Word Travels – Brazil’s Traveling Judges!

Shortly before sunset, a number of colorful houses suddenly appear behind a river bend, framed by green, tropical vegetation and the brown waters of the Amazon.

Vila Progresso is the capital of the Bailique archipelago, a cluster of eight islands in the Brazilian rainforest located 12 hours from the nearest major population center. It is little more than a labyrinth of rivers and canals and many of the homes are on stilts, as are the sidewalks. Because every April and May, the river spills over its banks.

The natural beauty makes the place seem like a paradise, but life here is hard. There’s no work to be had except for a bit of fishing and the archipelago’s roughly 14,000 inhabitants live hand to mouth. Many of them can neither read nor write and without government welfare, hardly any of them would be able to make ends meet.

The ship's journey takes it through many smaller canals in the Amazon delta. Navigating can be complicated, and many villages aren't accessible during low tide.

The ship’s journey can be complicated, many villages aren’t accessible during low

Consequently, traveling to the nearest court in Macapa is out of the question for most. Which is why, for the last 25 years, the court has been coming to them. Via steamboat.

The Joao Bruno II usually transports people and goods back and forth between the provincial capital of Macapa and the small villages in the Amazon delta. But every two months, the ship transforms into a floating courtroom, bringing the rule of law to even the most far-flung corners of Brazil, where there are no state institutions.

Traveling alongside Assis are around 50 staff members of the Amapa court. There are public defenders, criminal prosecutors, court clerks, judicial officers, social workers, and police officers. Last year, they came by twice as often, but under President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s judiciary has had to cut costs. The right-wing extremist politician isn’t a big fan of elaborate court proceedings: He would rather fight crime with violence.

Judge Jose Luciano Assis disembarks in Vila Progresso.

Judge Jose Luciano Assis

Judge Assis and his colleagues also take part in village assemblies and listen to residents' complaints.

This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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