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Officials hail Vatican paper on land use

A recent Vatican document condemning the concentration of land in the hands of a wealthy few was welcomed by church workers and leaders throughout Latin America as a landmark statement that runs counter to prevailing economic wisdom and restores a prophetic edge to church pronouncements.

But in its first real test, this new weapon against one of the world’s fundamental inequities appeared to bounce off one principal target -- Brazil.

When the Vatican’s Pontifical Justice and Peace Council made public in January its treatise condemning the unjust distribution of land as a “scandal” that defies the will of God, Brazilian President Enrique Cardoso responded with denial.

The document, Cardoso told the press, has nothing to do with Brazil, even though in his country, according to the Brazilian bishops’ Pastoral Land Commission, 46 peasants died, and 490 were detained in 1996 during 653 conflicts involving disputes over 8.4 million acres of land.

The document, of course, ranged well beyond Brazil. Echoing years of declarations from church leaders throughout the region, it condemns the appropriation of land from peasants and indigenous peoples. It denounces the “climate of terror” established by landowning elites and mining companies that take possession of indigenous lands and suppress the protests of workers and farmers.

The 11-page analysis defines the earth as “God’s gift to all human beings.” All “created things,” it states, are meant to be “shared fairly by all mankind under the guidance of justice tempered by charity.”

The issue concerns the universal church, said Fr. Leopoldo González, a Mexican priest from the pontifical council who worked on the Spanish edition. But, González said, “in the first part, you can see all the citations, and Latin America certainly had it’s influence on it.”

The voice of Brazil’s peasants and indigenous people, articulated in part through years of theological and pastoral reflections by leaders of the church, constitutes a primary source of the document “Toward a Better Distribution of Land: The Challenge of Agrarian Reform.”

What’s more, theologians and bishops previously criticized by some in the Vatican because of their advocacy of liberation theology, have described the document as a striking reversal of such criticism. Some characterize it as a powerful example of Rome listening to the cry of it’s people, especially the cry of the rural poor. And the Brazilian people, they say, are at the forefront.

Antonio Canuto, communications secretary of the Brazilian bishops’ land commission, said, “The Pontifical Justice and Peace Council recognizes, with this document, the work carried out by the church in Brazil, especially through it’s Pastoral Land Commission. It provides strong support and stimulus for the struggle of workers in their efforts to secure their rights.”

Throughout Latin America, in phone interviews in recent weeks, church leaders echoed Canuto. Speaking from Nicaragua, José Luis Rocha, from the Nitlapán, the rural development initiative of the Jesuit-run Central American University in Managua, called the document “prophetic ... and against the mainstream ... especially at a moment when the climate of neoliberal economics and the individualism it brings with it creates a very negative climate for agrarian reform struggles.”

Against the mainstream

Bishop Julio Cabrera of the Guatemalan highland diocese of El Quiché said the document is “extremely important for many countries in Latin America -- Peru, Brazil, Paraguay and all of the Central American nations.” The text, he said, reaffirms church leaders who for years have demanded more just distribution of land. The document’s emphasis on policies that not only redistribute land but also promote education, technical assistance, access to credit, infrastructure and transportation is key to the document’s importance, Cabrera said.

Pablo Richard, head of the prestigious ecumenical institute in San José, Costa Rica, known by its acronym DEI, said the document is “excellent, opportune and useful,” particularly because it “approaches the issue from the perspective of the Third World.”

Richard said the document’s focus on indigenous peoples’ rights to their land and culture is essential.

“It will help the church begin to pay the huge debt it owes to the indigenous people by strengthening the life and death struggle for culture and identity they confront,” Richard said. Supporters of economic policies that exalt industrialization, modernization and technological advancement, he said, would rather “see the peasants and Indians simply disappear.”

But from a Third World perspective, Richard said, the council’s text “breathes with the spirit of the social movements of Latin America” and, by urging Catholics to shout, Basta! (“Enough!”) to individual and collective sins surrounding land tenancy, it helps the church “recuperate the prophetic tone it has lost.”

The pontifical council’s treatise on agrarian reform, he said, suggests “it is possible for the church to assume a firm and decisive attitude opposing the unbridled free-market system.” This, Richard said, “is a sign of hope for the construction of alternatives.”

Guatemala’s Bishop Cabrera pointed out, however, that applying the principles outlined in the agrarian reform document is a daunting task.

“So much depends on the governments and their policies, not on the church. As far as those in power are concerned,” Cabrera said, declarations about land reform “are often just pretty words.”

He compared the difficulty of putting the text into practice to “walking down a muddy road where even four-wheel-drive vehicles get stuck.” In Guatemala, where 62 percent of the arable land is in the hands of 2 percent of the population, the mere use of the words agrarian reform creates, he said, “explosions ... serious problems.”

Roberto Oliveros of the Jesuit Theological Institute in Mexico City agreed with Cabrera about the difficulties of putting the document into practice. “We’ve seen even stronger documents, but they gather dust in our libraries. They are not given life,” he said.

He linked the pontifical council’s text, with a line of Vatican documents that “express well the prophetic gospel spirit.” But, “the problem is not that we don’t have a good magisterium. The problem is disobedience to the good magisterium,” he said. In Chiapas, the Mexican state that has been the focus of much of Oliveros’ work, “the document will enrich and confirm the road already traveled by the diocese of San Cristóbal.” He said he thinks it could push the church to put more pressure on the government.

Speaking from Bogotá, Colombia, where Oliveros and other theologians were evaluating the results of the recent Synod of Bishops for America, Richard of Costa Rica’s DEI said the agrarian reform document was refreshing after the “perverse, destructive and heretical” text on the laity produced by the Vatican during the synod.

Orionite Fr. Antonio Aparecido da Silva, a Brazilian who was also at the Bogotá meeting, said the document did not surprise him, considering the critical stance the Vatican and the Latin American bishops took during the synod in regards to the neoliberal economic model. “The Vatican’s position is a critical one: The [neoliberal economic] model does not respond to the elemental needs of people. In this context, the land reform document complements the magisterium.”

Back to see, judge, act

Da Silva said the text represents an “attentive following” of the voice of the Latin American church and that it will strengthen the Brazilian church’s work with the landless. Richard, Cabrera and others emphasized the importance of the document’s methodology. It adopts the “see, judge, act” model used for years by liberation theologians and base communities. The method was discredited by some Vatican officials in the early 1990s, said Richard, who views the new document as a restoration of the model.

“This methodology, which follows the Latin American see, judge, act [model] used at Medellín and Puebla, has had a strong influence,” González said. He was referring to past meetings of Latin American bishops at Medellín, Colombia, and Puebla, Mexico. “The Pontifical Justice and Peace Council is very attentive to the pastoral needs of the people, so it must use this method -- which is inductive, it illuminates, calls for reflection and action -- as a starting point.”

González said the document as a whole was the result of a long process. Since 1989, bishops on ad limina visits to Rome to report every five years on the status of their dioceses have emphasized land reform as a pressing issue. “There were bishops not just from Latin America, but from Australia, Asia, Africa and so on,” he said. Four years ago, Msgr. Diarmuid Martin, secretary of the Pontifical Justice and Peace Council, began more systematic consultation on the issue. Diocesan offices for social pastoral policy channeled concerns from the local churches to the council. A team of agricultural and legal scholars assisted with the writing of the text, which was originally four times longer than the published version.

This consultative process will continue, González said. “We want to know how governments, nongovernmental institutions, banks, economic sectors all respond. The idea is to really put the social doctrine of the church into practice.”

Every human being, the document states, has a natural and primary right to the earth’s goods, and this right “cannot be overridden by any other economic right but must be upheld and implemented through laws and institutions.” A “social mortgage” exists on private property that limits rights to it. Thus, in Aquinan tradition, “When a person is in extreme necessity, he has the right to supply himself with what he needs out of the riches of others.”

