Land conflict

2019 in Review | Bolsonaro targets the MST, violence grows in the countryside

The president's violent discourse was put into practice: militants killed, cruel evictions, and an empowered farm lobby

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An eviction operation on Aug. 7 targeted Marisa Letícia Commune, a camp set up by the MST in Rio Grande do Norte / Foto: Luisa Medeiros

During the first few days of administration in January 2019, the government of Jair Bolsonaro had already showed that it would put into practice the position taken during his electoral campaign with regard to agrarian questions. When two months had passed, the violent statements translated into government actions. The declarations continued to increase in aggressiveness which, according to observers, has made the relationships in Brazil’s countryside even more tense.

During the electoral period, Bolsonaro defended the proposal to close the schools of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), give legal backing to those who kill land occupiers and put an end to the expropriation of the land of landholders denounced for slave labor. He also compared rural workers to terrorists.

On Jan. 5, before this government had even completed a week in office, the first act of violence was recorded. Private security agents killed a person and injured another eight in an occupation in the Bauru Agriculture and Livestock Farm, in Colniza, Mato Grosso. Following the incident, the declarations given by one of the security agents involved already showed that the aggressive discourse of the government influenced the climate of permissiveness to violent actions.

“There was an invasion of the landless, that now are no longer landless. According to Bolsonaro, they are criminals. Two criminals died and five were shot, they are in the hospital,” affirmed the chief of security to the news site Cuiabá VG News, in a report by the journalist Edina Araújo. Four of them were imprisoned in the moment for homicide and attempted homicide. However, the justice system freed the accused two days after the crime.

Also in January, the government decided to discontinue all of the processes to buy and demarcate land for settlements.

Some weeks after, the special secretary for Land Matters, Luiz Antônio Nabhan Garcia, called the schools of the Landless Workers Movement “little factories of dictators” and said that the government would work to close these institutions, where more than 200,000 children and youth study.

Social function of property

Guilherme Delgado, an economist from the Campinas University and a member of the Brazilian Association of Agrarian Reform, explains that tensions in the countryside are not new, but they used to be reconcilable with the rule of law, or at least they seemed to before this administration took office. Now, the system appeals to a structure of explicit violence. 

“There have been other acts of violence that do not necessarily translate immediately into direct violence,” Delgado said, mentioning, for example, a constitutional amendment proposed by senator Flávio Bolsonaro that seeks to eliminate the social function of property from the Constitution.

The economist argues that this proposed legislation could completely loosen labor and environmental legislation which, up until now, at least conceptually imposes limits on property, as there must be some kind of social obligation properties must fulfill in society. By explicitly intending to make property rights absolute – which Delgado argues at least used to be somehow masked –, “on the one hand the current government appeals to the many right-wing sectors of the so-called political economics of agroindustry and becomes isolated internationally, while on the other hand, it puts itself in an indefensible position with regards to the environmental question.” 

Settled peasant displays her products produced at the MST settlement Zumbi dos Palmares, in Paraíba state | Thaís Peregrino

In the midst of the increase of violent discourse by the federal government, state administrations that are also conservative began to take action.

In the last week of February, the governor of Minas Gerais, Romeu Zema, ordered to shut down the activities of the Eduardo Galeano State School. The institution was run for the last three years in the Quilombo Campo Grande camp without the support of the government, even for transportation and food.

Days after, in Chapada Diamantina, Bahia, the military police invaded the residences of the camp Mãe Terra, and arrested two rural workers, without a warrant.

In Pernambuco, 450 families were surprised by an eviction order in the camp at the Maravilha mill, in the Goiana municipality, in the Mata Norte region. The land has been occupied since 2012, with food production, houses and a school, as well as a process underway with Brazil's Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), which had allocated part of the property for agrarian reform.

In the west of Paraná, a court ruled for the repossession of the pre-settlement Jangadinha, in the municipality of Cascavel. Some of the families that occupied the land were promised that the area would become a settlement twenty years ago. They produced two thousand kilos of food per week.

Fronts of attack

The attempt to debilitate social movements that struggle for land was not something that was limited to aggressive speeches and declarations.

In February, the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform received the orientation to end negotiations with entities that do not have a corporate taxpayer identification number, which paralyzed conversation with a number of actors. Days after, the government retreated, after the Federal Prosecution Service warned that the measure could encourage unlawful and unconstitutional activities.

The retreat, however, was followed by an order from General João Carlos de Jesus Corrêa that called for the “immediate suspension” of the inspections of rural properties, alleging budget cuts.

Isolete Wichinieski, an economist and national coordinator of the Pastoral Land Commission, assesses that the government is trying to turn the process of establishing settlements as part of a land reform into an increasingly pointless process until it no longer works.

“All of the agencies related to the question of agrarian reform and the land question were practically dismantled. All of the policies that existed related to the countryside are now gone. To make matters worse, you have the dismantling of the processes of ownership of the communities. Settlements and camps that have existed for more than ten years, which are in the process of being granted the right to hold the land, are being evicted.”

Brazil has more than 2,000 public schools in settlements and camps; this one is at Eli Vive I, a settlement in Paraná state | José Carlos de Jesus Lisboa

In April, Bolsonaro again attacked the MST directly.

In a live transmission on Facebook, he affirmed that he was seeking to classify the occupations of the movement as acts of terrorism and defended the idea that property owners can shoot and kill occupiers without it being considered a crime.

A little more than a week later, the Education minister, Abraham Weintraub, who had just assumed office, affirmed that the government was attempting to stop providing funds to rural schools connected to the MST, where 200,000 children study.

“This has to end,” Weintraub declare, adding that his idea “is not to close the little school, it is to cut the gas. What they want to do, they can do with their own money, not with ours.”

More deaths and evictions

Meanwhile, violence in the countryside has intensified.

In March, the coordinator of the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB), Dilma Ferreira Silva, was brutally assassinated in the Salvador Allende settlement in Pará, the body showed signs of torture.

Her husband, Claudionor Costa da Silva, and friend, Hilton Lopes, were also killed. Fernando Ferreira Rosa Filho, a large landowner, was accused of ordering the crime and was imprisoned. According to investigations, his motive was to occupy and appropriate part of the land, in a scheme known in Brazil as grilagem, in which land-grabbers forge land ownership papers.

Throughout the year, evictions continued in different states.

In Mogi Guaçu, São Paulo, more than 400 families were removed from an area that earlier had served as a place to strip stolen cars.

In Marabá, Pará, the court authorized the removal of more than 200 rural workers. Other 300 families were forced to leave an area in São Gonçalo do Amarante, Rio Grande do Norte.

In a violent action, military police and workers of the mayor’s office arrived to the camp Comuna Marisa Letícia in the morning and gave an hour for them to vacate. After the hour passed, they came with tractors and ran over the tents and the belongings of the people camped there. The action was carried out without notifying the State Government and the Committee of Agrarian Conflicts.

One of the most important and historic initiatives of the MST, the Paulo Freire Training Center, also became a target of the Bolsonaro government. Located in the Normandia Settlement, in Caruaru, Pernambuco, the center has the capacity to host hundreds of people and offer courses, workshops, and panel discussions, as well as having partnerships with several universities and with the state government to provide childhood education.

The request for eviction came from INCRA, the same institution that gave the instruction to create the training center more than two decades ago.

Repossession on Aug. 7 against the MST camp Marisa Letícia Commune in São Gonçalo, Rio de Janeiro | Aedson Epstein

The attacks of the government of Jair Bolsonaro against the social movements that work in the countryside do not show signs of letting up.

On Nov. 25, Bolsonaro affirmed that he seeks to present a bill in Brazil’s Congress to allow operations of Guarantee of Law and Order (GLO) in actions of repossession. In practice, this means that federal agents, including the armed forces, could act in these situations.

Kelli Mafort, of the national board of the MST, affirmed that the discourse of hatred from the government against rural workers authorizes situations of violence, which do not only come from the agents of public safety, but also from private corporations that have characteristics of militias.

“On the day that Jair Bolsonaro spoke about the Rural GLO in the Alvorada Palace [president’s quarters in Brasilia], practically at the same time – almost synchronized – one of the biggest evictions of this year was occurring in Bahia. This eviction was different, because it was an eviction of 1,700 hectares, where families lived, in an area that already had an irrigation system set up. This eviction was requested by the government company in charge [of the system], disrespecting agreements, and with the Federal Police present.

Kelly refers to the action that affected 700 families in the camps Abril Vermelho (Red April), Dorothy and Irany, in the Casa Nova and Juazeiro municipalities, respectively. In addition to the agents of the Federal Police, a body which does not have the function of participating in actions of repossession, military police and private security agents also took part in the operation.

There were gunshots, and pepper spray and sound grenades were used. The families lived there for more than ten years, and were supported by an agreement signed between the Federal Government, the State Government, INCRA, the Agrarian Ombudsman, the company in charge, Codevasf, and the prosecutor’s office.

In December, new violent actions took place. The camps Zequinha and Patria Livre, in the metropolitan area of Belo Horizonte, were occupied by vehicles of the Military Police without any order. The agents surrounded the area and intimidated the more than 1,200 families that live in the two camps.

Even when the Military Police finally left the camps, three days after the invasion, they were aggressive. There were reports of local residents who were hit by police cars and officers who destroyed people’s belongings and crops, as well as reports of sexual harassment. 

Laurindo Pereira da Silva was hit by a rubber bullet during a brutal police operation to evict residents in Bahia | MST

The Farm Lobby and land grabbers 

Some days before that episode, Bolsonaro signed the provisional presidential decree (MP) of the Land Regularization Program, which in theory simplifies the process of formalizing property titles. However, specialists evaluate that the MP is aligned with the interests of the country’s powerful farm lobby and puts environmental protection at risk.

In a recent interview with Brasil de Fato, the researcher Brenda Brito, of the Institute of People and the Environment of the Amazon (Imazon), suggested that the decree encourages illegal deforestation.

“This is because it changes the date that says until when a public land can be occupied to have the right to a title, complying with certain requisites. Every time this date is changed the message that is sent is that it is always possible to change the law to benefit who is robbing public land.”

In the midst of this violence, death, and attempts to weaken the rural movements in the countryside, production does not stop.

Today, the MST is the biggest producer of organic food in Brazil. There are hundreds of cooperatives, more than 90 agricultural industries, and 1,900 associations. The products are not only sold in Brazilian territory, but they are exported to other countries in Latin America, North America, Europe and Oceania.

*This is Part 5 of the Brasil de Fato 2019 in Review Series. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 6, and Part 7, on the most important events of the year.

Edition: Rodrigo Chagas