The crime, the landless and the media

Today the president of Brazil Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, spoke for the first time about a recent event that has created huge polemic in the national media. On 21st February, four security guards were killed during a conflict with the internationally known landless movement, or MST, in São Joaquim do Monte, in the state of Pernambuco. Two members of the movement were arrested.

There have been, of course, previous cases of security guards and policemen being killed on land conflicts, which are common when the MST occupies land to pressure the government ro speed up the land reform. Much more often, however, members of the movement end up hurt or killed. On my book Planted on the Earth (Plantados no Chão), I gathered more than 180 cases of such assassinations between 2003 and 2006 alone. Even more outrageous is the fact that only a handful of the perpetrators were convicted.

However, this time things seem much different. The MST claims the security guards were armed and wanted to kill one of their leaders. However, as Mr Lula pointed out today, the killing of four people on grounds of self defence is “unacceptable”. Lula also said that the assassins should be held accountable. We all hope so.

Lula spoke days after the government was criticized for financing activities connected to the MST. A minister of the Supreme Court, Gilmar Mendes, said that a sum of almost 50 million reais, about 20 million dollars, has been transferred to two entities connected to the movement since 2002. For him, the government acts illegally in doing so.

The declaration sparked an outcry in the media. Are taxpayers paying for crimes like this to be committed?, the media asked. The answer is yes: taxpayers’ money has been financing land conflicts for a long time. For some years now, a top investigative organization, Reporter Brasil, has exposed cases in which the National Development Bank (BNDES) financed farmers who used slave labour and were involved in the killing of social leaders, including in the Amazon.
But media coverage never looks at things this way.  Many vehicles still portray the MST as a criminal organization rather than a very important social movement. That’s why they are much more likely to be demonized than successful businessmen involved in agrobusiness. This time, as often happens in Brazil – a country still marked by a huge concentration of land an wealth in the hands of a few – the debate ended up in a kind of a “witch hunt”.

Now for one thing, the landless movement has plenty of legal activities such as two research institutes and 2.200 schools all over Brazil. They also educate, train and organize 1,5 million people who live in rural communities all over the country. In fact, some local landless entities provide the kind of public service that the governments are not capable of offering. But while condemning the federal financing, many simply forget this.

In any case, it is true that the story needs to be investigated, and the landless movement held accountable. An event like this is not only damaging to the movement, but to the still candent land reform issue. But mainly, it is a major blow for the biggest social movement in Latin America.