23.12.11

The rise and rise of the landless movement in Brazil

The landless: no longer to be ignored.

At first sight it looks like a festival. The makeshift tents hung with colourful hammocks, the rousing Brazilian beats blaring from speakers, even the portaloos – like a mini Glastonbury sprung up in a small town in the Brazilian Amazon. There are stalls selling cold drinks, food on paper plates, even handmade jewellery.

The details give it away though. Children run laughing, but the adults look old, tired, tense. Some have brought battered electric cookers with them, powering them with home-made generators.

This isn’t a festival, it’s a makeshift camp filled with people who have fled their homes in fear of the powerful ranchers constantly taking land.

It is a chaotic mass of tents, huts and slightly more permanent structures all built in the rushed, unplanned nature of a shanty town. But this, for the people that spew out onto the dirt tracks and paths that weave their way in and out, is now home.

Plight of the landless
We are in Maraba, a rapidly expaning town on the edge of the rainforest in North East Brazil.

Over the past year Maraba has found itself on the frontline of a social struggle that affects millions in Brazil.

Brazil landless – MST

The people living in the camp are at the bottom of the Amazon’s social hierarchy. They are rural workers – landless, largely jobless.  They scratch a living collecting fruit and nuts from the forest, or more rarely by working on one of the region’s gargantuan cattle ranches.

The last twenty five years have seen an increasing numbers of landless workers joining the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or Landless Workers’ Movement.  It’s a union-come-protest-group that fights for land rights for its members. It’s the largest social movement in Latin America. In a country where three percent of the population owns two thirds of all workable arable land, the MST claims over 1.5 million members. Together they fight for permission to settle on the public land supposedly protected from deforestation under Brazil’s environmental laws.

Land conflicts in the Amazon are nothing new. But they should be becoming a thing of the past. Deforestation fell to its lowest-ever level in 2010 as a result of government action and groundbreaking legal fights by federal prosecutors against companies that buy cattle from illegal ranches.

But almost overnight in April this year deforestation surged by 500% and has continued to rise ever since. Proposed changes to the Forest Code, the law that controls deforestation, are currently being debated in the Brazilian Senate. If passed, there will be an amnesty on all illegal deforestation that has already happened, and this says many campaigners is causing the new surge.

In Maramba, a long way from Brazilia, the fight for the forest is very real.

Violent land conflicts
In the past ten years, over four hundred landless settlers have been killed in and around Maraba. On May 23 Jose Ribeiro da Silva and his wife Maria, well known environmental activists and spokespeople for the landless community, were shot dead as they left their settlement in Nove Ipixuna, 20 km from Maraba.

The murders proved to be an incendiary final blow for Maraba’s landless people: ten thousand of them have packed up their belongings and moved to the centre of the town, both in protest at the lack of protection they receive from the Brazilian authorities, and in an attempt to find safety in numbers. The government, for its part, has sent in the military.

When we arrive at the town’s airport it is swarming with members of the Special Forces, the military division usually sent to deal with drug wars in the favelas of Rio and Sao Paulo. ‘The military arrive, settlers flee’ reads the headline on the front page of the local newspaper.

Ironically, the demands of small-hold farmers have been used as an excuse to change in the Forest Act. In reality, the landless movement has nailed itself to the same mast as international NGOs like Greenpeace, campaigning against the proposed reforms.

It will be the big farmers and mass agriculture that will gain the most from the proposed changes. The fear of environmentalists that changes will see a stampede across the forest, will also see small farmers increasingly thrown off their land and exposing the small farmers to the hidden menace that pervades this region – landless labourers working against their will in virtual slavery for the big agro-businesses.

The new proposals have radicalised the landless class, and given them an international voice. As land grab has steeply risen – so the families have come flocking out of the forest, finding a home here on the edge of the city.

The settlement camp is also a protest base. There are banners, and an information tent at the entrance where spokespeople are ready to speak with the media. ‘We are here because we have to take a stand,’ says a fiery looking middle aged woman handing out leaflets at the entrance to the camp. ‘Our lives are in danger but no-one is protecting us.’

It doesn’t take us long to find people who knew the da Silvas personally.  The leafleting woman leads us to a shelter made out of wood and palm leafs. Inside, a group of men talk and drink coffee while the women watch Novela, the ubiquitous Brazilian soap opera, on an ancient television. Julimar agrees to speak with us. He lived in the Nove Ipuixuna settlement with the da Silvas, and the recent violence has left him terrified for his family’s safety.

‘We know that there are people who want to move onto our land,’ he tells us. ‘In Nove Ipixuna there are wood cutters and ranchers who are expanding illegally. We all receive threatening phone calls, but the authorities don’t do anything about it.’

Julimar tells us that the da Silvas were well known informers for IBAMA, that Brazilian environmental enforcement agency responsible for monitoring and prosecuting illegal deforestation. ‘They weren’t scared of the threats; they didn’t care. They just loved the forest, and would denounce anyone who cut it down illegally, no matter how much danger it put them in. They’d been threatened many times before, but they carried on.’


‘All the progress that has been made in the past few years is being wiped out. People are deforesting in anticipation of this law being passed, because they know that the land they have deforested illegally will be granted legal status. This latest increase in deforestation coincided exactly with this Bill being introduced.’
Elise de Araujo, campaigner, IMAZON

When Jose and Maria were murdered for their efforts to save the forest, a mood of suspicion grew in the Nove Ipixuna camp. ‘No-one knows who did this, so everyone wonders whether someone in the camp might have been involved. They could have given information to the gunmen for money. Now no-one can trust anyone else.’

