SÃO PAULO – Despite hopes that violent land disputes in Brazil would diminish with the return to power of leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, generally seen as more favorable to land reform and Indigenous rights, Brazil’s Catholic bishops recently reported no decline over the first six months of 2023.

For the most part, the bishops say, on the local and regional level across the vast Latin American country, it’s been business as usual.

“Despite the change in the federal government, in most states the same political groups continue to rule,” explained Bishop Adriano Ciocca Vasino of the Prelature of São Félix of Araguaia, in the Amazonian state of Mato Grosso.

Archbishop Roque Paloschi of Porto Velho, in Rondônia state, agreed.

“The judiciary is slow, and state politics is dominated by the big landowners. What prevails is a dog-eat-dog mentality,” Paloschi told Crux.

The bishops’ conference’s “Land Pastoral Commission” (known as CPT by its Portuguese acronym) recently reported that over the first six months of last year, coinciding with the final period of the administration of former conservative President Jair Bolsonaro, there were 900 land disputes all over the country.

This year, 973 cases have been reported by the CPT, which not only provides spiritual care to peasants and traditional rural populations but also assists them in land disputes and denounces human rights violations involving landless groups.

Under Bolsonaro’s administration, violence exploded in the Brazilian rural world, with a serious rise in the number of deaths motivated by land disputes.

CPT and other organizations repeatedly declared the violence had been exacerbated by Bolsonaro’s policies, given that he wouldn’t concede new land grants for Indigenous peoples and quilombola communities – formed by the descendants of African slaves who fled captivity when slavery was legal in Brazil (1500-1888) – and froze the government’s land reform program. He also expressed support for big landowners and other groups interested in taking hold of public lands in environmental reservations.

That combination, according to many observers, led to a spike in land disputes, especially in the Amazon. CPT leaders, as well as members of peasant movements, had hoped that under Lula land reform and land grants for Indigenous peoples and quilombolas would soon be resumed and violence would fall, but change has been slow.

At the same time, the local power structures continue to be pretty much the same, these observers say.

Vasino said that since the 1990s, under governments of both left and right, Brazil has been investing in agribusiness. Traditional inequalities in the rural sphere, including the concentration of land in the hands of a few powerful owners, have been intensified by such a policy, he said.

In the region of his prelature, Vasino said there are conflicts involving poor growers, Indigenous peoples, and powerful farmers in different areas.

“The Kanela Indigenous group came from Maranhão state in the 1920’s in order to flee persecution. They have been trying to occupy a territory over the past 10 years. The lands where they live are now under federal protection, but tension is escalating,” the bishop said.

Paloschi said that most members of congress favor the expansion of big farms and work to curtail peasant rights.

Over the past few years, Rondônia has been one of the most violent states in Brazil when it comes to land disputes. Paloschi said that ndigenous territories, such as the Karipuna’s, have been partially dominated by invaders, while oybean producers have been advancing over Indigenous and peasant lands and destroying vast areas of rainforest.

Spanish-born CPT missionary Josep Iborra Plans told Crux that the state government has been arresting every peasant or landless worker involved in land occupations lately.

“There is no dialogue. The activists are just [charged] and sent to prison. At the same time, there are groups of armed men (probably police officers) who serve the interests of the big landowners and operate in the whole state,” he said.

On Oct. 14, landless leader José Carlos dos Santos was shot dead by unknown men. Coming from the city of Theobroma, he headed a group of at least 80 families that had been occupying a vast farm on the border between Mato Grosso and Rondônia. His friend Galdêncio Rabelo Jr., another leader of the camp, said that the murderers fired 60 times against him, and that twenty .40 caliber bullets hit dos Santos.

“Two months before, police raided our camp allegedly to search for guns. One of them asked me where I’m from, and I said I’m from Theobroma. He told his colleague: ‘There is one more from Theobroma that we must get.’ They killed dos Santos, and they are probably coming for me now,” Rabelo said.

A multimillionaire family from São Paulo claims to own the land for which Rabelo Jr.’s group is struggling. The activists claim, however, that at least 30 percent of the territory does not have adequate property deeds. Decades ago, the area used to be part of the Amazon rainforest and was officially owned by the government.

Rabelo Jr.’s group was expelled from a camp inside the farm earlier this year, following a legal decision that favored the alleged owners. The operation was carried out with violence by militiamen, who smashed belongings and destroyed the crops. The group then bought a tiny area near the farm and settled their camp there.

“But we are again facing a potential eviction, this time from our own private land. The farm owners claim that our presence there disrupts their peace,” Rabelo Jr. said. Although it’s very small, the property produces thousands of cocoa seedlings, among other things. He fears it will all be destroyed again.

CPT has been accompanying their plight since last year, the leader affirmed, helping them to put pressure on the local branch of the federal land reform agency.

“It’s up to them to solve our problem. It has a political nature and only the government can really act to solve it,” he said.

Also in Rondônia, the Indigenous Puruborá people, which has been struggling for their traditional lands since 2000, has been receiving threats since the government established a commission that is studying the area in order to define the future reservation’s limits.

“We have been waiting for concrete actions for decades. Three study committees have been created in the past and analyzed our territory, but nothing was done after that,” Puruborá leader Mário de Oliveira Neto told Crux.

During the general elections in 2022, Oliveira Neto claimed that local candidates spread fake news concerning the land grant process for the Puruborá.

“They told the people of the nearby cities that a vast territory would be granted for us and that the region’s farms and even the urban areas would become part of our reservation. They pit many against us,” he said.

Part of the territory was included in a land reform program and theoretically given to small growers, but big soybean farms have taken control of such areas and are now planting near the Puruborá village.

“They use a lot of chemicals and throw them in the local rivers. Our water is polluted and we can’t fish anymore,” Oliveira Neto said.

Over the years, many members of the group left for the city, given that surviving in the area has been a tough task. Oliveira Neto hopes that they will come back if the land grant process progresses.

Iborra Plans said that Lula has taken positive measures, such as the reinstallment of a conciliation chamber for land disputes that had been suspended by Bolsonaro.

“But the government must fully resume land reform. Some groups have been waiting for 20 years for their lands to become legal,” he said.