There are all too many Amazons and Starbucks' out there – rich and powerful companies not paying their fair shares – but tax injustice also has another face: that of poor families facing gigantic bills.
In the Brazilian Amazon, people descended from slaves live close to nature in simple wooden homes alongside tributaries of the great river. Some 1,200 families grow much of their own food and make a small income selling forest products such as brazil nuts and Açai berries, as well as cassava flour, which they make themselves.
Their main possession is their land, to which they gained a collective title in 2002 – something unusual among Brazil’s roughly 3,500 Quilombola communities. Having legal ownership gives them some protection against the country’s agribusiness, mining and logging companies, which all too often invade the places where poor people live and farm.
But gaining the legal title to their land, near the town of Abaetetuba in Para state in the far north-east of the country, has also had potentially catastrophic consequences. In 2006, the Quilombola received a letter from Brazil’s tax authority, telling them they owed land tax of £4.3 million for the years 2003 to 2006, including interest.
The tax bill comes with two great ironies. The first is that, had they not gained collective ownership of their land, then the Quilombola would not have been liable to the tax.
The second is that they were landed with the tax bill because they left the trees among which they live intact - and harvested their fruits and nuts instead of chopping them down. This is good for the environment and far better than the vast swathes of soya favoured by nearby agribusiness farms. But in Brazilian tax law, land that is not farmed or otherwise commercially exploited is classed as ‘unproductive’ and therefore hit with an especially high rate of land tax.
When I visited the communities last December, the leader of the Alto Itacuruçá community, Isaias Neri Rodrigues, told me they had struggled for years to get their land titled, so the tax demand came as a terrible shock. ‘We were very surprised and concerned because we were not expecting this. It was connected to the most important thing we have, which is our land,’ he said.
They then sought help and were put in touch with the Pro-Indian Commission (CPI), a Sao-Paulo-based non-governmental organisation which does legal and lobbying work in support of Brazil’s indigenous and Quilombola peoples.
CPI, which is funded partly by Christian Aid, then persuaded a well-known firm of lawyers in Brazil - Bichara, Barata, Costa & Rocha Advogados - to do pro-bono work on the case and launch two related legal challenges against the tax demand. In addition, CPI itself is working to persuade the Government to stop pursuing the Quilombola for land tax.
However, Brazil’s legal system moves so slowly that the lawyers say the case could take 10 to 20 years to resolve and in the meantime, the community’s tax debt is rising.
The obvious injustice here is that the Quilombola are far too poor to pay a £4 million tax bill, let alone the much larger sum they will owe by the time their case is resolved, should the outcome go against them. For them, the stakes could not be higher – if they lose the case, then they will lose their precious land and risk becoming wage slaves in a place that was once theirs.
The case also exemplifies a wider injustice which exists in most countries but is especially acute in Brazil: that the poor pay dramatically more of their incomes in tax than do the rich. The poorest households pay almost half their income in tax (much of it indirect, included in the prices of goods and services), while the richest pay barely a quarter of theirs.
Back in the Amazon, the Quilombola won an important but far from final victory in May 2013, when the Brazilian tax authority declared that for now, they do not owe any tax. This is important because it allows them to get government credit and essential services. But it does not mean that the struggle is over – only that the collection of their multi-million tax debt is suspended, pending the outcome of the court battle.
The Quilombola also gain some hope from the fact that they have supporters outside of the country and hope it will help to shame the Brazilian government into dropping its absurd tax demand.
Edilson da Conceição Cardoso da Costa, leader of the Arapapuzinho community, said: ‘It is important to know that we are not alone here in the middle of the forest… We hope the Brazilian government is so ashamed that it will get this sorted out, for all Quilombola communities.’
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