“They ran over my coffee plants with a tractor. They ran over my orchard. They burned my banana plants. They were all ready to harvest, there were bananas to sell and for our own consumption. Going by there and seeing everything destroyed is very difficult.”
With a shaky voice, landless rural worker Helen Mayara dos Santos, recounts the moments of agony felt by families of the Quilombo Campo Grande Camp, located in Campo do Meio, in the state of Minas Gerais, while being evicted last Friday August 14.
The memory of tear gas and the military police invasion of the camp, where dwellers resisted the eviction for almost 60 hours, is still fresh three days later.
Helen’s family is one of eight that was directly affected by the expulsion requested by Jovane de Souza Moreira, a businessman trying to reopen the once bankrupt Ariadnópolis sugar and alcohol refinery. Research into federal revenue data reveals that the company’s tax identification number is linked to a debt of almost $90 million with the government.
After declaring bankruptcy in 1996, the enterprise didn’t pay workers’ wages still owed. The Federal Revenue services show R$1.2 million in unpaid labor fines, and over R$1.5 million in unpaid social security contributions.
Two years later, former employees of the refinery who still hadn’t received their payments joined forces with the Rural Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), occupied the abandoned land in question and helped revitalize the area.
Today, the Quilombo Grande Camp consists of 11 camps that shelter more than 450 families. 8 of these lost their homes last Friday according to the MST. 36 people were affected, including 16 children.
The Rural Landless Workers’ Movement affirms that last week’s eviction is illegal since it spans an area larger than what was outlined in the court decision. Initially, the ruling allowed for 26 hectares of land to be repossessed, however, in February, the Rural Court of Campos Gerais doubled that figure.
The families that lived in the area in question vacated the land between February and now. Turia Tule, from the MST’s state directorate, says that the amount of terrain seized is far larger than 52 hectares.
“There is so much sadness and affliction among these families. We are sheltering the majority of them with no support from the state nor the municipality. With solidarity, we are arranging so that these people can can stay in our homes. The feeling of sadness is profound, but it is important to cherish the solidarity we have been receiving,” states Tule.
Since they were not on land set for repossession, Helen and her husband, Cícero Mariano da Conceição Silva, did not leave their home, which nevertheless, ended up being destroyed.
“That’s where we survived, that space assured our survival,” says the MST member, adding that she lived approximately 1km away from where the land set for eviction.
“We are homeless, we have nothing. Our things were taken from us. We have no clothes, we are relying on our own people. It was so violent. The invaded our homes, violently taking our things away, breaking all we had built over so many years. It was really sad,” vents Helen, who has lived in the Quilombo Grande Camp since she was 14.
The camp resident tells us that recently her sister and 4-year-old nephew moved in with her family. The children from her home and children from other families in the encampment used to come to her home to sing and play.
However, on the day of the eviction, these activities were suddenly halted. “When the attack began, we had to get these children out of there. It was total despair. The children were crying. My son was out front and started yelling because he couldn’t see me. The helicopter was hovering above my house. The children were below, while they threw tear gas”, she recounts.
Last week, the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement had asked the Supreme Court (STF) to suspend the eviction process.
The Quilombo Campo Grande, which produces Guaií coffee, which is known all over the country, has received support and expressions of solidarity from dozens of social movements, politicians and celebrities.
Tuira Tule says that the local population of Campo de Meio municipality, knows the work camp residents do, and have also been showing support.
According to her, its through the strength coming from these expressions of solidarity that the Quilombo will rise again, and rebuild all that was destroyed during the eviction.
“It’s a collective feeling that shows that resistance will continue. We will rebuild our land stronger and with more will to live. Each brick that we saw demolished we will lay again. We receiving help from the population, from organizations so we can do this collectively,” Tule declared.
The Eduardo Galeano School where children, teenagers and adults from the camp studied, was destroyed before the official repossession took place on Friday, August 14th.
The reconstruction of the space, one of the few communal spaces in the camp, is an essential step for the landless farmers. “The first brick they tore down was in our school. We will prioritize the rebuilding of the families’ homes, but it is our wish to also rebuild our school and see it stand tall once again,” affirmed the MST coordinator.
Camp resident Débora Vieira de Jesus Borges highlights that, beyond learning to read and write, people had access to capoeira classes, farming courses, craft workshops, among other activities at the school.
“It is incredibly painful for us to drive down the highway and see our school destroyed. Our hopes, our land reform project prioritizes education. We will rebuild our school as quickly as possible,” Borges reiterates.
The violence continues
A resident of the camp for the past 14 years, Débora denounces that hostility towards the settlers is frequent in the region, enacted by “cronies working for the refinery’s owner.”
Her home was the only one close to the Ariadnópolis headquarters that was not vacated. That being said, on the day of the eviction, Débora was hit by tear gas and saw the neighboring pasture set ablaze.
“The headquarter building is directly in front of my house. You can see our entire camp from there. They spy on us with binoculars, take our pictures and film us. When we go out on the street there’s always cars driving by at high speeds.”
State and municipal authorities claim that the families who were evicted have been directed to temporary shelters that have been made available.
However, the MST member says that just a handful of families have actually been taken to these shelter, and that the conditions there are inadequate.
“We have two families that are living in schools, and as far as we know, in the presence of people with the coronavirus. We don’t know if it has been sanitized or not. One of them had no water. It’s very precarious,” decries the camp resident.
In the opinion of Helen dos Santos, both state and local authorities are to blame for the families being kicked out. “They wanted this to happen. They have always wanted us out of there. It’s complete abandonment, something inhumane. Amid a pandemic, they make people homeless. They have forced us out of isolation and into contact with people whose health we can’t attest to. They are not only putting us in the countryside at risk, but also those living in town.”
The state government led by Romeu Zema, attempted to justify the violent eviction by citing a press release from the Minas Gerais Military Police Command.
“After 50 hours of negotiation, the actions of the Military Police Riot Unit became necessary. They employed legal and proportional force, to ensure the eviction process could be completed. Furthermore, up to now, the military police has not identified any serious injuries and reiterates that all our actions follow the guidelines of legality and proportionality set forth in the constitution, always focusing on minimizing damage, saving lives and protecting human rights, these are the basis for our institution’s actions,” the document reads.