Of guns and governments

Diolinda de Souza

Diolinda de Souza of the Movement for Landless Workers in Brazil has lost a husband - but not her courage to continue, as David Ransom found out.

'If you talk of human rights in Brazil,' says Diolinda de Souza, 'we say we have no human rights.'
This may sound a little extreme. After all, the terrible years of military repression that began with a coup in 1964 and left a trail of brutal human-rights abuses in their wake, do seem finally to be over. Current President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a celebrated sociologist, was democratically elected in a clean election and makes soothing noises, even about the rights of indigenous peoples in the Amazon.

But soothing noises are one thing, the daily lives of rural Brazilians quite another. Nowhere else on earth are such vast tracts of land still owned by such a tiny oligarchy of landowners - fazendeiros -with quite such deeply entrenched powers; nowhere else are so many millions of rural people left landless and destitute in a country of such fabulous natural wealth. The last serious attempt at land reform in Brazil was, precisely, in 1964, providing an immediate motive for the military coup. Very little has changed since - except in the mood of rural Brazilians.

'For one thing there's a lot more popular mobilization today,' says Diolinda. 'Also, we live under a "democratic" regime and the Government would not want to threaten the appearance, at least, of democracy. But what the Government does is to try to weaken popular mobilization by persecuting and even killing members of the MST.'

The MST (Movement of Landless Rural Workers) was founded in 1985, though peasant and rural workers' organizations have been around in one form or another for just about as long as the demand for land reform. But in recent years it has gathered fresh momentum, staging land invasions, marches and demonstrations and attracting literally hundreds of thousands of rural Brazilians into its ranks.

'My family is from a background of small farmers,' explains Diolinda, whose striking face, in its maturity, reflects a youthful charm. 'My father is a small farmer in the South East. I first became aware of the MST in 1985, when I was 15 years old. My family stopped working for the fazendeiros and began to occupy land. In 1986 we settled on land set aside for "research". Having the land meant that I was able to go to school and I studied for the first grade until 1988, when I began to work as a volunteer for the MST.

'Now I live in a settlement in the western region of São Paulo state. I support the MST because of the history of my family. We were so jubilant after we occupied that land. So I felt a responsibility for the other millions of landless people in Brazil who face hunger every day.'

Injustice does not walk alone - one abuse follows another. And so the fazendeiros of Brazil have always employed - and still employ today - the most brutal forms of intimidation against local activists. Such is their power that they are generally able to count on the local police and legal system to do their bidding. Diolinda's partner José Rainha, a local MST leader, discovered this to his cost in 1989, when he was charged with complicity in the murder of a farmer and a military police officer during a land occupation. He had already survived two attempts on his life. The guilty verdict and the sentence appear to have been based more on his membership of the MST than on any convincing proof related to the murder charge. Amnesty International believes that the charge was politically motivated, that there is no credible evidence against him, and that the trial did not meet international standards of fairness.

'He was sentenced to 26-and-a-half years' imprisonment for a murder which he did not commit,' says Diolinda. 'He was brought to trial and sentenced by the fazendeiros. The main prosecution witness said he saw Rainha at the scene of the murders, but his description of Rainha was completely different from what he actually looks like. Prosecution witnesses did not give their testimony before the jury. Of the 21 jurors, 17 owed some kind of allegiance to local landowners. The crime took place in the state of Espirito Santo, but Rainha was in the northern state of Ceará, 1,500 kilometres away; at the time of the murder he was actually in a meeting with the State Governor.'

Rainha has not yet been imprisoned but awaits a second trial - automatic if the sentence is more than 20 years. On March 1996 Diolinda herself was detained in a thinly veiled attempt to end her campaign for his release. She was adopted as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and subsequently freed. With the continuing and regular assassination of activists by hired guns, the threat to Diolinda was real enough. The effect, however, was not exactly what the fazendeiros must have intended.

'We are afraid of hunger, yes,' says Diolinda, 'but not of hired guns or governments - or the fazendeiros. '

David Ransom is an NI co-editor.



[image, unknown]

New Internationalist issue 298 magazine cover This article is from the January 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop