Laurindo Lazzaretti, left, Vanessa Xavier da Silva and Antonio Nascimento de Alveida of the Pastoral Land Commission. Photo by Michael Swan

Small farmers caught in battle to save land

  • September 26, 2019

BOA VISTA, Brazil -- Driving up the BR401, it’s hard not to be startled by the sight of a giant soy farm stretching out on both sides of the highway — the empty land is parched and denuded in mid-summer, after the crop is in. 

Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of soy, so the surprise isn’t that there are soy farms. But why here, north of the Rio Branco, in the driest part of the Amazon basin?

Vanessa Xavier da Silva, the Roraima regional co-ordinator for the Pastoral Land Commission of Brazil’s conference of Catholic bishops, smiles as she explains how grilagem de terras (land grabbing) works in Brazil.

“First you make a document, a false document,” she said. “Then you put it in a box with crickets. In a little while, the document looks old.”

The old-looking document is used at the bank to take out loans — financing for outbuildings, fertilizer, seed and pesticides. Once crops are established, title to the land is simply assumed. The distant federal government in the capital of Brasilia never wonders how that farm got there on government land.

Meanwhile, the small farmers the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT or Comissão Pastoral da Terra) represents still have no title on the land they farm, despite the “social function of property” clause written into Brazil’s constitution. 

That clause is supposed to guarantee that poor, small farmers who raise crops on unused land can own the land they farm. But the Civil Code allows the formal titleholder to request eviction of squatters. Police and local governments treat these small farmers as “invaders.” Poor, often illiterate farmers have a hard time claiming their constitutional right to farm empty, unused land. 

Since at least 1984, Canada’s Catholic development agency has joined with the CPT in the fight for land rights for small farmers. “Not one peasant without land” (nem um campones sem terra) has been the words on CPT banners.

“Land reform is a long and tricky and dangerous process in a country like Brazil, with a tradition of great social inequalities and great rural violence against the poor,” explained Development and Peace program officer for Brazil Anne-Catherine Kennedy. “It is said that if all the land deeds were compiled, they would cover an area five times the size or territory of Brazil. The level of corruption required for this to be the case is staggering.”

“We’re threatened by the large land owners,” said Antonio Nascimento de Alveida, a 53-year-old peasant farmer with no title to the small farm he has carved out of scrub land eight kilometres from any roads or any permanent source of water. “What rules here in this state (Brazil’s northernmost state of Roraima) is capital.”

The CPT has taught Alveida what the law actually says about his right to farm unused land and how to assert his rights when threatened with eviction. Alveida has been farming since the age of 13. He’s been a member of CPT since 2000. He grows rice, manioc, fruit trees and beans, and raises chickens and pigs. He’s seen other farmers give up and move to the city. It never works out, he said.

“In this technological world it’s very difficult to live as an artisanal farmer. It is to trust in God,” he said. “But otherwise, you come into the city and live even worse. … How can a small farmer live in the city? He can’t plant. He has no skills. He even has to buy water.”

Keeping farmers on the land is part of a Laudato Si’ vision — the Church’s contribution to caring for our common home, said CPT regional co-ordinator Laurindo Lazzaretti.

“The Pope is affirming our work,” he said. “The powers of this world, the powers that be, of course they are greater than us. The CPT is a discomfort to the powers that be.”

It’s also part of the Church’s defence of life, said da Silva.

“By supporting small farmers, it’s so they can have life — collective life,” she said. “We haven’t stopped living the Gospel.”

“Land reform is a question of social justice,” said Kennedy of Development and Peace’s commitment to supporting the CPT. “Peasants have a right to land, period.”

“Some people ask me, ‘What is your salary?’ ” said Alveida. “It’s life.”

Alveida sees nothing wrong with growing soy and nothing wrong with exporting products around the world. But the agribusiness model that turns endless fields into monocultures that need tons of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to survive is an abuse of the land, he said.

“Sure, it’s beneficial that there are exports. But who produces the food Brazilians eat? The soy producers just export,” he said.

With the backing of the bishops, the CPT wants to raise up some of the most ignored and abused people in Brazilian society.

“The CPT doesn’t speak in the name of the farmers,” said Lazzaretti. “It works so the farmers can speak for themselves, so they can find their own voice and struggle for themselves.”

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