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Place: Southern Pará
Time: 1990-1996
Short description of the case
Pará is a state in the Amazon region of northern Brazil. The region was sparsely settled and large
tracks of land were covered by pristine tropical forest in the 1990s, thus making land per se not
scarce. However, large parts of Pará were still very remote and hardly accessible. Land around
major roads and settlements was thus a scarce and valuable resource. Such land was highly
concentrated in the hands of few influential persons and often used for cattle ranching. A large
number of landless and extremely poor persons lived in the region. Many of them had migrated
to Pará during various boom and bust cycles since the 19th century (e.g. rubber, Brazil nut,
highway/infrastructure construction, and more recently mining). Pará’s population had more
than doubled between 1960 and 1990, mainly due to immigration from other regions of Brazil.
The number of cattle in the region had sharply increased as well. Economic opportunities for
poor people were extremely limited in the 1990s because the mining and infrastructure sectors
were shrinking, while cattle ranching provided few jobs. At latest since the 1960s, the landless
poor reacted to their desperate situation and increasing (often illegal and/or violent) land
appropriations by large landowners with the direct occupation of idle land belonging to large
landholders. After the democratization in 1985 and the appearance of the Landless Peasant
Movement (MST) in Pará in 1989, land conflicts intensified in southern Pará. The number of
land invasions sharply increased. Large landowners and local authorities often resisted it by hiring
gunmen or drawing on police forces to harass land activists/squatters and expel them from the
occupied land.
Violence: 1
The use of direct physical violence in land conflicts decreased between the mid-1980s and the
mid-1990s. Nevertheless violence was still systematically employed by large land owners
(sometimes in collusion with local authorities) against land reform activists and squatters
occupying their properties. In 1996 alone, 33 land conflict-related murders were officially
registered in the state of Pará (around two thirds of the victims were landless farmers).
External resource appropriation: 1
The gini coefficient for land distribution in Pará was already very high in 1967 (0.871) and
increased to 0.889 in 1998. Effectively, millions of poor rural dwellers had no or insufficient
access to land. Large landowners used their land primarily for cattle ranching, but also for logging
and speculative purposes, all of which was directed towards external markets. There were several
large hydro-power, mining and (weakly enforced) conservation areas in place.
Power differences: 1
Large landowners were significantly more powerful than landless groups in terms of hard and
relational power. The latter were well organized through various organizations (such as the MST,
rural unions or church-based organizations) and enjoyed some support from the National
Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA). Nevertheless the large landowners
were also well organized in the Ruralist Democratic Union (UDR), received support from the
local state administrations and police forces, had much more financial resources at their disposal,
and were well connected or identical with local, regional and even national political elites.
Recent political change: 1
The democratization of Brazil in 1985 improved conditions for civil society organizations
representing poor and landless groups, such as the MST. Military support for the evictions of
squatters was reduced as well. The new constitution of 1988 strengthened formal property rights,
including the land titles of large landholders. But it also confirmed the 1985 agrarian reform law,