On the beat in the Amazon

Times Staff Writer

In 42 years of reporting about the Amazon, Lucio Flavio Pinto has been cursed, kicked, beaten, repeatedly threatened with death and sued 33 times. More than half of these legal dust-ups were instigated by his former employer, O Liberal, the region's biggest, most important media company, whose late family patriarch used to be one of Pinto's best friends.

With ex-friends like O Liberal, Pinto hardly needs enemies, though he's got plenty of those too: Politicians, who've been trying for years without success to shut him up or buy him off. The Brazilian military, a frequent target of Pinto's sharp pen. Cattlemen, ranchers and loggers, intent on deforesting the Amazon River basin and converting it into pasture lands and soybean fields, a process that could help feed a protein-hungry planet but, say scientists, would dump billions of tons of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

Then there's the Brazilian state hydroelectric company Electronorte, gearing up to build more dams that would spur job growth but swamp the land and disrupt the lives of subsistence farmers and fishermen. And multinational conglomerates, siphoning off rich veins of aluminum ore, timber and iron ore from the world's largest rain forest.

During his long career, the 58-year-old maverick reporter -- who has compared himself to the ancient fire-bestowing Greek deity Prometheus but still refuses to carry a cellphone -- has tangled with all of them. In doing so, he has earned a reputation as a creature even rarer than the endangered Amazonian manatee: an authoritative, stubbornly independent journalist who doesn't shrink from confronting some of Brazil's most potent interests.

"People know when they start a fight with me I will never submit to their power," Pinto says in his soft, measured voice. "Only the people saying the truth will impress me."

Neither his isolation nor his legal quandaries have stopped Pinto from writing and publishing Jornal Pessoal (Personal Newspaper), a 12-page, bimonthly, 2,000-circulation newsletter. Pinto has been producing the journal out of his modest home here for 20 years, after he quit working for O Liberal in 1987. The journal relies entirely on sales to cover its costs. It carries no ads because Pinto, the author of several books, believes that accepting even one centavo for commercial promotions would taint his publication's integrity.

Separated from his wife, with three of his four children grown and living elsewhere, Pinto displays a monastic devotion to his solitary labors. Inspired by the legendary U.S. investigative journalist I.F. Stone (who also self-published a paper), Pinto pores over obscure government reports, aluminum company balance sheets and other minutiae in search of a telling detail, a pregnant fact. He publishes every letter he receives, even if they're 10-page, threat-filled rants.

Among Pinto's surfeit of adversaries, there's one group he must be especially wary of these days: local judges, who he believes would toss him in jail if he failed to show up for any of the court appearances occasioned by his numerous legal run-ins. About 2 1/2 years ago, Pinto had to pass up a trip to New York to receive an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, because he feared that if he left Belem even for a single day his enemies immediately would announce a new court date and charge him with skipping town.

In Brazil, as in other parts of Latin America, journalists are much more vulnerable to lawsuits than their U.S. counterparts. Even if every word they write is true, they can face civil and even criminal charges if someone claims that a story damaged their reputation, wounded their finances or offended them in some other, sometimes vaguely defined way. In addition, the country still operates under the censorious 1967 Press Law passed by the military regime that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 (26 of the lawsuits against Pinto were filed under this law).

Although Pinto was convicted in four of the lawsuits against him (three of which subsequently expired because appeals courts failed to meet deadlines), he stresses that "I was never proved wrong in any of the essential facts." He still could face jail time under the one remaining criminal lawsuit in which he was convicted, for referring to a local businessman (now deceased) as a land-grabber.

Pinto regards the lawsuits, which he says consume 80% of his time, as a diversionary tactic to dissuade him from practicing journalism.

"I will not accept lies, and this is why there has been an effort to silence me using the judiciary system, because killing me would have to have too high of an impact," he says. He seems unswayed by these risks but admits to more mundane concerns. "I have had a lot of problems when I forgot to use sun block."

Pinto's aggressive reporting commands respect in this sweltering tropical port city of 1.6 million people on the Atlantic Coast. "You may not agree with everything he says, but who else is the local independent journalist?" says David McGrath, a geography professor at the Federal University of Para. "I think the Amazon is fortunate to have a journalist in that role."

Honesty can be deadly

BUT in Para, those who speak truth to power often pay with their lives. The state, one of six that make up the Brazilian Amazon, is notorious for being one of the country's most violent, backward and corrupt areas, a perception underscored by the 2005 murder of U.S. missionary nun Dorothy Stang, who was helping peasant farmers in their land disputes with cattle ranchers.

Partly because of these scandals, the area has come under greater scrutiny in recent years. International interest (many Brazilians would say "international meddling") in the Amazon region is soaring, prompted by rising anxieties over biodiversity and global warming.

Yet one thing this super-abundant region still lacks is in-depth journalistic coverage of its intertwined environmental and human challenges. Even Brazil's largest daily newspapers, such as Folha de Sao Paulo and O Estado de Sao Paulo (for which Pinto formerly worked as a correspondent), generally have assigned just one reporter to cover the vast Amazon region, according to Marcelo Beraba, president of the Brazilian Organization of Investigative Journalism.

