"The first five months of 2017 have been the most violent this century," says Cândido Neto da Cunha, a specialist in agrarian affairs at the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) in Santarém, Brazil. According to the Catholic Church's Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), which has been compiling statistics on rural violence since 1985, 36 people have already been assassinated in rural conflicts this year.
The latest violence came on May 24th, when nine men and a woman were killed in what seems to have been a deliberate massacre on the Santa Lúcia estate in the rural district of Pau D'Arco located 535 miles south of Belém, the capital of the state of Pará.
For many years, landless families had lobbied for the creation of a land reform settlement on this estate, saying that the man claiming to own the land, now deceased, was a land thief. His widow agreed to hand over the property, but had second thoughts when INCRA officials, who cannot pay above the market price, refused to pay her what she asked.
In the meantime, landless families had occupied the area and a security guard, working for the ranch, was killed on April 30th. A posse of military and civil police went in to evict the families and to investigate the death. The families say the police arrived shooting. This version is disputed by the police, who claim that the peasant families shot at them first. However, no police officer was killed or wounded.
As Cunha pointed out, this is only the latest in a series of violent land conflicts this year. On April 19th, 10 peasants, including children, were tortured and then murdered in the rural district of Colniza in the northwest of Mato Grosso. On April 30th a group of Gamela Indians were attacked by a large group of armed men sent in by farmers. Over two dozen Indians were injured, with four hospitalized in critical condition. Two had their hands lopped off and their legs cut at the joints.
On May 25th, 19 organizations, including the CPT and the landless movements, published a letter in which they railed against the systematic "impunity of human rights violations in the countryside." They went on: "The State is not only complicit and absent … but also an active agent in encouraging the violence, not only through the policies and programs carried out by the Executive, but also by the action of the Legislative which is destroying rights won by the workers."
Wave of Violence Spurred by Bancada Militancy
Cunha makes a similar point, linking the spike in violence to the government's rapid dismantling of environmental laws, agrarian reforms, and indigenous protections, a process that gained greater momentum, he says, after Osmar Serraglio, a well-known member of the bancada ruralista agribusiness lobby in Congress, was appointed justice minister in February.
"Violence is one of the ways in which agribusiness and land thieves get rid of 'obstacles' to their never-ending expansion," Cunha says.
This past weekend, Serraglio was suddenly sacked by Temer without explanation, though possibly because of the justice minister's alleged involvement in the Weak Meat (Carne Fraca) scandal. He had received large donations from JBS, the world's largest meat processor, a company at the heart of the scandal, which threatens to bring down Temer's government.
However, his, or even Temer's, removal seems unlikely to threaten the power of the bancada. Even if the president falls, a scenario that seems increasingly likely, the agribusiness lobby will remain strong—or grow even stronger. That's because the bancada holds a firm grip on Congress, which will likely have a big say in selecting Temer's successor, who will most likely be chosen in indirect elections in Congress.
The only way that the agribusiness lobby's power might be challenged is if Congress passes a constitutional amendment that mandates immediate direct elections for president—a solution to the crisis many social movements are demanding, but which, as yet, seems unlikely to happen.
Agribusiness Attacks on Indigenous Rights
For the moment, the bancada (the members of which have again refused to grant Mongabay an interview), is pressing ahead with a program that heavily favors agribusiness and is extraordinarily hostile to Indians, the environment, and social movements.
On May 30th a parliamentary commission of enquiry into FUNAI, the federal agency responsible for Indian affairs, and INCRA approved the final version of its report. The Commission, whose members came mainly from the bancada, called for 67 people to be indicted for allegedly illegal activities in support of the indigenous movement. The list included a former justice minister (José Eduardo Cardozo), anthropologists, FUNAI employees, INCRA employees, and 30 Indians.
The list of names will be handed to the public ministry and other authorities for possible prosecution. Though no other action has yet been taken against those named in the list, the report has created a climate of trepidation, with many of those named by the parliamentary commission fearful of possible arrest and prosecution.
The report's rapporteur, Nilson Leitão, who had initially called for the closing down of FUNAI, changed his position, in the face of widespread criticism, with the report proposing, instead, the "restructuring" of FUNAI.
Bancada Attacks on the Environment
Also on May 17th, in the midst of a rapidly escalating political crisis, the Senate found time to approve two provisional measures (MP756 and MP758) forwarded by the Temer administration to dismember the National Park of Jamanxim and the National Forest of Jamanxim—two conservation units running beside the BR-163 highway in the Amazon.
The conserved lands were created as a barrier to prevent the agricultural frontier from penetrating deeper into the rainforest, and the units also act as a critical environmental corridor connecting the Xingu and Tapajós river basins. In recent years the federally protected Jamanxim preserves have come under increasing pressure due to an invasion by land thieves, with 68 percent of illegal forest felling in federal conservation units occurring within these protected areas.
During the commission stage, the bancada tried to increase the areas to be removed from protection to 1.2 million hectares (4,633 square miles), but the outcry from environmental organizations and some parliamentarians was so loud that the lobby backed down. Even so, the MPs will remove protection from 598,000 hectares (2,309 square miles), legitimatizing the illegal seizure of federal lands by land grabbers who stand to make a hefty profit when they sell the former federal property to cattle ranchers and other developers.
