Rural violence: killings decreased, but conflicts have reached its peak since Brazil's re-democratization

A report by the Pastoral Land Commission stresses the rise in state government violence and contamination by pesticides

Translated by: Ana Paula Rocha

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo |
Large landowners and police officers surround a MST occupation in the state of Espírito Santo during this year’s Red April activities - Divulgação/MST

During 2023, the first year of Lula's (Workers’ Party) third presidential term, there was a fall of almost 34% in murders in Brazilian rural areas. The number of conflicts related to agrarian issues, however, hit a record high: 2,203 cases is the highest number since the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT, in Portuguese) began compiling these data in 1985. Episodes of violence involving a total of 59 million hectares of land across Brazil affected around 950,000 people.

The data were included in the 38th edition of the report Conflicts in Rural Brazil, launched on Monday (22) by the CPT's Dom Tomás Balduíno Documentation Center. Most of the conflicts – which include evictions, death threats, poisoning, destruction of houses and gardens, among others – are related to land disputes (1,724), followed by 251 incidents of rural slave labor and 225 episodes of struggles for water.

The highest number of cases occurred in the state of Bahia, where the ruralist group Invasão Zero (Zero Invasion, in a rough translation) was created. It is suspected of acting as a rural militia at the national level and is under investigation for its involvement in the murder of Maria de Fátima Muniz, known as Nega Pataxó.

Bahia is followed by the states of Pará, Maranhão, Rondônia and Goiás. Although Bahia is among the federative entities with the most episodes of violence in rural areas, in terms of regions, the Northeast lags behind the North region.

Since Brazil’s re-democratization process, when the CPT began monitoring rural conflicts, the year with the highest number of conflicts was 2020, in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic and under the Bolsonaro government. Now, 2023 is the year with the highest number of these conflicts.

"There is deliberate action on the part of the state governments and an articulation in Congress between landowners and farmers directly in the territories, which is Invasão Zero. This legally formed movement has a very strong wing in the National Congress, counterpointing the resistance actions of traditional communities, especially Indigenous communities and the MST [Landless Workers' Movement]," Isolete Wichinieski, from the national coordination of the CPT, explains. 

"After more than a year of the current Lula government, last week we had the announcement of a so-called agrarian reform program that doesn't tackle the main issue, which is land concentration ownership," says Isolete, referring to the Terra da Gente Program (Our Land Program, in a rough translation).

"We also wonder with what budget the federal government intends to implement these policies, given that there are spending restraints. In addition, there is an articulation in the National Congress in which the rural agenda, whether Indigenous, Quilombola or rural producers, has often been a bargaining chip with the rural caucus for the approval of laws considered dear to the government," says the CPT coordinator.

Forcible removal 

Among land conflicts, the most common occurrences of violence in 2023 were invasions or the forced removal of communities from their territories. Almost 75,000 families were affected by the invasion of 359 areas. Another 2,163 were evicted from where they lived.

Cases of court-ordered evictions increased significantly: from 17 in 2022 to 50 last year. This scenario coincides with the end of the validity of ADPF 828 (Argument for Failure to Comply with a Fundamental Precept n. 828), when, under pressure from popular movements, Brazil’s Supreme Court (STF, in Portuguese) suspended forced evictions in Brazil due to the pandemic. The CPT also reported that in 2023 there were 183 communities in the countryside facing imminent repossession. 

Pistolagem (the use of gunmen to intimidate someone) appeared as the second most frequent kind of violence against territories occupied or already in the possession of communities. In one year, the number of cases jumped by 45%.

The main targets of these actions were landless rural workers, followed by squatters, Indigenous people and Quilombola people.

Violence caused by state governments increases by 50% 

According to the CPT, the main perpetrators of violence in land conflicts in Brazil are big farmers, followed by businessmen. In third place is the federal government.

