In the Lawless Amazon Outback, a Brave Priest Helps Peasants Fight for a Place on the Land

UPDATED 12/15/1986 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/15/1986 at 01:00 AM EST

By 7:30 the Amazonian skies are dark, and 400 men, women and children have piled into the peasant Antonio's woodshed in the forest-cleared settlement of Sítio Nôvo—"New Place." Truck headlights light up the night, signaling the arrival of boisterous groups of campesinos. Families stumble inside and collapse in the dirt, exhausted after trudging miles down muddy roads by moonlight. The aromas of fresh-cut lumber, harsh cigarettes and cafezinho, a sweetened, thick, black coffee, mingle in the torpid air.

In the past two years more than 60 people have been killed in this isolated region between the Araguaia and Tocantins rivers in northern Brazil, most of them gunned down in fighting between posseiros—pioneering homesteaders lured here by dreams of cheap land—and fazendeiros, wealthy farmers, ranchers and speculators who own or claim most of the territory.

This evening many posseiros have come together to witness their plight on film: It is the opening night of The Church of the Oppressed—a 75-minute documentary shot here last year and recently seen on French television. In an honored place in the front row sits Maria Onreda Gosta Lima, a plump, gray-haired matron whose husband, a peasant leader, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by hired thugs five years ago. Blacks, blond Germanics and mestizos sit on piles of logs, their weathered faces reflecting both the diversity and poverty of this vast land of 143 million.

Suddenly everyone is silent—eyes riveted on a young man wearing jeans, leather sandals and a T-shirt bearing the red-lettered slogan, in Portuguese, LAND OF GOD, LAND OF THE PEOPLE. "This is the story of the poor Brazilian's suffering," says Ricardo Rezende, 34, a Catholic priest who has championed land reform and the rights of the posseiros in this region for eight years. "It is the story of their victimization at the hands of the fazendeiros, the police, the armed forces. A tale of assassinations, tortures, assaults, evictions..."

Two feeble light bulbs are extinguished and images flicker on the bed-sheet screen: peasants clearing forests, planting corn, singing folk songs, scuffling with police—each close-up provoking gleeful shrieks of recognition from the audience. There is a jail-house interview with a hired gun alleged to have murdered more than 40 squatters. Then scenes of the bloody aftermath of a skirmish between Brazilian troops and posseiros. The heat, the sweaty crowd and the wretched sound quality lend the event the aura of a summer-camp movie night, with an extra dimension of illicitness—complicity in a daring enterprise.

"So far, not a single Brazilian TV station has aired this documentary," says Rezende. "The TV networks are controlled by the fazendeiros. But we plan to get the film transferred from 16mm to videocassette and send copies of it all over Brazil."

Rezende smiles. Projects like this captivate him, provide new outlets for his enormous energy and offer one more means of rallying and politicizing the posseiros who make up most of his flock. Weddings, masses, communions, confessions—all these obligations are fine and necessary, Rezende believes. But the priest is the embodiment of a new kind of faith: a religious activism that mixes the rituals of Roman Catholicism with a belief in the efficacy of politics. Like many other priests in Central and South America, Rezende is a proponent of the theology of liberation, a creed that borrows liberally from Marxism, calling for nothing less than the destruction of the grim social order that binds much of Latin America.

Disparaging the Vatican as "lost in luxury," the priest admires Sandinista leaders Tomás Borge and Daniel Ortega, and believes that violence may be justified in defense of one's land. His work organizing the posseiros has made him an eyewitness to terror that, he says, "is getting more organized, more brazen and more sadistic."

And frighteningly close to home. Four people of the 60 who attended his 1980 ordination in the town of Conceição do Araguaia have since been murdered. Most victims of the terror have been lawyers and peasant leaders, but the clergy has been targeted too. In April 1985 a nun in the nearby city of Marabá was shot to death at a bus stop. Last May 10 Father Josimo Moraes Tavares, Rezende's close friend, was gunned down in the town of Imperatriz only days before he was to take over Rezende's job as director of the region's Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), an advocacy group for posseiros. "He had survived an assassination attempt three weeks earlier—five bullets fired into his van as he drove down the street," says Rezende. "In a speech he made on May 1 he told a group of priests, 'I know I'm going to die.' I loved him like a brother."

Rezende, too, knows he has put his life on the line. On this jungle frontier where the law is enforced only selectively, killers are easy to find and inexpensive to hire—and the priest has countless enemies. He will no longer walk the streets alone at night, yet he has become fatalistic about his survival. "I could be killed in one of two ways, either a planned assassination or an impulsive killing on the street. If I spent every day wondering if I'm going to die, I wouldn't be able to go on. You have to learn to live with the fear."

Conceição do Araguaia is a ramshackle place on the west bank of the mile-wide, murky Araguaia River. Touching down by night in a 42-seat Fokker, a visitor squeezes into the back seat of an ancient taxi and hurtles down a red-clay track for 10 miles through the rain forest before arriving in the center of this frontier settlement of 35,000 people. The electricity has failed, and before him stands a cluster of one-story concrete hovels lit by the pale glow of candles. Horsecarts rattle down the unpaved streets, while men in sombreros sit under palm trees, eating fried chicken and swigging bottles of tepid Antarctica beer.