Julimar’s words reveal the messy truth behind what is happening in Maraba. This is a town famous across Brazil for its backwater lawlessness. Ranchers have been deforesting here since the 1970s, often illegally. When landless settlers get in the way of their expansion plans they hire assassins to kills them, reportedly for as little as one hundred Brazilian Real (£40).

On the day we visit the camp, the local paper carries identikit photos of the two men believed to have been hired to kill the da Silvas. And in a town where cash talks, the promise of money for passing on information about the whereabouts of troublesome settlers like the da Silvas may prove too tempting to resist.

‘They were shot as they left the camp,’ says Julimar. ‘It wasn’t by chance; the killers knew their routine.’

True or not, the possibility that someone in the community may have betrayed the da Silvas casts a grim shadow over the mood here.

‘Nothing to call our own’ 
Away from the centre of the camp, with its banners and music, the living conditions become grimmer. Sewage runs in open channels with children playing around the edges. It’s here, in the sweltering heat of the tropical Amazonian sun, that we meet Francisco, a landless settler who was shot by a gunman hired by a rancher who wanted to evict him and his family from their settlement. He offers to take us back to his village, a two hour drive from Maraba.

Group in Nove Ipixuna – MST

As we drive along the potholed road he tells us about the long history of the struggles between ranchers and settlers around Maraba. Francisco is 47 and father of – he claims – 20 children.  He tells us land conflicts have always dominated his life. This area was colonised by rich farming families in the seventies, when the Brazilian government decided that the Amazon needed to be opened up.  At the time, that was modernisation: it was only later that stopping deforestation became the priority.

Many ranchers were newcomers from the South, where land was becoming scarce. The native north easterners were a convenient source of cheap labour.

‘At that time the rural people were scattered about,’ Francisco tells us. ‘We lived on our own small pieces of land, we survived on the crops we planted. When the ranchers moved in they paid us some small amounts of money for the land we were on. At the time it seemed like a good deal, but then we were left with nothing to call our own.’

Most took work on the new ranches. But it was poorly paid, and some farmers were famed for their cruelty to their workers. Francisco tells us about one ranching family, still major landowners in the area, who held their workers captive and killed them if they tried to escape. ‘They would throw the bodies into the river, and the piranhas would eat them.’

When the MST was set up in 1985 rural workers joined in their thousands. They all had nothing, but by having nothing together, they at least had a strength in numbers. In groups they began occupying areas of public land, starting lengthy legal battles for the right to stay there. Francisco’s settlement has just been granted legal status after an 11 year wait.

But though the MST has become a voice that the Brazilian government can’t ignore, at times it has appeared as though the authorities were very much on the side of the ranchers. As we drive through the village of El Dorado dos Carajas, a strip of ramshackle bars and grocery stores strung along a half mile stretch of road, Francisco’s eyes fill with tears. In 1996, this was the scene of a massacre; nineteen landless workers who were protesting for the right to set up a settlement on an unproductive ranch were shot dead by the Brazilian military. Today, nineteen tree stumps by the side of the road commemorate the dead. ‘I get emotional every time I pass through here,’ says Francisco.


‘We know that there are people who want to move onto our land. In Nove Ipixuna there are wood cutters and ranchers who are expanding illegally. We all receive threatening phone calls, but the authorities don’t do anything about it.’
Julimar, former Nove Ipixuna resident

Today the presence of the military in Maraba is a reassurance for the settlers. But the area’s sheer size and inaccessibility makes it hard for the authorities to control the land conflicts. There are three hundred IBAMA officers working in Para State, an area the size of France.

Sergio Noriyuki Suzuki, IBAMA’s top man in Para, says they need at least twice that number to be effective. When we reach Francisco’s settlement, right by the side of the road, it is clear why the people who live here have fled.

‘We have no way of making our homes secure,’ says Francisco. ‘People threaten us, they come in the night and burn our crops. It’s impossible for us to live here with dignity.’

Halting deforestation
Helene Palmquist is part of the prosecution team that pursued corporate giants like Walmart through the courts to stop them buying cattle from illegal ranchers in Para State. ‘At first we threatened them with legal action,’ she tells us. ‘Then we told them, if you sign an agreement not to buy these cattle, then we will drop the action. We were negotiating for forty days, but in the end we got our agreement. And over the next twelve months, deforestation fell by 14% in Para.’

But now with the proposals to the Forest Law the Amazon is once again under threat, says Elise de Araujo at IMAZON, an NGO which monitors deforestation.

‘All the progress that has been made in the past few years is being wiped out. People are deforesting in anticipation of this law being passed, because they know that the land they have deforested illegally will be granted legal status. This latest increase in deforestation coincided exactly with this Bill being introduced.’


In Brazil three percent of the population owns two thirds of all workable arable land.

Francisco and Julimar know little about the current political tussles over the Forest Code in Brasilia. Nor do they care. All they want is security for their families.

‘A landless settler only needs 45 hectares to support his family,’ says Francisco. ‘These ranches are hundreds of thousands of hectares. Where’s the fairness?’

Back in the Maraba camp it’s Saturday night, and there’s a party underway. A makeshift DJ booth has been set up, a young man has taken the mic, and a crowd of people are doing the forra, a traditional north eastern dance. Everyone is having a good time.  Again it’s easy to imagine this is a festival. But tomorrow the sun will come up, and the details that belie the true desperation of the landless people’s predicament will become grimly obvious once more.

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