Part 1: Conflict Mapping and Analysis
Brazil is a land of stark contrasts and diversity. Brazil contains lifestyles that are reminiscent of most developed Western European nations, juxtaposed with those living in slums that bear a striking resemblance to those of India or South Africa. From the vibrant Amazon Rainforest to the arid scrublands, Brazil’s diverse landscape makes it the fifth largest country by area in the world. With 180 million inhabitants, Brazil is also the fifth most populous nation in the world.
It is within this population that the diversity and contrast of the country comes to the fore. Brazilians can trace their ancestral roots to Amero-Indians, Portuguese, African slaves, Germans, Italians, Lebanese, and Japanese. It is impossible to try to understand Brazilian society and the relations within, without expressing just how profound an impact the slave trade had on the country and its consciousness. The Portuguese were some of the worst purveyors of the slave trade, and Brazil was on the receiving end of this one-way trade. Over 10 million Africans were brought to the Americas and the majority of them, 38.5 percent, went to Brazil. For comparison, about 6.45 percent went to the United States.
Economic inequality is rife in Brazil and is based on geography, class, land distribution, and access to education. Land ownership inequality is staggering, as 50 percent of the arable land in Brazil is owned by a mere four percent of the population. Theoretically, the 350,000 indigenous peoples of Brazil lay claim to 11 percent of the land in Brazil, but in practice they are denied this ownership due to years of structural thievery by powerful landowners that trace their roots to Portuguese colonists. The struggle for land equality is the focus of the largest social movement in Latin America, The Landless Workers Movement, or the MST.
There is also conflict between a north and south divide. The northeast of Brazil is characterized by traditional land estate ownership with the majority of the population subsistence farming, which is usually hampered by drought every few years. Meanwhile, the south and southeast enjoy great levels of development and prosperity. Sao Paulo’s economy alone is greater than the whole of Argentina and the neighboring state of Minas Gerais has an economy comparably larger than Chile.
The government agency tasked with improving the lives of the Nordestinos has made little progress, and as a result, urbanization has been rapid in Brazil as people migrate out of these destitute areas. In the last 40 years, Brazil’s population has gone from being two-thirds rural to two-thirds urban. In the 1960s and 1970s, peasants were pushed off their land, and they relocated in great numbers on the hillsides, swamps, and vacant lots surrounding the major urban areas of Brazil, forming what are commonly referred to as favelas. Over the years, favelas have come to be associated with violence and little to no government services. Recently, a more politically correct term, aglomorados urbano de baixa renda, has been used to refer to these areas. It is similar to the distinction between ghetto and an economically depressed urban area, and for the purpose of brevity, favela will be used for the duration of this paper.
The income inequality in Brazil is staggering and one of the worst in the world. While it is steadily narrowing, the richest 10 percent of Brazilians have an income that is 26 times greater than the lowest 40 percent of the population. Brazil has been making strides to reduce this inequality, and according to a report published by the Brazilian group, the Institute of Applied Research, if Brazil maintains the same poverty reduction levels seen between 2003 and 2008, it should have absolute poverty levels near what is considered near-eradication levels of about 4% by 2016. This would put Brazil’s absolute poverty level, the amount of people who make 50 percent of the monthly minimum wage, on par with developed nations.
This inequality is omnipresent and highly visible, particularly in the urban areas, as favelas are side-by-side with new luxury high-rise structures (see photo above). The socio-psychological dynamics of this structural juxtaposition only deepens the divisions. Brazil has recently been awarded several prestigious international sporting events, like the World Cup and the Summer Olympics. The glaring poverty and inequality is a subject of much consternation as the country looks for ways to improve its image before these events. However, some methods are less than desirable, as plans have been approved to spend $17 million to build a series of 10-foot tall Israeli style concrete walls/border fences around 40 of Rio de Janeiro’s notorious favelas. City officials in Rio are claiming that the wall is an effort to check the growth of favelas, as they are expanding uncontrollably into the country-side, while Human Rights advocates argue that they are just one more form of physical division between the rich and poor of Brazil.
The residents of favelas are further psychologically oppressed in that most of the areas they reside in do not formally exist on maps. For most of their existence, favelas have rarely had official street names, and the chaotic ad hoc streets are often an impediment to service provision, and police. Residents have historically been denied access basic utilities like electricity and plumbing, as the development of the favelas was unplanned and rapid.
