Brazil’s Amazon Basin is the largest tract of virgin tropical forest in the world. It’s also home to thousands of unique Indian tribes and a potential cornucopia of mineral wealth. That familiar mix of ingredients is turning the five-million square-mile basin into a scene straight out of the American West. Except this time the flat, treeless plains have been replaced with impenetrable tropical foliage and the intrepid settlers and natives are themselves being dispossessed by giant corporate cattle ranches and multinational mining companies.
Over the last decade hundreds of thousands of landless and illiterate peasants gradually moved deeper into the Amazon area, lured by the government’s squatters’ rights law. Anyone who lives on and works a plot of empty land for a year and a day becomes the legal owner - a ‘posseiro’ to Brazilians. But lately peasants have been shot and beaten and their crops and houses burned in attempts to take over their land. Brazilian and multinational corporations are buying up all the land they can get their hands on, spurred on by government tax incentives aimed at turning the Amazon region into a major producer of beef, sugar, cotton and tobacco. At first the mostly illiterate peasants were easily intimidated; they simply packed up their possessions and moved even deeper into the jungle. But the barbed wire fences and long-horned Zebu cattle soon followed. Now determined to fight, the peasants have formed rag-tag armies to defend themselves.
Shocked by the bloodshed and bitter fighting, the Brazilian Catholic Bishops have called for a new ‘theology of the land’ in an effort to change Brazil’s notoriously unequal land ownership. According to government statistics less than one per cent of Brazil’s landowners have 42 per cent of the nation’s cultivated land. Fifty-three per cent of landowners occupy fewer than ten hectares - less than three per cent of all cultivated land. Nearly 42 per cent of Brazil’s 120 million people have no land whatsoever. And land ownership is becoming more concentrated by the day.
According to the Bishops, the land problem will only be solved ‘when the entire way our society works is changed.’ They denounced land speculation and called for ‘land for those who work it.’ One immediate result of the Church’s concern is the establishment of GETAT - a new government agency designed to sort out land battles in a 200,000 square mile area of the Amazon. However, the agency has already been criticized as a paper tiger. It has no representatives from the ‘posseiros’, the rural unions or the Church. Added to the recent statement by Brazil’s Planning Minister Delfim Neto that land reform is ‘a subject for idle economists to worry about’ the pitched battles in the Amazon may get worse before they get better.