Dispossessed without trace

The Brazilian press and political system is ignoring a wholesale theft of land and the murder of its people

By George Monbiot. Published in Index on Censorship, sometime in 1995

Chico Mendes was one of one thousand rural workers murdered by landlords during the 1980s in Brazil. His death was exceptional in that, thanks to the international outcry, it resulted in the only successful prosecution of the commissioner of one of these killings. Though there is never any shortage of evidence identifying the culprits, the police and courts have done everything in their power to avoid bringing the killers to justice.

Land and power in Brazil are indivisible. The political control of the countryside has always been the privilege of the people who own the most land, and many of the big landlords are the senators, ministers and army chiefs who govern the nation. To prevent the astonishing concentration of landownership in Brazil from being redeemed they use three weapons: the murder of peasant leaders, empty promises, and the silence of the press.

Far from providing any corrective to the excesses of Brazil’s politicians, much of the media is owned by them. The president’s father, who has himself shot at least one political opponent, owns a television station. The biggest TV network in Brazil, indeed the fourth biggest in the world, Rede Globo, was established as a propaganda vehicle by the most brutal of Brazil’s military dictators, General Emilio Medici. Fernando Collor’s success in the last presidential election was in large part the result of the promise made by Rede Globo’s boss, Roberto Marinho – a lifelong enemy of land reform – to put him in power. Both men are representatives of the tiny class for whom government is little more than a private commercial enterprise.

While the conservative newspapers openly ally themselves with the landlords, even the liberal papers, while defending Indian land rights and some urban workers’ movements, characteristically fight shy of tangling with the dangerous issues of landownership and rural violence. Isolated events may be reported, such as the death of peasant leaders or the burning of the houses of rural workers, but there is a reluctance to investigate the causes of such events, or to show them as part of a wider problem.

When, having been beaten up by the military police working for a big landowner, I was interviewed by the liberal newspaper A Folha de Sao Paulo, the enthusiastic young reporter assured me that the story would receive a double page spread, and that the land dispute I became involved in would be thoroughly investigated. When nothing appeared and I telephoned her to see what was happening, she told me, after an embarrassed pause, that the story had had to be dropped, as the editor did not think it was true. A few weeks before the same paper had reported my death.

As a result of such craven failures to cover what by any measure is one of the most newsworthy issues in Brazil, there has been little to restrain the extraordinary rapacity of the country’s landlords. Already 45% of the farmland is possessed by one percent of the farmers, while the poorest 53% own 2.7%. The 20 biggest private landowners own more land between them than do the 3.3 million smallest farmers. Yet for the landlords and politicians this is not enough. Wherever possible they are pushing the small producers off their remaining lands.

The landowners’ lobby, as much as World Bank loans and pressure from the IMF, has fuelled the export promotion policies changing the distribution of ownership in the South of Brazil. As new technologies and the export crops the government supports favour those farmers who have capital to invest, and exclude those too poor to buy new equipment or chemicals, the peasants there find themselves unable to compete and are bought out.

But in the North and North East regions of Brazil the methods are more direct. Big landowners wishing to take over the properties adjoining their own turn up in the villages of the peasant owners and order everybody out. If the villagers refuse to leave the landlords characteristically send in gunmen or the military police seconded to the local mayor’s office, who start burning houses and crops, shooting livestock, roughing up the men and threatening to rape the women.

If the people still refuse to go their leaders or the unionists, priests, nuns or lawyers trying to defend them are shot. In 1990 64 rural workers were murdered – less than in the previous year – and 4,800 families, about 24,000 people, were forced off their lands. These dispossessed people have only two places to flee to: the shantytowns or the Amazon. The peasants cutting the forests on the Amazon’s new frontiers are, on the whole, there because they have been excluded from Brazil’s more productive farmlands: it is the victims who are being blamed for the deforestation.

Most of the lands taken from the peasants are used not for agriculture but for speculation. Within Brazil, outside the Amazon, 330 million hectares of farmland – an area larger than India – are lying idle. Its owners merely wait for its speculative value to rise, whereupon they sell it to other investors. Even though they cover only 3% of the farmland, the peasant farms in Brazil account for 82% of rural employment and produce most of the country’s staple foods.

Twenty million people belong to rural families without land, while many millions more crowd the swelling cities. In the last 20 years 30 million Brazilians have left the countryside for the towns. 200 families arrive in Sao Paulo every day, where, as in every large Brazilian city, they suffer inadequate housing, schooling, health facilities and sewerage, an overloaded infrastructure and malnutrition. Brazil’s urban problems are, at root, rural ones.