Residents have been improvising access to the system in the face of such blatant exclusion by fashioning their own connections to the water and electricity grid. Called gatos, these connections are one way these residents are forcing their way into a system that has been historically and structurally shutting them out.
The members of the growing middle class of Brazil, who I would classify as a third party in most of the conflict, are also affected by the socio-psychological dynamics of the violence. One of the most remarkable architectural signs of the division that I noticed while I lived in Brazil were the advanced and complicated security features on the apartments and houses of the middle and upper class. These security systems made the apartments and houses look like prisons, but unlike a prison, they are to keep people out, rather than keep them in. It comes as no surprise that a 2006 report found that 78% of Brazilians polled believe that public security is becoming increasingly worse, as the need for personal security is being fulfilled by private market solutions.
Favelas are notorious for violence and have been the scenes of significant urban warfare. The violence tends to involve two primary actors, gangs and police, with occasional military intervention. However, police in Brazil, particularly those in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, have been accused of very heavy handed responses, and more seriously, extra-judicial killings. Human Rights Watch published a detailed report compiling two years of research in 2009, which highlighted exactly how severe this issue is. The group found that police in the entire states of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro killed over 11,000 people in a six-year period. Further, police in Sao Paulo have killed 2,176 people between 2004 and 2009, which is more than the 1,623 killed by police in all of South Africa. Of these killings, Human Rights Watch found that 51 were killings with substantial evidence indicating that the police shot the suspects and then later falsely reported that the suspect had died resisting arrest, with 17 of these showing point-blank execution style gunshot wounds to the head.
This violence is not just perpetrated by the police. The police are often the target of powerful gangs who try to exploit and expose the state’s inability to keep Brazilians safe. One particularly severe incident was in May of 2006 when a notorious criminal syndicate called the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) started targeting police officers and wrecking havoc in Sao Paulo. The rebellion was sparked by the decision to place key gang leaders in solitary confinement, as it was discovered that most of the gang’s operations are run from prison using cell phones. The PCC attacked government infrastructure like courthouses, police stations, and public transit using a variety of means. Full-scale firefights erupted and bombs were detonated throughout the city. Around 141 people were dead either from being first parties to the conflict, or as a result of indiscriminate violence perpetrated against third parties. The PCC was able to order attacks in other major cities in Brazil, which further demonstrated their strength, but also the fragility of peace in Brazil.
Brazilian gangs and criminal syndicates are largely involved in drug trafficking and make a significant portion of their revenue from middle and upper-class Brazilians, who are some of the biggest consumers in the country. The profits from the drug trade fuel the drug gangs’ ability to buy off corrupt police officials and purchase better weaponry than the police. The relationship between the people who can afford the drugs and the drug gangs leads me to classify some of the middle and upper class Brazilians as secondary parties to the conflict. While middle and upper class Brazilians are supportive of improving the security situation, they are also fueling the conflict, and given the highly visible nature of this conflict, it would be hard for drug consumers to feign ignorance in regards to what their money is supplying.
The arms that the gangs acquire are smuggled in from near and far, including the US. While there are no peace negotiations to spoil, it would be in the interest of the international arms trafficking apparatus, along with the gangs, to keep the conflict going.
Superficially, it would appear that this is just an extremely high problem with criminality. However, the causes of these divisions go much deeper. The majority of favela inhabitants tend to be of stronger African and indigenous descent. They are also more disproportionately undereducated, as the UN reports that even though 98 percent of Brazilian young people are able to go to school, there are 660,000 students that are not in school and 450,000 of them are of African descent. Another indicator of equality, infant mortality, shows that death among white infants is considerably lower than that registered among black infants.
A report published in 2009 further evidenced the inequality by examining the statistics involving adolescent deaths. The report was a collaboration between the Brazilian government, UNICEF, and Observatorio de Favelas, and it created an index of adolescent homicides. The report found that a black Brazilian teen is three times more likely to be killed due to violence than a white teen, and that 5,000 youth between 12 and 18 are killed each year in Brazilian towns and cities.
