Eldorado do Carajás massacre: 27 years later, movements denounce new ‘rural militias’

17 April 2023

The occupations of Engenho Cumbe, in the city of Timbaúba (state of Pernambuco), and the headquarters of Incra in Maceió (state of Alagoas) inaugurated the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement’s “Red April”, a month of mobilization in memory of the Eldorado do Carajás Massacre, which this Monday (17) completes 27 years.

The “S curve” – where the state of Pará Military Police murdered 21 landless workers in 1996 – has hosted, since the last 9th, the Pedagogical Camp for Youth Oziel Alves. Honoring, in its name, the 17-year-old boy executed with a shot in the forehead in Eldorado do Carajás, the camp brought together hundreds of young people and ended its activities with an act this Monday (17).

“Agrarian reform against hunger and slavery: for land, democracy and the environment” is the motto of this year’s April journey, in continuity and update of the peasants’ struggle who had their march to Belém (state of Pará) brutally interrupted 27 years ago. This, which is one of the most emblematic episodes of the dispute for land in Brazil, made April 17th the International Day of Peasant Struggles.

Reorganization of landowners

And the day arrives, in 2023, at a time when popular and indigenous movements claim to have to face the organization of new “rural militias”.

“We are experiencing a reorganization of the UDR”, defines Lucineia Durães, from the MST’s national leadership. She refers to the Ruralist Democratic Union (UDR), an entity of rural employers created to react organized and violently to the advances of movements in defense of agrarian reform in the 1980s and 1990s in Brazil.

“What is happening is a reorganization of landowners with a view to defending property to the detriment of the law and life”, says Lucineia.

Bahia is the state where this articulation is most explicitly operating.

In a video that has been circulating on social media since April 1, landowner Luiz Uaquim (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) poses as one of the organizers of the group “Zero Invasion” which, along with other landowners, intends to prevent MST actions in the state. “The producers will change their way of acting”, says Uaquim: “It is a milestone in the history of the producer against land invasion. We are going to do the ‘Yellow April’”, he says.

Three days later, on April 4, farmers went in a 35 trucks convoy to the MST Camp Osmar Azevedo, which was undergoing repossession in Itabela (state of Bahia). “The farmers, who organize a rural militia in the region, surrounded the camp”, described a note released by the movement. According to those camped, “the militiamen” tried to enter the area “to threaten and coerce the families, but the police intercepted it.” The convoy then closed the BR 101 (highway that connects the northeast to the south of Brazil) for 15 minutes.

The action followed a pattern similar to what happened in Jacobina (state of Bahia), on March 3. Peasants who had occupied a farm left the area under tension, in front of a motorcade of farmers who, to the sound of the national anthem, dismantled shacks and set fire to mattresses.

“They don’t care if those are unproductive areas, they don’t care about hunger, they don’t care about anything other than the defense of property and, especially, when this property is illegal. Because the occupation is precisely to denounce illegality: the constitutional non-fulfillment of the social function”, declares Durães.

According to a spreadsheet published by CNN, 800 farmers distributed in 130 cities in Bahia are part of the “Zero Invasion” group. They would be organized into seven main cells, centralized in the municipalities of Itabuna, Ipaú, Itapetinga, Eunápolis, Santo Antônio de Jesus and Vale do Jiquiriçá.

The articulation of farmers has the public support of rural unions, entities such as the Federation of Agriculture and Livestock of Bahia (FAEB) and politicians such as the mayor of Andaraí, Wilson Paes Cardoso (Brazilian Socialist Party). In a note, Cardoso, who is also a rancher and president of the Chapada Forte Consortium, says that he “vehemently disagrees with any act of invasion or occupation” as it violates “property rights” and generates “legal uncertainty”.

“Who are they? They are those radical Bolsonaro supporters who, when forced to leave the front of the army’s headquarters, to leave the middle of federal highways, are looking for a new target. And they understand that we are the target, for what we represent: peasants, pasture background communities, riverside communities, indigenous people”, lists Durães.

At the end of March, indigenous organizations sent a report to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) warning that, with the “threats from farmers and militiamen”, 12,000 Pataxó are living under a “low-intensity war” in southern Bahia. On January 17, young Pataxó Samuel Braz and Inauí Brito were murdered on the roadside of BR-101 highway.

