SÃO PAULO – Widespread violence against traditional rural communities in Maranhão State, in Northeastern Brazil, has been condemned by the local Church.

Last week, more than 50 human rights organizations – many of them affiliated with the Catholic Church –released a letter condemning the destruction of the Baixão dos Rochas community in the city São Benedito do Rio Preto.

On March 19, a group of 15 armed men arrived in the area with two tractors. The assailants destroyed and set fire to the houses, killed livestock, looted food stocks, and drove out the residents.

About 60 families have lived in the community for more than 80 years. Over the past few years, two companies claimed ownership of the property traditionally occupied by the small farmers and violence began to flare up, with the residents facing threats and physical attacks on several occasions. The dispute is currently before the courts.

“The national situation of violence in the countryside is historically marked by land grabbing, inequality, injustice, and impunity. This terrorist act was not an isolated case,” reads the letter from the human rights groups, adding that such demonstrations of violence – especially against Indigenous peoples and traditional communities – have often been left unpunished in Maranhão.

The signatories demanded the investigation and punishment of the perpetrators by the state and the national judiciary systems.

“We defend the right of the traditional communities to live safely in their territories and of all families having access to land, shelter, and work,” the statement continued.

On March 22, the Brazilian bishops’ conference approved a payment of $20,000 to the small growers in Baixão dos Rochas.

Last year, the Episcopal Commission for Sociotransformative Action led a mission to dozens of rural communities in Maranhão State – including Baixão dos Rochas) – in order to talk with the residents about their problems and highlight the situation to the authorities.

The report of the Church’s mission, released last week by the Commission, showed that land disputes in the region have been leading to continuous human rights violations.

Traditional communities of small farmers and fishermen, Indigenous groups and quilombolas – descendants of African slaves who fled captivity when slavery was legal in Brazil (between 1500-1888) – have seen their land come under threat over the past years.

Most cases involve big landowners – usually soy producers – who claim ownership of land lived on by such groups over decades, or even centuries, and move to evict them.

The report showed that such landowners have been systematically threatening the communities’ leaders, invading and destroying cultivated areas, deliberately spilling oil in rivers in order to contaminate the water supply, and spraying pesticides on their lands.

Between 2015-2022, 79 people were killed in such areas, most of them members of Indigenous and quilombola communities. The report mentions that 77 community leaders have received death threats and need protection, and 30,000 families are currently facing the possibility of being evicted from their traditional lands.

“That whole situation is produced by the absence of the government. The authorities are not working as they should. Such communities must receive deeds to their land,” Bishop José Valdeci Mendes of Brejo, who leads the Episcopal Commission for Sociotransformative Action, told Crux.

Mendes said that both the state government and the local judiciary system have been issuing licenses and land titles to farmers and businessmen without considering the traditional communities which occupy the areas.

“Those actions create conflicts and violence,” he said.

Mendes emphasized that the attacks against the traditional groups in Maranhão are connected to environmental destruction. Part of the state is in the Amazon region, and soy producers have been destroying large areas of forest to expand their farms.

“They are not worried about growing food for the people, they are not worried about climate change, they are not worried about the environment. They only want to produce soy,” he said.

According to Gilderlan Rodrigues da Silva, who heads the Bishops’ Conference’s Indigenous Missionary Council in Maranhão, vast territories with thousands of Indigenous people have been given to farmers since 2020, when former conservative President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration approved a measure allowing the transfers.

“Such lands being studied [by the authorities] and would be granted to Indigenous groups. They should never be transferred to farmers. We feel that the State is somehow conniving with those landowners,” da Silva told Crux.

Half of the area originally occupied by Indigenous groups and now taken over by farmers is already deforested, he added.

“Part of it is in the Amazon, part is in the Cerrado biome. Now most of it is occupied with soy farms,” da Silva said.