- Under Brazil’s 1988 constitution, all private land must serve a social function. So unused property without a social function can legally be occupied and claimed by landless communities. However, this law has created major land conflicts between large-scale landowners, who lay claim to vast properties, and landless communities seeking land.
- One egregious case occurred in Tocantins state. Families began occupying, and homesteading on, an abandoned piece of land in 2007. Almost immediately, two landowners claimed the property, and began battling in court for ownership. The landless settlers stayed on the land, expecting the government to settle in their favor.
- In 2010, according to witnesses, one of the landowners shot a community member through the heart, but a trial date has still not been set. In April, the alleged murderer convinced the courts of his land claim and the residents of Gabriel Filho (named for the murdered community member), were evicted, and denied access to their homes, crops and livestock.
- Federal and state officials responsible for resolving the land dispute have stonewalled, and failed to take action on the community’s behalf. Legal experts say that Brazil’s landless movement typically receives little support in its land claims from government agencies or the justice system, and has gained limited sympathy from the general public.
This is the first in a series by journalist Anna Sophie Gross who travelled to the Brazilian states of Tocantins and Maranhão in Legal Amazonia in May for Mongabay to assess the impacts of agribusiness on the region’s environment and people.
GABRIEL FILHO: Tocantins, Brazil: In April of this year, 19 families were ordered to vacate the homes they’d lived in for more than a decade, and also forced to leave behind their croplands and livestock. Compounding the sense of injustice residents felt, the man driving their eviction is accused of murdering a community member in 2010.
Shortly after that murder, the families decided to name their community “Gabriel Filho,” after the deceased, to emblazon the tragedy on their collective identity, and to remember.
Today, Gabriel Filho’s hundred exiled residents are in legal limbo, living in improvised shacks – tarps hung on wooden poles. They’re banned by a court ruling from returning to their community to tend their fields and care for their animals.
“We can’t even go back to our home to get our things, to collect our crops. If we go back we’ll be sent to prison,” said Eulina de Silva Sousa, a 40 year-old mother forcibly removed from her home by the police on 17 April. “I wake up in the morning, I feel sad, silent, thinking ‘what are we going to do tomorrow? What will we invent to eat tomorrow?’”
Eulina had planned to go to university to study to become a teacher; she’d passed the entrance exam and planted cassava – the sale of which would have paid for the course. No longer allowed to access the crops she planted, she has shelved her college plans indefinitely.
“They’ve taken away our right to dream,” she said.
This story isn’t unique in Brazil, but is emblematic of land conflicts raging across the nation. The problem arises out of the law, which states that all private land must serve a social function. Even when claimed by someone, it cannot just sit unused. Land failing to serve a social function can legally be claimed and occupied by landless communities who then have a right to stay there.
This was the process by which Gabriel Filho was settled in 2007. According to the first arrivals, the land they homesteaded on had been abandoned for some time. But shortly after establishing their community, a landowner and farmer named Paulo de Freitas asserted that he owned the property. Brandishing a deed showing that he had bought the land a few years before, De Freitas demanded the community be expelled.
Then, within months, another farmer, Pedro Bringel, claimed that he was in fact the rightful owner, and took Paulo de Freitas to court. At this point, there were three parties in conflict, all asserting land ownership: the community, Paulo de Freitas and Pedro Beringel.
Paulo de Freitas claimed he had bought the land from one of Beringel’s relatives, during a period while Beringel had been ill. Beringel refuted this, saying the land sale was illegitimate as it was carried out without his permission.
While De Freitas and Beringel hashed things out in the legal system, the settlers bided their time, hoping and expecting that the government would recognize their right of occupancy under the law. Beringel told the community that if he won the case, he would sell the land to the government to help safeguard the community and make it permanent.
In 2010, at the height of the land conflict, a community member in his forties named Gabriel Filho – described by friends as loyal, with a strong communal spirit – was shot through the heart while walking toward a small building owned by Paulo de Freitas. Eyewitnesses say that De Freitas was in the building at the time, and that he was responsible for the killing.
“A member of our community was murdered and Paulo de Freitas was the main suspect so we were led to believe that the justice system would give us the right to stay on the land,” said 58-year old Maria Socorro Barreira Santos, a wife, mother and community member. “We believed that, so we stayed. We kept planting crops, lemons, cassava. We planted roots for ourselves.”
The wheels of justice turn slowly in Brazil, but seem to have ground almost to a halt in the Gabriel Filho case. Eight years later and accused killer De Freitas has still not been brought to trial. “The judge is acting like he killed a dog, not a human,” said Maria Socorro. “We feel small, humiliated, as though people are walking all over us.”
Sandro Pereira Pinto, the public defender representing the settlers, relates events since Gabriel Filho’s murder in 2010. Attempts to evict the community quietened and the land ownership legal action stalled. “The man who had initially been claiming ownership of the land [De Freitas] abandoned the case, stopped discussing it. He did not participate in the process for 5 or 6 years,” Pinto said.
During this time, the families settled in further. They built sturdy homes, planted cassava, beans and melons; raised horses, chickens and pigs. According to Pinto, under Brazilian law these homesteading activities should have strengthened their rightful legal claim to remain on the land.
But when Paulo de Freitas resumed his legal battle to expel the 30 families in 2015, the judge instead ruled in his favor and expelled the community, based on land documents he presented in 2007. The facts in the case were not reassessed to take into account the murder of Gabriel Filho or the five-year period during which the community remained on the land unchallenged.
Coincidentally, the judge granting De Freitas the right to expel the families is the same judge presiding over the murder case. That judge too, like De Freitas, is a large landowner and farmer in the region. Some community members believe the judge to be a good friend of De Freitas. Mongabay reached out to Paulo de Freitas, via his lawyer, but received no reply.
“Judges in Brazil don’t identify with country men. They have difficulties understanding their perspective,” said Pinto. “They can’t understand the idea that a group of people would simply arrive on a plot of land and begin planting and living off it without having a physical land title. Their life was created inside of a different logic.”
However, the community’s logic is firmly anchored in the law. According to the Brazilian constitution of 1988, landless communities have the right to enter and occupy land not put to a social function for a significant period of time. Upon settlement, the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), a federal agency, is required to compensate the original landowner and turn the formerly abandoned property over to the community in a legal settlement.
Lawyers working on the side of Gabriel Filho have spent 10 years trying to get INCRA to survey the land to prove that it was abandoned. But INCRA has never made the site visit. “Another illness in our state is that INCRA doesn’t work,” explained Lorrany Lorenco Neves, a lawyer working on the case for the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT).
Asked why the agency had not yet surveyed the land, despite dozens of official requests to do so, the superintendent of INCRA in Tocantins, Carlos Alberto Costa, said that he needed De Freitas’ authorization to enter the disputed land, but attempts to reach him, beginning in September 2017, had failed to gain a response.
Lacking that authorization, Costa would need to obtain a judicial order allowing his team to survey the property. Asked if, considering the gravity of the situation and the recent eviction, he had yet tried to obtain a judicial order, Costa told Mongabay that he had not. Instead, he will continue in his attempts to determine the correct contact information for De Freitas.
In light of the INCRA impasse, public prosecutor Sandro Pinto is pushing now for Gabriel Filho’s murder case to be brought to trial. Failure to do so, he said, is a human rights violation.
“The judge hasn’t only expelled the community from the land, but a murder took place there and there has not been a timely investigation into what took place, which means evidence is getting lost and no one can be prosecuted,” Pinto said. “A person [was] murdered in the community, his companions who were there saw how it happened, and the person who was responsible will not be held to account. Imagine the sense of injustice this community feels.”
One thing that especially concerns Pinto in the Gabriel Filho case, and in other landless movement cases, is the lack of public outrage, concern and consensus around the assassination of a traditional community member and the eviction of people from their long established homes by the accused murderer.
“We’re asking for justice, help, aid for these people who are camped out, the children and the elderly,” said Eulina. “We just want a piece of land to raise our children and work. We just want a little bit of dignity. We aren’t asking for a lot.”
Mongabay contributor Anna Sophie Gross was accompanied on her trip by Thomas Bauer, a photographer and filmmaker who has been documenting and supporting communities in the Cerrado and Amazon for over 20 years. He produced nearly all of the photos and videos for this series.
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