Brazil: Talking to Dom Tomás, the Bishop of the Landless

Talking to Dom Tomás, the Bishop of the Landless

    They call occupations by the landless "violent," but what about
    the violence of hunger, or
    the harassment of those on these
    settlements. Ex-president Cardoso accused the landless movement

    of being political. That’s not an accusation. That’s a
    compliment. To be called apolitical would be
    an insult.

    Belisa Ribeiro


    Bishop Emeritus of Goiás is his title, but it is impossible to cite the name of Dom Tomás Balduíno without mentioning
    the word "land." Dom Tomás earned his degrees—a Master’s in Theology and Philosophy and post-graduate degrees
    in Anthropology and Linguistics—in places quite distinct and distant from each other: France and Brasília. Dom
    Tomás, also the National President of the Church’s Pastoral Land Commission, is most famous for his work on behalf of
    those who struggle to have a piece of their own land. From Goiânia, between meetings with landless workers, with much
    energy for an 81 year-old, Dom Tomás granted this interview.

    You have accompanied this struggle for land since the 70’s. What has changed?

    The movement used to be very limited in numbers. Today there are over 200 entities, each with their own
    characteristics and flags. There is a consensus among the groups regarding constitutional reform, but in the details each is different.
    I participated in a meeting in which three entities came together so they could be stronger.

    Are their ideological differences among these groups?

    No, just small things by way of highlighting different areas of concern. What is evident is the multiplication of
    settlements. It’s quite incredible. I went to Jussara, 110 kilometers from Goiás Velho. On the way there, I saw just a few
    tents being set up, but on the way back, there was already a small city of tents which had emerged. There is rapid,
    explosive growth. The same phenomenon that happens in the peripheries of the big cities is happening in the countryside. This is
    a result of the hopes that President Lula has given. There is much hope to gain land by settling. Not so much
    through occupations as the groups nowadays seem to be more cautious. They seem to know their limits.

    Is it possible that the movement of landless workers will create a political party?

    Anything is possible under the sun. But this would be improbable. It would be a weakening of the movement. And
    it would be a segmented party. Popular movements have more freedom of action than political parties. They have
    more connections with civil society. With political parties, it is hard to be in touch with communities. You are always one
    step behind. The landless movements are aware of this. But this doesn’t mean that they can’t be a political movement
    which works to reform land structures with the participation of a mass of people who are excluded from the rights of
    citizenship. Fernando Henrique Cardoso accused the MST (Movement of Rural Workers Without Land) of being political. That’s
    not an accusation. That’s a compliment. To be called apolitical would be an insult.

    The MST wants to settle 120,000 families. The government says is doesn’t have the money. What do you make
    of this ongoing saga?

    It’s a fight. Counting those settled, we only have 140,000. If it were another government, folks would be critical, on
    the opposition. However, since we have a populist government, people feel co-responsible. And the co-responsibility of
    the popular movements is called pressure.

    So Lula will feel more pressure than Cardoso?


    Do you think that occupying land is the way to bring about agrarian reform?

    In a country where there are so many big land owners, where those in charge are blinded by power and money, what
    else can a poor person do? Look what the African slaves did after the "Law of Land" was passed, which said they only had
    a right to land by purchasing it or inheriting it. From whom could the slave inherit land, or how could he buy it? So,
    far from sight of their masters, they occupied land in a very peaceful, non-violent manner. And eventually they gained
    legal title to their land.

    Why today do we condemn this sort of process when it has a historical basis? The difference is that today this process
    is organized. Before Cardoso signed a provisionary measure which made occupation a crime, Incra (National
    Agrarian Reform Institute) used to converse with the land owner to see if the land was productive or not.

    Today they don’t even do that. Those settlements today which are successful were established through occupations,
    and not through agrarian reform or a result of the government attending to the needs of the people. They call
    occupations "violent," but what about the violence of hunger, or the harassment of those on these settlements.

    And what do you think of the President of the Congress, João Paulo Cunha, visiting José Rainha (a leader of
    the MST) in prison?

    Rainha and his wife are political prisoners. They are in prison because they challenged the sacrosanct land ownership
    of the Pontal (located in the western part of the state of São Paulo). And by the way, the landowners took all of the land
    in that area illegally. I was interviewed by a German reporter who asked how can we have political prisoners under Lula.
    It is our judicial system which is still anti-reform. We are within our rights when we organize, but some little judge, or
    big judge, considers us to be an illegal gang.

    There are various ways to interpret the law, but one thing should be clear: in the last 11 years there have been 976
    rural workers assassinated, including adolescents and children. To date, there have only been 56 trials, and only 7
    convictions. Of these seven, two are at-large. So out of nearly 1,000 murders, only 5 are in prison. No further comment necessary.

    How do you compare John Paul II with the times of the Vatican Council II? Has Liberation Theology died?

    The changes have shown the importance of the pope. The Catholic Church depends 99.9 percent on the pope. The
    current pope is a Pole who struggled against communism. He is from a very closed, clerical, masculine, structure church.
    When we were beginning to open up, he came in and forced us backwards. Anything that had to do with liberation
    processes suffered. Obviously, Liberation Theology fits in this category.

    On the other hand, we can say that not absolutely everything depends on the hierarchy. There is something that impels
    us forward, the Spirit of God who blows where it wills. There is a living force, not only inside the Church but throughout
    the whole world, which is on a liberation journey. The journey of women, of ecology, of the Earth. We sense that with
    or without the church this journey will move forward. Authoritarian, dominating ways will come to an end.


    This interview was published originally in Jornal do
    Brasil –  on September 14, 2003. You can
    contact the author, Belisa Ribeiro, at

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