Brazil to fight invasions by landless workers: official

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil’s right-wing government under President Jair Bolsonaro will seek to classify invasions of farmland by landless workers movements as akin to terrorism, with harsher penalties for perpetrators, an Agriculture Ministry official said on Monday.

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Nabhan Garcia, land issues secretary at the ministry, said the government must convince the National Congress to change the law to more stringently deal with such invasions and give police broader autonomy to act against invaders.

“It is the challenge of this government to demonstrate to Congress that this is a thing very close to terrorism, or it could be said in some circumstances is terrorism, and to have a more severe application of the law,” Garcia told reporters.

Farmers have formed a key support base that helped Bolsonaro win the presidency, with a list of producer-friendly policies are now at the center of his agenda after he assumed office Jan. 1.

Garcia founded the far-right group UDR that is militantly opposed to land invasions. His newly created secretariat of land issues consolidates previously disparate powers over rural land reform and demarcation of indigenous territory under the Agriculture Ministry.

Garcia made the remarks in response to a land invasion in the northern state of Para, the first incident under Bolsonaro’s presidency, noting that hundreds of such invasions are underway around the country.

The landless workers movement MST behind many of these invasions was a major supporter of former leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Many landless workers’ movements seek to take over properties in the name of social and economic justice to more equally distribute rural wealth, but farmers argue this flies in the face of the country’s property laws.

Garcia favors land reform initiatives already in place that redistribute land classified as “unproductive” to the rural poor. But he said laws must be respected and invasions by force would not be tolerated.

Watchdog groups say that police, often under the sway of powerful local landowners, frequently get away with bloodshed against landless activists.

While campaigning in Para last year, Bolsonaro strongly defended the police, saying they shot and killed 19 activists in a bloody episode in 1996 because they feared for their lives.

Also on Monday, Garcia offered the government’s support to foreign investors interested in buying land in Brazil, a prohibited practice that would require legalization by Congress.

Reporting by Jake Spring and Anthony Boadle; Additional reporting by Brad Brooks; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Richard Chang