The landlords spend some of the money they make from the sale or tenancy of the farms they seize on the posters, intimidation, free meals, teeshirts and chartered buses with which most elections in Brazil are won. Political leaders are elected by the people from among their oppressors.

In researching changes in landownership and the accompanying violence, I concentrated on the state of Maranhao, in the North East region of Brazil. It was here that Jose Sarney – who between 1985 and 1989 was president of Brazil – began his main political career with an inverse agrarian reform programme, which took land from the poor to give to the rich.

In 1969, as state governor, he sent his agriculture secretary and treasurer around Brazil, informing big businesses that for the price of one hectare in Sao Paulo state they could buy 1000 in Maranhao. His government provided tax breaks and subsidies to investors, and allowed them to defer payment for several years, with no interest and no correction for inflation: which meant that the land cost the buyers approximately nothing.

The investors, unlike the citizens of the state, were guaranteed roads and electricity, and an absence of competing landclaims. Regrettably the land they were sold was owned already. Thousands of peasants were farming the two million hectares Sarney had dispensed, and the government had to fulfil its guarantees. The land transfers begun in that period boosted the political ethic which still prevails in the state.

I travelled to central Maranhao just as one of the region’s big ranchers and the police and gunmen working with him were moving in for a final assault on the stubborn people of the village of Centro dos Aguiar. Though one man had been shot, five had been tortured and many more beaten, though most of the houses of the village had been burnt down, the people had refused to leave the state. Instead they had decamped to neighbouring villages, while the priests and lawyers working on their behalf tried to persuade the courts to intercede.

The night before I arrived, the rancher and eleven military police had raided the neighbouring villages to round up the leaders of Centro dos Aguiar, armed with a warrant issued by a local judge. Though the villagers had owned their lands for thirty-five years and the rancher had just arrived, the warrant charged the villagers with land invasion.

The people I met were treating the wounds they had received in the night. Their hands and feet bound, they had been dragged face down over stony ground, beaten with rifle butts and drenched with urine by the police. One youth was so badly injured that he could not stand. The men the police were seeking had been handcuffed, beaten again and then imprisoned.

In the neighbouring villages I met the family of the man shot by the rancher’s gunmen as he leapt from his hammock when they raided his house. He fell between his baby daughter and pregnant wife. I met one of the five village elders who had been tortured in the local police station. They had been arrested by the rancher’s brother, who had been illegally invested with police powers by the police chief, and taken to the station. Inside they were stripped naked and forced to walk around the cells on their knees. They were kicked and beaten with rifles, then held down in turn while the policemen passed faeces into their mouths. The police kept beating them and might have tortured them to death had one of the men not fled through an open cell door and reached a church before the police caught up with him. The priests called a lawyer, who telephoned the police station. The men were released; but not before one of them had been partially blinded by being beaten round the head.

After several days in the neighbouring villages I walked to the rancher’s house, through the village of Centro dos Aguiar. There I saw the houses which had been burnt while the peasants were in their fields. The remains of their few possessions lay scattered among the ashes. The church, now boarded up, bore the bullet holes made by one of the rancher’s gunmen, trying to break into a service.

The rancher took exception to my questions, and soon introduced me to three of his employees. Between them they carried a short-barrelled shotgun, a rifle, three revolvers, machetes and handcuffs. They fetched the eight military police living in his brother’s house, who invited me to hand over my films and tapes. When I refused I was beaten up and kicked – literally – out of the ranch.

The next day I returned brandishing my letter of permission to work in Maranhao, furnished by the state’s head of security. I was unaware that this man was the father of the captain of military police who had overseen my beating, and was himself responsible for the murder of an old man in a neighbouring village. Unimpressed by the letter and irritated by my demands for the return of the tapes and films he had taken, the captain loaded his gun and I ran for my life.

I went to the local chief of police to record an interview with him about the torture of the five old men in his cells. He told me: “It wasn’t my staff who did it and I knew nothing about it. I heard it happened. If it happened it was a lie. It’s a big lie, and it also wasn’t my staff who did it. I as commander of police have already taken measures in respect of this.”

Complicity on the part of the police and state authorities is almost universal in Maranhao. Many of the cases of organised violence documented by Amnesty International demonstrate a disregard for the law nowhere so blatant as among the judiciary, a criminality introduced to communities only with the arrival of the police, an anarchy engineered by government.

Even when the police are not directly involved, they have in most cases avoided investigating rural violence. They have failed to collect evidence, interview witnesses or conduct post mortems, and records of any enquiries they do make disappear. When obliged to enquire, they have intimidated witnesses, or forced them to sign false statements. But when the police themselves are involved in a murder, or the hired assassins are issued with police uniforms or arms, investigations are unnecessary, as the survivors will not register the crime.

Sometimes, despite the efforts of priests and community leaders to restrain them, peasants use the law of the backlands to settle their disputes, and kill the landowners or gunmen who have killed their own people. It is then that the police force is transformed. Post-mortems are conducted with diligence, the most detailed evidence is collected, and witnesses are interviewed with such enthusiasm that some do not survive the experience.

A special division of the federal police has been established in Brasilia, to monitor and impede the activities of the Movimento dos Sem Terra, a pressure group supporting landless workers. The division’s activities include telephone bugging, raiding offices, threatening the movement’s leaders and generating counter propaganda.

The Ministry of Justice refuses to assist the state courts to prosecute landlords’ gunmen. When an Amnesty International delegation complained to the last Minister about the torture of peasants in police stations, he replied that the delegates had “omitted any reference to the criminal backgrounds of the accused”; the accused being the people being tortured. The present Minister of Justice has opened a parliamentary enquiry commission to investigate the origins, causes and consequences of rural violence. Of the 13 members of the commission, 7 are ranchers or rural businessmen.

The Agriculture Minister, Antonio Cabrera, is one of the biggest landowners in Brazil. The fact that on all his 200,000 hectares he runs only 41,000 head of cattle suggests that he may also be a land speculator. He was reported by a Brazilian newspaper as having helped organize auctions to raise money for the Ranchers’ Union, the body responsible for the majority of the organized political killings in the Brazilian countryside. His brothers were campaign managers for the bid made by the president of the Ranchers’ Union to become president of the Republic.

In the face of these powerful interests there are a few brave politicians and civil servants prepared to defend the rural workers. Their lives are often as precarious as those of the peasant leaders.

In some places, through sheer doggedness, the peasants are winning their fight to stay on their lands, though often at the cost of blood and burnings. In the county of Rio Maria in the state of Para, the rural union has buried 17 members, including two presidents, since 1982, but is still fighting for the rights of the surviving peasants to stay where they are. Of one peasant family the mayor of the county complained that though gunmen “have already killed the father, have already killed two sons, these people still have the gall to mount the platform and abuse the ranchers. We’ll have to resolve this problem.”

The bravery of some peasant leaders is matched by that of pastors, lawyers and members of support groups such as the Comissao Pastoral da Terra and the Movimento dos Sem Terra, which shared a Right Livelihood Award last year. Human rights lawyers, often working for no more than subsistence, badger the police into releasing untried prisoners and the courts into recognising the peasants’ landholdings. Many have been killed or wounded, by gunmen hired by syndicates of ranchers, mayors, judges and police chiefs who, by commissioning jointly, can spread responsibility for these riskier killings.

The priests supporting the peasant movements are generally those teaching liberation theology. It is often they who point out to the villagers, confounded by generations of abasement before authority, that they need not do as the landlords tell them. As a result they too feature prominently on the deathlists. The Pope, a sworn enemy of liberation theology, has imposed a silence on its leading Brazilian advocate. In a recent visit to Brazil he condemned the “invasion of private property”: referring to the occupation of unproductive ranches by peasants, rather than the occupation of productive peasant lands by ranchers. His critics suspect that his natural conservatism is augmented by fears that the Catholic Church’s big funders – who in Brazil are the landowners – will move over to the rapidly growing, arch-conservative evangelical churches.

Successive Brazilian governments have promised widespread land reform, with no intention of doing anything but taking the wind out of the peasant movements’ sails. When land has been distributed it has been allocated not in the peasants’ home states but in colonisation sites in the Amazon, the dustbin of Brazil’s social policies. This fails to solve the problems of the peasants – as the Amazon is generally infertile and subject to even worse land disputes than their home states – and, of course, destroys the rainforest. The government’s land agency – the Institute for Colonisation and Agrarian Reform – is a contradiction in terms.

President Collor promised that he would institute an agrarian reform programme which would be “the biggest in the world,” promising to resettle 500,000 families. He asked the Agriculture Minister to implement it, so nothing has happened. The land agency, which needed an extra 5000 staff to carry out the programme, has instead been cut back. Only where the peasants themselves have seized back the land snatched from them by ranchers has any expropriation taken place since Collor came to power. 12,000 families are now camped under tarpaulins beside vast unproductive properties, in response to the promise he has determined not to fulfil. There they will stay, while the landlords and politicians accumulate yet more of the diminishing lands of the majority, and the press retains its murderous silence.