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English Report

CPT’s partial data from January to August 2006 point to the continuation of a tendency toward decline in social movement actions and in the incidence of violence.  The number of killings until the end of August was 18.3 percent lower than in the same period of 2005, when 29 people were killed.  The number of displaced families fell from 2,339 between January and August 2005, to 927 during the same period in 2006, 60.37 percent lower.  The activity of the judiciary was less intense.  There were 31.41 percent fewer people evicted from January to August 2006— 11,065 families, compared with 16,131 families in 2005.  The number of jailed workers increased significantly.  From January to August 2006, 749 people were imprisoned, 351.2 percent more than during the same period in 2005, 166 more than the totals during previous years.  This increase is due above all to the imprisonment of militants of the MLST (Movement for Liberation of the Landless), as a result of their occupation of the Chamber of Deputies in Brasilia.

Violence and Social Movement Activism in the Countryside

Antonio Canuto*

Violence against Brazilian rural workers is an integral part of their history and of the agrarian structure in Brazil.  It is impossible to separate concentration of land ownership from violence.  To guarantee the former, the latter must be applied.

This relationship is historical.  It began as early as the sixteenth century, when the Portuguese arrived in Brazil and proclaimed themselves owners of the land they had just “discovered.”  To ensure their control over a “free land of free men,” their only means was to violently subject “free men” to their yoke or physically eliminate them if necessary.

The subjugation of the land to their control then required resorting to slave labor.  As the end of slavery end became imminent, the Land Law was approved and promulgated in 1850, when the subjection of land to private ownership was definitively approved and restricted to those who had the means to buy it.

The retention of this legislation, which amounted to the intransigent defense of private property as an absolute and untouchable good, was possible only through the use of physical violence toward those who opposed it in any way.

The varied social movements that consolidated their hold on a few free territories, such as Zumbi’s escaped-slave settlement of Palmares in Alagoas; Antonio Conselheiro’s Canudos in Bahia; the Contestado in Santa Catarina and many others, were repressed and destroyed with violence.

It never occurred to any colonizer that the declaration of discovered land as Portugal’s possession was an act of violence.  Likewise, it never occurred to the elites who succeeded them to consider as an act of violence the existence of immense estates that exceeded all reasonable limits.  Nor did they consider as violence the usurpation of indigenous lands.  They did not consider violent the expulsion of tens of thousands of families of settlers who had occupied their land quietly and peacefully for decades and made their living from it.  Only the action of workers seeking to defend their right to life and access to a piece of ground to sustain themselves is considered and treated as violence.  This is true up to the present day.  And it was reaffirmed in the report of the congressional commission’s investigation of land issues submitted by Federal Deputy Abelardo Lupion at the end of 2005.  The victims are held responsible for the violence they suffer.  The occupation of land, even if it is unclaimed, stolen or involved in every sort of irregularity, is considered as an abusive act and therefore repressed as much by the alleged “proprietors” as by the public authority. 

The violence employed by the “proprietors of land” is considered as a just and necessary reaction to guarantee the “sacred right to private property.”  The modernization of agriculture, and an increase in productivity, simply disguised the latifúndio as agribusiness; but it did not change the Brazilian agrarian structure one bit or decrease violence in the countryside.  On the contrary, it increased violence.  In states where agribusiness grows more quickly, the levels of violence increase, especially in relation to the rural population.

The Agents of Violence

Two types of agents, private and public, guarantee this “right to property.”  The former are the landowners themselves or, almost always, their hired thugs and gunmen.  These carry out “justice” with their own hands, killing workers or expelling families from the land.  The latter are judges or their agents (police, judiciary officials).  The judges are usually very agile in issuing seizure orders for recently occupied areas or those occupied for long periods, such as escaped-slave settlements still held by their descendants.  They also issue arrest orders against workers involved in any action that might be denounced.  The justice officials and the police act in accordance with judicial orders and the police have intervened on many occasions on their own initiative; often they are accompanied by thugs and private gangs.

