A Precursor Of The Fight Against Landgrabbing

Henri Burin des Roziers was a French Dominican, who in Brazil was called the advocate  of “the landless”. He died Sunday, November 26th, 2017 at the age of 87 in the Saint-Jacques convent of Paris even though he would have liked to be in Brazil when “death surprises him.”

Born in Paris in 1930, from a bourgeois Catholic family, he was 17 years old when with the Saint Vincent de Paul Confreres he visited the working class families in the outskirts of Paris. There were five children in his family, but in that visit he discovers families of seven or eight children packed up with their parents in narrow slums. This experience brought him out from his comfort zone: “It struck me a lot – he will comment later – Why was I enjoying such advantages, and not they?”

The Algerian war (1954 – 1962), in which he lived as a second lieutenant between 1954 and 1956, contributed in finally opening his mind to the perception of injustices. In 1957, while obtaining a doctorate in law, he met the Dominican Congar. In Yves Congar he discovered the free spirit of a great theologian who later would infuse that freedom into Vatican II opening it towards the world and the future.

Thus, in 1958, he joined the Dominicans and was ordained a priest in 1963 just in the middle of Vatican II. Afterwards he becomes chaplain of the Law Faculty, in rue d’Assas (Paris) whose paving stones became the weapon of the May 68 student revolution. In a book of interviews, he told how, in those days, he did not hesitate to hide wanted students in Saint-Yves center and, dressed as a priest, to carry them in his car.

He became a worker priest in Besançon and in 1970 in Annecy took care of Tunisian immigrants, employed in small factories and suffering from racism and health problems. There he defended them before the labor courts, engaged himself with tramps and suffered from the refusal of local politicians who did not appreciate his commitment with the poor. He then met the theology of liberation and agreed with his community to move to Brazil where he arrives in 1978.

He started immediately to serve in the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT). This commission, created two years earlier by the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB), had as its  mission to support the agrarian reform and to accompany the peasants’ fight against injustices. In the Amazon, he becomes the advocate of landless peasants and of the forest against major mining projects.

With the end of the dictatorship and the promises of land reform, the landless in Brazil put their hope in the Movement of the Landless (MST), but the “fazendeiros”, the big landowners, were ready to do anything to defend their privileges: peasants were imprisoned and tortured for occupying fallow land. With other Dominicans, Henri fought for their liberation, kept explaining that “complaining” was a way of overcoming the fear of reprisals, accompanied the peasants to the federal police, and defended their family when some of them were murdered.

The “fazendeiros” put a price on his head and Father Henri had to protect himself from possible “pistoleiros” and hit men. In 2005 an American nun, Dorothy Stang, was murdered. “At the time of her assassination, while Dorothea was prized of 50,000 reis, I was 100,000 reis. The state governor imposed protection for me. I could not refuse so as not to be deported from Brazil,” he wrote in his book Comme une rage de justice (Cerf, 2016). He then remembered the words of a liberation theologian Tomas Balduino, one of the Pastoral Commission of the Land’s founders, he had listened long before in Paris: ” Living the Gospel nowadays, is very costly.”

As a scholar in law, theology and philosophy, Henry saw all the implications of injustice and was outraged. In “its region” the Amazon, “In 2010, there were 207 land conflicts, 18 murders and 30 death threats,” he stated in a conference shortly before his death. The legion of honor knight, he received in 2005 an international award for Human Rights, and now just joined the legion of all faith members who understood that the Land is of God. And fought for a land  administration tempered with justice. “His life, after all, was in perfect harmony with his ideas,” said his niece Aude Ragozin.

John Paul Pezzi, mccj
VIVAT International NGO
with consultative special status at UN


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