"The grasslands is the area targeted for the advance of monoculture", states Dom Tomás
At 88 years of age, the bishop emeritus of Goiás, Dom Tomas Balduíno, lives in the Dominican Monastery of St. Jude Thaddeus in Goiânia, but travels throughout the world at the invitation of groups who ask him to speak about the latifúndio, monoculture, and water.
Cofounder of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) and of the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), of which he was the president, he supports a more equal society, without such a thirst for consumption and comfort at any cost. Good humored, he maintains his critical posture during the nearly two-hour interview. Following are the main parts of the interview.
What has changed in the treatment of people who live in the countryside from the time of the dictatorship until now?
We overcame a state of repression, disappearances, killings. They weren’t fooling around in those days. But the coup was launched primarily to break the backs of the peasant organizations because they were thought to be the gateway to international communism. I don’t know if the generals did this on their own or if they were guided by the United States. They made this assumption because there were parties of the left organizing the workers. This is why the CPT was born: there was repression of rural workers and indigenous people. So the Church came on the scene. The MST was born at this time, under the umbrella of the churches tied to the Ecclesiastical Base Communities, and it grew with the slow and gradual opening. The same thing happened with the indigenous organizations, which grew a lot. Today there are many autonomous organizations. And that is what is great: the Church on the side of the poor. We did not debate with them, we supported them.
Today there are more than 300 conflicts involving indigenous people, rural workers, and afro-descendant communities. Is the land issue far from being resolved?
The indigenous peoples, afro-descendant communities, coconut workers, people living on the banks of rivers, and rubber tappers have a different relationship with the land and water. For this reason they are not taken into consideration by the politicians, since the government relates to the land from the point of view of agribusiness. The grasslands, selected for the advance of monoculture, was first used for the cultivation of soy and is being dominated by sugar-cane for ethanol and by eucalyptus for cellulose, among other plants. This is a big concern because despite being of great importance for the ecological balance of the country and of Latin America, it is a biomass that is devalued by capital, which treats it as an area for exploitation. Its plants function as reserves of water for our country. If the grasslands were to be razed by monoculture, there would be an imbalance.
What’s the reason for this interest in the grasslands?
Because the terrain is generally flat, with fragile, twisted, sparse vegetation that does not impede the work of the machines. Which is not the case in the forests, where it is more complicated to deforest in a short time to create endless fields of monoculture. The deforestation in the grasslands damages the groundwater system. The foliage, the top of the plants, has a corresponding root that functions like a sponge, holding water, feeding the groundwater and the plant during the drought. If you uproot it, the water circuit stops being vertical, in the direction of the groundwater and becomes horizontal, causing erosion and the silting of streams and rivers.
But are there alternatives that ensure greater production in a smaller planted area?
There are various alternatives to the destruction of the native vegetation that goes in an opposite direction from the so-called green revolution (the planting of large areas of eucalyptus). Apparently these large green areas are pretty, which are supposed to produce enough to feed the world, right? But this is a mistake. The green revolution was thought of to substitute for that which existed previously, where the tractor comes in that fixes the land, fertilizes it, puts in lime, seed, all in a mechanical heavy way. Despite the covering being green, in truth it is a green desert. This model destroys the environment, finishes off the springs, leads to drought. In the basin of the San Francisco River, where eucalyptus has been planted, 1500 small creeks that flowed to that river have dried up.
There are those who claim that monoculture such as eucalyptus planting only causes problems when it is not managed correctly.
There are a thousand justifications for the maintenance of this model that destroys the biomass in exchange for money and profit. But they are not looking for alternative technologies. In Goiás, Tocantins, Bahia, and Minas, we have organized extractavist groups who live on the grasslands without destroying it. They are not considered. What really matters to this government, as well as to the previous ones, is agribusiness that is larger than the small properties but does not end hunger, because its goal is not to distribute but to concentrate wealth. The fact is that 70% of the food consumed in our country comes from small producers.
And what about energy?
It’s the same thing with energy. They insist on the same model, whether it is the use of hydroelectric or nuclear power. They put aside other possibilities such as solar, which supplies energy to various cities in Germany. There the surplus energy goes back to the grid. It’s clear that this requires research, an opening to understanding and an ability to resist the pressures of the market. At times, the government follows a predatory line which is harmful to the indigenous peoples, for example, because they suffer heavy pressure from the national and international economic conglomerates. Why does the logic of overproduction have to prevail?
An indigenous person is related to mother earth in an emotional, harmonious, mystical way. The earth is not violently transformed, degraded, razed, destroyed in the name of production, of always having more. Unlike big business, the people of the semi-arid land are also aware of the worth and richness of the scrubland. For a long time, the proposal of Luiz Gonzaga’s verses prevailed, of leaving that place. Now they are discovering that the semi-arid region has water, a total of 37 billion cubic meters.
According to experts, this proves the error of transposing the San Francisco river, an extremely expensive investment to bring water to the Northeast. Because there is no lack of water there but rather a lack of government policies to distribute the water that is concentrated there. Once it is distributed it can nourish everything. With the transposition of the San Francisco river, 3 billion cubic meters are going to be carried to a region that has 37 billion. If 37 billion does not solve the problem, how is 3 billion going to resolve it?
Do the nuclear accidents in Japan put a brake on the construction of nuclear plants like those projected for the Northeast?
