Brazil is world champion in inequality, says bishop

A farmer stands next to a burned area in the Amazon forest near Careiro, Brazil, Nov. 28. Bishop Eugenio Rixen says deforestation in Brazil is partly to blame for the country's water crisis.

CNS PHOTO | PAULO WHITAKER, REUTERS

A farmer stands next to a burned area in the Amazon forest near Careiro, Brazil, Nov. 28. Bishop Eugenio Rixen says deforestation in Brazil is partly to blame for the country's water crisis.

March 23, 2015
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Brazil is said to have one of the world's strongest economies. The problem is that the Brazilian economy is designed to favour the rich, keeping millions of Brazilians in extreme poverty.

That's according to Bishop Eugenio Rixen of Goias, Brazil, who is the Share Lent visitor of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace. He was in Alberta March 11-16 for a number of public events.

"Brazil is the world champion in inequality," Rixen, who is originally from Belgium, said in a March 13 talk to staff at the Catholic Pastoral and Administration Offices. He spoke in French and his lecture was translated into English by Holy Cross Sister Sylvia Landry.

In Brazil, four per cent of landowners own almost 80 per cent of the land, he said.

In the 1960s, 80 per cent of Brazilians lived in small towns and farms. Today 80 per cent of the people live in the cities, many in extreme poverty.

The bishop showed a photo of a Brazilian city, with the slums at the bottom and high-rises at the top. "The rich are on one side and the poor on the other," he said. Many people have to fight with the birds in garbage dumps to get food.

Rixen, affectionately known as Dom Eugenio, has defended the rights of small farmers and the dignity of the poor for the last 17 years. Through his work with the Pastoral Land Commission, he has become a symbol of the struggle for agrarian reform in Brazil.

The Pastoral Land Commission is a commission of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Brazil. Its mandate is to defend access to land and protect all life on it, defend access to clean water and defend human rights.

Because of its support for peasants, the Church of Goias has faced persecution from landowners in the region. Today, 24 peasant settlements attest to their victory in this struggle.

Brazilian Bishop Eugenio Rixen spoke to several groups during his March visit to Alberta.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Brazilian Bishop Eugenio Rixen spoke to several groups during his March visit to Alberta.

One victory is that the government will facilitate the return to the land of thousands of people who had abandoned it to pursue a better life in the city.

"If the land doesn't serve a social function, it is taken away from the landowner and given to small farmers," Rixen said. "We fight non-violently so that the landless have land."

Rixen believes the Church, apart from announcing the Gospel, must help transform society so that it serves the poorest of the poor. "Pope Francis has shown us that the Gospel is credible only if it has a commitment to the poor."

CREDIBILITY WITH THE POOR

The Church in Brazil has much credibility because of its position, especially among the poor, he said. "The poor expect the Church to defend them."

Every year, the Brazilian bishops gather for 15 days to discuss problems in Brazilian society. Last year, they analyzed the Church's role in the agrarian question, producing a public document titled, The Church and the Agrarian Question at the Beginning of the 21st Century.

"There are certain people who would want to reduce the Church to a purely religious space; others would want that the Church be involved solely in social conflicts," Rixen observed. "We believe the Church has a very important role in the transformation of our society."

Throughout the 20th century, the unequal distribution of land has been a source of conflict and rebellion.

MILITARY COUP

At the beginning of the 1960s, the agrarian question became part of the government's agenda for reform. But fearing a loss of their privileges, the country's rich organized the military coup of 1964, which led to the torture and death of many peasant leaders.

Later, in response to the growing demand for land and in an effort to placate the countryside, the military dictatorship initiated a limited settlement program in the Amazon basin. The idea was to bring vast new areas of the frontier into productive cultivation.

It didn't work, partly because large corporations and private landholders forced out the settlers and indigenous peoples.

Because of growing injustice and poverty in rural areas, in 1975 the Brazilian Church set up the Pastoral Land Commission. The commission documented violence, often perpetrated by the state, over land in the Amazon region.

RUDIMENTARY FARMING

In the year 2000, there was a somewhat "conservative" modernization of agribusiness with all modern farm equipment going to the big landholders, who produce sugar cane, corn and soya for export. Small farmers, who produce the food that the nation eats, continue to farm in rudimentary ways.

"The agribusiness destroys the ecology because they need huge tracks of land. Every year they are moving further into the Amazon basin, which is important to the whole world.

"The Amazon is the lungs of the earth, but agribusiness keeps cutting into that and taking away some of the trees. They make money but they are destroying the natural land."

Agribusiness uses transgenic seeds which are sterile and do not produce a second crop. It uses a billion litres of pesticide to produce crops for export but in the process destroys insects and contaminates the water. The Brazilian Church favours agriculture that is organic as much as possible, "with less pesticides, for instance."

Brazil is now undergoing a water crisis. In Sao Paulo, for example, there isn't enough water, "and we are blaming part of it on the deforestation of the Amazon," Rixen said.

INDIGENOUS PEOPLE

As for indigenous people, there are two points of view, one being that natives must be fully integrated into the system.

"The position of the Church is to respect their autonomy and their religion," said the bishop of Goias. "The Indian population wants to protect the Amazon, saying the land is not for exploitation, just to sustain life. We must help them defend their land."

Brazil is violent with 60,000 murders committed last year, Rixen said. "We are currently killing more people than in Syria. Over the last four years in Syria 220,000 people were killed. In four years in Brazil, 240,000 were killed."