Vale do Jaguaribe is a fertile region located in the east of the state of Ceará. It is crossed by the Jaguaribe River, the largest and most important river in Ceará, providing water for the crops that take place in its bed. This agricultural potential of the Jaguaribe Valley came to be captured by fractions of the capital, especially from the period of the Military Dictatorship, which, together with state bodies such as the National Department of Works Against Droughts (DNOCS) and the Superintendence for the Development of the Northeast ( Sudene) invested in business irrigation on these lands, initially capturing water directly from the river.
In the 1970s, the construction of irrigated perimeters in the Northeast began, which are federal public infrastructures built by DNOCS with the objective of spreading the practice of irrigation and boosting large-scale agricultural production in the semiarid region. During that period, the state expropriated vast tracts of land in Vale do Jaguaribe to build two irrigated perimeters, Jaguaruana and Morada Nova. Later, in the late 1980s, the Jaguaribe-Apodi irrigated perimeter was built and two decades later the Tabuleiro de Russas irrigated perimeter, both of which became home to large agribusiness companies, including multinationals, which established themselves in lands previously occupied by peasants in and around the irrigated perimeters.
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In addition to the actions of the Federal Government, through the construction of public irrigation infrastructure to serve private interests, the Government of the State of Ceará has, since the 1990s, allocating financial resources and public policies to boost the territorialization of agribusiness in the region, attracting companies national and multinational agricultural and reconfiguring land and territory uses throughout the Jaguaribe Valley, through the installation and expansion of large agribusiness firms operating or operating in the production and export of fruit, with emphasis on bananas, melon, watermelon, papaya , pineapple and mango, aimed at the national and international markets (mainly European).
With the installation of fruit-growing agribusiness companies in 1990, conflicts in the Jaguaribe Valley intensified, as these firms aggravated land and water concentration, implemented the massive use of pesticides and contributed to the reduction of biodiversity through advance of monoculture with deforestation and contamination of soil, water and air. This resulted in unprecedented social, environmental and territorial imbalances for the region, with an increase in the number of cancer cases due to the use of pesticides, exploitation and illness of workers, expropriation of peasants through land invasions, dissemination of prostitution and drug consumption in communities, congenital malformations in newborns, expansion of violence and crime in the countryside, among other serious consequences that are still present today and configure them as the cursed legacies left by agribusiness in this territory.
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The expansion of agribusiness in the region was particularly incisive in Chapada do Apodi, which, in addition to housing the Jaguaribe-Apodi irrigated perimeter, now has the presence of powerful corporations specialized in the production and export of fruit. In a short time, there was an almost complete change in the agrarian issue of Chapada do Apodi, through the expansion of large estates, monoculture, the use of pesticides and the intensification of water and land concentration in this portion of the Jaguaribe Valley, considered as the fillet of the agribusiness of the fruit culture in Ceará.
Communities found themselves literally isolated by agribusiness, surrounded by firms that make intensive use of land, water and labor in order to make their ventures viable, which left a trail of destruction in the region.
The approval of the Zé Maria do Tomé Law represented a very important achievement for everyone who daily suffered from the impacts of aerial spraying of pesticides. / Photo: Disclosure
The role that these firms played in the reconfiguration of the agrarian issue in the Vale do Jaguaribe deserves to be highlighted, changing the forms of use, possession and ownership of land in the region. This is reflected in the numerous strategies used by companies to settle in the territory, such as land grabbing and invasion of public land located in irrigated perimeters, purchase of large and small properties, acquisition of plots in irrigated perimeters, leases and partnerships, expropriation and expulsion of peasants of the lands.
This process further aggravated the land concentration in the region, which has a high proportion of land in the hands of a few, while many are landless or with very little land, making it impossible for peasant families to survive and reinforcing the presence of large estates and the power of firms . A study on the concentration of land by the largest fruit growing companies, published in the book “The firms took care of everything”, reached the result that only six firms concentrate approximately 35,000 hectares in the region, spread over several properties and in different municipalities.
Despite all this package of evils introduced in the region directly by the fruit growing firms, an articulated network of mobilization, struggle and resistance was formed, which has been achieving important achievements in the sense of stopping and/or mitigating the impacts caused by agribusiness. In this movement, the pioneer participation of the peasant known as Zé Maria do Tomé, who lives in one of the communities most directly affected by the advance of agribusiness in Chapada do Apodi, is notorious. Zé Maria fought against the aerial spraying of pesticides, the appropriation and contamination of water, the concentration of land and the exploitation of workers. Zé Maria fought for the peasants’ right to land and water, for the autonomy of communities and for the construction of another model of life in the countryside, distinct from the project of death spread by the intrinsic imbrication between state and capital.
As a result of his struggle, Zé Maria was persecuted and threatened by farmers and businessmen. He was murdered on April 21, 2010, allegedly at the behest of the owner of one of the companies located in the region, which was among those that most used the aerial spraying that covered their banana plantations with poison. After his murder, the M21 (Movement 21) was created, a collective that brings together movements, organizations, unions, associations, universities and pastorals, whose actions allow the continuation of the struggle and resistance in the Jaguaribe Valley, in the face of serious problems. framework of social and environmental injustice advocated by agribusiness. There was also an intensification of denunciations, mobilizations and articulations as mechanisms to resist the advance of agribusiness.
Among the important achievements arising from the struggles in the region, there is an important retake of land in Chapada do Apodi organized by MST, Via Campesina and Cáritas Diocesana of Limoeiro do Norte, when, in May 2014, hundreds of peasants without -land occupied part of the Jaguaribe-Apodi irrigated perimeter, which had been invaded/grabbed by agribusiness companies. This territory of struggle and resistance was named Camp Zé Maria do Tomé and consolidated itself as a space for agroecological production and the construction of well-being, despite successive attacks by the state and agribusiness firms, through requests for the reintegration of possession and threats of eviction.
This encampment is one of the territories that reinforce the legacy of struggle sown by Zé Maria, showing that the insurgency and articulation of rural peoples are greater than the strength and violence of the state and capital.
The Zé Maria do Tomé Camp reinforces the resistance of the peasantry in search of the realization of popular agrarian reform and the democratization of access to the lands of Chapada do Apodi, so that it is possible to build another model of life and production in the region, opposing the supposedly hegemonic model of death represented by agribusiness.
The existence of the Zé Maria do Tomé Camp amidst the capital’s locus of reproduction in Ceará highlights the need to strengthen an active resistance to the imperatives of agribusiness, whose main path is made in the daily struggle to produce quality food free of pesticides that feed the Brazilian families.
The current challenges in the Jaguaribe Valley, however, are numerous and go far beyond the fruit-growing agribusiness, caused by neo-extractive activities such as mining, wind and solar energy, livestock and shrimp farming, added to the privatization and canalization of the Jaguaribe River, extraction of water from the Jandaíra and Açu aquifers, coercion and exploitation of workers, contamination of water and soil by poison, contamination and illness of workers and communities, denial of rights to land, water, territory, nature, food, health, education, housing, sanitation, public policies etc.
However, the mobilizations of collectives, organizations and popular movements are strengthened, as well as the active and daily resistance of peasants who make their lives the meaning of existence in this region and who, with great difficulty, build the paths that show us that the construction of a socially just and environmentally healthy Brazil is possible.
Experience active resistance in the Jaguaribe Valley. Long live Zé Maria do Tomé Camp. Long live the insurgency of rural peoples against the agribusiness package of evils.
*M21 member, professor at UFRN and author of the book “The firms took care of everything”
**This is an opinion piece. The author’s vision does not necessarily express the editorial line of the Brazil in fact.