While the most extreme violence occurs in the cities, it is certainly not the only place where the tensions of this divided society boil over and result in bloodshed. The Landless Worker’s Movement’s struggle for land ownership equality has frequently turned violent, as large unproductive or unused farm properties are the focus of controversial occupations by landless protestors and their supporters. Between 1997 and 2007, there were 1,000 murders reportedly caused by land disputes. Of these, only 53 of the suspected murderers have stood trial for their alleged crimes. While the most frequent perpetrators of this violence are landowners and hired security forces, they are not the only ones capable of massacres.
In 1995, local police were accused of slaughtering peasants in city of Corumbiara, in the state of Rondonia. Around 4am, under the cover of night, police entered an occupational encampment set up by activists and killed 11 people, and most notably, shot a seven year-old girl in the back. The culture of corruption that exists in Brazil explains some of the more ruthless actions of local rural police, as powerful and influential landowners have great political influence in Brazil. However, one massacre is less easily explained.
In April of 1996, MST protestors were peacefully demonstrating on a very rural highway in the southern state of Para, in the city of Eldorado dos Carajas. Military police, the equivalent of our state police apparatus, were ordered by the state’s head of security to remove demonstrators from the highway “at any cost”, as they were blocking traffic. After the police were done “clearing” the highway, 19 landless demonstrators were dead, fired upon at close range, with reports of police using the farmer’s tools to hack them to death. The heavy-handed response sparked outrage in Brazil, and there is no lack of consensus on using the term “massacre” to describe it. However, of the 146 military police and higher ranking officers that stood trial, all were exonerated with only two of the higher ranking officers facing further prosecution, but remaining free on bail while they went through lengthy appeals.
In the state of Para alone, 773 people have been killed in complex land disputes from 1973 until 2006, with only three of the alleged killers or conspirators being prosecuted. While Para has a notoriously inadequate criminal justice system, the story is much the same throughout the country. Judicial proceedings in Brazil require implausible periods of time, careful bureaucratic navigation, and the ability to pay corrupt officials. For a country with such positive signs of development otherwise, to have a record in which only two to ten percent of murder cases go to trial is absolutely backward.
There have been several attempts at judicial reform, with limited success. Judges now have a salary cap a little over $15,000 a month and citizens are no longer required to have a lawyer to file in small claims courts, which most disproportionately affected the claims of poor Brazilians. Even with this piecemeal reform, the court system in Brazil has around 20 million cases that are waiting to be get underway. The US judicial system is by no means perfect, but for comparison, the US Supreme Court ruled on 70 cases in 2008 and the Brazilian Supreme Court had to rule on 22,257 different cases because of an endless ability to appeal. As a result of the inadequate judicial system, it is believed that violent incidents are heavily underreported, which makes knowing the entirety of the situation nearly impossible.
Part II: Transforming the Conflict – Efforts and Ideas
While the conflicts in Brazil are complex and the divisions of society run deep, they are not entirely intractable. As Brazil develops further, these conflicts become more apparent, and draw more attention. This attention has put the government under pressure to resolve or at least ameliorate some of the underlying causes of these conflicts. While the conflicts involving drug gangs and the illegal activity in the favelas are of a zero-sum nature, the conflicts over land disputes are not.
Successful remediation of the conflict between the urban poor and police would have to involve the provision of meaningful alternatives to gaining power through illicit activities. By increasing the equitable access to important resources and further reducing inequalities within the country, Brazil can open the traditional channels of economic and political participation to those who have been historically shut out. This would at least reduce the number of people who join gangs because they are systematically prevented from acceptable means of economic or political power.
The government has the infrastructure and resources to solve the issues surrounding the conflict between landowners and the landless. Article 5 of the Brazilian 1988 constitution mandates that property must “serve a social function”, which it lists as “rational and adequate use, adequate use of available natural resources and preservation of the environment, compliance with the provisions which regulate labor relations, and exploitation which favors the well-being of the owners and workers”. Using this constitutional basis, the Brazilian government has the responsibility to analyze the land in question and make a determination. While progressive land reforms that reallocate unused or underutilized property, and adequately reimburse landowners, would prevent a zero-sum solution, it is constitutionally not required.
Giving both sides what they want does not always work and without serious judicial reform, legal land challenges will not be tried fairly. Prosecuting the murderers of landless protestors might take away the impunity with which the landowners operate and pressure them into working towards peaceful settlements of disputes. While these are fairly large-scale goals, the small incremental successes gained by a few successful prosecutions might go a long way in this regard.
