Brazil: Eldorado do Carajás, 25 Years of Impunity

Fernanda Alcântara
Burial of Landless Workers Victims of the 1996 massacre, in Pará. Image search Archive and MST Memory. Photo: J.R. Ripper

Ayala Ferreira, of the national leadership of the MST, by the National Human Rights Collective, recalls the brutality of the massacre in Pará and speaks of the actions for Abril Vermelho

The 17th of April 1996 will be forever marked in our history and memory as a day of mourning and peasant struggle, remembered by the popular peasant movements in the world. The episode, which became known worldwide as the Eldorado do Carajás Massacre, was one of the most violent actions ever seen, practiced by a Brazilian state against rural workers, and is still remembered today in meetings and activities that discuss the agrarian issue. and People’s Agrarian Reform in Brazil during “Red April”.

In Brazil, the struggle for land resists impunity and historical violence, such as the Eldorado do Carajás Massacre, in which 21 Landless workers were murdered by the Pará State Military Police. Since 1996, the country has gone through different governments, but no tragedy can compare to the barbarism that is echoed in Jair Bolsonaro’s speeches of incitement to violence.

“April 17 became the International Day for the struggle of peasants. Over the years, we organized workers to occupy large estates on this date and put pressure on the government, through its responsible bodies, for the implementation of Agrarian Reform and to advance policies aimed at strengthening the countryside and peasant agriculture”, reports Ayala Ferreira , from the National Directorate of the MST, of the National Collective of Human Rights of the MST and an activist in Pará.
Ayala Ferreira. Photo: MST Archive

Ayala recalls the Eldorado do Carajás Massacre, which made headlines around the world, due to the brutality of military action and warns of the risk of hunger in the countryside because of the lack of federal government policies on peasant and family farming.

1) This month, the MST commemorates “Red April”, in memory of the 21 workers who were murdered in Eldorado do Carajás (PA). What can we learn today from this pain that began 25 years ago?

The 17th of April marks the slaughter of 21 landless rural workers, the wounding of 69 others, which occurred in an attempt by the state governor of the time, Almir Gabriel, to unblock a highway in southeastern Pará that was being occupied by workers who were seeking to advance the process of negotiating the expropriation of the Macaxeira farm, and to advance People’s Agrarian Reform here in the region. The government’s response was to interrupt the negotiation process and send the State Military Police force to unblock the highway, which sadly led to the death of those men and women workers. From that day until today, many feelings pass through the landless workers and those who fight for People’s Agrarian Reform in Brazil. But if it is possible to say that there were teachings, I would highlight three aspects that profoundly marked our lives.

The first is that this massacre used extreme violence, a violence that was televised, and for that reason Brazil and the world knew what happened on that late afternoon of April 17th. When we talk about extreme violence, we are saying that many people were killed, many people were wounded, and the circumstances in which this happened reveals the perverse and intentional character of killing landless workers, carried out by the government of the state of Pará. At least ten of those killed in the massacre were executed after they had already surrendered and were even executed with the work tools they carried during the demonstration. We had people who were cut with a scythe, with a machete; other comrades had bullet marks from the chest upwards, indicating execution. These circumstances reveal that there was an intention to kill, whatever the cost, and that would be the first aspect that makes people reflect.
Eldorado do Carajás,1996. Photo: Image search Archive and MST Memory

Another aspect concerns the role of the government, or the state as a whole, in assuming a posture of non-mediation and non-negotiation. The massacre revealed that the State is on the side of the latifundio, which has no interest in implementing Agrarian Reform even though it is provided for in the Brazilian Constitution. It is the State that fuels the deepening and widening of conflicts in the countryside.

This concrete denial of public policies on Agrarian Reform is the third and last aspect that I think is important to address: these other violent episodes. Not the violence itself of the Eldorado do Carajás massacre, but other violence that came as a result, fueled by the practice of impunity.

