By Paolo Moiola
Interview with Marta Valéria Cunha, coordinator of the Pastoral Land Commission in Amazonas
The Pastoral Land Commission or CPT is well known for its advocacy efforts. The organization´s battles, research, and initiatives — like the “Referendum on limiting land ownership” held in September of last year, the “Campaign against slave labor”, as well as its annual reports on the conflicts over land — are never trivial, but on the contrary always leave a mark.
CPT is not hampered by anyone, neither the government (including the progressive administrations of Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva [2003-2010], and Dilma Rousseff); much less by the landowners and the political parties that support them, which are always strong in parliament. Not even the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops or CNBB — CPT´s parent organization — can hold it back.
Latinamerica Press met with Marta Valéria Cunha, who has held this position for seven years, but has been working with the Commission since the 90s when she began as a volunteer. Correspondent Paolo Moiola spoke with her at CPT´s headquarters in Manaus, Amazonas, about the organization and the fight for land.
What is CPT´s scope of work?
We work with traditional communities — river towns, with the Quilombola [communities of African descent] and with indigenous peoples — as well as with farmers. We fight to defend their rights, and for the preservation of the territory, the demarcation of land, the legalization of collective land.
In the end, everything revolves around one point: the distribution of land. How would you describe the problem?
It´s not just that. We intervene in conflicts between settlers and large landowners, but also in those between riverfront populations and professional fishermen [those who use large vessels].
With respect to the land, the subject is very complex. In Brazil there would be enough land for everyone, but it is concentrated in the hands of just a few. There are a few people who possess vast areas and millions who have nothing. This concentration promotes the degradation of the environment and slave labor.
In Amazonas, the largest state in the Brazilian federation with over 1.5 million km2, slave labor that began during the rubber boom [between 1890 and 1920] still exists today.
Why is land reform needed?
Because behind poverty is the issue of land concentration. With land reform, the land would belong to those who want to produce and not speculators who buy it and wait for higher prices. In Manaus there are 200,000 people without land.
Article 184 of the 1988 Brazilian Constitution says the state can expropriate land for land reform.
Yet the following article, 185, says you cannot expropriate productive land. For this reason, the caucus of big landowners in Parliament has never allowed productivity indicators to be approved. These would determine if a farm is productive or not. In the absence of indicators, everything remains the same.
What is the phenomenon of grilagem, or the misappropriation of land using false titles?
The grilagem (land grabbing) greatly affects public lands — about 90 per cent — where traditional villages and small farmers live and who never bothered to legalize [the titles for] the lands they live on. People come from the outside and snatch up land, even using Law 11.952 from 2009. This law has favored the legalization of griladas (illegally occupied lands).
In the referendum conducted by CPT in September 2010 about capping the amount of land that can be owned, 500,000 voters participated [95 per cent of whom were in favor]. That´s not a lot, considering the importance of the initiative. In addition, the media has spoken very little about the referendum.
I would not say that. In our opinion, it is a good result. Take into consideration that during Lula´s two terms, various social movements stayed quiet. Lula was always seen as one of them and so as to not go up against him, they decided to remain a step behind.
In Brazil, many landowners also own the media, or are politicians. The media — both television and print — demonize social movements for land rights. Think of all the horrible things that are written or said about the Landless Workers´ Movement.
You work with the campesinos. But the land issue, especially in Amazonas, also affects indigenous peoples.
CPT works with rural communities, while another national organization [also linked to the CNBB], the CIMI [Indigenous Missionary Council], works specifically with the indigenous people. However, here in Amazonas we also reach out to indigenous peoples.
Tell us what slave labor means in 2011.
There are people who work morning to night without receiving any money, only food. There are others that, although working, are increasingly more indebted. Last year, about 40 people working as slaves for landowners in Amazonas were freed.
Consequently, landowners are primarily responsible for slave labor.
Not always. For example, in the municipality of Presidente Figueiredo is “Jayoro”, an estate that belongs to Coca-Cola. It occupies a vast area, nearly 60,000 hectares (150,000 acres), in which the US multinational firm cultivates sugarcane for the production of syrup for their beverages. The company has been accused of having demeaning work practices and using slave labor. Not to mention that, to plant sugar cane, first they had to clear 10,000 Ha of virgin forest.
You are a Catholic organization, but it is known that you have many opponents within the Church itself. This must decrease support and reduce resources for your work.
The CPT receives almost all its resources from Catholic organizations, though not all of them agree with us. There are enormous divisions within CNBB. It is true that the bishops who support us are elderly now, and others are retired. The new bishops are not as progressive as in the past. For us, this situation is greatly concerning. At the same time, there is also less funding coming in from foreign organizations, like the Germans, for example.
Perhaps it´s because Brazil is considered the eighth largest economy in the world.
Although Brazil is the eighth greatest world power, the problems related to land are constantly increasing, while CPT´s resources are decreasing — and with them the possibility to carry out our activities. Yes, the future looks difficult.