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Weakening of agrarian reform program increases violence against settlers in Brazilian Amazon

A man prepares palms to replace the roof of the school that was burnt down in the Projeto Assentamento Dorthy Stang near Anapu in Pará state, Brazil. August, 2022.

  • Residents of a landless workers’ settlement in Anapu, Pará state, in Brazil’s Amazon region, accuse the federal government of favoring large landowners, land-grabbers and corporations at the expense of poor and landless peasants.
  • This year, the settlers have already suffered three attacks by landowners, with houses set on fire and a school destroyed.
  • In 2021, Incra, the Brazilian federal agency responsible for addressing the country’s deep inequalities in rural land use and ownership, made an agreement with the mining company Belo Sun, which ceded 2,400 hectares (5,930 acres) of an area reserved for agrarian reform for gold exploration in exchange for equipment and a percentage of mining profits.
  • In protest, landless peasants occupied one of the areas included in the agreement; since then, they have been threatened and intimidated by Belo Sun supporters and armed security guards hired by the mining company.

They came at night, shadowy figures moving silently, flashlights scanning the dirt path between walls of grass. Arriving at a small wood shack covered by a thin sheet of metal, they emptied the contents of a plastic bottle and set it ablaze. At daybreak, the 43-year-old farmer José Garcia solemnly inspected what was left of his home for the past three years. Planks of charred wood smoldered on the concrete floor. The twisted metal springs of a mattress stretched outward as if to escape the flames. Hard to replace would be the small gas stove, along with dozens of saplings the farmer hoped to watch grow like his four children. It was the third attack this year.

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The 54 families of Lot 96 make up one-half of the Sister Dorothy Stang Settlement Project (PA), a farming community on the eastern bank of the Xingu River near Anapu in Brazil’s Pará state, named after the American nun murdered in 2005 for devoting herself to the cause of social and environmental justice in the lawless frontier of the Amazon. More than a decade later, the injustice which she fought against and took her life has only worsened under the right-wing administration of Jair Bolsonaro. Residents accuse the government of favoring large landowners and corporations at the expense of poor, landless peasants.

“They don’t want us here,” says Garcia, remembering the history of the bloodstained region where he grew up. “Many have been killed over a piece of land.” Like those before him, he came looking for a place to build a home for his wife and children. Living in the city is expensive and steady employment scarce, especially for those without more than a basic education. In the nearby town of Novo Repartimento, where he previously lived, Garcia worked odd jobs but his goal was always to own his own piece of land. “When I arrived here, I thought it was great, the soil is rich,” he says. “My dream is to plant and cultivate.”

José Garcia, 43, rebuilds what remains of his home after it was burned down by gunmen, the Sister Dorthy Stang Settlement Project, near Anapu, in the state of Pará, Brazil. August 2022. Image by Andrew Johnson

Anapu sits in the heart of Brazil’s Arc of Deforestation, a crescent-shaped area stretching thousands of kilometers along the agricultural frontier of the Amazon from Rondônia to Maranhão state. After Brazil fell under the rule of a military dictatorship in 1964, the ruling generals became paranoid that the country’s vast and sparsely populated North would be infiltrated by foreigners or communists. Their solution was to subjugate, colonize and convert much of the Amazon into a factory for the production of raw materials and energy. Roads like the Transamazônica highway, which cuts through Anapu and across the nearby Xingu River, is but one of many massive infrastructure projects like ports, mines and hydroelectric dams that have forever altered the Amazon, its forest, rivers and communities.

First came the violent removal of Indigenous populations, then the loggers, followed by the bulldozers. But what was needed were settlers to clear and work the land. Tens of thousands of landless peasants were encouraged to come from all over the country to find their fortune on the Amazon frontier. In 1970, the military government created the Instituto Nacional de Colonização e Reforma Agrária (Incra), Brazil’s federal agency responsible for dividing up a “land without men for men without land.”

However, the plan was soon derailed by a complex bureaucracy, lack of investment and poor government oversight of an area larger than France. In the state’s absence, rampant land speculation, fraud and corruption favored oligarchic landowners looking to expand their domains. As a result, Incra devoted itself more to colonization than agrarian reform. Currently, only 10% of Brazil’s agricultural properties cover 73% of its arable land. This inequality of ownership extends to the Amazon, contributing to the ongoing devastation of the rainforest.

The remains of the school that was burned at the Sister Dorothy Stang Settlement Project near Anapu in the state of Pará, Brazil. August 2022. Image by Andrew Johnson.

Within days of arriving at Lot 96 in 2019, José Garcia realized his dream wouldn’t come easily. His neighbors were powerful landowners, some of them responsible for acts of violence and killings in the region. Two years ago, a neighbor’s house was burned down. Months later, another was run over by a tractor. Then the community’s flour mill was torched. In May, after rebuilding their previously destroyed home, the same family saw their second burned to the ground. Then, after years of struggling for federal recognition, in July, the community was officially declared a federally administered settlement, only to have the decree immediately rescinded due to unexplained “flaws” in the process. Weeks later, José Garcia’s house was incinerated, followed by the only school serving the entire community.

