Landless rural workers occupy farms in Brazil to fulfill the promises and obligations of a people’s agrarian reform movement and to reclaim a sense of justice. Land occupations in Brazil happen continuously throughout the year, however, the month of April – called “Red April” (Abril Vermelho) – pays tribute and remembrance to the Landless Workers Movement’s (MST) fallen comrades of the Eldorado dos Carajas massacre. More than 46 land occupations in 15 states occurred between April 17 and 24. In the south of Mato Grosso, the MST’s largest occupation now includes more than 1,500 families.
On April 17, 1996, 21 political militants of the MST were killed by military police. Nineteen were killed immediately and three died days after; 69 additional people were injured in the shooting. The MST members were blocking a road in the northern state of Para. Military police responded to an order by then Gov. Almar Gabriel, who ordered them to remove the roadblock, and then Secretary of Public Safety Paulo Camara, who authorized the use of force. Reports state that close to 150 police were involved in the shooting. In 2012, nearly 16 years after the actual killing of these MST members, only two officers, Col. Mario Colares Pantoja and Maj. Jose Mauriz Pereira de Oliveira have been tried in court: Pantoja was sentenced to 228 years in prison and Oliveira to 158 years.
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The Eldorado dos Carajas massacre has reverberated through the hearts and minds of the MST for nearly two decades. It has been a rallying cry for those who denounce violence in the fields and a key example for how impunity for state officials exists when dealing with concerns of the landless people. While two officers have been imprisoned, that is an inadequate response that does not reverberate with what the movement understands as justice for their societal and political concerns. Justice for the MST is not limited to a judicial response to individual atrocities such as the Eldorado massacre, but a systemic response to the conditions that allow these types of incidents to exist.
“The organization of the state and its judicial branches have laws that emerge from a capitalist system. Brazil’s history is marked by legislation that has privileged the interests of the market,” said Bruno Rodrigo Silva Diogo from the MST Statewide Direction in Minas Gerais. The MST argues that violence and discrimination against landless workers exist because agrarian reform – land reform – has yet to be put into practice.
In Brazil’s 1988 constitution, there is a clause stating, “It is within the power of the Union to expropriate on account of social interest, for purposes of agrarian reform, rural property which is not performing its social function.” Though this exists in the constitution, the only way for this clause to be enforced or land to be investigated is if a complaint is made, or if there is a conflict between multiple groups or individuals.
“When the MST has a land occupation, what we are really doing is putting into action a justice that already exists in law. When we demonstrate there is a conflict [through the occupation], we call on and challenge the justice system so it can be enforced,” Diogo told Truthout. Justice is not a given; it is a process that they feel has to be reclaimed and fought for.
“In our hands, we have legislation that could advance a process of democratization. This doesn’t happen because the judiciary, congress, agribusiness, has a powerful hegemony that does not allow the laws that have been approved to be executed in practice. These are dead words that do not contribute to a process that diminishes inequalities in the fields,” he continued.
Land occupations are highly contentious and create direct confrontations between landowners, agribusiness, the political elite and landless workers, but each MST action is preceded by high levels of research and strategic mobilization, including a series of surveys, in collaboration with scholars and geographers, investigations of local farms and large estates for slave labor and exploitation, environmental crimes and misuse of natural resources and an adequate production index in relation to the size and capacity of the farm. These are the legal characteristics used to assess any rural property throughout Brazil, and it is the work the MST does beforehand to justify their occupations. They select three properties to challenge. One of them is occupied by MST families and workers; the other two are immediately denounced and a call for an investigation by the federal government is immediately made.
It can take years for an occupation to become a legal settlement. This process is facilitated through Brazil’s National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), which is often inconsistent in its support and presence with coordinating members of the MST. After an occupation begins, INCRA works to mediate between landowners and the MST or other landless groups. If successful, after a series of independent investigations on the land’s productivity, the landowner would receive payment for their expropriated estates.
“This, what we do, puts people at risk; it puts the families at risk, the workers, our lives are put at risk,” said Manezinho, a regional coordinator for the MST. Asked what compels them to continue occupying in the face of such risk, he said, “We’ve been displaced by the city. It doesn’t offer us work with [living wages], housing, health care, education – most of all, dignity … we occupy to be able to work and live off the land.”
This risk is multilayered: In many parts of the country land conflicts have increasingly resulted in violence and the opposition to land reform has pushed landowners and agribusiness to hire gunmen or organize private militias that operate clandestinely to keep the landless off of their property. In the MST’s view, the federal government is complicit in the increase of this violence for not responding to their calls for reform and for its delays in resolving land disputes and facilitating negotiations.
For the Landless Workers Movement, natural resources cannot be considered a commodity and cannot be treated as merchandise. If it wasn’t produced through one’s own labor, it cannot be evaluated as private property. Land, water, air: These are the natural resources that they believe should be accessible by those who can benefit from it, and should be taken from those who are not utilizing it for the public good. This is their debate, and their challenge to notions of private property that justify the immense land and wealth concentration in Brazil, at the root of so much inequality.
“Red April is a reemergence of the masses and return of people to the streets. To bring agrarian reform and the issues of the landless to the center of the national discussion. We come out to remind the country and so they can understand the value of the struggle over land,” said Aparecida Batista, a coordinator of the MST’s education committee in the Triangulo Minero region of Minas Gerais. “What guarantees a people’s agrarian reform, and the existence of the current settlements are more occupations. If we don’t occupy those areas ourselves, they will be occupied by agribusiness growing sugar cane and soy.”
Currently, there is no reasonable way for Brazilian people to acquire land individually. There have been attempts at creating land banks, but those who worked with them, experienced a rising debt that they were unable to pay back.
The legality of occupations is often raised as an issue by those critical of the landless movement. “I don’t believe in that justice,” Batista told Truthout. “They make those laws to govern poor people. They don’t respect human rights. Five hundred years of domination and agrarian reform has not happened,” she added.
“Our struggle is for land and land reform. God created the land; man is the one who built fences and created inequalities.”