A family of six squatting land in northern Brazil was killed on the morning hours of February 17th. This land conflict is emblematic of the larger struggles over land that Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) has been involved in for decades.
A family of six was killed on the morning hours of February 17th, 2015 in Conceicacao de Araguaia, in the northern Brazilian state of Para. Two adults, Washington Silva and Lidiane Souza as well their three children and nephew ages 11-14 were victims of the attack. They were brutally killed with machetes by a nearby river where the bodies were found. Reports say they were made to walk nearly 5 kilometers (over 3 miles) before arriving to the site of their execution. The family had been living in and squatting a vacant farm for only a few days.
The investigation is ongoing for this case, but two suspects have already been arrested. One report explains that this violence emerged out of a land dispute, yet no conclusions have been made. The farm, Estiva (Stowage) farm, had been vacant for nearly eight months. There were another group of squatters that occupied it and had been living there for nearly 8 years.
This land conflict is emblematic of the larger struggles over land that Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) has been involved in for decades. The MST became a national movement in 1984 and is one of the largest and most significant social movements in Brazil that consists of agricultural and rural workers fighting for land reform and social inequality in rural areas. Their strategy emerged out of occupations of large estates, led mostly by families seeking to reclaim land for subsistence. For over 20 years they have been involved in over 2,500 occupations that consist of over 7.5 million hectares of land. Once occupied they push for legal ownership, schools, access to health care and build cooperatives that help sustain their community. There are currently roughly 900 MST encampments in the country that are home to approximately 150,000 landless families.
The National Institute of Colonization and Land Reform (INCRA) is in charge of settling land disputes and conflicts over land, yet organizations such as the MST, who have attempted to work with INCRA, claim that they are “ineffective” and “inefficient.” The MST even states that INCRA has been one of the main causes of increased and continued violence against squatters and landless peoples attempting to reclaim unused land.
The Federation of Agricultural Workers in the State of Para (FETAGRI), the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), and the MST published a joint statement condemning the recent murders, stating the responsibility for this incident goes well beyond the individual agents that committed the killings. They blame the landowners and the institutions who are in charge of facilitating land disputes such as this one. As the joint statement explained inadequate oversight and resolution of land disputes “leaves landless families that attempt to take over unused land vulnerable to violence and attacks.”
The statement continued, “The occupation of this farm had been going on for more than 8 years without INCRA being able to resolve the conflict and promote their settlement… in this region there are currently more than 100 farms occupied by 12 thousand families. The majority of these have been going on for more than 10 years without any kind of [legal] settlement being reached.”
Many times the judges who are placed in the Northern Region of Brazil are in a “transition” period, and are not allowed to prioritize or even get involved in agrarian disputes, leaving no one to manage such cases.
This is not the first incident of violence directed at squatters in Brazil. The MST, CPT, and FETAGRI make it clear that incidents like these have become systemic, and that due to the limited influence these grassroots organizations have on those wielding political power and influence, civil protections have been deteriorating.