Since 1985 the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) has published an annual report on rural conflicts and violence.  It is clear that violence against peasants and workers is far from over.  In recent years, even during Lula’s administration— considered an ally of rural movements— the violence has grown.  Although the struggle for land reform mounted by social movements has not suffered federal repression— as happened under previous governments— repression by militia groups, as well as the police, under the authority of state governors, has increased.  Also, the judiciary system has been acting to repress landless workers.

From 2003, the first year of the Lula administration, until now, the number of land conflicts increased by 82.7 percent, from 926 in 2002 to 1,690.  This year the judiciary issued eviction orders against 35,292 families or 175,485 people, an all-time record, and an increase of 263.2 percent over 2002. The number of arrests was also 140.5 percent higher than in 2002.

The number of killings of landless workers grew 69.8 percent since 2002.  Seventy-three workers were killed in land conflicts.  A higher number was registered only in 1990 and during the 1980s.  The number of families evicted was 151.4 percent higher than in 2002.

At the same time, during the first year of the Lula administration, actions increased by workers who believed that the moment had arrived for a profound change and land reform finally would take place.  Occupations and encampments reached 676, involving 124,634 families or 623,170 people; in 2002 these actions had totaled 248.

After the government’s first year, social movements continued to exert pressure, even though the much-discussed land reform was far from being a reality.  In 2004 the number of occupations and encampments decreased to 646.  For their part, the big ranchers perceived that land reform was not a priority of the Lula administration, but even so they did not stop their repressive activities.  The number of expelled families increased from 2,907 in 2003 to 3,063 in 2004.  The number of killings fell to 39.

The public authorities continued to protect big landowners.  In 2004, 37,220 families were evicted by the police—the highest number since the CPT began keeping count.  The number of workers who were jailed also increased, from 380 in 2003 to 421 in 2004.

Indications of the weariness of social movements, facing insignificant results of land reform, were apparent in 2005.  The number of occupations and encampments decreased to 527.  Even so, the number of families expelled by the police increased considerably, from 3,063 to 4,366.  The number of killings fell from 39 to 38. The number of evicted families held steady at 25,618, and the number of arrests at 261.

Data from the CPT from January to August 2006 point to the continuing tendency of a reduction in social movement activity and violence.  The number of killings until the end of August was 18.37 percent lower than during the same period in 2005, when 29 people were killed.  The number of expelled families decreased from 2,339 from January to August 2005 to 927 during the same period in 2006, a decrease of 60.37 percent.  Judicial activity was less intense.  From January to August 2006, 31.41 percent fewer people were evicted— 11,065 families, compared with 16,131 families in 2005.  As for jailed workers, there was a significant increase.  From January to August 2006, 749 people were detained, 351.2 percent higher than during the same period in 2005, 166 more than the total in previous years.  This rise is due above all to the arrest of the MLST activists as a result of their occupation of the Chamber of Deputies building.

What These Numbers Tell Us

A superficial look at the numbers, which is common to the analysis of the mainstream media and all those who try to claim that the responsibility for violence lays with the social movements, links the decrease in the level of violence to the moderation of the social movements’ actions.  In this calculation, the less action by the social movements, the lower the violence in the countryside.

Professors Carlos Walter Porto Gonçalves and Paulo Roberto Alentejano of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, analyzed data collected by CPT according to geographic region.  According to the CPT’s data from January to August 2006, in the North, the occupations represent 6.69 percent of all occupations in the country; 30.96 percent of the conflicts, 66.6 percent of the killings, 31.28 percent of evicted families and 16.14 percent of expelled families occurred there.  In the Southeastern region, where 25.2 percent of the occupations took place, 14.03 percent of conflicts, none of the killings, 5.93 of evictions and 7.84 percent of expulsions occurred there.