In this case, the report points out, "even with a small decrease in the total number of violence cases caused [by the federal government] and the greater openness to dialogue with social movements – through the restructuring of ministries such as Agrarian Development, Human Rights and Justice, as well as the creation of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples – this has not been reflected in advances in the conquest of rights by small farmers and traditional populations, such as agrarian reform and the demarcation of Indigenous lands".

Then there are the land grabbers and the state governments. About the latter, the report points out that they "have acted with intense police repression against encampments and settlements, Quilombola communities and Indigenous lands".

Cases of violence committed by state governments jumped 50% from 2022 to 2023. The highlights are the states of Goiás, governed by Ronaldo Caiado (Union Brazil); Bahia, by Jerônimo Rodrigues (Workers’ Party) and Mato Grosso do Sul, by Eduardo Riedel (Brazilian Social Democracy Party).

Indigenous people are the most murdered

Among the 31 people murdered in conflicts in Brazil’s countryside in 2023 (a decrease compared to 47 recorded in the previous year), 14 were Indigenous. "We are faced with a scenario of intense violence," says Dinamam Tuxá, the executive coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (Apib, in Portuguese).

"Groups like Zero Invasion have been operating not only in Bahia, but also in other states and are causing a lot of concern because of the modus operandi they have been practicing. As a result of Pajé Nega's death," he said in an interview with Central do Brasil, when attending Nega’s funeral. "Our fear is that this group will grow stronger, increasing socio-environmental conflicts within Indigenous territories," says Dinamam Tuxá.

Although Indigenous peoples were the ones who had the highest number of deaths in 2023 due to the fight for land, in the last decade most of the fatal victims (151 out of a total of 420) were landless small farmers.

Not coincidentally, it was also these groups that led direct actions of resistance against land concentration ownership in Brazil. In 2023, there were 22 “retakings” of ancestral territories by Indigenous peoples, three by Quilombola people and 94 land occupations by small farmers’ movements. This was a 60% increase on the number of such actions compared to 2022. This curve has been growing since 2021, but the numbers are still well below the average of the last decade.

Contamination with pesticides leads to cases of violence against people 

With 336 people contaminated by pesticides in 2023, this was the most common type of violence against Brazilians in the countryside, according to the CPT. Close behind are death threats, intimidation, criminalization, arrests and assaults.

One case in particular pushed the number up. In January of last year, a school in the city of Belterra, in Pará state, had classes interrupted after an agricultural machine, which was constantly spraying agrochemicals in the area, intoxicated almost 300 students during class. The video recorded by a teacher went viral.

According to Alan Tygel, cases like this, from the Permanent Campaign Against Pesticides, have been common. "These are rural schools located almost in the middle of soy plantations and, in this case, show the advance of soy in the middle of the Amazon, without any kind of protection," he says.

"Since the 2000s, almost every year, there has been an increase in the use of pesticides in Brazil. What does this mean? That the profits of pesticide companies increase every year, as do the conflicts related to their use," Tygel observes.

For him, this growth is related to "the deregulation that has been taking place over the years and which was crowned at the end of last year with the approval of the Poison Bill". He is referring to Bill 1459/22, sanctioned with partial vetoes by Lula at the end of 2023. The legislation, proposed by rural businessman Blairo Maggi (PP-MT), loosens regulations on the use of these products and takes power away from inspection bodies. 

"But [it's part of a process] that was already underway, starting with various Anvisa resolutions, for example, even removing the skulls from the labels of some pesticides. This will certainly lead to an increase in conflicts," says Tygel. 

"The Campaign Against Pesticides and other organizations in this fight have been doing long-term work to train communities so that they can, first of all, identify and know how to deal with these violations. And the work of judicialization, of increasing complaints about pesticides," she says.

"We've also been fighting at the federal, state and local levels for laws to restrict the use of pesticides," says Tygel, noting that this April, people's movements are celebrating the banning of aerial spraying of pesticides in the town of Caxias, in Maranhão.

Edited by: Matheus Alves de Almeida