In the final MP drafts approved by the Senate, 486,000 hectares (37 percent) of the National Forest of Jamanxim and 101,000 hectares (12 percent) of the National Park of Jamanxim will be converted to Areas of Environmental Protection, a weaker kind of environmental protection in which private ownership, mining, and cattle ranching are permitted.
All protection will be removed from another, relatively small, area to clear the way for the building of the Ferrogrão Railway, which will link the north of Mato Grosso state to the Tapajós River, providing an important export corridor for soy and corn. The Temer government prioritized and fast-tracked the approval of the Ferrogrão grain railway at the end of last year, again, doing the bidding of the bancada which also pressed at the time, in an as yet aborted attempt to build industrial waterways to transport agribusiness commodities across the Amazon.
MPs are federal administrative acts, a mechanism originally only intended to be used in emergencies. Critics note that it is hard to seriously argue that providing land thieves with free federal land is an "emergency." It is for this reason that Maurício Guetta, the lawyer for the non-governmental organization Socioenvironmental Institute, called the measure "absolutely unconstitutional."
However, it was not Temer, but impeached president Dilma Rousseff, from the Workers Party, who first used the MP policy instrument irresponsibly, a move much questioned at the time, when she reduced the size of conservation units to make way for huge hydroelectric dams along the Tapajós River.
Temer now has until the end of June to veto the two measures. If he does nothing, they will go into effect. Environment minister José Sarney Filho called on Temer to use his veto, saying that the measures "represent a reversal in the efforts of the Brazilian government to fulfill the commitments that it undertook in the Paris Agreement to combat global warming."
The bancada is using still other parliamentary mechanisms to push its agenda through. It was revealed this week by the Estado de S. Paulo newspaper that the bancada had included a "jabuti" (red-footed tortoise) into an MP. Jabuti is the nickname for an amendment opportunistically inserted into legislation on a very different issue to get it quickly approved.
In this case, the jabuti was inserted into MP 752/15, a measure dealing with private concessions in the rail and airport sectors that has already been approved. The intention of the jabuti is to exempt banks from environmental crimes unless it can be proved that they directly caused the damage. If it is approved, IBAMA will, for instance, be unable to collect the $14.5 million fine it imposed on Santander bank for financing in 2015 the planting of soy and corn in an environmentally protected area in the state of Mato Grosso where such activity is banned. IBAMA is mobilizing in an 11th hour attempt to persuade Temer to veto the jabuti.
Legitimizing Land Theft
On May 24th, the day that social movements were carrying out a large anti-Temer demonstration in Brasilia, the Chamber of Deputies rushed through another provisional measure—MP 759. This measure will profoundly alter the real estate situation in Brazil, giving ownership rights to hundreds of thousands of people who have been illegally occupying land. Romero Jucá, the rapporteur of the measure, said it would be a great boost to the economy, allowing the owners of thousands of small stores to legalize their businesses.
While some government action was clearly required on this issue, Edmilson Rodrigues, a left-wing federal deputy, was highly critical of the way in which such an important change was being rushed through as a provisional measure "without public consultation with the affected populations, without hearing social movements." He said that, in practice, the government was handing over "nothing less than 88 million hectares (340,000 square miles) to the pernicious real estate market." He added: "It will put an end to agrarian reform and legitimize land thieving."
Yet another monumental change is in the pipeline.
A bill to make it far easier to obtain an environmental license for an economic project, which had already been strongly criticized by environmentalists, underwent a further change when bancada member Mauro Pereira, the rapporteur for the bill, presented a new draft to the Chamber's Finances and Tax Commission at the end of April.
Under the new version, almost everything—from mining in conservation units, to paving roads in Amazonia, and the extension of agribusiness to new areas—will no longer require a license. Mega-projects, like the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, which will still have to be licensed, will only have to fulfill a series of environmental conditions in order to obtain one.
With a few notable exceptions, such as the BBC's Brazil service, the media in Brazil and abroad is ignoring this hugely important change. With a new scandal erupting almost every day and with 90 politicians, including Temer, accused of corruption, the media is transfixed only on the latest twist in the political drama. This provides a convenient smokescreen behind which the bancada can push ahead at full steam.
Voting on the environmental licensing bill in the Commission (five of whose members are on Odebrecht's list of politicians it bribed) had been scheduled for May 3rd, but it was withdrawn at the last moment thanks to heavy pressure from the Environmental Ministry and the Federal Public Ministry, an independent branch of government. But another date could be set to move the measure forward at any moment.
Too Much, Too Fast
Environmentalists and agrarian reform specialists question whether Temer's provisional government, with just 7 percent popular support, should be carrying out such sweeping and significant structural reforms, drastic changes that will clearly impact the environment, indigenous groups, and land ownership for years to come.
Cunha told Mongabay: "We are really worried. We are no longer in a situation in which rights are not being respected, as happened under Dilma. What we are living through today is the reversal of rights and social victories. The little that we have achieved is being overturned."
This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Mongabay.com. Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.