- Brazil’s 1988 constitution and other laws established the right of landless peasants to claim unused and underutilized lands. Thousands, with the support of the landless movement, occupied tracts. At times, they even succeeded in getting authorities to set up agrarian reform settlements.
- Big landowners always opposed giving large tracts of land to the landless but, until roads began penetrating the Amazon making transport of commodities such as soy far cheaper, conflict over land was less intense.
- As new Amazon transportation projects are proposed – like the planned Ferrogrāo (Grainrail), or the BR-163 and BR-319 highway improvements – land thieves increasingly move in to steal the land, with hired thugs often threatening peasant communities, and murdering leaders.
- An example: a landless community leader named Carlos Antônio da Silva, known as Carlão, was assassinated by armed gunmen last April in Mato Grosso state. The rise of Jair Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly threatened the landless movement with violence, has residents of Amazon agrarian reform settlements deeply worried.
SANTIAGO DO NORTE, Mato Grosso state, Brazil – The roughly written sign beside the road, with its defiant message, made us brake sharply. We were exploring the region to be opened up by Ferrogrāo (Grainrail). The newly planned rail line in a few years could carry much of the harvest produced in northern Mato Grosso, Brazil’s main soy-producing state, to the Amazon River for export.
“Cursed be all fences that prevent us from living and loving,” read the placard.
We had just driven from Sorriso, the self-proclaimed “capital of Brazilian agribusiness,” and the upbeat messages we had heard there from businessmen and large-scale farmers were still ringing in our ears: “There’s no crisis here”, “This is the Brazil where things work”, and “There’s no poverty here.”
We’d seen signs of prosperity as we drove 250 kilometers (155 miles) east to the hamlet of Santiago do Norte, traveling through plantations where brilliant white plumes of cotton contrasted sharply with the bright blue, cloudless tropical sky.
In the distance, dotting the fields, powerful machines harvested the crop, and spewed out giant bales. Cotton is what agribusiness grows in the off-season, when the vast fields aren’t covered with soy. Surprisingly, the local roads were recently paved, in much better condition than those in most of Brazil’s countryside.
But the message on the placard, marking the entrance to a landless movement agrarian reform settlement, was dissonant, clashing with the bravura and optimism we had encountered so far.
Curious, we turned off the main road and drove down a rough track, stopping at the first house in the settlement. A woman came out to talk to us and we asked who had scrawled the sign. She volunteered that the sign maker was her husband, assassinated a few months earlier because of a land conflict. Startled, we asked what had happened. Through her and others in the settlement we glimpsed a dark reality underlying the Amazon region’s prosperity.
In search of land
“Big farmers want us under their heel,” sighed Marilé, the widow. We sat on a bench in front of her hut, drinking coffee. Soon we were joined by her teenage daughter and a friend of many years, simply known as Preta, as she dislikes the name her parents gave her (Rosemary). Preta nodded in agreement. “It’s the weakest who always pay,” she said.
“We joined the landless movement in Nova Ubiritã [a district southwest of Sorriso],” said Marilé. “We were about 100-150 landless families and we camped on the edge of the road for seven years,” she went on. Finally, exasperated by the delays and broken promises made by the authorities, the families decided to occupy a farm owned by an absentee landowner. It’s a tactic often adopted by Brazil’s landless movements and, though dangerous, it can sometimes pay off. And, at first, it seemed that the tactic would work for this group too.
The government’s agrarian reform agency, INCRA, visited the families and, after carrying out investigations, said it would establish a legal settlement for them on a portion of the land they had occupied. This was good news for them and in line with the government’s original plans for the region, which, according to Ariovaldo Umbelino de Oliveira, a lecturer in human geography at the University of São Paulo, was to reserve all the land in the area for landless settlements.
But again, there were endless delays and the documentation was never sorted out. Nova Ubiritã is just 85 kilometers (52 miles) from Sorriso, and land thieves and large-scale farmers were clearly unwilling to allow the authorities to hand over such a valuable asset to poor peasant families.
Marilé told us that her husband, Carlos Antônio da Silva, known as Carlão, who had been leading the struggle, decided that the families should give up and move to a more isolated area, where big farmers were not vying so intensely for the land.
After talking to INCRA, the families moved 170 kilometers (105 miles) to the east to the tiny hamlet of Santiago do Norte in the municipal district of Paranatinga. As it is difficult for farmers to get their crops to market from this isolated place, the families hoped that they would be able to consolidate their hold on a piece of land before the agricultural frontier reached the region.
