issue 219 - May 1991
MARK EDWARDS / STILL PICTURES
Anna Feuchtwang sacrifices her dignity to find
out why land seizure can be a good thing.
A couple of lads wade through flood water in front of a Coca-Cola depot just outside Imperatriz. Turning off the main road we bump violently down a track and come to a halt in front of a small lake that lies across our path. It's decision time. Do we strip down to our underwear - or retreat?
We decide to press on. It's getting hot. A group of women wash clothes in the lake. An elderly man appears, wading through waste-high water. He begs us not to take photographs - he's naked. A little embarrassed, I take off my shoes and trousers and plunge into the water, followed by the others.
Gil, our guide, is a trade union veteran who has worked on many of the roads that cut through the Amazon. He's worldly-wise and respected. Now he works for FASE (the Federation of Organizations for Social and Educational Assistance), an information agency funded by Oxfam.
We're headed for Assentamento da Criminosa, six kilometres away. Here, four years ago, 200 families occupied more than 50 square kilometres of unused land. Since then they have successfully resisted two violent attempts by the police to remove them, though 60 of the families have given up. They are among an estimated 12 million people in Brazil who have either no land or too little to live on.
It's a peaceful walk, despite the raging heat and vicious black flies. Multi-coloured butterflies appear from nowhere and dance around us. Wild orchids dot the thick vegetation. But it's stunted 'secondary' growth on land that was once cleared for cattle, then abandoned.
Finally Assentamento da Criminosa comes into view. The houses are of adobe, roofed with palm. Fruit trees grow between the houses. Pigs and chickens snuffle around. Children peer shyly from dark homes. We're met by Luis, a young community leader who took part in the first land invasion in 1987. His wife Eva is a teacher, and she carries what turns out to be our lunch on her head as we walk to a babassu palm plantation and sit for a discussion beneath a palm-roofed shelter.
Chomping on juicy watermelon we listen to the history of Assentamento da Criminosa - its name means 'The Place of the Criminal'. This is the first time I've spoken to anyone who is truly optimistic about their future. Eva explains how when the police came with batons and guns to chase them off the land, women and children made a circle around the men in the hope that they would be less likely to be attacked - a brave strategy that paid off. In another incident the squatters blocked the nearby Carajas railway line in support of their claim to the land. Now they have successfully planted rice, maize, beans and manioc.
Most important are their links with other groups of would-be squatters - explaining to them how they succeeded, helping them to plan occupations and joining forces to resist the police after the land has been 'invaded'.
'People are living in Imperatriz with no space around them. I used to live like that, working on the land for a wage with nothing of my own,' says Luis. When there is so much land in this country it is absurd that people live in such appalling conditions - and they are becoming conscious of that. We have now helped form eight other squatter camps.
This small-scale return to the land is one answer that the people of Criminosa have found to their desperate poverty. It is also a way of making the land more productive. 'Our aim is to get machines so that we can irrigate the land and build a reservoir for water,' says Luis. 'We want to prove that it is possible to live off this land without harming it.'
We walk back to the village. A large group has gathered in the danceteria - or local dance hall. People are sitting or leaning against wooden pillars beneath the palm roof waiting for us.
An old man asks us about the war in the Gulf. It has just broken out. The village has been listening to the news on the BBC World Service. What do we think about it? I say that before I left the UK in early January the majority of people seemed to support the Allies' position. Here there are peace adverts on the TV every night. But there are rumours of a secret deal on nuclear technology between Brazil and Iraq. Moreover the Government's peace-loving credentials sit ill with the fact that since 1980 more than 1,000 rural workers, trade unionists, priests and lawyers campaigning for land rights have been killed.
Anna Feuchtwang is a Press Officer with Oxfam UK.
Deeds and misdemeanours
Violent death still stalks the rural areas of Brazil, and nowhere more so than in the Amazon. The age-old plea for land reform goes unheeded as more and more land fails into fewer and fewer hands.
Land distribution in Brazil is among the most unequal in the world. Just 4.1 per cent of Brazil's landowners have 81 per cent of the farmland, while 70 per cent of rural households are landless. Of the 18 largest landholdings 15 are in the Amazon, three of them with more than 10,000 square kilometres. About half the territory of the large land-owners is unproductive.
Landlessness has led to migration into the Amazon. Violent land conflicts have become endemic. Between 1985 and 1989 there were 2,973 land conflicts in Brazil, involving 74,258 square kilometres of land, 3.5 million people and 488 assassinations - 346 of them in the Amazon. The majority of killings, like that of Chico Mendes in 1988, are undertaken by pistoleiros, gunmen hired by landowners.
In regions of the Amazon where deforestation is taking place, the main motive has been land speculation a. a hedge against inflation, supported by government incentives. Large landowners can maintain their land titles simply by clearing the land for pasture - whether or nor they actually use it.
Within the forest itself recent conflicts have focussed on the creation of Extractive Reserves, which landowners oppose, and the invasion of Indian land by loggers and mining interests.
But the most intense disputes have bad to do with the impact of large schemes, particularly the building of dams or major projects such as the Carajás Programme. As the Carajás Programme got under way, violent deaths in the region increased from virtually nil in the 1960s to 200 by 1986, when they accounted for two thirds of the total in Brazil. A report by Amnesty International in 1988 emphasized the connivance of police and the Judiciary with land-grabbers against peasant farmers.
Sources: Amnesty International, Brazil: Authorized Wolence in Rural Areas, London 1989; Comlssão Pastoral da Terra, Conifictos no campo, Brasil 89, Goiãnia 1990.