The same can be seen if we calculate the average for the three previous years, 2003, 2004 and 2005.  Occupations in the Northern and Midwest regions represented 17.6 percent of the total.  The number of conflicts registered there was 41.1 percent.  In the North, where an average of 7.7 percent of occupations took place from 2003 to 2005, 28.6 percent of conflicts were registered.  On the other hand, in the South and Southeast the occupations represented 34.7 percent of the total.  There the conflicts were 20.7 percent of the total throughout the country.  This survey shows that the violence is greater in the areas where there is a lower degree of organized social mobilization.  Where the action of organized social movements is more intense, the level of violence is relatively lower.  The professors observe:

“In opposition to the conservative claims, the violence is not associated with the action of rural social movements, but with the traditional truculence of the big

*Brief analysis of land conflicts in the Brazilian countryside as shown in CPT’s partial data for 2006.

Landowners, brought up to date by agribusiness associated with the executive and judicial branches of the government, as can be observed by comparing the data on occupations with evicted and fleeing families.  It may be seen that 8.3 percent of the occupations were concentrated in Amazonia,* in contrast to 19.8 percent of evicted families (through the action of public authorities in service of the big landowners) and 38.8 percent of fleeing families (through direct action by the big landlords).”

Comparing the data on social movements with the land settlements by the federal government, it may be seen that between 2003 and 2005, the North had an average of 7.7 percent of the total occupations and 43.3 percent of settlements.  The Southeast and South together had 34.7 percent of the occupations and only 7.4 percent of the settlements.  According to the professors’ study, this “shows geographic slippage between government action and the actions of the grassroots movements.”

Other Forms of Violence

Another form of violence that the workers and the social movements face is symbolic.  The actions of grassroots movements are usually presented by the mainstream media in a discriminatory way.  The activities of large agribusinesses, on the other hand, are always presented as promoting “development” and “progress”, even when large landowners promote violence against workers or environmental destruction.

*Including the entire North plus the states of Maranhão and Mato Grosso, for the purposes of this study.

Two cases in 2006 clearly demonstrate the position of mainstream media:

On March 8, 2006, the women of Via Campesina destroyed eucalyptus seedlings and the laboratory of Aracruz Cellulose in Barra do Ribeiro, Rio Grande do Sul state, one of the symbols of agribusiness.  It was a protest against the advance of the “green desert” and the destructive effects of monoculture on the environment.  No person suffered any type of violence.  This action was in the headlines of news media for many days.  The women were condemned immediately by all the main media outlets and by public authorities at all levels.  They were accused of being violent, of carrying out an act of vandalism, and so forth.  The women’s organizations, especially the MMC (Peasant Women’s Movement) were investigated, had their offices invaded by the police, and their property seized.  The women identified as participants in the action are being prosecuted in various jurisdictions.

On May 19, 2006, in Vargem Grande township, Maranhão state, the entire community of São Malaquias, composed of descendants of escaped-slave settlements that have been in the area for more than 100 years, was violently expelled in an action replete with illegalities.  The alleged proprietor, Antonio Rodrigues Dias, presenting various documents that named him as the owner of the area, each one with different or contradictory boundaries, managed to obtain an eviction order from the local judge, Janaína de Araújo de Carvalho.  This order was transformed into an order of “reintegration of possession.”  The action referred to 10 families, and the eviction affected 30 families.  The houses, crops and goods of the workers were destroyed.  As a result, families with children, young and elderly members suffered great privation.  Even one of the residents who had died on May 19th and was being watched over in his house was evicted.  The deceased’s relatives had to move the farm worker’s body, which was taken to another community for the wake.  While the transfer of the body was taking place, his house was razed and burned. The suffering of this community went unnoticed. The media didn’t cover this violation of basic rights of escaped-slave settlement members.

As we affirmed at the beginning of this chapter, these factors make clear that the latifúndio and human rights cannot coexist, since the marriage of the latifúndio and violence is strong, very stable and increasingly powerful in this era of agribusiness.

*Antonio Canuto is secretary of the national headquarters of the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT).