Brazil’s big landowners have far too much power

Every 12 days in Brazil, someone gets murdered in a land-related conflict - how do the landowners get away with it?

Share
Related Topics

I knew that it was dangerous to get in the way of Brazil’s big landowners, but it was only after the recent second murder that I looked at the statistics - and realised there seems to be a killing spree.

Cicero Guedes was shot dead as he cycled home in Rio de Janeiro state in January. Guedes, 48, had been a leader in the landless people's movement, MST, and his killers struck near a former sugar plantation where MST families now live.

Less than two weeks later, the body of Regina dos Santos Pinho, 56, was found in her home, after she failed to turn up at the funeral of Guedes, who was her friend.

Pinho had worked with MST for 10 years and she was also involved with the Pastoral Land Commission (PLC), a respected Catholic organisation which records land-related murders, death-threats and other horrors. Police said the killers’ motive may have been sexual or land-related and for now, at least, both they and MST are leaning towards the former.

It turns out that we should not be surprised by two murders within less than two weeks of eath other. In Brazil, it's normal.

According to the careful records kept by the PLC, there is a land conflict-related murder on average every 12 days. That is based on PLC figures for the five years 2007 - 2011, the latest year for which figures are available. Attempted murders are even more common, with 38 in 2011- and death threats an almost daily occurrence (347 in 2011).

No-one is safe. In December, an 84-year-old Catholic Bishop had to flee for his life, as threats against him escalated in the run up to a court ruling on a land conflict. Pedro Casaldáliga, Bishop Prelate Emeritus of Sao Felix in Mato Grosso state in the west of the country, had supported the rights of indigenous people who lived on the disputed land. The ruling went in their favour.

I witnessed a relatively mild example of the extra-judicial methods that some landowners use against poor people late last year. We were visiting an MST project near Brasilia, the capital, where some 35 previously landless families had Government permission to live on a small area of land surrounded by an agribusiness farm. My employer, Christian Aid, helps to fund MST in Brazil.

It seemed a pleasant place but as we walked through their fields of sweet potatoes, chillies and courgettes, a small plane flew repeatedly over our heads, deliberately spraying us with pesticide. I was astonished by the assault, but was told it was absolutely normal and that it happens many times a day to the families who live on the land. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the agribusiness farm is also taking legal action to try to force the families to leave.

So how do the big landowners get away with such murder, violence and intimidation? The answer comes down to their overwhelming power and the ease with which they can abuse it; Brazil is extraordinarily unequal.

Almost one-third of all its arable land is owned by 0.8 per cent of landowners, according to research by academics at the Brazilian think-tank CEBRAP. Similarly, some 85 per cent of the value of farm production is held by just eight per cent of Brazil’s farms.

Such vast economic power gives large landowners political clout too - and the ability to corrupt the police and politicians. Some contribute to hugely expensive election campaigns and others are in politics themselves, at national, state and lower levels. Some even own media companies that influence public debate.

It’s a rotten system, made all the more crooked by the failure of the police and justice system to reliably catch and punish the killers and, most importantly, those they work for.

There are, however, some reasons to be hopeful that it will not always be like this. Above all, there is the fact that Brazilians threw out their military dictators in the 1980s. The country also has a vibrant civil society - people and organisations who are chipping away at the abusive dominance of the powerful few.

Perhaps the Government cares about its international image too, especially with its economy booming and the World Cup and Olympics heading to Brazil. I hope that people in other countries will see beyond the spin and remember: every 12 days in Brazil, someone gets murdered in a land-related conflict.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Tony Abbott: A man most Australian women would like to pat on the back...iron in hand

Caroline Garnar
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea performs in California  

Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting

Yomi Adegoke
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there