SÃO PAULO, Brazil – One of the major blocs in the Brazilian Congress has been waging a war against social movements that promote the occupation of lands in the South American country.

The so-called social pastoral ministries – Church commissions that assist Indigenous peoples, landless workers, and small peasants – are worried about the impact of newly proposed laws that criminalize these land occupations.

The landowners and agribusiness bloc is one of the most important ones in the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, encompassing more than 300 lawmakers from a total of 513. This group has been engaged in what it says is a reaction to a campaign of land occupations promoted by the Movement of Landless Workers (MST) known as Red April.

In 1996, a group of 21 MST activists was killed by the police during a protest in the State of Pará, in the Amazon region. Since then, the left-wing movement has promoted a set of land occupations every year in the month of April to commemorate the incident and demonstrate for land reform in Brazil.

Despite the historical connections between President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party and the social movements that struggle for land, observers say that his past administrations failed to significantly change the status of land concentration in the nation.

Most lands in Brazil used to be owned by the Empire until the declaration of the Republic in 1889. The majority of such territories has remained as public lands until the present day. The Brazilian State has never promoted a comprehensive land reform program.

Over the years, part of such lands was gradually occupied by ranchers who produced fraudulent deeds and claimed their ownership.

Traditional populations, like Indigenous groups and small growers who had informally lived and worked in such territories for generations, have often been violently expelled from them. In most cases, such lands have not been employed in agriculture and remained unproductive.

Over the past decades, peasant and Indigenous social movements have frequently carried out land occupations in order to resume control and to pressure the government to include them in its land reform program.

The agribusiness and landowners bloc in Congress argue that land occupations defy the statute of private property in Brazil and provoke legal instability in the rural sphere. They accuse such groups of employing violent methods and of preventing the country from adequately developing.

The current offensive of the bloc began amid a clash between the head of the Chamber of Deputies, Arthur Lira, and the Lula administration. According to the Brazilian press, Lira has been upset with the way the government is negotiating with the Congress and is retaliating against it in a dispute for power.

Arthur Lira’s cousin, Wilson Cesar de Lira Santos, was the head of the State of Alagoas’s branch of the National Institute of Colonization and Land Reform, the governmental agency that expropriates and carries out land grants in Brazil. According to the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo, he was fired by the Lula administration on April 16, prompting Arthur Lira to work against the government and the social movements that struggle for land.

The agribusiness bloc has seized the opportunity to advance a number of bills against land occupations. One of them prevents activists who occupy lands from receiving social benefits from the government. Another one increases the penalties for people convicted on “land grabbing.”

A bill establishes that landowners who had their territories occupied can receive police support to expel the invaders without the need to file a lawsuit. Another bill says that social movements must be legally constituted, so they can be held juridically responsible for potential crimes connected to land occupations.

“We cannot accept, in the year of 2024, such chaos in our country. We have been working at the FPA [the agribusiness bloc] to collaborate with proposals that could put an end to the freedom of organizations that only destroy social and economic development”, said Congressman Pedro Lupion, who heads the bloc, after the Chamber of Deputies determined that one of such bills will be analyzed with urgency in Congress.

The Bishops’ Conference’s Land Pastoral Commission (CPT), which accompanies communities of peasants, small growers, and traditional populations all over the country, fears that such bills can increase the persecution to leaders of social movements and even to pastoral agents.

“Social movements have a right to exist and to organize themselves. They cannot be forced to become legal entities and their members cannot be persecuted for struggling for their constitutional right to land,” Isolete Wichinieski, a CPT coordinator, told Crux.

She said the bills are unconstitutional and aim at “attacking and demobilizing the social movements.”

“The Congress should discuss public policies to assist small growers and Indigenous communities instead of increasing the persecution to social activists,” Wichinieski added.

Many CPT pastoral agents have been facing death threats for their work with communities struggling for land. She fears that the new bills can intensify the risks they’re facing.

“Laws that criminalize the social movements which fight for land end up empowering the landowners and incentivizing their actions against social activists, which many times include violence,” she said.

The Bishops’ Conference’s Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) has been following the agribusiness bloc’s moves in Congress and is concerned with the current offensive.

“We consider that it’s a set of rules to criminalize those who struggle for lands in Brazil, an attempt to transform legitimate social actions into a case for the police. Although their target are the landless peasants, they can impact Indigenous groups as well,” Alcilene Bezerra da Silva, CIMI’s Vice President, told Crux.

In her opinion, such bills can function as “safe conducts” for landowners to perform violent actions against Indigenous and peasant activists.

“Groups associated with the landowners’ bloc act as real vigilante militias that promote armed actions against community leaders,” she explained.

Da Silva emphasized that the real intention of the agribusiness congressmen is to maintain land concentration in Brazil.

“Nowadays, the stratum of the 10 percent largest farms occupy 73 percent of all farming lands in Brazil, while the 90 percent smallest estates occupy only 27 percent of the total farming area,” she said.

Erilsa Pataxó, an Indigenous leader in the southern part of Bahia State, is equally worried about the new bills. Her group’s traditional territory has been invaded decades ago by hundreds of farmers. Over the past years, the Pataxó decided to resume control over their lands and occupied 80 percent of such territories. The reaction has been violent, with threats and killings over the past couple of years.