, Amapá sits on the north bank of the mouth of the world's largest river, just to the south of Surinam and French Guyana.

As special courts co-ordinator for the state capital, Macapá, Judge Pini's jurisdiction covers just one county - but in this vast and sparsely populated state, the single municipality of Macapá covers more than 6,400 square kilometres. The county includes numerous communities at the far end of precarious dirt roads, and other small towns and villages, notably those in the Bailique archipelago, accessible only by water. For residents of these isolated communities, the time and cost of a trip to the capital can often put conventional legal services out of reach. For towns with road access, the itinerant justice programme has the justice bus, a courthouse on wheels, which makes the rounds of the county's smaller communities, often holding audiences in the town square.

For the more than 6,000 inhabitants of the Bailique archipelago, though, there's the justice boat, an old-style Amazon riverboat with a judge and legal staff on board, which every other month makes the 200km journey downstream to the islands, where it spends a week hearing cases and issuing judgments. On this particular day, the seizure of a small and voluble pig is first on Judge Pini's list.

The animal was seized as payment for debts incurred by a fisherman who had been buying goods from a local grocery shop on credit. In the heat of the early afternoon, it lies resting in the shade in the bottom of the motorboat, waiting to be claimed by the store owner and blissfully unaware of the legal furore surrounding its formerly tranquil existence. The case, says Judge Pini, is the sort of small commercial dispute that, if not resolved peacefully through state authority, could eventually escalate into a violent local feud.

Even so, the "pig as payment" case is but one of numerous actions heard on board the boat during its stay in the archipelago, and not really what the judge would like her programme to be known for. In the short recess after lunch, she's already receiving some ribbing from courtroom colleagues. One of the legal secretaries pulls out a law book and begins flipping through for possible precedents for pig-napping. A prosecutor suggests the little porker be given the death penalty, and served up that night in a barbecue.

The working day on the justice boat began at about 6am, half an hour or so after first light. Prosecutors, sheriffs and legal secretaries flop out of their hammocks and begin clearing the decks of personal gear. Long wooden tables are put in place, upon which the courthouse clerks have set up laptops and printer and a stack of neatly sorted legal files.

Medical teams have set out for the day. In addition to bringing the law, the justice boat also delivers social services to these remote islands. A dentist comes along, equipped with portable dental chair and all the accoutrements necessary to insert fillings or take out teeth. There's also a doctor and a pair of nurses, and an outreach worker from the municipal water company who wanders from hut to hut, showing villagers how to use their government-supplied water purifying systems.

Very soon the first of the day's legal petitioners are arriving on board, either pulling up alongside in their own canoes and motorboats or making their way along the wooden boardwalk that links the houses and shops in this small riverside village. Cases already lined up for the day include several child-support disputes. Amapa state, where the average woman will give birth to 3.1 children in her lifetime, has the second highest fertility rate in Brazil. In Macapá county, about 25 per cent of those children are born to teenage mothers.

Also on the docket is an alleged incident of sexual assault, an accusation of cattle rustling and another of duck theft, a dispute over land boundaries, and a request for the judge to perform a wedding. One of the innovations of the Itinerant Justice programme is that judge and court are competent in a variety of areas of the law, be it family, commercial or criminal matters.

Cases are heard in a tiny closed cabin, the only one on the ship with air conditioning. The first case of the day is a child support action, launched by a 19-year-old mother who wants the father of her seven-month old daughter to start making support payments. She hasn't seen the father since she became pregnant, she says, and the only support he has provided consists of several packets of nappies and some milk, delivered by the boy's mother. The father, a nervous and boyish-looking 20-year-old, makes a long and somewhat convoluted speech to the effect that the girl trapped him into getting her pregnant, that the baby is her problem, and that, anyway, he hasn't got any money.

Brazilian family law is draconian. Support payments are set at half the minimum monthly salary (140 reals, about £35 per month) and, if the father fails to pay, the judge has the power to order his arrest. Justice Pini, however, sees her role as counsellor and enforcer in equal measure. For the law to work far out in the wilderness, she believes, judges have to be flexible.

The first thing she wants is to see the baby. The mother holds it up and Judge Pini coos over her for a few moments. A mother of four herself, the judge has a soft spot for infants. "However you feel about each other now," she tells the couple, "at some point you clearly had a relationship, and this little baby is the fruit of it. Both of you have to start thinking about her now." She asks the father how much he thinks he can pay. R$10 (£2.50) at the most, he claims. Fine, the judge says. Let's settle on R$40 (£10). "And," she continues, "I want you to deliver the money yourself. Stop hiding behind your mother. This little girls needs you in her life." She also orders the boy to take custody of the girl two weekends a month. She'll be back in two months to check to see that he's complying. Flexible, it appears, does not mean supine.

Court cases continue throughout the day. Meanwhile, on the upper deck, a team from the Macapá civil registry is helping people who have lost or misplaced their documents. This is another of the services offered by the justice boat, and a critical one in a country where even the most basic interaction with government often requires two or more pieces of identification.

One of the people needing new ID is a fisherman, Francisco Almeida da Souza, who pulls up to the nearby dock in four-metre covered sailing canoe. The tiny enclosed cabin is his only home, which he shares with two dogs and all his cooking and fishing equipment. He lost all his documents some years back when his boat overturned in a storm. In the more civilised parts of Brazil, someone in Mr Da Souza's predicament could spend weeks re-establishing an identity. Here, frontier conditions lead to frontier speed. Date of birth and some back-up records establish that the man is who he says he is, and in less than half an hour the old man is once again a documented citizen. Satisfied, he strolls back to his own little boat, hoists his animals aboard, carefully washes and dries each of their paws, herds them into the cabin, and once again sets sail.

Late in the afternoon, the sheriff takes the seized pig and drops him off with his new owner. The justice boat then sets off for the village of Livramento.

Located on a narrow tidal channel, at low tide Livramento is isolated from the nearest navigable waterway by some 800 metres of slippery mudflats. Rather than hold court on the boat, the judge opts to set up in the village community centre, an open platform set on stilts above the mudflats, with a palm frond roof to keep out the sun and rain. It is here that the judge hears her case of the day, a quintessentially Amazon land dispute. The three people involved own adjoining ranches on the downstream tip of a nearby island. Over the past few years, silt deposited by the river has increased the size of their island by several dozen hectares. All three ranchers are claiming this new land as their own, and all three have stocked the new ground with buffalo in support of their claims.

The judge has brought along a land title expert who has surveyed the new land and brought back his report. However, before revealing his findings, the judge allows the ranchers to make their arguments, which are loud and emotional and mostly seem to revolve around who put up the first lengths of fencing. Judge Sueli listens until it seems the men are tiring, and then makes her own pitch for a settlement.

"The report I have from my land title expert," she tells the ranchers, "shows that none of your cases are particularly compelling. In addition, there are discrepancies and ambiguities in the boundaries of your existing lands." So, she continues, you can proceed with the claim, in which case I will have to order a full re-survey of everyone's land, which will be expensive and quite possibly yield unwelcome results. Or we can settle this now, by agreeing to divide up the new land equally. Such is the tone of sweet reason in her voice that the three men agree to go along.

The judge's last and happiest task of the day is a wedding. The couple are in their late 20s and already have one child, but with the nearest courthouse so far away have never had the chance to become legally man and wife. Dressed in a simple white gown and trailed by a crowd of children and legal staff from the justice boat, the bride strolls down the boardwalk and beneath the palm frond roof to where the groom and judge await. Someone has put out a cassette-player in special preparation for the waterside wedding. And, before long this far-off community with no electricity at the edge of the Amazon rainforest is filled with the lyrics of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On".

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