WEAPONS IN THE BATTLE FOR TERRITORIAL CONTROL: capitalistic uses of fire against rural peoples

by Gustavo Serafim

On August 19, 2019, fire clearly became a kind of weapon in rural conflicts in Brazil. On that occasion, landowners conspired to set fire and attack entire communities and their forest areas in south-western of Pará state, in what became known as the “Day of Fire.” The case of the Terra Nossa Sustainable Development Project (Projeto de Desenvolvimento Sustentável, PDS), in that same region, shows how systematic this practice has become[1]. Capital raised its head in that offensive and continues to do so: one year later, in 2020, fires devastating the Pantanal region began at the same time in many cattle ranches[2]; three years later, in August 2022, preparations for a new “Day of Fire” were detected in Mato Grosso state[3].

This dynamic is, actually, not so new; during Bolsonaro’s government, however, it has been repeated and intensified. To explain this reality, Agro É Fogo network led the Dom Tomás Balduíno Documentation Center of the Pastoral Land Commission (CEDOC/CPT) to start reporting fires as one of 18 forms of violence against land occupations and land tenure[4] in 2021. This data differs from that of other sources related to wildfires, which use aerial images to count hotspots, such as the National Institute for Space Research (INPE). This survey reports fires as events related to conflicts in the countryside, involving the use of fire by capitalists and their allies[5] against traditional, indigenous, quilombolas[6], peasant, and rural workers’ communities as a whole. They represent a different way of analyzing the same hazard: arson.

A single hotspot can represent many different things that an aerial satellite image cannot identify. Is that hotspot caused by traditional fire management employed by communities? Or was it a land grabber who set fire against part of a community?[7] On the ground, a single hotspot can be just as serious as a large number of hotspots, because they mean different things: that single hotspot can be a house set on fire by a gold digger in a violent action to kill a worker; on the other hand, a controlled burn or traditional fire management can also cause a large number of hotspots.

To overcome this difficulty, it is necessary to listen and document situations directly from the people and communities attacked, as primary sources. Without reports by the people actually involved on what happened, we are unable to certify the violence[8].

Conflicts involving fire are catalogued along with all the other conflicts reported and analyzed each year in the Caderno de Conflitos no Campo – Brasil (Conflicts in the Brazilian Countryside), by the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT). This survey is done both through regular clipping – from social media, and news and social movements websites – and from primary reporting by the CPT’s own grassroots teams. At the core of this approach are the voices of communities. Their testimonials allow us to understand the context of each case, the perpetrators of each conflict, when the fire started, what it destroyed, what scars it has left. Such nuances can hardly be captured by the cold objectivity of a satellite.

Fire outbreaks may decrease, but the number of conflicts involving fire may even increase in the same period. As we shall see, this was the situation in Mato Grosso in 2021, when the number of hotspots fell, despite being the state with the second highest number of conflicts involving fire.

In this article, we summarize this violence and identify the main perpetrators of such conflicts, the different forms of fire used as weapons against communities, the main targets of the violence, and certain differences between the Amazon, Cerrado and Pantanal regions.

In this dossier, read more in “Fire, Destruction and Violence in the Terra Nossa Sustainable Development Project (PDS), in Pará”: [colocar link]

Valor Econômico. 27/08/2022. “Investigação descobre preparativos para novo ‘dia do fogo’ em Mato Grosso”. Available here (in Portuguese); Accessed on: 26/09/2022.

In the Violence for Land category, which covers violence against land occupations and holdings, we find the following forms of violence: Threat of Judicial Eviction, Threat of Expulsion, Contamination by Pesticides, Illegal Deforestation, Judicial Eviction, Destruction of Houses, Destruction of Belongings, Destruction of Crops, Expulsion, Omission/Complicity, Armed aggression, Invasion, Fires, Impeding access to collective use areas, Land Grabbing, Assault on Living Conditions.
We define rural capitalists as the ensemble of classes who live off the expropriation of land, the exploitation of natural resources, and the exploitation of labor in order to accumulate capital. They include landowners, land grabbers, large agribusiness companies, and large undertakings in the countryside, among others.
Quilombolas are peasant’s black communities, descended from enslaved people.
When we receive documents mentioning hot spots that affect communities, we try to confirm with organizations close to them through our fact-checking process, to determine if it is really a conflict. If there is no new information, the conflict is reported as having an unknown perpetrator, to avoid duplications in the number of conflicts. The many criteria used when checking the information include where the fire came from, whether the document gives other information about neighboring farms, among other facts. Accordingly, there are times when hundreds or thousands of hotspots are reported as a single conflict, to avoid overestimating the number of conflicts.

Beyond satellites, what the data shows for 2021

In 2021, 142 conflicts involving fire occurred in Brazil in 132 communities[9], affecting 37,596 families[10]. Some communities were attacked more than once, highlighting the systematic use of terror, with fire as a weapon.

Seasonal conflicts involving fire

In 2021, conflicts with fire in the Amazon and Cerrado regions occurred mostly during the dry season, when it is easier for arsonists to spread forest fires. This is also why the dry season is often used as an alibi to cover up criminal actions against rural communities.