Indeed, INCRA set up a settlement for them, the Rio Jatobá Social Development Project (PDS Rio Jatobá). It covers about 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres), and INCRA divided up the land between the 172 families. Each agreed to leave 80 percent of their plot untouched, as Brazilian law requires in the Amazon.
The community was delighted to have finally won land, after so many years of struggle. But they soon learned that in Santiago do Norte too they had enemies. Land thieves, sensing that the property might become much more valuable in the future, were moving in and they didn’t want any land handed over to landless peasants.
The land grabbers began by bad mouthing the families. “We are not good-for-nothings, good-for-nothing is what they call us” reads another placard posted outside the settlement.
Despite that, it seemed at first as if the families might work things out. They cleared plots and began to plant. Then came the rumor that a new railway – Grainrail – was being planned for the region. That changed the equation. Even though no official announcement of the route has yet been made and the project could still founder, land thieves recognized that land speculation could quickly bring huge fortunes. Grainrail would greatly reduce freight charges from this remote area, making the growing of soy and other commercial crops profitable.
Land grabbers began turning their eyes toward the peasant settlement in earnest.
Hot on the heels of the news of Grainrail came talk of other new roads and railways, some possibly financed by Chinese capital. Large scale farmers and land thieves surmised that within a few short years freight charges could drop even further as these new transport options were put in place.
Odir José Nicolodi, known as Caçula, a ruralist from Santiago do Norte, is a leading advocate for one of the new railways under consideration – FICO (Ferrovia de Integração do Centro Oeste / the Center West Integration Railway), which would likely pass through Santiago do Norte. He said recently: “The [FICO] project is ready. The rural producers and the municipal authorities in the regions through which the railway will pass are determined to unite their forces and get the project off the ground.”
Soy fever reached Santiago do Norte far more quickly than Carlão and his community expected. Agribusiness, in anticipation of the new rail lines, began preparing for the boom by building and paving roads, often using its own financial resources. This move explained the excellent condition of the roads we encountered on our trip (and explains why we reached Santaigo do Norte in half the time predicted by Google Earth).
As land speculation peaked, violence flared.
One day, PDS Rio Jatobá settlement farmers found the entrance to their fields, which are located some distance from their hamlet, blocked by gunmen, sent in by land thieves. “They are on top of us, they don’t let us get in,” recalled Marilé. “They never stop threatening us. They tell us that anyone who goes in will die.”
Time and again Carlão went to the INCRA office in Paranatinga to ask for help. But, according to Marilé, no official measures were even taken. Mongabay asked INCRA to comment on Marilé’s allegations, but received no reply.
Marilé begged her husband to leave the area. But he told her that life would be difficult for the families everywhere and they should stay in their settlement, where they had legal rights, and fight to keep their land.
On 7 April 2018 Carlão went to Paranatinga with his wife and daughter. As he was leaving the mayor’s office, he was accosted by men on motorbikes who shot him dead.
In the nine months since, no one has been arrested for the crime. Pablo Borges Rigo, the policeman in charge of the investigation, said it was a difficult case to investigate because of the local climate of fear: “Witnesses won’t make a statement or pass on information because they’re afraid of being attacked.”
Wendell Girotto, a landless movement spokesperson, explained that the entire area around Santiago do Norte has become dangerous: “[R]ural workers are being threatened when they start occupying their plots. And everything has got worse in this period when farmers are abandoning their discourse of hate and taking [violent] action.”
Marilé, widowed and now looking after a teenage daughter traumatized by witnessing her father’s assassination, feels stranded. She and others in the settlement believe they’ll be killed if they don’t hand over their lands. Today, they try to survive by carrying out small-scale subsistence agriculture on tiny plots near their homes, but even here they face problems.
Marilé showed us her manioc (cassava) plants which have withered. She explained that when the adjacent large landowners aerially spray their fields (and nearby forest) with defoliant, the poison often drifts over the community’s plots, killing their crops. People are hurt too, with several Santiago do Norte residents complaining of smarting eyes and strange fevers.
No isolated case
It is illegal for agribusiness to takeover agrarian reform settlements, but it happens very frequently in remote Amazon locales. In 2016, we visited the Gleba Mercedes settlement near the town of Sinop and found that soy farmers had infiltrated there. Some had taken advantage of settlers who were finding it very difficult to survive as small-scale farmers, partly because the authorities hadn’t provided the technical and financial assistance assured under Brazilian law. Other soy farmers had illegally taken over most of the forest that the settlers had left as a legal reserve, as the Brazilian Forest Code requires. At the time of our visit, the settlement faced a bleak future.
