By Andrea Guerra
Fr. Dennis Koltz, an American PIME Missionary serving in the Diocese of Macapà, Brazil, was hit repeatedly and had his car rammed by a fazendeiro, for investigating license irregularities for a plot of land. An act of violence that is part of the daily war that strips small, Amazonian farmers of their rights in favor of large soybean growers.
Fr. Dennis Koltz, who has lived in Brazil for years, was attacked on Tuesday, February 25th. A time when the rest of the country was busy celebrating Carnival. The attack took place in the territory of the Diocese of Macapá, where the missionary works and resides. More specifically, it took place in São Benedito da Campina. Fr. Denis, in addition to being parish administrator of São Joaquim Parish in Pacuí, also works for the Pastoral Care of the Earth. It was during one such pastoral visit that this happened.
THE FACTS- Fr. Dennis was in the car with Fr. Sisto Magro, PIME, the coordinator of the Pastoral Care of the Earth (CPT) of the Diocese of Macapá. The two stopped their car near a large fazenda, and Fr. Dennis got out to take a picture of a license plate with information about the ownership of that tract of land. The law requires that signs with information about the land’s concessions must be placed in plain sight. In the case of this sign, the plate was quite hidden, according to the story of the two missionaries. It was for this reason that it was deemed suspicious. It was at this point that a man who presented himself as the owner of the fazenda ran to Fr. Dennis. A violent verbal discussion began, ending with the man’s physical assault on the missionary.
FATHER DENNIS- The man, at first, tried to take and break the keys to the missionaries’ car, then repeatedly struck Fr. Dennis in the face and in the side. Following this altercation, he got into his vehicle and rammed into the priests’ truck several times, destroying its right side. “As if that weren’t enough, the man also filed a complaint saying that Fr. Dennis had invaded his property, which was not true,” says Fr. Sisto, who witnessed the scene. “And he also stated that Fr. Denis tried to run him over in his car, which is why he reacted the way he did, to try to escape the siege.” Fr. Sisto’s report, complete with medical examinations carried out on Fr. Dennis, is part of the official communiqué issued by the Communications Office of the Diocese of Macapá.
SOLIDARITY- Fortunately, Fr. Dennis did not report any serious injuries. However, there is great concern for the safety of the priests and laity who work for the Pastoral of the Earth. In Brazilian Portuguese, the organization is the “CPT” or Comissão Pastoral da Terra, an arm of the CNBB- the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops. Established in 1975, the CPT is committed to promoting land rights, resistance to illegal claims, and sustainable production. The local Diocese, like many other associations and organizations, are engaged in the fight against false land claims, immediately expressed their solidarity with the PIME Missionaries for what happened.
THE EARTH- “The problem concerns the caboclos, the mestizos who for generations have been cultivating land that has never been officially recognized. The State tries to assign them to companies, saying that they bring work, development, and modernity. Amcel, a large cellulose company linked to the Japanese group Nippon Papers Industries, has something like 300,000 hectares of land in its hands,” said Fr. Sisto in an interview with Mondo e Missione. “In 2009, the Japanese multinational company began legal proceedings against several families of small farmers. The judges did not take the situation into account, taking the land of people who have lived here for thirty, forty, or fifty years. Already, 200 families have lost their land because of dubious documents obtained by the Federal Union’s land organization. At least a couple of times a month, I am in court with these people. Without money, they can only defend themselves with public lawyers who often do not even know agricultural law. But we have won some cases, not so many against Amcel, but against the soybean companies. The federal prosecutors got right into these cases, uncovering the pot of concessions. But the situation is still critical,” Fr. Sisto added.
WAR- “In 2017 alone, 26,523 property titles and 97,030 concession contracts were issued, exceeding the sum of the last 10 years. According to the Commission, the undeclared objective of this policy is to benefit the land market, given that many small families have had to give in easily to pressure from agri-food companies and large landowners and sell their plots,” reads a report published in L’Osservatore Romano in January of 2019. A war that claims victims, “More than three people were killed around the world every week in 2018 for defending their land, and the environment in which we live. A total of 164 ordinary citizens, the report contains the complete list of names, were murdered for trying to defend their homes, forests, and rivers from lobbies. Lobbies considered guilty of exploiting their resources for speculative purposes,” reports IlSole24Ore, quoting data from Global Witness’ annual report “Enemies of the State 2019.”
THE SLAUGHTER- In 2019, Brazil counted as many as 23 such murders. In 2005, Sister Dorothy Stang, American Missionary of the Sisters of Our Lady of Namur, was killed. She is still remembered today as a symbol of the struggle for land and, above all, of the readiness of the universal Church to stand by the weakest. “Sometimes, people today in the CPT are threatened, and this worries us. Mostly because Bolsonaro is trying to get Congress to pass a law for which shooting people who invade property is self-defense. What would that mean in the context of the Amazon, where many lands are fazendeiros simply because, one day, they raised fences and put paramilitaries on guard? If one says: No, this is public land, he risks being killed today. We are already being lynched morally because we say these things. But it is public land that should rightfully belong to those who need it most. The truth is that crime against environmental activists still pays off today. You take them out of the way, and you do not go to jail,” Fr. Sisto recounted in 2019.