SÃO PAULO — Brazil’s National Council of Justice, the regulatory agency of the country’s judiciary system, recommended caution to all judges in the country when they analyze lawsuits that may result in the removal of squatters and rural settlements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That guidance, originally suggested by the Brazilian bishops’ conference, could strengthen the legal case for thousands of families at risk of being evicted from their homes.

Father Paulo Renato Campos, political adviser to the bishops’ conference, explained that, last year, the council of justice established a human rights observatory to reflect on social issues and legal ways of dealing with them. The bishops’ conference was invited to join and, after consulting several Catholic social ministries, it “concluded that the housing problem was the most pressing issue,” Campos told Catholic News Service.

Brazil’s economic crisis, intensified by the pandemic, has increased the number of homeless people in Brazil.

“There has been an explosive growth in the number of clandestine settlements in the poor outskirts of all large cities in the country,” lawyer Benedito Barbosa, an activist of housing movements in São Paulo, told CNS.

The Brazilian economy fell 4.1 percent in 2020, and unemployment reached 14.1 percent of the population at the end of last year.

“At the same time, rents went up 23 percent over the year. People don’t have anywhere to go and spontaneously built up settlements under bridges and in empty urban areas,” added Barbosa.

Campos said that at least 64,000 families living in irregular shantytowns currently face the risk of eviction. In 2020, the police removed more than 9,000 people from occupied land.

“Those people were left on the street,” he said.

The rural reality is even worse. In a country where land concentration is huge — 1 percent of the rural properties occupy 47 percent of the total farming area in Brazil — the number of landless workers is also large.

Kelli Mafort, national coordinator of the Landless Workers’ Movement, said there are currently 90,000 families camped in disputed land all over the country. Such areas should be destined to governmental land reform, but the processes can take years, especially now that President Jair Bolsonaro has frozen all land grants.

“Those families cultivate the land, which had been abandoned till then, and live in it. But their situation is precarious, and eviction is a continuous threat,” Mafort told CNS.

Over the past months, police have conducted violent operations to remove landless families from rural settlements, a situation that exposes not only the rural workers but also the police to contagion of COVID-19, said Mafort.

Now, some settlers face immediate risk of eviction. That’s the case of a farming area in the Diocese of Formosa, in Goiás state. The federal land reform agency had allowed 200 families to occupy it, but a judge decided for their removal.

Bishop Adair José Guimarães of Formosa sent a letter to the case judge March 11 asking him to take into account the National Council of Justice recommendation to not evict those families during the pandemic.

“We’ve been asking bishops all over Brazil to send this kind of letter to the judges and avoid new evictions,” Mafort added.

The Landless Workers’ Movement and other social movements, including a number of Catholic social ministries, have been involved in a campaign called Despejo Zero (Zero Eviction) since mid-2020. They denounced the situation to Balakrishnan Rajagopal, U.N. special rapporteur on adequate housing, who in July asked the Brazilian government to stop collective evictions during the pandemic.

“But nothing has changed,” Barbosa said, adding that the bishops’ “move to transform this struggle in a legal recommendation is a great victory for us.”

Given that it’s a recommendation, judges are not obliged to comply with the advice. Barbosa and his colleagues are now trying to convince members of courts across the country to understand the seriousness of the homeless and landless situation during the pandemic and avoid decisions that may intensify their hardships.

Auxiliary Bishop Joel Portella Amado of Rio de Janeiro, secretary-general of the bishops’ conference, said the council of justice resolution does not “harm the right to property.”

“It actually indicates that a judge should consider the context of social and economic vulnerability of the people who might be evicted,” he told CNS.

Amado said even if a judge rules that an irregular settlement must be cleared, the decision does not need to be enforced immediately. “In that case, the right to life is adequately preserved, without eventually damaging other rights,” he said.

The bishop said the priority of life over all things, the focus of Pope Francis’s teaching about life after the COVID-19 outbreak, was the basis of bishops’ conference suggestion.

“We only humanize ourselves when relations between people are above relations with things,” he said.