Edson Nunes, an INCRA agronomist, told us that in 2015 he had been sent to work at the Tapurah/Itanhangá Settlement located west of Sorriso in northern Mato Grosso. Covering 116,000 hectares (286,000 acres), it is one of the largest land settlements in Latin America, and its 1,119 families should be making a good living from the food crops they can grow on their individual 100-hectare (247-acre) plots. But land thieves have been after this choice land ever since the settlement was created in 1996.
An investigation by the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), an independent litigation branch of the Brazilian government, found that criminal gangs had bribed or threatened settlers into selling or leasing their plots. According to Nunes, nearly all the land is now in the hands of large-scale farmers, producing commodities, instead of small farmers, producing food. The authorities, he said, were incapable of offering the settlement the support it needed to survive in a region targeted by agribusiness.
Mongabay recently documented the case of a couple – Osvalinda Marcelino and Daniel Pereira – who originally lived on the Tapurah/Itanhangá Settlement but refused to sell their plot to incoming land grabbers who wanted to take it over to grow soy. The rejected farmers set fire to the couple’s crops, forcing them to flee north to try and create a new life in Pará state. “We left our two daughters in a neighbor’s house and came by motorbike to Pará, looking for a new plot of land on which we could plant and rebuild our lives,” remembered Osvalinda. But when they found a new place in which to settle, they were again threatened by land grabbers, who have continued threatening them – recently they awoke to find two fresh empty graves dug in their backyard.
Edson Nunes told Mongabay: “The way agribusiness expands is essentially violent because it resembles a ‘military occupation’ of a territory, with the deployment of a lot of heavy machinery, trucks, extensive use of poisons, and so on, which creates huge problems for the peasant populations living in the settlements.”
According to Nunes, the environmental degradation generated in this process is closely entwined with the social conflict: “Local peasants, as well as having to deal with physical violence, suffer the violence of having to leave their land because of huge changes in the social organization of their lives and the destruction of the environment on which peasant agriculture depends,” Nunes explained. As agribusiness colonizes an area, forests where peasants sustainably harvest fruit and wood are cut down. Rivers and aquifers, vital as drinking water for people and livestock, are choked with pesticides and runoff.
Nunes explained that life becomes very difficult within Brazil’s agrarian reform settlements, especially when transportation infrastructure is improved. “The settlers are very vulnerable to the increase in real estate speculation, which has already happened as a result of the paving of the BR-163 highway [in the Tapajos basin] and the probable construction of Grainrail. And this speculation will tend to get worse.” Similar problems are emerging in the Amazon’s Madeira basin as the BR-319 is improved.
Darker times ahead
Nunes is alarmed at unfolding events: “Policies for developing the settlements have been severely damaged by successive [federal] budget cuts, especially since the Dilma [Rousseff] government [from 2011 to 2016]. And the problems have been deepened by Constitutional Amendment 95 [which freezes public investment for 20 years]. As a result, the settlements are being abandoned and, in many cases, being taken over by land grabbers.”
Prospects for the Rio Jatobá Social Development Project, and for hundreds of other agrarian reform settlements, are extremely bleak. On 18 December Tereza Cristina, the new agriculture minister, appointed the heads of her six secretariats. The head of the Land Affairs secretariat will be Luiz Antonio Nabhan Garcia, the president of the Rural Democratic Union (UDR), an extreme right-wing ruralist entity. In 2005 the Federal Public Ministry, an independent government investigative body, said that he should be charged for illegally bearing arms and employing private militias.
According to Regina Bruno, from the Rio de Janeiro Rural Federal University, Nabhan Garcia defends “the use of violence as a class practice.” In a clear attack on the landless movement, he recently said: “Land invasion is a crime. It has to end. Those who invade land will be identified and charged with the formation of a criminal gang.”
During our chat with Marilé and Preta, they laughed and joked, showing the remarkable Brazilian capacity for enjoying the moment, and for resilience. But both were realistic about what likely lies ahead.
“If the options are to be killed by a gunman or die of hunger, because we can’t plant crops, we prefer to be shot dead,” Preta said.
Banner image: From right to left: Marilé, Marilé’s daughter, and friend Preta. Their lives have been made difficult by the murder of husband and father, and landless activist and leader, Carlão. His murder goes unsolved. Image by Mariel Mitsu.