Watching Rural Conflict Unfold in Real Time

IPS recently ran Fabiola Ortiz’s powerful story of violence in the Amazon that in many ways perfectly taps into the issues at the heart of inequalities, environment, and power in Brazil’s North, Northeast, and the Amazonian basin.

A fresh outbreak of violence between large landowners and landless peasants is looming in the Amazonian state of Pará, in northern Brazil.

The large estate of Itacaiúnas, in the southeast of Pará, in the municipality of Marabá, 684 kilometres from the state capital, Belém, is owned by Agro Santa Bárbara (AGRO-SB), a company that possesses at least 600,000 hectares of land in the state of Pará.

Since 2002 the Federation of Agricultural Workers of Pará (FETAGRI) has demanded that the property be confiscated and the land redistributed under Brazil’s land reform laws. More than 300 families are living on the land, in an encampment.

In late April, the landless rural workers announced that they would carry out “definitive occupation” of the estate and on Monday Apr. 29 they started dividing it into lots in order to “build the settlement themselves,” according to a FETAGRI communiqué.

AGRO-SB regards the landless farmers as criminals and says it has reported their actions to the military police, in order to keep the peace and avoid conflict.

“This group of land invaders is planning to divide the property into lots. Its goal is to expand the illegal occupation. This is a new criminal action by the invaders, who have the estate under their control and are blocking access by other people,” AGRO-SB said in a communiqué.

There is a real possibility of imminent violent conflict, because heavily armed groups hired by the estate owners have been reported in the area.

There are several historical processes to unpack here. First, there is the basic issue of inequality of land. For centuries now, dating back to the colonial era, land in Brazil’s Northeast (and later North) has been concentrated in the hands of the very few, while the overwhelming majority of the population found itself either completely landless, or barely able to eke out a living on tiny plots of land. As agroinustry expanded in the 20th century, many of those small-holders (as well as indigenous peoples) found themselves forced off their land, which in turn played no small part in Brazil’s urban explosion in the 20th century: between 1930 and the 1970s, Brazil’s population completely switched from 70% rural/30% urban to 30% rural/70% urban (and of course, rather than resolving inequalities, the glut in the cities just relocated the socioeconomic inequalities of the countryside into urban environments). By the 1980s, rural citizens had enough, forming the MST (Landless Workers’ Movement) and demanding action to address these inequalities. The MST has become a powerful social and political movement, and its paradigms for occupying land (often not in use) and forcing the issue of redistribution and reform has been a powerful model not just in Brazil, but elsewhere in the world. This style of occupying and defending the newly-occupied land are exactly what is playing out in the story.

Connected to this socioeconomic inequality is the question of political power and force in the region. As Ortiz mentions, the landless arm themselves not out of any sense of revolutionary violence, but out of the need for protection. Again for centuries, landed elites often formed what amounted to their own private armies, paying other peasants off (or ensnaring them in debt) and then deploying them to fight on behalf of the elites, be it against indigenous peoples, other landowners, or rebellious peasants. Though these “armies” have effectively disappeared, the private and personal use of outsourcing violence to the poor has not. Murders of peasant leaders like Chico Mendes and activists like Dorothy Stang have been all too commonplace in Brazil in recent decades. Usually, poorer workers for the elites commit the murders, operating as killers-for-hire; the elites are able to eliminate those who challenge their power without facing trial, while the poor contracted to kill the activists get paid and rarely face prosecution. Even when trials are brought forth, as in the Stang case, it often leads to the poor killers facing jail time while the elites who contracted the murders remain free, thereby reinforcing the socioeconomic inequalities in a legal system where there are effectively two structures: one that punishes the poor, and another that ensures the elites remain free.

And that ties into a third issue – often the police are complicit in this process themselves. Landed elites exercise enough regional control that they generally dominate politics, either directly or through personal and business connections. Such a structure means that they can effectively mold the institutions of the state to their desires, pressuring police departments to look the other way or even work directly in their interests, with police evicting, abusing, and even killing the activists and landless peasants, again oftentimes with impunity.

Thus you have on the one hand a large number of peasants and activists who have not been intimidated into silence and whose numbers are to great to completely wipe out; on the other hand, you have the elites and those from the lower classes and state institutions willing to work with them to target and try to terrorize activists in order to prevent any challenge to their economic and political power, power that often has its roots in social structures that date back centuries. Neither group is able to completely destroy the other: the peasants are too numerous, and the elites too entrenched. And so the violence continues, as is the case in Ortiz’s story. Though the outcome at Itacaiúnas is uncertain, the story itself is sadly all too familiar, and rarely does the outcome lead to greater political, economic, or social equality in the Brazilian countrysides.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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