The result of the Courts’ practice of impunity in our country is that, in the last 30 years, of the 1,468 cases of violence against rural workers, only 117 were put on trial. Many of these trials led to the acquittal of those who ordered and executed this type of massacre, such as the one in Eldorado.

2) During Red April, the MST seeks to organize massive mobilizations. However, this is the second year that actions are carried out remotely because of the pandemic. How is the campaign being organized in such difficult times?

Over the years, there have been various practices for contesting, demanding, and implementing Agrarian Reform. Now that we are in a pandemic, the MST made a very important decision to defend life, and one of the ways to defend life is to maintain social distance and incorporate sanitary practices, such as the use of a mask and gel alcohol for hygiene and social isolation. The movement took this stance because it believes that life should come first. By guaranteeing life, we have the possibility of overcoming so many other problems that are imposed in this context of the pandemic.

As a result, our 2021 campaign will be marked by highly creative ways of acting. It is impossible to stop commemorating April 17 for all that it represents, so we are going to carry out activities in the territories, settlements and encampments scattered throughout the country, within the scope of working together with popular urban and rural movements. We will carry out actions occupying networks, hitherto virtual spaces, as a space for coming together, strengthening the mistica and meeting people who believe in an Agrarian Reform project; who believe in a rural development project, with the democratization of land and the implementation of other practices in addition to agribusiness.

Our campaign is scheduled to take place from the 17th to the 21st of April, and I would call attention to three activities. The first has to do with the 15th Oziel Alves Pereira National Youth Landless Encampment. There is an extensive program aimed at the youth, to commemorate the massacre and the resistance of the workers and to reaffirm this commitment to the continuity of the struggle. The other action is the virtual political rally, which will take place on April 17th at 10am. We will be occupying social media in a virtual rally, also of an international character, to fulfill this unprecedented task of commemorating, reaffirming life and denouncing the total paralysis of Agrarian Reform in the context of the Bolsonaro government. And on April 21st, we will carry out our actions linked to the campaign of planting trees and producing healthy food. The idea is that we carry out this planting of trees in our territories and in other spaces, evidently taking all necessary precautions to take care of life and prevent the proliferation and advance of Covid-19.

It would also be worth mentioning one more aspect that we planned this April 17, in the pandemic, which is to continue our food donation campaign for all those who are most vulnerable.

We will, on April 18, across the country, carry out these actions of food donation. These were the actions designed for symbolic demarcation, occupying the virtual networks, but also with concrete actions such as the donation of food. This is how we are going to mark this April 17, 2021.

3) Do you believe that the pandemic can change, in some way, how people see relations with the countryside?

These actions seek to strengthen what we believe to be important in the context of the crisis of capital in the context of a pandemic. The hegemonic model in the Brazilian countryside, which is agribusiness, does not solve the concrete problems of the Brazilian people, and this also includes access to a fair price for food. It is the effort that we have made that, if we want to think about a national development project in which men and women are included, it is necessary to establish a set of reforms in our country.

Thinking about these reforms means thinking about a development project for the countryside that involves democratizing access to land, which today is extremely concentrated in the country. Once it is in the hands of the peasants, it is necessary to create support conditions so that these men and women workers can produce food and not commodities. In agribusiness, food is a commodity, it is a commodity that must fulfill the task of feeding the international market.

Food is a good that must be at the service of the people and must be offered to the populations that need it most.

I deeply believe that the great effort in this pandemic context is to show Brazilian society that it is necessary to have them as allies and to advance in the implementation of People’s Agrarian Reform, to produce food to meet the needs of those in the countryside and those who are in the city, working and trying to reproduce its existence. I believe in our effort to denounce this model of agribusiness and reaffirm Agrarian Reform, family farming as a model of development, which can indeed contribute to society as a whole.

Donating food, in addition to a gesture of solidarity with those in the most vulnerable situation, is also a way of saying that Agrarian Reform can produce food, can cheapen the cost of the price of such food, and facilitate access for those who need to feed themselves daily with diverse and, above all, healthy food, without the use of poisons, which is the practice implemented by agribusiness. This is a concrete way of expressing to society that the countryside has other forms of resistance that go beyond the logic of agribusiness.

4) Brazil is one of the countries with the highest land concentration indexes in the world and the inequality of the countryside has only worsened since the 2016 coup. Today, what are the most urgent challenges posed by the situation in the struggle for land in the country?

Since 2016, our country has undergone profound and drastic transformations caused by this reformulation of the ruling class, which imposed the impeachment of President Dilma and resumed very strongly a neoliberal agenda, now in the figure of the current President Jair Bolsonaro. We realized that the State, which should assume a mediation role, took one side, the side of agribusiness. Bolsonaro stated that the peasants, the MST, the trade union movement, traditional communities such as indigenous and quilombolas, are enemies that represent backwardness. So one of our challenges is to keep ourselves alive and whole in the face of a government that openly fulfills the interests of agribusiness, of the latifundia, and has been carrying out a set of actions to deconstruct everything that we have been winning. We realize that there has been a total relaxation of the country’s environmental and land agenda, in order to favor land grabbing, deforestation and violence against rural people.
Image search Archive and MST Memory. Photo (left) Sebastião Salgado

We have seen the government’s refusal to implement public policies aimed at peasants and the traditional peoples of the country. Even in the context of the pandemic, in which we presented an emergency plan that was PL Assis de Carvalho to boost food production in family farming, this government simply refused to approve and sanction the project. The proposed law was going to contribute decisively to the situation of vulnerability of people who live in the cities, but the denial of this public policy for the development of the countryside, based on Agrarian Reform and the recognition of traditional territories, amplified the challenges.

5) 25 years later, what has changed in the process of convicting those responsible for the murder of the 21 workers in Eldorado dos Carajás (PA)?

The trials that took place after the Eldorado do Carajás Massacre in this legal and political struggle lasted exactly ten years. Between trials, cancellation of sentences and resumption of new trials, there are almost 20 thousand pages of the trial that set a record in the history of the Brazilian Judiciary for the number of people who came to the dock. So 155 military police officers were involved in that massacre.

The fact is that the trials have suffered what we call a deliberate construction of impunity. It was not ONE moment, there were several moments that contributed to the establishment of impunity and the acquittal of all the executors and principals of the Eldorado do Carajás Massacre, such as the deconstruction of the massacre scenario; the removal of the bodies by the police themselves, who hours earlier had killed the men and women workers; the attempt to remove the responsibility of the governor, the secretary of Public Security, who were the leaders of this disastrous action on April 17, among others. This political alliance with the Judiciary removed the [Governor of Pará] Almir Gabriel and the Secretary of Public Security, Paulo Sérgio Cabral, from the proceedings, and the trial also acquitted the 143 police officers involved. There was also acquittal on the part of the media, when absolving the two commanders of the operation, Colonel Mário Colares Pantoja and Major José Maria Oliveira.

It was only in a second trial that the two commanders were convicted, the colonel and the major were sentenced to the maximum sentence, not just for having coordinated the action, but for the decision to absolve the military police officers and not to include the then governor Gabriel in the trial, the Secretary of Public Security. After the conviction, both the colonel and the major had the right to appeal the decision in freedom. They spent years in this process, until, in 2004, the Superior Court’s decision was to maintain their conviction and acquit the police. They had to go to jail, stayed for a short time, appealed again and got a decision to stay at home under house arrest.

The proceedings are currently open under these conditions. Last year, due to Covid-19, Colonel Mário Colares Pantoja died, and in previous years, both the Secretary of Public Security and former Governor Almir Gabriel also died.

Our peasants say, “there was divine justice, but there was no justice in the land”, because there was no justice among men, because those who ordered and those who carried out the crime had the right to live longer outside the jail than in it.

We ended up reporting to the international organizations this behavior of the Judiciary to benefit those who order and who murder rural workers. We hope that these injustices, on other bases, in the hands of international organizations, can help us gain this longed-for justice, in memory of the landless workers.

Edited by Solange Engelmann