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Brazil's hidden horrors

February 5th, 2013

by Rachel Baird

Rachel Baird opens our eyes to the dark side of Brazil, where fighting for your rights, and the rights of others, can be a battle with fatal consequences.

Reformers have patience, persistence and the knowledge that dramatic change can happen


When Cicero Guedes was shot dead as he cycled home late last month, the world got a reminder of Brazil's hidden horrors. We hear so much about the country's booming economy, which for a time knocked the UK off its perch as the world's sixth largest. Then there's the razzmatazz around Brazil's plans for hosting the next World Cup and Olympics. 

But just beneath the shiny-happy exterior, a powerful few are getting away with murder, slavery and rampant corruption.

Guedes was a leader in the landless people's movement MST. He was murdered in the state of Rio de Janeiro, near a former sugar cane plantation where he had led an occupation by families with no land of their own. 

The murder of an activist in the UK would trigger national outrage but in Brazil, there are relentless murders, death threats and attacks on people who speak out against big landowners.

According to the Catholic Church's Pastoral Land Commission, the number of threats made against land rights activists has risen from less than 150 a year in 2009 and 2010 to 347 in 2011 (the most recent year for which figures are available).

No-one who threatens landowners’ interests is safe. In December, 84-year-old Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga fled for his life, in Mato Grosso state in the west of Brazil. Casaldáliga, who is Bishop Prelate Emeritus of Sao Felix, had suffered years of death threats because of his support for the land rights of indigenous people who live near his village.

In the run up to a court judgment on the disputed ownership of the land, which went in favour of the Xavante Indians who the Bishop has supported, the threats intensified.

I witnessed a more mundane example of what poor people suffer at the hands of some landowners in December, when I visited an MST project supported by my employer, Christian Aid. We had driven out of the capital, Brasilia, to a small area of land on which the government allows 35 poor families to live. The land is surrounded by a much larger commercial farm. 

As we walked through the families' fields of sweet potatoes, courgettes and chilli peppers, a yellow plane flew across from the neighbouring farm and directly over our heads, spraying us with pesticide. The plane swooped several times during our visit and I was told it was a daily torment for the families, whose large neighbour is also taking legal action to try to force them off the land. 

Driving back to Brasilia, colleagues explained that slavery also exists on some of Brazil's large farms . In remote parts of the country such as the vast Amazon region, it’s relatively easy for landowners to force people to work long hours in harsh or dangerous conditions, to treat them worse than animals and control them with armed guards. Often, workers are also told they owe huge debts to those for whom they work, which they will never be able to pay.

Those who use forced labour often get off lightly - if they are ever caught. According to a 2009 report on slavery in Brazil by the United Nations' International Labour Organisation, 'very few cases are prosecuted and prison sentences are still rare'.

The ILO report also hints at the large scale of the problem, stating that in one year alone (2008), police freed more than 5,000 people from forced labour in Brazil. 

The killings of land rights activists and the enslavement of poor people take place against a background of extraordinary inequality. Just 0.8 per cent of landowners hold almost one third of Brazil’s arable land, while just eight per cent of farms produce 85 per cent of the value of agricultural production, according to research by academics at the Brazilian think tank CEBRAP.

At the other end of the spectrum, millions of small farmers struggle to earn twice the country's minimum wage. 

Perhaps most sinister of all are the links between the big, powerful landowners and Brazilian politics. Such links maintain landowners' power and influence over the law, and help some of them to get away with murder.

Many landowners are politicians themselves, at local, state or national level - or they buy political power, for instance by funding hugely expensive election campaigns.

Corruption means that even though it is a democracy, little changes in Brazil unless it’s in the interests of landowners and other big businesses. However, the extreme rottenness of the current system may eventually be its own undoing. 

A broad coalition of Brazilian organisations is demanding reform of the political system, including an end to private funding of election campaigns, which currently skews everything so massively in favour of big landowners and companies. It will be a long, hard and dirty fight. 

But the reformers have patience, persistence and the knowledge that dramatic change can happen. In the 1980s, Brazilians threw out their military dictators. The landowners who murder, enslave and corrupt should remember this.

Rachel Baird works for Christian Aid, a development charity based in London. She was previously a journalist at the Daily Express newspaper and she has a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from the University of Oxford.



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