A human rights activist and Catholic priest with a special concern for the rights and well-being of rural workers, Ricardo Rezende has organized a complex network of activities that are aimed at bringing the perpetrators of rights violations to justice and breaking a cycle of recurring violence and impunity for crimes against farm workers. The principal tools in his campaign include the mobilization of national and international pressures for legal action against rights offenders, the coordination and determined pursuit of related investigations and legal remedies at the local level, and the stimulation of effective measures by the national government for the defense of rural workers’ rights.
The New Idea
Murders and other crimes against rural workers and farm labor organizers feature prominently on the list of most serious and persistent human rights violations in Brazil. The problem has been particularly notable in southern Pará, where impunity for such actions has long been the norm and the need for more effective countermeasures was highlighted by a series of carefully targeted murders and attempted murders in the 1980s and early 1990s.
In 1991, motivated by the brutal—and pre-announced—murder of the president of the Rural Workers Union in the municipality of Rio Maria in southern Pará, Ricardo Rezende undertook the creation and organization, at the local, national and international levels, of numerous Solidarity and Life Committees. His immediate aim was to bring the cycle of violence and impunity to a halt by a series of measures that would assure systematic and effective legal action against the persons responsible for that and other crimes.
In Father Ricardo’s judgment, only an unprecedented combination of pressures from relevant Brazilian and international organizations and the carefully orchestrated efforts of skilled attorneys both in the relevant local courts and international fora could produce an end to the long-prevailing pattern of violence and impunity for violent crimes. Informed by that perception, the mission that Farther Ricardo set for himself in 1991, which he continues to pursue, is the mobilization of the needed assemblage of pressures from civil society and international organizations and the skills of talented attorneys.
One of Brazil’s most serious human rights problems is persistent, targeted and unpunished violence against farm workers. According to the report of a church-sponsored commission on land issues, there were, in 1994 alone, some 485 disputes over such matters as land ownership, prospecting rights, participation in unions and slave labor in which more than 300,000 people were directly involved and 47 farm workers were murdered. From 1990 through 1994, according to the commission’s tally, 278 rural workers and union organizers were murdered in various parts of the country.
For many years, the problem has been particularly acute in southern Pará, where land conflicts and the persisting use of slave labor on large estates have involved particularly brutal violations of the rights of rural workers. Over a fifteen-year period from 1980 through 1994, more than 180 men, women and children lost their lives as a consequence of land and labor disputes in rural settings. Most such crimes have gone unpunished, and kidnappings, threats, and physical violence against rural leaders and the destruction of their homes and crops have been constant and widespread occurrences.
In southern Pará, the municipality of Rio Maria, although not among the most violent areas, has been the locus of a series of clearly targeted acts of violence. Of the four presidents of the Rural Workers Union in that municipality, two were killed and the remaining two are survivors of murder attempts. Those and other serious rights violations have been denounced by various national and international human rights groups, including the Pastoral Commission on Land in Brazil and Human Rights Watch in the United States. But in the absence of effective complementary legal actions at the local level, those protests have been insufficient to counteract the apathy, incompetence and impunity that have long plagued attempts to solve and prevent such crimes.
Father Ricardo’s strategy for curtailing violent crimes against rural workers, and for assuring over the longer term that their rights are fully protected, involves several closely related and mutually reinforcing actions, including: (1) the organization of denunciations and protests against particularly egregious rights violations from human rights and solidarity groups throughout Brazil and overseas and from relevant international organizations; (2) the stimulation of media coverage of rights violations and related land and labor issues; (3) the mobilization of the legal talent and the coordination of legal work at the local and international levels; (4) the creation of a National Forum Against Rural Violence and a National Campaign Against Slave Labor; and (5) pressures on Brazil’s national government and judiciary to assume a more active stance in promoting and protecting the rights of rural workers.
Father Ricardo’s immediate response to the murder of the Rural Workers Union president in Rio Maria in 1991 was to organize protests and solidarity committees throughout Brazil and to stimulate the formation of solidarity committees that resulted in considerable press coverage of the murder and other violations of rural workers’ rights and in substantial financial support both for related legal proceedings and for the victims and their families.
With the committees’ help, systematic and carefully coordinated legal work was initiated both in Brazil and overseas in 1991. Legal proceedings against violators of rural workers’ rights were set in motion in three Brazilian towns and cities (including Rio Maria), and petitions were filed with the appropriate United Nations and Organization of American States bodies. In pressing for legal action, the committees have assigned priority to seven homicides and two attempted homicides in which the relevant official agencies in Brazil were demonstrably negligent both in preventing the crimes and in collective evidence against their perpetrators. Those and similar cases have been systematically monitored though their legal course, and in 1994, in sharp contrast with the usual practice, two of the alleged gunmen were brought to trial and found guilty of the crimes with which they were charged.
Since its creation in 1991, the National Forum, which includes the Attorney General of the Republic and a senior official of the Ministry of Labor (as well as the expected civil society leaders) among its membership, has proved to be particularly effective in mounting pressures from Federal Government officials to bring alleged perpetrators of rights-related crimes to trial and to punish those found responsible for such crimes. And in a rather different way, the National Campaign Against Slave Labor, which was launched in 1995, may play a decisive role in combating the practice to which it is addressed. A recent speech of the President of the Republic in which he acknowledged the continued existence of the labor problem was an important indication both of the effectiveness of the campaign and of the national government’s intention to take effective action to eliminate the practice. Indeed, Father Ricardo is confident that, over the longer term, the national government will play a crucial role in putting an end to impunity for rights violators and establishing a climate that will be supportive of justice and respect for human rights in rural areas.
Ricardo Rezende Figueira was born in Minas Gerais and studied philosophy at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora. Early in his life, his religious vocation led him to work among the poor in various community education and organization initiatives.
In 1977, he moved to Conceição do Araguaia in South Pará, where he initially worked with juveniles and adults through the local Catholic Church Grassroots Educational Movement. It was there, however, that land issues first attracted his attention and that his longstanding commitment to working with the poor and oppressed became focused on the rural poor. In pursuit of that interest he began working with the local Pastoral Commission on Land. Shortly after his ordination as a priest in 1980, he was appointed the Commission’s regional coordinator. He continued in that post for the next several years, and he served as its national coordinator in 1988 and 1989.
Father Ricardo has received several threats to his life (his name has been on almost every list of “those marked to die”) both before and after his appointment as a parish vicar in Rio Maria in November 1988. He has continued to be active in the Commission as a volunteer, and, as the death threats increased, he has become even more determined in his commitment to activities aimed at putting an end to violence and slave labor in rural areas.
Father Ricardo has received a number of tributes and awards for his work and struggle. He has been named an Honorary Citizen of Conceição do Araguaia, Rio Maria, Juiz de Fora, and Belo Horizonte. He is a recipient of the Chico Mendes Resistance medal from the Tortura Nunca Mais Group, and he has been honored by Anti-Slavery International in England and Human Rights Watch in the United States. He has also published two books on land reform issues in southern Pará, one of which (Rio Maria—Song of the Earth, 1993), has been translated into English and French and published in the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland and France.