One of the principal villains of Araujo’s narrative is Josélio de Barros Carneiro, the scion of a cattle-ranching family from the southeastern coastal state of Espírito Santo. In 1967 Josélio organized the assassination there of a political rival, a police major, in a hail of cyanide-tipped bullets fired by three hit men in a bar. After serving several years in prison, Josélio escaped possible retribution from his victim’s family by taking refuge in Rondon de Pará, where he cleared forests and became one of the area’s wealthiest ranchers. According to the testimony of a laborer at one of Josélio’s ranches, however, he had failed to relinquish his murderous ways. In 1994 the laborer led investigators to a field littered with human remains — allegedly a burial ground for workers who had complained about their miserable working conditions or tried to escape and were dispatched by hit men.

Josélio’s apparent crimes brought him to the attention of José Dutra da Costa, known as Dezinho, the charismatic leader of Rondon do Pará’s rural workers’ union, founded in 1982 to help peasant farmers obtain pensions and financial benefits from the government. “A short paunchy man … with curly ink-colored hair and glittering black eyes,” Dezinho pressed the police to investigate Josélio. (The case was eventually dropped owing to a lack of evidence.) Inspired by the progressive politician Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was elected to Brazil’s congress in 1986 — he would go on to win the presidency, most recently in October, his second stint in the job — Dezinho moved deeper into political activism. He drew attention to the fazendeiros’ practice of acquiring land by using fraudulent deeds, known as grilagem, derived from the Portuguese word for crickets, so called because the fake contracts were often aged artificially with the insects’ droppings. To pressure the government to confiscate illegally acquired properties, Dezinho organized mass occupations of the disputed land — a strategy that placed him in the sights of the region’s corrupt overlords. In November 2000, a hired gunman shot him dead outside his home.

Dezinho’s murder thrust his widow, Maria Joel Dias Da Costa, into a prominent role in Amazonian activism. Much of the rest of Araujo’s narrative is devoted to her yearslong effort to bring the conspirators to justice. As well as suspecting the now middle-aged Josélio of involvement in the crime, Maria Joel zeroed in on Décio José Barroso Nunes, the “King of Wood,” whose vast empire included timber plantations, cattle ranches, sawmills, fleets of trucks, supermarkets and a coffee-processing plant. He was also an alleged tax dodger, trader in black market lumber and killer who was rumored to toss intransigent workers into a pool of alligators at his main ranch. Maria Joel’s relentless campaign, backed by a sympathetic police detective, helped to bring about the confiscation of many of Nunes’s assets, but corrupt judges and other protectors have enabled him to dodge jail time.

Araujo tries mightily to keep the momentum of his narrative going, but his cavalcade of hit men, peasant victims, rapacious landowners, criminal attorneys, police officers and others caught up in the violence becomes difficult to keep track of, and many of the stories blur. Moreover, the hero of Araujo’s tale, Maria Joel, never emerges as a fully realized protagonist, often given to fortune-cookie pronouncements such as: “The seed planted never stops growing and eventually bears fruit” and “You should care about the jungle, but never forget about us.”

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