By far the most powerful media voice in the region belongs to the O Liberal group, which publishes an influential namesake paper with a daily circulation of 35,000. It also publishes the racier, tabloid-style Amazonia, filled with sports, gossip and crime news and usually featuring a picture of a woman in a bikini. But the majority of Brazilians get their news from television. For many people, newspapers, though relatively cheap, are still unaffordable.

Beraba said the area's inaccessibility and occupational hazards have limited the number of experienced reporters such as Pinto, who grew up in a middle-class family in Santerem, midway between the two largest Brazilian Amazon cities, Belem and Manaus. "In Belem, in Para, it's like he's the only one," Beraba said. "There's not a strong, diversified, independent journalistic scene."

Though Pinto is fairly well known in the eastern Amazon area, few Brazilians in the mega-cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, hundreds of miles to the south, would recognize his name. Despite his many professional contacts, he's an autodidactic one-man operation, reliant above all on his wits and stamina.

Professionally, he combines scientific scrutiny of measurable facts with an equal passion for human dynamics (he studied sociology at university). He eschews tape recorders and computers, relying instead on handwritten notes and his prodigious memory. He refuses to carry a cellphone because they "brutalize" people.

To cope with stress, he practices breathing exercises. "I'm a very controlled person," he says, "but when I'm alone I explode, I punch the wall, I yell and I dance. Especially with music. Music is my therapy." Mozart's Requiem is a particular favorite.

One imagines that Pinto had the Mozart cranked full-blast three years ago, when he was physically attacked by the editorial director of O Liberal newspaper, Ronaldo Maiorana, and two bodyguards while lunching with friends. According to Pinto, Maiorana punched him and after Pinto fell to the ground the three men repeatedly kicked him. "If I don't kill you now, I'll kill you later!" Maiorana yelled. The attack came two days after Pinto had published a three-page story about the Maiorana family's media holdings.

In his office at O Liberal's gated compound, Maiorana, 39, sounded contrite, calling his actions "stupid" and "wrong." Sitting a few feet from where he keeps a shrine to his father's memory, Maiorana acknowledged Pinto's story was factually correct.

But he said Pinto betrayed the trust of his father, Romulo Maiorana, by revealing things told in confidence. (Pinto quit O Liberal a few months after the elder Maiorana's death in a dispute over a political expose written by Pinto that the paper refused to publish.)

"I was hurt not because of myself but because he talked about very intimate subjects," said Maiorana, whose widowed mother, older brother and sister also oversee the family business. Besides two newspapers, the Maioranas also control a regional television station, radio broadcasters, a cable company and an Internet portal.

'He saw me as a kind of son'

TALKING with Maiorana and Pinto makes clear the quasi-familial rivalry at the heart of their dispute. "His dream was always to have a journalist son," says Pinto of the elder Maiorana. "He never had a journalist son because his own sons were not good enough as journalists. So he saw me as a kind of son."

Ennio Candotti, 65, a university professor and former president of the Sao Paulo-based Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science, describes the lawsuits (including the 18 filed by the O Liberal group) against his longtime friend Pinto as "abuses" deployed by the elites of "an archaic state" who "haven't adjusted to democracy and justice." "They solve their conflicts through financial means and through force because they cannot solve them through writing or through reason and democratic means," he says.

Despite its severely limited resources, Jornal Pessoal regularly breaks news that appears in no other Brazilian media. As one example, Pinto points to a story explaining how a temporary stoppage at an Amazon hydroelectric plant several years ago caused a temporary surge in aluminum prices on the London stock market, because Brazil was allowing a Japanese-Brazilian aluminum consortium to buy hydroelectric power at government-subsidized rates.

To cover the Amazon properly, Pinto says, a reporter must know about environmental issues, business, hydroelectrics, accounting, physics, chemistry and water management (which Pinto studied in Holland). "A journalist's only merit is to ask the right question," he says. "The primary raw material for a journalist is doubt."

The region must develop, he believes, if it is to shed its centuries-long status quo of poverty and backwardness. The question is, how? But first, he says, the world must relinquish its delusion that the Amazon "is the place of Original Sin," a lost Eden that somehow can be restored.

He's suspicious of contemporary bromides about "sustainable development," which he regards as "no more than an ideology until now, used to sugar the pill, smooth the international public opinion" and soothe the consciences of what he calls the "colonial" consumers, both in and outside Brazil. Enabling humans to learn "how to use" the Amazon "without destroying it" is the region's greatest challenge, he says.

Helping his readers to grasp these complexities is what keeps Pinto writing, and fighting in court. And if his mission at times seems a touch quixotic, he suggests that it's his opponents, not him, who fail to confront reality.

"The attitude of one who doesn't want to face the facts and truth is many times compared to the ostrich," he says. "I didn't believe that, either, so I did a little research and I found out that an ostrich sticks its head in the sand not so as not to face the facts but because of its very high sensitivity" -- so it can determine the direction that danger is coming from.

"I dive my head into the earth, just like an ostrich, because I want to know what's going on."

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reed.johnson@latimes.com

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