The ripeness of this conflict appears to be reaching a high point. With such a long history of protracted violence with neither side making very many gains, there might be a “mutually hurting stalemate”. Police have given countless interviews expressing how futile their efforts have been. Gang members regularly acknowledge in interviews that it is not a sustainable lifestyle, and reports are finding further evidence of this, with one stating that the average period of staying alive as a gang member hovers around two years. While this might not be strong evidence of both sides recognizing an impasse, these participants are also members of Brazilian society, and Brazilian society is largely of the opinion that public security is deteriorating (i.e. the conflict is becoming worse), as cited in part one.
The conflict involving the landless workers of Brazil might be less ripe, as the MST rightly recognizes that they have successfully retaken land titles for 350,000 people throughout 2,000 of their occupations. There are currently 180,000 members of the MST in occupation camps throughout Brazil that are awaiting official government recognition. With relative judicial impunity, those responsible for violence against the landless will continue to see violence as a viable strategy against the MST.
When examining the conflict involving the urban poor and police, it would appear that both sides see potential “ways out”, as required in Zartman’s ripeness theory. Residents of the favelas know that government institutions are highly corrupt and that they face a particular set of institutionalized challenges that inhibit their economic and political equality. With numerous press outlets constantly reporting on the latest corruption scandals, reform is recognized as a necessity to improving the living situation of all Brazilians. Their way out would involve increased equality in opportunities throughout society.
While there are members of the police apparatus that are not sympathetic to the plight of the poor, there are portions of the police in Brazil who are from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and most police are not highly paid. The rationale for reform as a way of alleviating the underlying causes of the conflict would not be lost on them. If the police had to combat fewer gang members, they would feel quite a bit safer overall. The police constantly remind critics that they are competing for power with gangs that have more resources at their disposal, which puts them at a frequent disadvantage.
Whether or not the conflict is actually ripe for negotiation is hard to determine from my position. I have not found any research that would indicate that leaders in top positions would recognize a way out or indicate that they think they are in a stalemate. Interviews and direct quotes from these people are full of posturing and carefully crafted statements, and the top tends to be in the least amount of danger and reaps the greatest rewards from the conflict.
One of the most relevant areas for conflict regulation potential lies within the realm of involved third parties, and track two negotiations. Civil society in Brazil is particularly vibrant and dense. Classified as the “civic-participatory” model of civil society, Brazilian civil society is characterized by its ability to “broaden the design of local institutions in order to incorporate more participation”. Civil society organizations in Brazil have been filling the void that was left by the historic incapacity of the state to provide meaningful service distribution to all sectors of the population.
Unlike other conflicts, track two actors in Brazil, like civil society organizations, are highly credible. In my own undergraduate research project, I examined examples of how the government is including civil society actors in deliberative processes as a means of better addressing the needs of neglected populations. In particular, I interviewed youth in a favela who regularly visited an NGO.
My interviews were designed to gauge whether they have an increased level of political involvement because of the actions of the National Youth Council, which is a government run council that brings in NGO leaders to help formulate solutions to the problems facing youth in Brazil. The overwhelming consensus that I drew from these interviews was that the government was the one in need of a gain in legitimacy, not civil society actors, as the youth I interviewed all expressed a distrust of the government.
The NGO I examined, Contato, was specifically founded to bridge the divide between youth in the favela and middle and upper class youth. Through creating dialog and friendships, or just “contact”, as their name implies, and giving youth meaningful life skills, they have helped to gain credibility in the favela and among the middle and upper classes as advocates for peace. While this is just one NGO in one city of Brazil, there are dense networks of collaboration and coordination between Contato and other NGOs in Brazil, and the story is much the same across the country.
The conflict between the landless and landowners does not lend itself well to using civil society as a track two negotiator. The main civil society organization involved, the MST, represents the enemy to the landowners, and has likely made them resentful and distrusting of NGOs otherwise. Track one negotiations might have merit, as IGOs and foreign countries have not been as highly critical of the actions of landowners as civil society has. However, the traditional advantage of track one negotiations, pressuring parties to realize that they are being watched, might be a disadvantage. Landowners know they are being scrutinized, but still act with relative impunity because the legal precedent proves there will be little consequence for their actions.