“Most of [Brazil’s] rural violence is in the Amazon, specifically in the agricultural frontier in the state of Pará,” says Luciano Mansor de Mattos, a professor and researcher currently working for Embrapa, the Brazilian agricultural institute. For decades he has studied the region’s development and its history of agricultural settlements, which, he says, clash with the interests of capital, often with violent consequences. “[The government] never gave priority to those who were on the land but rather to those who arrived with money.”

After the return of democracy in 1985, successive administrations oversaw a dramatic increase in land reform settlements, but Incra continued to be hamstrung by a lack of funding, poor planning and oversight. In the region known as the Legal Amazon, which includes the state of Pará, settlers were obliged to preserve 80% of their property in order to protect the standing forest, but there were problems.

The infrastructure necessary to give small producers access to markets was practically nonexistent. Farmers lacked techniques and equipment to turn profitable what little land they were allowed to cultivate. To make matters worse, most families received no compensation for their stewardship of the environment. If there was any valuable timber, it was only a matter of time before it was cut and sold. A forest without any apparent economic value easily succumbed to slash-and-burn agriculture, and, without chemical fertilizers, the impoverishment of the soil would leave cattle ranching as the only viable option for many.

The failure of what had the potential to address the gulf of inequality in land ownership in a continent-sized country, with sustainable agriculture as an economic base, contributed to the expansion of monoculture throughout the region. The consequences have been devastating for the forest as well as the local Indigenous populations and those peasants stubborn enough to resist its expansion. The last four years under Bolsonaro have made a bad situation worse.

“With this administration there isn’t even dialogue,” says De Mattos, citing cuts to small farmer credit, equipment and training, as well as school food programs that were a valuable market for small producers. In May, Incra published an internal memo alerting its regional superintendents that it was without funds to maintain its activities beyond the bare minimum.

“It’ll take 20 years to rebuild what they’ve destroyed in four years,” declares the researcher de Mattos.

A man fetches water from a well at the Nova Esperança landless camp in the Volta Grande region of Xingu, Pará, Brazil. Image by Andrew Johnson.

Along with big agro, the federal government has encouraged the expansion of mining interests in the Amazon, even using settlements as a bargaining chip. A recent example is last year’s deal between Incra and Belo Sun, a Canadian mining company planning to build Brazil’s largest open-pit gold mine on the banks of the Xingu River.

The pact involved Incra opening 24 square kilometers (9.2 square miles) of public land reserved for agrarian reform since 1999 to Belo Sun in exchange for trucks, laptops, GPS systems and an undetermined percentage of mining profits. The deal’s legality has since been challenged by public advocates at both state and federal levels, but a judge’s decision has yet to be made.

In protest to the sale of public land to a foreign mining company, around a hundred landless peasants from the surrounding region, together with the support of local Indigenous populations, formed an encampment on land included in the deal. Occupants of the camp, named Nova Aliança (New Alliance), said they hoped to pressure authorities to nullify the deal and guarantee their rights to public land. The camp and its members have received threats and intimidation from local supporters of Belo Sun as well as its private security firm, Invictus, which illegally patrols public areas while armed.

“It’s scary when they show up,” says Almerindo da Silva, 57, of the private security, “they’re doing their job for a steady paycheck, but what about us? If we don’t work, we starve,” he says next to a shelter made of branches and palm leaves where he eats and sleeps with his wife and two small children, neither of whom have ever been to a school.

Almerindo da Silva and his son at the Nova Aliança landless camp in the Volta Grande do Xingu region, Pará, Brazil. Image by Andrew Johnson.

The settling of poor families and the creation of new settlements for agrarian reform practically stopped under the current right-wing Bolsonaro administration following a long period of decline dating back to the last government of returning president-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known in Brazil as simply Lula. During his eight years as president between 2003 and 2011, more than 600,000 families were settled throughout Brazil, in sharp contrast to fewer than 10,000 in only four years under Bolsonaro. As a result, Incra has been transformed into a delivery system for titles to landowners at the expense of poor peasants like those in Lot 96 and the New Alliance camp.

For Ana Laíde Barbosa, representative of the Xingu Vivo Para Sempre Movement, which supports marginalized communities fighting for their rights and the environment in the region, this is straight from the playbook of the Brazilian extreme right. “What Incra is doing is agrarian anti-reform, the opposite of what it was meant for,” she says. “That is why we will continue to insist on the annulment of the concessions granted to Belo Sun because we understand that it is a deviation from the function of this [government] body, which is circumventing land legislation.”

On the campaign trail, Lula declared that not a single tree needs to be cut to make room for economic development, echoing studies that point to the highly inefficient use of land in Brazil and the Amazon. But a Lula government will have to face powerful political forces representing private regional interests, such as wealthy ranchers and miners — many of whom are violently opposed to the notion of public custody of the Amazon.

When local police came to inspect the fire at José Garcia’s home, they told him he should rent an apartment in town; that it would be safer and that the land was not worth his life.

The farmer looks over his precious seedlings, the only possessions that survived the fire. “We’ve had so many [investigations] here. Why don’t they go anywhere?”

Banner image: a man carries palm tree leaves to cover the roof of a school that was burned and rebuilt in the Sister Dorothy Stang Settlement Project in Anapu, Brazil. Image by Andrew Johnson.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site Dec. 8, 2022.

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