A timely development, isn’t it? Just at the moment when the world begins to rethink the nuclear model for the production of energy. Japan, for example, in the Cancun conference struggled to annul the Kyoto Treaty and not have to reduce its pollution emissions nor its profits, now has a model that is universally questioned. Its plants did not resist the earthquakes; they have leaks and they begin to threaten the population. Besides being in the Northeast, in the Central-west, the Southeast or Japan, it’s the model that is being questioned by the best experts, by those who were in favor of it and are now against it. And it’s the spell that turns against the spell-maker. I believe that in a short time all humanity will be enlightened and will be against it. In the meantime there are more select groups, scientists who are beginning to rethink this issue. Ecological awareness, incidentally, is a win for humanity, an advance like equal rights for women that took centuries to arrive at this point and should be improved, but it is an achievement.
What model do you support? Less production, consumption, and comfort?
Exactly. Is all this necessary? The comfort of the United States can be applied to a population of 6 billion, but the land is insufficient and this shows that something is wrong there. How to think of a balanced and sustainable world and humanity? Producing in accord with what is needed. One thing is the need for everyone to participate. Another thing is to serve a super-predator model of certain First World countries. So to return to the earlier question. Wouldn’t this be the right time to question the current model and hear what the rural workers and indigenous people are saying?
Does the CPT have the support of the Vatican?
The Vatican is very far away. The National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB), which is a member of the CPT, is a body that is sufficient for resolving pastoral and ecclesiastical problems. The CPT was born this way, from the Church and not for the Church, at the service of rural workers. Like the good Samaritan who gives himself to raise the fallen, giving him autonomy to raise himself so he can one day help another who has fallen, treating him as a subject and not the object of our charitable action. The Indigenous Pastoral follows the same principle of giving every kind of assistance to a population that suffers repression, lives in conflict with the robbery of land and expulsion from the countryside by armed authorities in order to leave the land free for big capital’s monoculture operations. The land can belong to the Japanese, the Americans, the Germans, as long as it belongs to big business. It cannot belong to the indigenous people or the workers or the police will come to evict them. There are thousands of evictions carried out by our Judiciary against those who have been occupying the land for several years in a non-violent way.
How do you evaluate impunity in the rural areas? Dorothy Stang, Corumbiara, Eldorado dos Carajás...
Between 1985 and 1996, the CPT studied the killings related to land conflicts in the rural areas. These are killings ordered by the latifúndio. The person who orders the killing rarely appears. There is the gunman who is contracted, carries out the order and is paid. In the 11 years of the study, around one thousand killings were counted, of which only 70 were prosecuted and only 14 gunmen were convicted. Of those who ordered the killings, only seven were convicted and five escaped. The gunmen who escaped certainly returned to killing. It’s the picture of impunity.
I participated in a session of the Supreme Court which examined the possibility of giving federal status to the crimes against human rights. It was during the time after Dorothy was killed. Since it involved an international victim, a North American, the state of Pará expedited the process, which is almost complete. The Court was very good in that case. And the rest? And those in which the person killed is not a North American or German? That has favored the continuation of these crimes, which are of interest to the large ranchers, to many of those in power, judges, large land owners and congressmen. And speaking of Congress, the proposal to confiscate property where slave labor is found for the purpose of land reform is not moving ahead. I think that with this group that is there, congressmen who are large landowners, a very strong large right-wing rural caucus, it will never be approved.
What do you think of the updating of the Forest Code?
It’s a disaster, an absurdity to diminish the already small vegetation coverage around the springs, to facilitate the destruction of the forest and not offer any protection to the environment. People know that not everyone in Congress agrees with this. What a shame that they are a minority.
What do you think of us having a woman as President of the Republic for the first time?
It’s very positive, but it is still a continuation, a time of winter for the movement for agrarian reform. And with the advance of agribusiness, worse yet. From the point of view of the people in the rural areas, they are still in retreat. During the campaign, she said nothing about agrarian reform, which may be significant. Although he waffled and delayed, saying that he was going to fulfill his campaign promises, Lula carried on a dialog and did not repress, unlike President Cardoso.
In compensation, during the Cardoso years the movements grew stronger with all of big business after them. And knowing the adversary makes it easier. So much so that the opposition to the PSDB government was built more by the social movements than by the Workers Party. Worse than waffling, Lula betrayed the commitment to carry out land reform, which ended up being the responsibility of the movements through occupations and grassroots pressure rather than of INCRA, which is rapidly scrapping it.
And what about GMOs?
GMOs are serious because they involve the seed and that is the workers’ strength. Instead of harvesting his own seeds to plant, he has to go to the market and buy them. People say that GMOs are dubious, that they don’t have security. But we in the rural area of the CPT and the rural workers consider that the main poison is the fact of the seed being stolen. That which is vital for the worker and is ancient is being taken by big business. The worker has to have dominion over the seed and the land.
Have you received death threats?
Various times. And I’ve been afraid, not for myself but for other fathers, priests. No one came straight to me but they encouraged crazy people. I knew of various death threats such as an ambush at a party that I was going to in a parish, but I went to the burial of Father Rodolfo and of the Indian Simão, killed by ranchers. Every night I pray for Father Rodolfo, who saved me from an ambush. I also knew that during the dictatorship I was watched the whole time. Worse is the gunman, like those who shot Father Chicão, a defender of the landless, who was shot in the face with a shotgun and blinded in both eyes. I know that shot was for me. But it is more complicated to kill a bishop. I escaped and I am grateful to Chicão.