Landless peasants' struggle for land is a key element among Brazil’s grass-roots movements and the state of Pará is at the center of the dispute. In 1996, the State Government of Pará and the Military Police were responsible for the killing nineteen landless peasants and hurting another seventy during an eviction attempt at a farm in the municipality of El Dorado dos Carajás. This infamous episode became known as the Carajás’ massacre. Since then, the struggle for land escalated and the rhythm of invasions and the establishment of occupation settlements grew steadily in the area.
Since 2009, several occupations happened in lands acquired by Daniel Dantas, a Brazilian banker who is one of the biggest landowners in the country. In 2004, Dantas was caught amidst a corruption and money laundering scandal that resulted in his detention and the blocking of twenty of his properties in Pará, managed by the company Agropecuária Santa Bárbara(AgroSB). The occupiers, landless peasants belonging to the Landless Workers' Movement (MST), argued those lands had been bought with stolen money, used for speculation, money laundering and subjected to illegal deforestation. This is the land of the "grileiros" - landgrabbers with falsified title deeds.
On the one hand, the peasants demanded the creation of settlements for peasant families (approximately 700) in different farms belonging to AgroSB as part of the MST’s struggle for land reform in Brazil. Since then, the movement has been working alongside the Catholic organisation Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT) in agro-ecological projects focusing on the families subsistence and commercialisation of staple foods. On the other hand, AgroSB claimed the invasions have destroyed job positions, schools maintained by the company and livestock. Ago SB also claimed and have accused members of MST to enter into the farm and kill animals of their cattle.
In April 2009, private security guards hired by AgroSB threatened MST peasants in the Espírito Santo cattle ranch while these were collecting firewood and wooden poles in the forest. The ranch had been partially occupied by 120 families in February. One of the peasants was detained by the guards and forced to identify MST leaders. The guards threatened to kill all the settlement leaders. The families tried to rescue the detainee in AgroSB’s headquarters, sparking a shoot-out with the guards that resulted in seven peasants and one guard wounded. The shooting was filmed by journalists belonging to a subsidiary of the Globo network, which launched a national smear campaign against the MST.
This episode was followed by an escalation of violence in Pará. Only a few months later, three MST members were shot by security guards in a AgroSB farm in the nearby municipality of El Dorado dos Carajás (the same place that had witnessed the massacre thirteen years before). AgroSB eventually started negotiations with Brazil’s National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) to sell two of the companies properties. The delay in the process leads AgroSB to pursue evictions through courts.
A 2017 decision by Pará’s judicial court gave the peasants in the twenty properties occupied since 2009 two days to abandon the settlements. The MST and the CPT questioned the decision and argued that the acquisition process was in its final stage and that AgroSB wasn’t not producing anything on those properties. They also found that some of those lands – namely in the Cedroranch – actually belonged to the Federal Government instead of AgroSB. In Pará, there are many land irregularities and the disputes over ownership are often ‘solved’ with firearms. The finding allowed nearby families living in the Helenira Resende settlement to move to the (now) legally disputed lands.
In early 2018, the peasants that had moved from the Helenira Resendecamp in the Cedroranch accused AgroSB of using a plane to spread toxic agrochemicals over the settlement. The local branch of the Central dos Trabalhadores e Trabalhadoras do Brasil (CPT-PA) – Brazil’s biggest workers union – reported health problems among the peasants. As a response, some people decided to reoccupy the old settlement.