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Kill and die for the land
Paolo Moiola
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More than half of the available lands are in the hands of 2.5 percent of landowners

Despite of the enormous availability of arable land in Brazil, land is a privilege reserved for a few. While four million landless families have to fight for their daily survival, the large landowners — big supporters of the coup government of Michel Temer, who assumed the presidency after the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff on Aug. 31, 2016 — are now more unscrupulous than ever.

In the city of Colniza, in the western state of Mato Grosso, on Apr. 19, four hired gunmen recruited by a timber businessman murdered nine peasants aged between 23 and 57 who had settled in a disputed area. Several bodies were tied and two had their throats cut; also, forensics determined that the victims had also been tortured.

“This massacre — wrote on Apr. 21 the local Prelature of São Félix do Araguaia,  led by Msgr. Adriano Ciocca Vasino and Msgr. Pedro Casaldáliga, bishop emeritus — takes place at a historic moment of usurpation of political power through an institutional coup d’ état [the removal of President Rousseff]. We live in a climate of ‘lawless land’, a real civil war in our country.”

On May 24, in the town of Pau d’Arco, in the northeastern state of Pará, 10 landless peasants, including one woman, were killed by a group of police officers and private security agents. The peasants had been occupying an unused area of Hacienda Santa Lucia since 2013, a property of 5,694 hectares belonging to the Babinski family. Since then, several occupations of landless peasant groups, and recovery actions by the alleged owners who have been accused of grilagem, or appropriation of land with forged titles, have taken place.

Given the seriousness of the situation, the Brazilian Catholic Church issued a statement on May 31 in which it states that “the official version of the state agencies was that the deaths occurred in an armed confrontation, as the police officers were reportedly received by gunfire. This version tries to make believe that the Brazilian people are morons and that they have no capacity to make judgments. How is it that, in an armed confrontation, none of the 29 policemen involved in the operation were even injured? Why was the crime scene dismantled, with the policemen themselves transporting the bodies to the city?”

“It is clear — the statement continues — that this exacerbation of agrarian conflicts in number and violence has to do with the political crisis and the advance of agribusiness forces over the powers of the Brazilian state.”

In addition to the above-mentioned attacks, 48 peasants have been killed in the first seven months of this year. According to the report “Conflicts in the countryside of Brazil 2016,” published in April by the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), an institution that depends on the Catholic Church, there were 1,079 agrarian conflicts in the country last year that led to violence and 61 murders, an average of five per month.

Concentration of the land
Land-related conflicts are a constant occurrence in Brazil, where 60,000 homicides occur each year according to the Atlas of Violence 2017, published by the Institute of Applied Economic Research. The main cause of agrarian conflicts stems from the latifundia and the concentration of land in very few hands.

According to the database of the governmental National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) with reference to 2010, 55.8 percent of available land is in the hands of 2.5 percent of large landowners. Of the remaining land, 19.9 percent is in the hands of medium-size landowners, 15.5 percent in the hands of small-size landowners (1.3 million families) and 8.2 percent in the hands of very small-size landowners (3.3 million families). Although the definition of large, medium, small and very small is not determined by the number of hectares, but by the so-called modules (variable units of measure that take into account various parameters), it is clear that most small-size and very small-size landowners have a very difficult life, often at the limits of survival.

There are nearly 4 million families at the bottom of this scale of inequality, some 20 million people who do not have access to land: they are called the landless. Another essential piece of information is included in this table on land ownership, that of unproductive land: 72 percent of the latifundios, or very large estates — equivalent to 2.3 million km² — is considered unproductive.

The 1988 Constitution — in articles 184 and 185 — has dealt with unproductive lands, providing for their expropriation for reasons of social interest and for agrarian reform purposes.

The INCRA, created in 1970, is the federal agency responsible for implementing the agrarian reform. According to the first of its five strategic guidelines, it must promote the democratization of access to land by creating sustainable rural settlements and regularizing public lands; its action must also contribute to sustainable development, the reduction of the concentration of land structure and the reduction of violence and poverty in the rural areas.

According to the reported figures, the INCRA would have benefited nearly one million Brazilian families with a plot of land; 977,039 to be more exact. However, it is not known how many of these families are still settled in the land assigned and how many plots have been abandoned or sold.

“I know of a lot of abandoned land because farmers could not sustain themselves, they could not sell their produce, or had no access to health care. In short, they had to choose between land and life,” says in Boa Vista, Roraima, Carlo Zacquini, an Italian Catholic missionary of the Consolata Order.

It is estimated that 12 percent of allocated plots return to the INCRA. Experts explain that the problem of abandonment depends on the lack of an agricultural policy —incentives to produce, for example — and infrastructure in rural settlements.

Industrial monoculture
The agrarian issue in Brazil has worsened in the last 20 years due to the introduction of a new and powerful variable: agribusiness.

The Brazilian agricultural landscape has changed drastically since the 2000s. Large industrial monoculture: soybean production, biofuel crops (both biodiesel and ethanol), millet, forests planted with eucalyptus and pine, and the extensive rearing of cattle and poultry, have been added to traditional sugarcane, coffee and cotton monoculture crops.

Agribusiness now represents 23 percent of the gross domestic product of Brazil. It is the only productive sector that, in the years of severe economic crisis for the country, has continued to grow.

With regard to its significance and importance in the economic sphere, it is necessary to identify the negative consequences of agribusiness: land grabbing and the resulting increase of land concentration, environmental pollution due to the intensive use of agrochemicals, environmental devastation caused by deforestation and the loss of biodiversity, exploitation and reduction of agricultural labor, marginalization and the death of family farming. In short, the economic benefits of agribusiness are greatly outweighed by the social and environmental costs that come with it.

As recalled by the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil in a 2014 document on the agrarian issue, the political and ideological dominance of agribusiness has transformed the land into a commodity, in stark contrast to the social and environmental role established by the 1988 Constitution.

MST and land occupations
Some years earlier, in January 1984, in Cascavel, Paraná, was born the movement of rural landless workers (MST), peasant organization that soon become protagonist of the Brazilian history. Already at its first congress in January 1985, the MST adopted the principle of “land occupation as a form of struggle.”

Despite attacks by the mainstream media, the MST — led by João Pedro Stédile —has not backed down. In fact, in the current climate of serious political, economic and moral crisis, occupations have been on the rise since July 2017. To the cry of “Crooks, give us back our lands,” groups of landless peasants have occupied large estates such as in Rondonópolis, Mato Grosso state, belonging to the Amaggi group, a company belonging to the family of Minister of Agriculture Blairo Maggi, one of the world’s largest soybean producers.

From the time that Temer — who is being investigated for corruption but is willing to grant any concessions to parliamentary lobbyists to remain on the presidential seat — assumed power, the social situation in the country has worsened.

“The criminalization and the dismantling of INCRA and FUNAI [the government’s National Indian Foundation] cater to the benefit of the ruralist caucus of the National Congress to put an end to the agrarian policies that benefit landless rural workers, indigenous people, quilombolas and other rural, forest and water peoples,” says a report of the Brazilian Committee of Human Rights Defenders, published on July 7.

For human rights defenders and the landless, the struggle for justice still has a long way to go. On Aug. 9, in Belém, the capital of Pará, a judge ruled on the immediate release of the 11 military police officers and two civilian police officers who were imprisoned for the massacre in Pau d’Arco.

Faced with these facts, the conclusion is that, in Brazil of 2017, property damage is more important than death. Or at least it is if death strikes the landless. —Latinamerica Press.


In the opinion of Dom Enemésio Lazzaris, president of the Pastoral Land Commission, violence in the countryside can be prevented by providing justice. /Leonardo Prado/Câmara dos Deputados
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Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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