Ecumenical Mission in Maranhão: support and solidarity for those who suffer rights violations

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Between 4 and 6 September, in coordination with CESE and in partnership with a number of organizations, the ACT (Brazil) Ecumenical Forum (Fórum Ecumênico ACT Brasil: FEACT) held its 5th Ecumenical Mission in Defence of Rights.  Aimed at ensuring the voices of traditional peoples and communities of Maranhão ring out, the missionaries visited territories involved in serious conflicts and human rights violations in the state, and held a public hearing at the State Public Prosecutor’s (Ministério Público Estadual: MPE) offices in São Luís.

Given the serious and incessant violations of the rights of traditional quilombola and indigenous territories, African-origin worship houses and other peoples in the state, the organizations felt the need to denounce and draw the attention of national and international authorities to the state. This was the aim of a public hearing held by the movements on 5 September in the offices of the Maranhão State Public Prosecutor.

In all, 120 leaders attended the hearing.  The movements’ denunciations are extremely serious. “The fishermen face many problems, but the state’s negligence is the most significant. Whatever they say about the impacts caused by these companies, they occur with state connivance.  Because the granting of public licenses and the lack of inspection are down to them.  There are no inspections at municipal, state or even federal level,” one fisherman said.

Another leader reported that “the babassu coconut breakers in Maranhão live in a perilous state because, in order to harvest the babassu coconut, they have to climb under electric fences.  Palm trees are cut down, they report it but there’s no response.”

“Attacks by neo-pentecostal churches are not random, they are planned, organized and have political support.  Many of the legal proceedings related to these attacks move slowly and the guilty are not punished.  The people from the African-origin worship houses are open to inter-religious dialogue, however, there are colonial remnants which always treat the African-origin religions as demonic, and this continues today,” said a female spiritual leader.

Despite being invited well in advance, most of the public body representatives did not attend the hearing, demonstrating the state of Maranhão’s neglect of the lives of these populations.  One indigenous leader drew attention to this.

“If this were an agribusiness hearing, there would be no lack of authorities.  They grab land, use pesticides, kill the indigenous, quilombolas and nothing happens.  The proof is here today.  State absence is an absence of commitment.  There are no policies for us.  They see us as troublemakers.  Go and call a landowner who’s killed someone and they’ll listen quietly to everything.”

Representatives were invited from the Maranhão State and Federal Public Defender’s Offices (Defensoria Pública do Maranhão e da União), from the State and Federal Public Prosecutor’s Offices (Ministério Público Estadual e Federal), the Courts of Justice, the Human Rights Centre of the State Public Defender’s Office (Núcleo de Direitos Humanos da Defensoria Pública do Estado), the state departments for Racial Equality, for Human Rights and Grassroots Participation, for Public Security and for the Environment, as well as the Brazilian Bar Association (Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil: OAB).

Only Public Prosecutor José Márcio Maia Alves, Director of the MPE’s Department for Institutional Affairs (Secretaria para Assuntos Institucionais: SECINST), Amanda Costa, the state’s acting secretary for Human Rights, and one representative from the State Education Department showed up.  The prosecutor withdrew from the auditorium after his speech – in which he listed the MPE’s institutional activities – and Amanda arrived towards the end of the time allotted to the public and also spoke in institutional terms.

Conflicts for Land and Religious Racism in Maranhão

Maranhão ranks third in agricultural conflicts recorded in Brazil.  Violations range from invasion and land-grabbing to the illegal extraction of wood and murder.  According to the Pastoral Land Commission’s (Comissão Pastoral da Terra: CPT) report regarding 2020 to June 2022 (CPT 2023), 14 leaders were killed, while more than 30 thousand families live under threat in the quilombola territories and traditional communities of Maranhão.

In 2021, the state was ranked first for killings in rural conflicts in Brazil. All the killings of rural quilombolas over the period occurred in Maranhão.  It was in this context that the missionary delegation visited the Santa Rosa dos Pretos Quilombo in Itapecuru-Mirim, approximately 120 km from São Luís.  Santa Rosa is one of the 20 quilombos that make up the territory of the same name in a region that contains more than 80 quilombo communities.  It was founded 347 years ago by seven female ancestral leaders who were kidnapped from Guinea Bissau and inherited their lands from the Baron of Santa Rosa in 1898, as laid down in his will.

Despite this document and the existence of a Technical Identification and Demarcation Study by the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (Instituto Nacional de Colonização e Reforma Agrária: INCRA), which proves their right to remain on the lands, the territory has still not received its land titles and is constantly invaded by mega corporations.  About 5 thousand people, from a total of 900 families, continue to produce crops on these lands and fight to maintain the largest quilombo in the Santa Rosa dos Pretos territory.

