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Saturday, March 8, 2014
The landless peasant farmers occupying large landholdings in Pará, the Brazilian state where the land conflict is most violent, face threats ranging from intimidation by armed private guards to the spraying of toxic agrochemicals over their homes and crops.
- Toiling beneath a blazing sun in the humid heat of the Amazon, Waldemar dos Santos, 60, tends the community garden he shares with other landless peasant farmers in the Brazilian state of Pará, as they wait for agrarian reform to provide them with the opportunity for a better life.
“My dream is a small plot of land. Our goal is to bring an end to hunger in this country, which is falling off the precipice of need,” he told Tierramérica*. As a child, Santos fled the drought-stricken northeast Brazilian state of Bahia and migrated to the northern state of Pará, in Brazil’s Amazon region.
His family is one of the 280 families living in the Frei Henri des Roziers Camp, established by the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST) in Aug. 8, 2010. The camp is named after a Dominican friar and lawyer from the Catholic Pastoral Land Commission who continues to fight in defence of human rights in the region at the age of 82.
The landless peasants are occupying a 400-hectare estate known as Fazendinha, located off federal highway BR-155 roughly 100 kilometres from the city of Marabá. They say that the purported owners of the estate, formerly a cattle ranch, created it by invading and illegally deforesting public land, and that at the time of the occupation, it had been left idle and unproductive.
This is the justification for almost all of the land occupations by social movements demanding agrarian reform in Brazil.
In the southeast of Pará, where the struggle over land is most violent, over 500 settlements of small farmers have been legalised by the National Institute for Colonisation and Agrarian Reform (INCRA). But there are still more than 100 camps of families living in tents and straw huts waiting for the federal government to grant them legal ownership of the land.
It takes an average of five years to get the government to confiscate a property and allocate the land to agrarian reform.
To reach the Frei Henri camp, you need to drive along a long stretch of the dusty BR-155, full of potholes and trucks loaded with minerals that block the road day and night.
The region was once rich in cashew trees, which were razed to make way for cattle pastures. Right in the heart of the Amazon, the towering green canopies and exuberant vegetation of the rainforest were replaced with the flat monotony of grassland years ago.
The occupation of Fazendinha has led to bitter conflicts with local ranch owners, who have joined forces and hired private armed guards to intimidate the landless farmers and destroy their crops.
“We plant crops to grow healthy food. The ranch owners don’t produce anything and claim that their lands are productive. We face constant threats. Justice in Pará is very slow. We wait and despair,” said Dos Santos.
“Here, land is power,” declared Maria Raimunda César, 39, a member of the MST coordinating committee in Pará. “The conflict is never-ending. In Pará, people are gunned down like animals. A side of beef for export is worth more than a human life. There is tremendous injustice, and growing oppression and violence.”
According to César, agrarian reform is ignored in national policies. Both the current government of Dilma Rousseff and that of her predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011) “removed the issue from the agenda.”
Changes in land use tend to follow a similar perverse pattern, said César. First the rainforest is opened up to make way for mining and logging for charcoal production. This is followed by the invasion of public lands by private landholders, who destroy the forest and plant grasses for cattle grazing.
On average, there is one head of cattle per hectare, she noted.
Also along highway BR-155, but close to Marabá, there is another camp of landless peasant farmers, the Helenira Resende Camp, which was set up on Mar. 1, 2010 and is now home to 150 families. In addition to intimidation by armed men, these farmers also face airborne threats: toxic agricultural products sprayed over their homes and fields.
Raúl Montenegro, an Argentine activist who participated in an international mission in solidarity with the landless peasants of Pará, told Tierramérica that “the combined use of bullets and poisons is tantamount to chemical warfare against these communities.”
“The large landholders claim that they are spraying these chemicals on their own lands, but this is a way of evading responsibility,” said Montenegro, the president of the Foundation for the Defence of the Environment, based in Córdoba, Argentina, and a recipient in 2004 of the Right Livelihood Award, known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize”.
“We were not only able to confirm that groups of armed men laid siege to an entire community and subjected them to a nightly hail of gunfire and loud bombs at the Frei Henri des Roziers Camp. We also witnessed how companies like Santa Barbara conduct aerial spraying of pesticides,” he denounced.
“This poison reaches children, adolescents and adults, with total impunity, with no government control, and no epidemiological or environmental testing,” he added.
“Our motto is to occupy and resist, but they are an extremely powerful group. The men at the ranch are heavily armed and they shoot,” said Aldemir Monteiro de Souza, 28, a resident of the Helenira Resende Camp, which occupies 50 hectares within the Cedro ranch, an estate covering a total area of almost 15,000 hectares.
The “powerful group” he is referring to are the owners of the cattle company Agropecuária Santa Barbara. One of the company’s biggest shareholders is banker Daniel Dantas, who was arrested in 2008 for financial crimes and money laundering.
According to the MST and the Pastoral Land Commission, in the last 10 years alone, the Santa Barbara Group has bought up 800,000 hectares of land in six municipalities in Pará.
“The group appropriates public lands, uses slave labour, and commits environmental crimes,” said Charles Trocate, an MST coordinator in Pará.
The landless peasants are waiting for INCRA technicians to inspect the Cedro ranch to determine if it is productive and legal. If irregularities are detected, the process for its expropriation will begin, and the land will subsequently be allocated in parcels to the farmers.
A hearing with the INCRA agrarian oversight committee has been scheduled for May 22 at the Justice Forum in Marabá. This will be the first step, after years of occupation and the establishment of the landless farmers’ camp.
* This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.