While civil society in Brazil has a higher level of credibility than the government, they also have access to the top levels of government, as the ruling party, the Workers Party (PT), has made it a priority to include important non-state actors in decision-making processes. Civil society is seen as containing a unique expertise on the issue areas that they focus on, and the government has no easy way of matching that expertise at this point. Inviting civil society organizations into government as experts and allowing them to make meaningful contributions to government decisions, as evidenced in the participatory councils, shows the clout of civil society in Brazil.
Lederach’s top, middle, and grassroots level peace building activities are a useful analytical tool to this conflict. A top based approach in Brazil would be prone to failure as the leadership of both sides are too heavily entrenched in politics, corruption, and crime and would unable to negotiate without seemingly losing face. Furthermore, the top-level leaders of the criminal gangs are, in fact, criminals, and the government might suffer even further losses of credibility if they were to allow them impunity. However, as the sources of some of my citations would indicate, branches of influential IGOs, like UNICEF, are heavily involved in studying and helping to alleviate the conflict. Even the World Bank has given financial support for equitable development projects because of the recognition that social equality in Brazil is the “cornerstone” to further development.
Mid-level based peace building activities have already taken place, and with a modicum of success. Civil society leaders have been regularly utilizing their strong relationships with other mid-level leaders in the government and police. They have been able to organize workshops with local police leaders that will give police the training and credibility to be more helpful and trustworthy in the favelas. Civil society has also been able to attract susceptible youth from the grassroots level and provide them with the training and life skills required to seek and demand alternate means of power and access to the system. These approaches work well in conjunction with the grassroots level peace building activities, which are similar to the mid-level approaches, but not carried out by people in leadership roles.
Many of my solutions to this conflict rely on Large and Sisk’s notions of “broadening and deepening participation”. The emphasis on integrating civil society in order to help deepen democracy as a means of strengthening moderation is of the utmost importance to Brazil. By crossing the lines of conflict, many NGOs are fostering relationships between the divides that exist. This is creating a “peace-constituency” among the grassroots on both sides of the conflict, as violence is viewed as less acceptable, and demands for reform of the subsystem, as described in Lederach’s treatment of Dugan’s “Nested Theory of Conflict”, are increasing.
Brazil must deal with the systemic issue of racism. While attempts to do so have been hampered by other systemic issues like corruption and the inefficient judicial system, there has been some progress. Programs and activities that are aimed at the symptoms of the systemic issues have helped to form meaningful relationships across the divisions. These relationships could not have formed on their own because of the systemic issues that inhibit meaningful interactions and relationship building between the groups.
However, even with improved relations between portions of Brazil’s divided society, there is still a need for reconciliation and acknowledgement of past injustices. With some reform of the justice system, reconciliation would be achievable, as Brazil has a solid institutional structure, but just a severe dearth of capacity within it. Reconciliation would be an effective tool in both of the conflicts explored here, as there are many outstanding cases of crimes committed. The Brazilian government regularly demonstrates its capacity to hold similarly structured fact-finding inquiries, and corruption is a regular subject of investigation for these highly publicized commissions. The Brazilian government regularly holds commissions and special fact-finding inquiries that are investigating corruption scandals. The switch to reconciliation commissions would be achievable.
Many aspects of the divisions in Brazilian society could be improved by a few of the small and incremental steps that I have suggested. Symbolic prosecutions of particularly egregious acts committed by the police, landowners, and criminals would send a clear message that impunity from prosecution is not assured any longer. In a country with such an established set of institutions and law, success is much closer than it is in a country with no institutions to start with.
Ending the unique and endemic corruption in Brazil is a goal that could be better achieved by working through the intermediate level and addressing the subsystem issues of inequality and inequitable access to politics and resources. If it is no longer required to a pay a bribe to any level of the bureaucracy, and there are actual legal consequences for being corrupt, institutions can become the legitimate outlet for grievances.
As these incremental successes build up, peace will be more easily achieved in Brazil, as the foundations for the barriers to peace will be broken up. Since there is little need for establishing a different political framework, Brazil has an advantage that puts it closer to peace than other divided societies. Working with well-established institutions on reform makes peace far more achievable than having to build institutions from the ground up. By looking for small successes in the areas I examined, Brazil can reduce the violent nature of the conflicts within its divided society.