Violence, motorcades, lobbying and social media

Eliane Oliveira, from the MST state direction in Bahia, says that, days before this April 17, an art with the photo of the coffins of those killed in the Eldorado do Carajás Massacre circulated on social media. At the top, phrases in a threatening tone: in order for the scene not to happen again, occupations could no longer occur.

“What they have also been doing is putting this terror on”, he describes. “But what we’ve always known how to do is land occupation and we’re going to continue”, says Oliveira.

“We will not accept landowners’ repossession. We have made the government of Bahia aware of the situation and we want to know how they are going to deal with it”, she demands.

The use of social networks, with graphic pieces, videos of the motorcade itself and the call for action by ruralists, is highlighted by landless leaders as a characteristic of what Eliane calls the “new guise” of organized action by large landowners.

For Lucinéia, “agitation and propaganda to stay on top of a political platform” is one of the three components of this ruralist articulation. “They do these actions and film them. They appear, summoning”, she describes.

The other two, according to her, are “violence and extermination” and institutional lobbying through the Agricultural Parliamentary Front. The bench of Bolsonarist parliamentarians currently defends the creation of the so-called “Parliamentary Inquiry Commission (CPI) of the MST”, which seeks to criminalize the movement.

“We defeated Bolsonaro. But Brazilian society still needs to defeat Bolsonarism”, evaluates Durães. “It is this Bolsonarism that tries to create a naturalization of death, which makes a part of the population ignore that we continue with hundreds of millions of people starving”, she explains.

“Meanwhile”, continues Lucinéia, “landowners invade the Amazon to raise cattle on public lands. While they invade indigenous lands, decimating populations as they were doing with the Yanomami people”.

“It’s no coincidence”, she says, “that we see so many rescues of people in conditions analogous to slavery. That we see a white woman hit an uberized black worker with a whip. That we see farmers with guns in hand recording videos to evict landless workers”.

The memory of Carajás as a projection of the future

For Eliane Oliveira, the omission of the State – either in the lack of justice in relation to the Eldorado do Carajás Massacre, or in the freedom with which “rural militias” have acted – connects the scenario of 27 years ago and today.

“The farmers are showing their face, saying who they are, how they are organizing themselves. And what has the State been doing about it?”, she questions. “In the meantime, they continue to act and, as the photo that circulated [with the coffins] puts it, they can do the same. Because there was no justice for the Carajás workers. There hasn’t been until today”, says Eliane.

Among the 155 police officers who acted in the massacre, only the two commanders of the operation were convicted of intentional homicide. Colonels Mário Pantoja and José Maria Pereira Oliveira were arrested in 2012, 16 years after the massacre. Four years later, they began to serve their sentence in freedom. Pantoja died in Belém (state of Pará) in 2020.

In different lawsuits from the 1990s onwards, the judiciary ordered the State to indemnify and provide medical treatment for 50 of the survivors, as well as a pension for some relatives of the murdered workers. Another 20 are claiming compensation and await a response from the Attorney General of the State of Pará.

Lawyer Wlamir Brelaz has defended survivors of the massacre since 1998. In an interview with Brasil de Fato for the Bem Viver show, he says that the greatest injustice related to them, to date, is the lack of access to health, despite a court decision which obliges the State to provide it.

The survivors of the Eldorado do Carajás Massacre, however, are much more numerous than those who entered into a legal battle with the State: 1500 peasants participated in that march. At least 79 were seriously injured.  

For Brelaz, the State’s lack of responsibility for the episode “is a consequence and, at the same time, the cause and stimulus of new violence”. “For the martyrs of Eldorado”, stresses Durães, however, “our militancy is ready to face this new era”.

“The 21 landless were murdered in the struggle for land. And we realize, 27 years later, that we are still occupying land and facing up to large estates so that agrarian reform can take place”, highlights Eliane Oliveira.

According to her, the expectation that the movement’s guidelines advance under the new Lula government (Workers’ Party) “remains very high.” However, after just over 100 days in office, she believes that the result has not arrived: “We hope that this April will manage to get the government to put this agenda up for discussion”.

“No silence while there is no justice”, sums up Lucinéia. “And justice for us”, she concludes, “is that agrarian reform be carried out. We will make our April. And we will make our whole year of fighting for justice”.

By Gabriela Moncau
From Brasil de Fato | São Paulo (SP) first published by MST

Edited by: Nicolau Soares e Flávia Chacon

Translated by: Lucas Peresin