In a two-room office on a square where horses graze and shirtless children kick a deflated soccer ball, the priests and lay workers of the Pastoral Land Commission carry on their quixotic mission. Wall posters proclaim "Nicaragua Must Survive" and herald the late Father Josimo as "A Martyr to Land Reform and Justice."

Rezende, meanwhile, is absorbed by a confrontation at Gaúcha, a 10,000-acre ranch. Sixty poor families occupied 25 percent of the land there last April, slashing and burning the forest and planting corn, manioc and bananas. Then in September the ranch's new owners, a cattleman and his two sons, began trying to kick out the squatters. "One of the sons showed up last week with a lawyer and three gunmen and told the posseiros to get off," says Rezende. "So far the peasants aren't budging, and the rancher has promised to come back with the police."

Soon Rezende is on the telephone with officials in the Ministry of Justice in Brasilia, badgering an official for assistance. The priest, however, doesn't count on the government for sympathy. Although President José Sarney pledged last year to disappropriate 100 million acres from Brazil's ranchers by 1990 and redistribute the property among the country's eight million landless families, fewer than 10,000 families have received land so far. "The new government has talked a lot about land reform," says Rezende, "but it's done almost nothing."

Still the priest has some recourse. If a squatter clears a plot and lives and works on it for a year and a day, eviction becomes legally difficult. So Rezende and his comrades have been playing a cat-and-mouse game, using a network of lawyers, judges and a handful of federal ministers to keep posseiros on the land for those 366 days. Rezende defends the right of posseiros to seize territory the fazendeiros don't cultivate. "It may be illegal," he says, "but from the point of view of justice, every man is entitled to the land he needs to survive."

That idea doesn't sit well with Tulio Lemos de Andrade, one of the owners of Gaúcha, who has arrived in town to "deal with the invaders," he says. Sitting on the porch of the Taruma Tropical Hotel, a low-slung, riverfront building that serves as a gathering place for absentee landlords during their visits to town, Lemos vents his anger while sipping a beer. "These priests are Communists," says the stocky, 28-year-old millionaire. "My father and I first came here in 1975, when the region was nothing but forest, flies, malaria, virtually no roads. We built our ranch with hard work and courage. We made a lot of money, purchased another ranch last summer. Now they want to take it from us. I can't accept giving what I made with my own hands, what I built, to others."

Last spring Lemos joined the União Democratica Ruralista(UDR), a right-wing group of 16,000 fazendeiros. The organization was set up to provide legal support for landowners, but Rezende claims the UDR ordered the murder of Father Josimo. Lemos denies it but makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the clerics. "Rezende, Josimo—they're not real priests," he says. "The only thing the church is doing now is talking people into invading property. It's not the right way to get things done.

"I'm from the new generation; I believe in peace and love," the rancher continues. "I don't like violence. But if we can't get these posseiros removed the legal way, we'll have to use force."

It is evening now in Conceição do Araguaia. The children swarm around Rezende's Volkswagen Beetle as he drives slowly down a red-mud side street, and nuns, lawyers and posseiros greet him warmly as he passes their homes.

Each January, when the rains swell the river and make the roads impassable, Rezende joins friends in Rio de Janeiro for a week, taking in the latest movies and jazz. Then he visits his parents and six brothers and sisters in the southern city of Juiz de Fora. "But after a month I'm ready to come back," says Rezende. "I would never want to live anywhere else."

"Ricardo is extremely articulate, intelligent and totally dedicated," says Patricio Jose Hanrahan, the Irish-born bishop of Conceição. "And he's doing his work at considerable risk, not because he's a Marxist, but because he's trying humbly to imitate, as we all are, in a weak and human way, the voice of God."

Last year Rezende visited the Vatican for the first time. The opulence he witnessed left him with a deepened sense of estrangement from the European church. "I found it extremely beautiful, and spiritually very sad," he says. "I don't think it's the kind of church that Christ wanted. I think you have to find Jesus in the streets, in the towns, in the dust."

Now, at dusk, Rezende stops beside a ragtag group of men, women and children huddled by the side of the road, the women breast-feeding their naked babies, their husbands clutching their meager possessions in plastic bags, staring anxiously at the glowering skies. They have come from the Atlantic Coast state of Bahia, one of the men tells Rezende, where until two weeks ago they were crop pickers for a landowner. Then the property was sold, the new fazendeiro let them go, and they hitched a 1,000-mile ride to Conceição. Land was plentiful in these parts, they had heard. "But we know nobody here," says the man, "and we have nowhere to go."

Rezende speeds off and within five minutes has made arrangements for a nearby Catholic school to shelter the group for the night. "A truck will be here shortly to pick you up," he tells them. Then, back in his car, the priest heads toward his home three blocks from the river, passing pool halls, an occasional horsecart, groups of teenagers playing futbol in the streets. "It's very hard for the church of the First World to understand our situation," says Rezende. "In the United States and Western Europe, they are debating such issues as celibacy and female priests. But here, in the Third World, we are more concerned with people dying."

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