Alagamar: Nonviolent Land Struggle in Brazil

by Hildegard Goss-Mayr

Brazilian farmers’ nonviolent land protest; courtesy

Editor’s Preface: The following, previously unpublished essay was presented to the Alternative Defense Commission, as part of the War Resisters’ International Peace Education Project, c. 1987. It continues our series of discoveries from the WRI archive.  Please see the notes at the end for archival reference, as well as acknowledgment and biographical information about the author. JG

In most Latin American countries military or civilian dictatorships, on the basis of the doctrine of national security, continue to uphold an economic system of exploitation that favors a small group of privileged individuals (as well as national and multinational corporations in the First World) and condemns the vast majority of the people to a life of dependence, misery, and political and social marginalization. But the masses of the poor in Latin America have increasingly become aware of their human rights and dignity, and in many parts of the continent, despite violent and brutal repression, they have begun to organize and struggle for change. Popular civic movements are springing up and pressing for justice.

Within this process, the Christian Churches carry considerable responsibility. Based on decisions taken by the Latin American Bishop’s Conference in 1968 in Medellin and confirmed in 1979 in Puebla, the Catholic Church considers its mission is to take a firm stand on the side of the poor. There are great differences as to the degree of commitment among Christians and Church leadership. The current within the Church favoring the status quo and a modus vivendi with the established forces has grown in strength during the past few years. Yet Christians in many Latin American countries, including peasants, workers, pastoral workers, priests, bishops, young people, women and men, have committed themselves to the struggle for basic justice and human rights, even to the point of giving their lives. The Latin American Church has become a Church of martyrs.

While many people understand that fidelity to the gospel requires identifying with the poor and exploited, certainly not all of them have come to see that the liberating force of the gospel (what Dom Helder Camara has called the “radically new message” capable of breaking through the spiral of domination of man over man) is the power of nonviolence. These people base their commitment, in the last resort, on the old doctrine, still kept alive in our Churches, of the “just war”, of “just revolutionary and insurrectional violence” with all its consequences of destruction of lives, values, and human relationships.

However, there also exists a deep current among the poor in the Christian grassroots communities (communidades de base) and among the indigenous populations, strengthened and nourished by certain Church leaders, which in their liberation struggles want to remain radically faithful to the gospel and resist the oppressors’ provocation to violence. They refuse hatred and counter-violence in the process of struggling for a truly fraternal and just society.

This current is particularly important in Brazil.  There, eighteen years ago, some 900 workers at the Perus cement factory, with the assistance of the lawyer Mario Carvalho de Jesus, initiated a strike to obtain basic workers rights.  This was the first outspokenly nonviolent campaign in Brazil. It lasted seven years and set precedents on many fronts: law and jurisdiction, solidarity among the working class, and challenges to the Church, intellectuals, and the middle class. The cost of the strike was torture, imprisonment, and even the life of one participant who died of hunger.

But the subsequent success of Perus was not primarily the payout awarded the workers when they won their strike, but the first deep awareness that the people, the poor and exploited who unite in a commitment to justice, possess the power of a nonviolence capable of overcoming injustice.

Awareness of the nonviolent liberating force of the gospel also sprang up among a handful of Church leaders, especially Bishops Dom Helder Camara, Jose Maria Pires, Dom Fragoso, and Cardinals Arns and Lorscheider. They began to bring it to life in their pastoral work. They also carried it with strong faith into the Brazilian Catholic Bishops Conference, trying gradually to unite and transform it into an instrument of nonviolent liberation on the side of the poor during the height of the military dictatorship. Although not all the bishops subscribed to this nonviolence commitment, nevertheless, during the hardest time of repression in the 1970s, the Brazilian Church was a strong pillar on the side of the poor and defenseless. It took stands for the protection of political prisoners, the indigenous, and the landless, for general amnesty, for basic democratic rights and for a new and just economic order. It agreed to pay the price for its commitment by refusing all former privileges and positions of power.

At the same time, this work for liberation, using the power of the gospel, grew and was made concrete in many of the thousands of Christian grassroots communities that sprang up throughout Brazil. As of this writing (1987), due to a certain political and democratic opening, civic, popular movements are strengthening. Grassroots communities are the yeast in this struggle. Thus the big metal workers’ strikes of the past year, the movement for amnesty for political prisoners, and against the high cost of living, among other actions, have been very largely nonviolent; they are characterized by an attitude of wisdom and constraint, refusing to be provoked to counter-violence.

At present the battle for land is one of the hardest and most tragic problems of Brazil. Millions of rural workers and peasants have been chased from the land they tilled and on which they and their families lived. Big national and international corporations are moving in. Armed private police forces threaten the poor or indigenous people and drive them away by force. Their illegal actions go unpunished, protected by those in power and unjust agrarian reform laws. While in some areas, specifically in the Amazonian basin, the poor are repeatedly resorting to counter-violence (with the poor means at their disposal) in order to defend their life and rights, in the northeast of Brazil, the peasants are becoming more and more united in a nonviolent liberating struggle for the land.  Alagamar is one example.

Due to the need to produce sugar for alcohol to be added to gasoline (part of Brazil’s program in response to increasing oil prices), the value of land in the area of Alagamar has increased tremendously. Big companies wanting to profit from the sugar cane boom have tried to take hold of the land and throw the peasants off it.

Christian grassroots communities are strongly developed in the area. For these Christians, the struggle for justice is inseparably linked to their faith. Thus, when a new proprietor took over and wanted them to submit to his orders, the peasants of Alagamar immediately consulted a lawyer at the Center for the Defense of Human Rights in their diocese, to find out about their legal standing. The answer was clear: according to the law, the land they tilled was theirs. Measures by the owners to expel them would be unlawful.  They decided to resist.

This decision was made in a large mud hut the peasants had built to serve as their chapel and community meeting place. The very fact that they met, prayed, and discussed their problems the owners saw as dangerously subversive. One day when the men had gone to the market, the owners’ private police came and destroyed the chapel. It was a warning: do not dare to resist!

The news of the destruction spread quickly. The following Sunday the priest of the area and Archbishop Jose Maria Pires celebrated the Eucharist in the destroyed chapel, with several hundred peasants attending. The national press services picked up the story and step by step solidarity and unity began to spread, drawing in small communities and more and more peasants, the Church, and eventually the towns.

The peasants tried to negotiate with the owners but they were unsuccessful, and decided to take their case to court. They also made a concerted effort to win the agricultural unions and the regional land reform authorities to their side. A long struggle lay ahead. As they continued their efforts, repression stiffened.  They were spied upon, slandered, cheated and interrogated by the police. Some of them were arrested and taken to a jail in the nearest town. But the peasants decided they were all equally responsible. Hundreds marched to the court demanding to join those who had been arrested. Finally the judge was obliged to send them all home, including the prisoners.

In order to sustain their struggle financially, they began to plant collective fields of manioca, the plant basis for tapioca, and a lucrative crop in the U.S. market. One day, as some 80 of them were working on one of these fields, the owners sent armed men to tear up the plants and destroy the harvest.

This was a tremendous challenge. The 80 peasants got together and discussed what to do, reminding themselves of the principles Dom Jose Maria had elaborated them: “First, never kill; second, never hurt; third, remain united.” They decided to resist the provocation to counter-violence. Silently they watched the men tearing up 3,000 plants!

The next day they went into the field and planted them anew. The Archbishop came to the spot, picked up some of the uprooted plants, and took them to town to place on the cathedral altar. To the whole diocese he appealed: “These peasants are truly living the nonviolent liberating power of the gospel. Let us follow their example and sustain their just combat!”

People’s minds began to change. The question arose: Who is “subversive” – the peasants who, with peaceful means, try to apply the laws of the country in order that justice may be achieved for all, or the companies that steal from the poor their small and last resources?

Solidarity grew, pressure increased. On the occasion of the visit of the President of the Republic to Joao Pessoa, 2,500 hectares of land (out of 10,000 in dispute) were given back to the people. Today the community is stronger and more united than ever and the popular struggle of Alagamar continues.

From it the people have developed five principles:

  • Never kill;
  • Never wound;
  • Always be well-informed of the facts;
  • Always be united;
  • Disobey the orders which will destroy us.

Reference: IISG/WRI Archive Box 720: Folder 2. We are grateful to WRI/London and their director Christine Schweitzer for their cooperation in our WRI project.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Hildegard Goss-Mayr (b. 22 January 1930) is an Austrian nonviolent activist and Christian theologian. She is honorary president of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and is a major witness of nonviolence throughout the world. In 1962, she started promoting the building of a nonviolent movement in Latin America, where she collaborated with Dom Helder Camara and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel. She played an important role with her husband Jean Goss in the preparation of the Revolution in the Philippines in 1986. She has organized numerous nonviolence groups in Latin America, Asia and Africa, and was proposed for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi