1. Introduction: Liberation Theology, the Catholic Church, and Land Reform in Brazil
Liberation theology, defined by one writer as “an interpretation of Christian faith out of the experience of the poor,” has been widely recognized as an important development in theology and Latin American history that helped spark social movements across South and Central America in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s (Berryman 4). Faced with the reality of growing economic injustice and the spread of revolutionary movements and ideas throughout Latin America, Church officials began to think of social action as one of the commands of Christ, not just the work of radical leftists. Many writers and theologians also began to use the term “preferential option for the poor” to describe this duty. By saying that the Church was “preferential” towards the poor, these leaders suggested that support for the lives of the poor was not just a part of Church work, but should be their primary area of focus and take precedence over support for the wealthy and elites, with whom the Church had historically been aligned. Although the precise manifestation of this understanding differed according to country and locale, the late 1960s saw a major growth in priests and Church leaders refocusing on and going to the poor (Berryman).
The breadth of Catholic faith across Brazil’s population combined with the nation’s historically extreme wealth gap made Brazil a fertile country for the theory and practice of liberation theology. Brazil came under the rule of a U.S.-supported military government in 1964, and amongst other measures to suppress dissent, protect national security, and support large-scale international investment and development in Brazil’s economy was a strict regulation on people’s organizations and frequently violent punishment for groups or entities that gave support to the poor. But because of the Church’s historical connection to Brazil’s government and its respect amongst national elites, priests and Church organizations had some leeway; until the end of Brazil's military government in 1985, Church organizations were the only groups legally able to work with and organize the poor (Wright and Wolford 2003). The Catholic Church was thus able to play a crucial role in supporting the first social movements that developed as the military government began its period of abertura (opening) in the late 1970s and early 80s. Progressive Church leaders’ goals of increasing people’s critical and political awareness aligned with the practical goals of movements geared toward gaining land access and rights for Brazil’s rural poor.
The primary organization defending human rights and working with the poor at this time was the Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT), or Pastoral Land Commission. The CPT was founded in 1975 after a resolution at the Assembly of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB) that recognized the violent repression against workers and Church leaders that many bishops and priests had seen in their parishes and declared a need to articulate the Church’s response by way of an official organization (CPT 1997). The CPT was thus Catholically-affiliated and designed specifically to give assistance to rural peasants. Although it eventually spread across all of Brazil, the CPT started and was strongest in the Amazon. Apart from the
violent conflicts between small-scale, poor farmers working the land for subsistence (posseiros) and large, Sharp