By Luma Andrade
“Your cheerful, beautiful fields have more flowers
Our forests have more life”
The lyrics of the Brazilian national anthem seem like nothing but a dead fantasy nowadays for the underprivileged communities which are fighting for land in Brazilian territories. The rural population of Carranca and Araçá, municipality of Buriti, located in a northeastern state called Maranhão, was expecting just another casual morning in their community space when they heard loud airplane noises. As kids, it is normal to hear those noises and feel the urge to go outside to see the plane passing by as it is something new to discover. It was on the 20th of April when André, 7 years old, went outside with a cheek-to-cheek smile to look at the planes, but the excitement quickly ended as he started to feel droplets falling on his body. The event was followed up with severe wounds and intense agony that kept the child awake all night.
If looking through the eyes of a person who lives in a wealthy place and has no knowledge regarding conflict over land between small communities and big farmers, one could never imagine that the planes would have something to do with the injuries André suffered. The planes were flying very low, spraying pesticides over the entire community, which resulted in at least 8 people being injured and presenting symptoms that included nausea, diarrhea, shortness of breath and lacerations on their bodies.
“They were flying so low that I was scared to take a shower and be seen by the pilots. When they took a little longer, we knew that they were fueling the plane so we would quickly run to take a shower”, said Antônia Peres, mother of André, in an interview with the journal Repórter Brasil. Her bathroom does not have a ceiling, therefore, increasing the risks of contamination and the lack of privacy with the continuous and close presence of these planes.
After investigations and local reports coming from the community, the State Secretariat for the Environment (SEMA) found Gabriel and André Introvini, the father and son of a soy-producing family, guilty of this chemical crime against the rural communities in Araçá. “They did not have environmental licensing for aerial spraying, which led to an embargo on the activity and also a notification and infraction notice in the amount of 273 thousand reais” (almost Euro 43,000), the officials from SEMA stated. Moreover, a court decision also prohibited the farmer from making new aerial applications of pesticides in the region. Furthermore, if the application is on land, it must be made 1 km away from rural communities. Additionally, the jury of Maranhão Public Defender’s Office stipulated that the family must pay all the costs of treatment and clinical examinations for a minimum of 30 days.
For decades, local communities around the state of Maranhão had reported the two men from the Introvini family several times as being responsible for illegal deforestation of the cerrado, land theft and attempts to expel local residents.
In an interview with the television channel TV Mirante, Gabriel Introvini said “It wasn’t just my farm that applied poison in the region, there are other farms that applied it too. Now, the product that I applied, so far as I know it doesn’t burn anyone, right? But they said it burned, so what can I say?” as an attempt to justify himself for the harm he caused.
The ongoing conflict between the Introvini family and local communities around the state of Maranhão has been happening for four years now. The harm caused to the residents and environment around them is outraging.
Poisoning to Expel
The act of poisoning with the aim of driving out small communities living in rural areas has been increasing in Brazil for the past decade.
Several complaints were put forward by rural communities, presenting symptoms of intoxication due to pesticides, which were sprayed from airplanes by farmers who were attempting to forcefully displace them. The reason behind this chemical crime is that big landowners and farmers want more space to expand their empires and see those families as nothing more than obstacles preventing their expansion.
One may wonder where we are as a society when underprivileged communities are daily driven to the margins and have their daily realities neglected. If André’s mother had not filmed her son’s wounds and had not posted them online where they went viral, perhaps we would not now be talking about it or demanding justice for the ones facing this violation of their right.
“I received a message that they were going to put the worst poison they had on my door so that I could not stand [it] and [would] vacate the area,” says the farmer Vicente de Paulo Costa Lira, a resident of the community of Carranca. He says that the threat came from an employee of Gabriel Introvini. With no doubt, this threat unmasks the inhumanity posed towards their basic human rights.
According to Diogo Cabral, lawyer of the Federation of Rural Workers of Maranhão, the poison was released less than six meters away from the houses in the community of Carranca, leaving many people severely affected, including the elderly and children, and the extent of soil and water contamination is unknown until this day.
It is not just the residents that suspect these are deliberate crimes but also the prosecutor of the Agrarian Court of Redemption, Herena Neves, who points out that one of her hypotheses is that the spraying is “an attempt to damage health or cause bodily injury so that these people cannot eat or live healthily so they can forcefully displace the communities”. She does though explain that it is too soon to confirm whether or not this is true, since the investigation is still taking place.
Feeling of abandonment
Although the small communities that are spread around the entire country face different problems, they share a mutual feeling of abandonment. On a daily basis, the feeling of being abandoned by the government kicks in without knocking on the door beforehand.
“There are children here who are already running a fever, and we cannot complain about it in Buriti because it is useless. Here, our city belongs to the great producer, not to the laborers. The big farmer is in charge here”, says the small producer Edmilson Silva, alleging abandonment.
How exasperating it must be to report a situation that is already public knowledge, since this is not an isolated case, but to have your voice silenced despite numerous requests by organs of the state asking for legal inspections of the use and control of the environmental impacts of herbicides. We are talking about an issue related to the basic human rights of hundreds of lives, yet some people suppress them as if they were children asking for lollipops before lunch time.
Space for hope
On a brighter note, the ongoing fight for the prohibition of aerial spraying in order to prevent harm towards the rural communities and the environment has presented some victories across the country. An example is the state of Ceará, where this act has been banned since the beginning of 2019 under state law. The approved projects follow the model adopted by the European Union in 2009, in which this type of spraying is allowed only in emergencies or specific cases, and only if it complies with strict rules.
Such moments of victory make space for hopeful sparkles in the eyes of children, and strengthen the fight for better conditions for those people living in the small communities of Brazil.
Edited by Maurice Wedner-Ross, artwork by Chira Tudoran