While the document assures that just compensation is due in the case of appropriation of property, it is this line of thinking, according to Mark Falcoff, resident scholar and Latin America expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, that could elicit strong responses from economic and political elites.

“The theology that God made all of the wealth for everyone ... is something that will not fly well politically in some places like Brazil,” Falcoff said. “It will lead to confrontations between the Catholic hierarchy and the government.”

Dominican Fr. Ricardo Rezende, who worked with dispossessed peasants for 20 years in the Amazon region of the state of Pará, said such rumblings have already begun in Brazil. In a telephone interview, Rezende said that Cardinal Lucas Moreira Neves, the conservative president of the Brazilian bishops conference, suggested publicly that the government should re-examine the document because it does indeed include the Brazilian reality.

Canuto of the Brazilian bishops’ land commission, meanwhile, reported that, although President Cardoso maintained his denial that the Vatican document applied to Brazil, spokespersons from powerful economic sectors reacted to it negatively. The president of a national association of large landowners and ranchers, Roosevelt Roque dos Santos, for example, warned that “the church should be more careful in divulging documents like this because it could provide incentive for land invasions.”

Narciso Clara, from a similar organization, accused the Vatican of acting as an “apologist for crime.”

In El Salvador, where the concentration of land was a primary cause of the nation’s bloody 12-year civil war, Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez said the strength of the document and reactions to it will depend on how widely it is publicized. “Right now, no one is losing sleep over it because practically no one had seen it,” he said. “I think it is quite an inspiration.”

International dimension

The document does not limit responsibility for the injustices surrounding the use and tenancy of land to the policies of national ruling classes in developing countries. It goes deeper, critiquing the “presence of important foreign interests concerned about the effects of any reform on their economic activities.”

It appeals to “those who have the problems of the world of agriculture and general economic development at heart, especially those in national and international positions of responsibility.”

The document critiques economic development models that force small farmers to grow export crops rather than producing food for basic consumption. These policies can put “farming families at considerable risk” by exposing them to a circle of debt that can eventually “force them to give up ownership of their land.”

Consumers worldwide are reminded of their participation in this situation and in the phenomenon of world hunger in general. “While the use of land for export production reduces food costs in countries with developed economies, it can have very negative effects on most of the families who live from farming,” the text states. “No thinking mind or conscience can countenance this paradoxical situation.”

The document runs upstream of current conventional economic wisdom, encouraging governments worldwide to implement macroeconomic policies based on the principle that “farmers’ rights to enjoy the fruits of their labor are just as important as consumer rights, especially as concerns taxation and monetary issues and trade with other countries.”

It does not explicitly, however, provide a clear critique of “economic growth” as the only path to development and well-being. And the writers are ambivalent on the issue of individual or collectively owned land -- a crucial point for indigenous communities. Collective ownership in the case of indigenous peoples, it states, is a “fundamental element for their survival and well-being while making an equally basic contribution to the protection of natural resources.” Then, it takes a step in the other direction, seeming to accommodate the free-trade impetus: “Defense and development of community ownership ought not to blind us to the fact that this type of ownership is bound to change. Any action aimed purely at guaranteeing its preservation would run the risk of binding it to the past and thus destroying it.”

Large landowners or national and international companies who misappropriate the land of peasants and indigenous people, however, come under powerful criticism for creating situations that “not only increase inequalities in the distribution of the goods of the earth but usually lead to the destruction of a part of these goods of the earth.”

This occurs because these actors “bring about ways of exploiting the land that upset balances between the human person and the environment that have been built up over centuries, thus causing major environmental degradation.”

These acts “should be seen as a sign of man’s disobedience to God’s command to act as guardian and wise administrator of creation,” the text states, and this “sinful disobedience has a very high price, for it causes a particularly shameful lack of human solidarity, striking the weakest and future generations.”

The ripple effect of this trend is immense: “Perverse inequalities in the distribution of common goods and in each person’s opportunities for development, as well as the dehumanizing imbalances in individual and collective relationships brought about by such a concentration, are the causes of conflicts that undermine the very life of society.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 3, 1998