The community suffers from the advance of large-scale enterprises, who have invaded their territorial space without Prior and Informed Consent, as required by Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization, of which Brazil is a signatory.  These enterprises have also impacted on the security of the leaders in the territory, leading many of them to be included in the State Protection programme.

Currently, there are four large violations that the quilombo is facing: the expansion of the BR-135 highway, the Carajás Railway – Ferrovia Transnordestina, the Itapecuru-Mirim-Vargem Grande Energy Transmission Line, as well as the actions of land grabbers.  Since 2018, the community has claimed its rights with the Federal Defender and the Federal Public Prosecutor calling for the suspension of both the duplication of BR-135, used to transport large-scale soya monoculture in the region, and of the implementation of the CEMAR– Equatorial Energia Maranhão energy transmission lines in the territory.

The “Big Line” was constructed in the 1970s and 80s and is the project that has taken the most land from the quilombo. The area through which the enterprise passes is where they used to grow rice. At the time, every family had its barn where they stored their crops and the quilombo went through a period of prosperity, with rice crops and fish.

But the fishing was also affected by the construction of the Carajás railway in the 1980s, with the construction of a concrete barrier in the middle of the quilombo’s largest stream, the Grande Simauma, putting an end to the abundance of fish. According to the leaders, “women even used to fish in the stream in their skirts.”

The railway is used by the Vale mining company to transport iron.  In addition to ore dust pollution, spread around the whole quilombo by the wind and making people sick, it has also had an impact on people’s comings and goings.  In order to cross from one side of the territory to the other, they have to wait for the train to pass or walk kilometres to cross over a viaduct.

One of the quilombo’s main leaders also reported the lack of support to establish quilombola culture in the schools and the difficulty they have ensuring that the law is respected and that quilombola teachers are hired by the teaching institutions in their territories.

There are also countless cases of religious racism in the state. One of these recently gained particular notoriety when a fundamentalist group smashed the face of a statue of Iemanjá in São Luís.  Given this situation, the missionaries visited the Fanti-Ashanti House.  This African-origin worship house was the first Candomblé House founded in Maranhão. It is a house for Tambor de Mina and Candomblé, located in São Luís and run by the female spiritual leader, or Yalorixá, Mother Kabeca de Xangô.

The worship house is located opposite a church and has been attacked by fundamentalist groups several times.  Aggressions range from insults to gestures alluding to “exorcism” during the worship house celebrations.  In contrast, the Mission held an activity for Ubuntu Day – Embracing the Worship House, an initiative to strengthen inter-religious dialogue between Christian churches and the people from the worship houses; they also reasserted their commitment to solidarity between them.

Commitments Undertaken

The 5th Ecumenical Mission in Defence of Rights was run by FEACT and coordinated by CESE in partnership with the Process of International Networking and Dialogue (Processo de Articulação e Diálogo: PAD), as well as various organizations and social movements in Maranhão.  The activity was also supported by the international organizations Bread for the World, the Ford Foundation, HEKS-Eper and Misereor.  In both of the visited territories, the delegation handed out banners containing the names of the members of the group, as a sign of solidarity with the communities and of commitment to their struggles.

All the materials produced before and after the mission will be translated – news, posters and a map drafted by the mission that outlines and locates serious conflicts and rights violations in the state. CESE and partner organizations are committed to forwarding these documents to the UN High Commission for Human Rights and other special rapporteurs on related themes.

Read the Letter of the 5th Ecumenical Mission in Defence of Rights

The documents will also be presented at Roundtable Brazil, a congress run by Kooperation Brasilien (KoBra) which brings together organizations and associations that work in Germany on issues related to Brazilian political development, in cooperation with local social movements.  The group will also hold a hearing at the National Human Rights Council (Conselho Nacional de Direitos Humanos) and raise the situation in the state with the German and Chinese embassies in Brazil, seeking to directly mobilize support in Brasilia.  The hearing report will be turned into an official document and filed with the public bodies in Maranhão, restating the absence of competent authorities at the meeting.

“We are hereby committed to making the voices of these communities ring out; communities that have been the victims of violence by large-scale enterprises and the neglect of an institutionally racist state.  We will denounce its negligence and join forces with the quilombola people of Maranhão, with the black women, the indigenous, the fishermen and women, the coconut breakers and all the other groups who suffer the consequences of this situation,” asserted Sônia Mota, CESE’s Executive Director, as she closed the mission.