Battles Over Land Sharpen in Brazil’s Amazon Region

by Gerry Foley /  March 2005 issue of Socialist Action


The murder of an American nun in the Amazon on Feb. 12 has brought to a head a growing land war in Brazil. Dorothy Stang, age 74, had been a decades-long

campaigner against the destruction of the Amazonian rain forest. She was shot down in cold blood by hired killers near the town of Anapu in the Amazon region.


Reuters reported on Feb. 22 that Brazilian soldiers had captured three suspects in the contract murder. It noted: “Rayfran das Neves Sales … confessed to shooting Stang earlier this week and named others involved.”


Agricultural land is a battleground in Brazil, which has one of the most unequal distributions of land in the world. The big landlords hire bands of killers, and the murder of peasant activists has become a regular feature of Brazilian political life.


Paradoxically, these murders have increased under the Lula regime since the victory of an ostensibly left ticket encouraged the peasants but the government has done little or nothing to protect them from the landlord gangs or to meet their demands.


The land question has actually sharpened in recent years because of the boom in soybean exports, which has been bringing enormous profits to landowners. It has led to a rush by the agricultural magnates to increase their holdings and the land under production.


The land-reform program of the Lula government, like that of its neoliberal predecessor, is based on the idea that unused land can be given to the peasants.


Actually, the neoliberal regime gave a lot more land to peasants than the Lula government because that was before the soybean boom. Now the landowners are not willing to concede any land to the peasants, and they resist their demands with all the means at their command—in particular, death squadrons.


In the Amazon, the soybean gold rush has come up against the world environmental movement and the defense of indigenous peoples whose lives are bound up with the forest. Over 20 percent of the rain forest has already been destroyed.


An Associated Press dispatch of Feb. 22 pointed out:  “The survival of the Amazon rainforest is key to that of the planet. The jungle is sometimes called the world's ‘lung’ because its billions of trees, spread over an area 11 times the size of Texas, produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”


The international environmental movement has succeeded in focusing enough attention on the rape of the Amazon that the murder of an activist nun who had been fighting it created an international scandal. It forced the Lula government to act for the first time.  Thus, the national government sent the army into the region and apparently captured the killers. Typically the local police are in the pockets on the landlords.


Lula was forced to go further. He created conservation reserves in Anapu and environmental protection zones in three other Brazilian states. Associated Press

reported: “He ordered a six-month moratorium on new logging, land-clearing, and development on a tract of land in the state of Para almost the size of



However, the contradictions of the Lula regime remain acute and will undoubtedly continue to sharpen.  Agricultural exports are the locomotive of the Brazilian capitalist economy, and the Workers Party government has been throwing all of its historical socialistic principles overboard to avoid conflict with big business.


Only mass mobilizations independent of the government and the Workers Party can force this regime to jostle the capitalists that it has been so anxious to conciliate.

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[Editor’s note: We reprint this article by the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM). In 1989, the Bastille Appeal was launched, inviting popular movements throughout the world to unite in demanding the immediate and unconditional cancellation of the debt of the so-called developing countries. This crushing debt, along with neo-liberal macro-economic reforms imposed on the global South, has led to an explosion of worldwide inequality, mass poverty, flagrant injustice and the destruction of the environment.


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