SÃO PAULO – Human rights advocates and Catholic leaders are objecting the Brazilian government celebrating Farmers’ Day in Brazil with a picture of a man holding a shotgun.

The picture was bought from stock photography agency Alamy, according to the Brazilian newspaper Correio Braziliense, and chosen by President Jair Bolsonaro’s Social Communication Secretariat to illustrate the July 28 commemoration on Twitter, with the slogan, “Feeding Brazil and the world.”

The tweet also included a phrase about the fact that the Brazilian farmers are “workers who have not stopped working during the COVID-19 crisis.”

The publication immediately provoked criticism on social media and among human rights activists. After a few hours, it was removed.

Several Catholic activists and members of the clergy expressed their indignation at the picture choice, claiming that the Bolsonaro administration has been inciting rural violence since 2019.

“Last year more than 81,000 families had their lands invaded, many times suffering threats from armed groups. Now, the government pays tribute to the symbol of such violence,” said Bishop José Ionilton de Oliveira of Itacoatiara, in Amazonas State, who presides the Bishops’ Conference’s Land Pastoral Commission (CPT).

According to CPT, the number of rural disputes in Brazil in 2020 was the highest ever recorded, with 1,576 incidents of conflict, especially in the Amazon region.

Most of them involve public lands that have been often informally occupied by indigenous groups, peasants, and quilombolas, the name for descendants of African slaves who fled captivity in the 1800’s. While land reform programs in the past officialized such groups’ ownership of some lands, most of them remain in dispute.

Big landowners are one of the primary groups that have been increasing the number of land invasions in order to expand their ranches. Illegal miners and loggers have also been operating in public lands, but also in areas already granted to indigenous and quilombola groups. Violence is widespread.

“Small growers and peasants are the ones who really produce food for the Brazilian people. Big farmers only produce commodities for the international market. Firearms have nothing do with peasants,” De Oliveira added.

Bolsonaro has been backed by large landholders – the primary group accused of land invasion – since his presidential campaign in 2018. He has promised several times that he will not grant new lands to indigenous groups, quilombolas, and peasants. On several occasions, he expressed support to illegal miners operating in indigenous territories.

Members of his alliance in Congress have introduced bills with the intention of loosening restrictions on commercial activities in indigenous territories and allowing agribusiness and mining in such lands. One of them will probably be approved within a few weeks. According to the Bishops’ Conference’s Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), it is the most serious attack on indigenous rights in Brazil’s history.

Violence against indigenous peoples have mounted since 2019. The Yanomami community Palimiú, for instance, has been threatened and attacked by armed miners since May. The Yanomami territory is the home of 27,000 members of the indigenous group but has been invaded by at least 20,000 illegal miners.

“The picture used by the Bolsonaro administration to celebrate the Farmers’ Day is a public declaration of his option for violence and hatred,” Roberto Liebgott, a coordinator of CIMI, told Crux.

According to Liebgott, “the banner is a signal of Bolsonaro’s ties with the armed segments of the Brazilian rural sphere.”

De Oliveira pointed out that Bolsonaro has always manifested his intention of loosening gun control in Brazil and has allowed farmers to carry guns on their properties.

“He is obsessed with guns and used them as a symbol in his campaign,” he said.

Daniel Seidel, the president of the Bishops’ Conference’s Justice and Peace Commission, the said the Bolsonaro administration has ignored the small growers’ real needs.

“He chose instead to send a message to the agribusiness and inverted the logic of the Farmers’ Day. Instead of celebrating the rural workers, he portrayed them as the big landowners’ hitmen, the ones who steal land from the real rural workers,” he continued.

De Oliveira argued that a true celebration of the Farmers’ Day should not only involve a realistic representation of the Brazilian growers – “with a hoe and not a shotgun in their hands” – but also should be accompanied by concrete measures.

“Family rural producers need credit lines and support from the government. He should have announced a program to help them if he really wanted to celebrate the Farmers’ Day,” he said.