72% of the 142 conflicts involving fire in 2021 took place in the four months between July and October, most of them through the spreading of forest fires.

132 communities suffered fires in rural conflicts in 2021, some of them more than once during the year. This is why the number of conflicts is greater than the number of communities.
According to the methodology used by the federal statistics authority (IBGE), each family is composed of four people.

Conflicts involving fire, state by state

The states of Mato Grosso do Sul (26 incidents), Mato Grosso (22), Bahia (14), and Rondônia (10) accounted for 50.7% of all conflicts with fire in 2021.

In Mato Grosso do Sul, besides the fires that spread and impacted 13 communities in the Pantanal in August and September, there were several reports of fires against the Guarani and Kaiowá peoples. Within the Cerrado-Atlantic Forest transition zone, in the municipality of Dourados, are the Tekoha Avae’te and Aratikuty’s retaken lands. In less than ten days, in late August and early September 2021, these communities were subjected to four attacks, in which families were threatened with gunfire and three houses were set afire. The attacks are part of local landowners’ strategy to expel indigenous people from their land, using armed private security forces, armored bulldozer tractors (known as “caveirão”, “big skull”) and arson[11].

The Guarani and Kaiowá peoples face a complex situation of conflicts and land leases, worsened by the entrance of neo-Pentecostal churches. In this context, arsons are also used to target prayer houses, which are communitarian and sacred spaces[12]. There have even been aggressions against women prayer-leaders (rezadeiras) accused of witchcraft by neo-Pentecostal churches. In the Rancho Jacaré Indigenous Land (TI), in the municipality of Laguna Carapã, about 58 km from Dourados, three incidents involving the burning of three prayer houses were reported on August 18, October 19, and November 21. The Avae’te and Takuapiry retaken lands in Dourados, the Amambai village and the Guapo’y retaken land in the municipality of Amambai were also victims of this campaign, with a total of four houses burned down in September and October 2021.

The Guarani and Kaiowá peoples alone suffered ten fire-related incidents in 2021. In addition to those mentioned above, the Ita’y Ka’aguyrusu/Ita’y Kagurusu retaken land in Douradina and the Pirakuá Indigenous Land between Bela Vista and Ponta Porã were also victims of fires as direct weapons.

In 2021, 142 conflicts involving fire occurred in Brazil in 132 communities, affecting 37,596 families. Some communities were attacked more than once, highlighting the systematic use of terror, with fire as a weapon.

Seasonal conflicts involving fire

In 2021, conflicts with fire in the Amazon and Cerrado regions occurred mostly during the dry season, when it is easier for arsonists to spread forest fires. This is also why the dry season is often used as an alibi to cover up criminal actions against rural communities.


Cimi, September 2021: “Em série de ataques, seguranças privados queimam casas Guarani Kaiowá em Dourados (MS)”. Available here (in Portuguese).

The prayer houses contain the chiru, a religious instrument in the shape of a cross or stick, vital to the people’s spirituality. It is made of balsam wood and is passed on from generation to generation.

Geographic distribution of fire-related conflicts and their perpetrators

Conflicts involving fire have occurred in all the biomes, designated by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). The continuous Cerrado biome and its transition zones concentrate 54% of all fire conflicts in Brazil in 2021. The Cerrado region is a leading front for expansion of Brazil’s agricultural and ranching frontier, known as Matopiba (Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí, and Bahia states), where crops and livestock pastures are encroaching on peasant territories.

Of all the conflicts that took place in the Amazon, Caatinga, Atlantic Forest, and Pantanal biomes, 19% occurred only in the Cerrado’s transition areas[13], expanding the potential for conflicts spreading into its neighboring ecological regions.

To some degree, this parallels overall data on conflicts in rural areas: development projects, such as Amacro and Matopiba together accounted for 19% of all conflicts in 2020 and 25% in 2021[14]. The Amacro is also knowns as the “Abuanã-Madeira Sustainable Development Zone”, and covers areas in the Amazon, Acre and Rondônia states[15], in transition zones between the Cerrado and the Amazon biomes. Together, Amacro and Matopiba reported 36% of conflicts involving fire in 2021. That is, such fires are even more concentrated in these areas when compared to conflicts in other regions of Brazil. As illegal deforestation, fires are violent acts playing a significant role in the expansion of the agricultural frontier.

As for the perpetrators of conflicts involving fire, while 57% of the cases caused by farmers took place in the Cerrado and its transition zones, 82% of the conflicts provoked by loggers were in the Amazon. Conflicts caused by entrepreneurs, on the other hand, were concentrated in the Atlantic Forest, with 50% of the occurrences.

There are several occurrences whose perpetrators are unknown because it is very difficult to identify who set the fire, and there are no police investigations. Nevertheless, ranchers, land grabbers and large leaseholders are responsible for the most fire-related conflicts (28%). In rural extractive activities, loggers, garimpeiros (illegal miners)[16], and mining companies account for 10% of the total number of conflicts. The “entrepreneur” category, encompassing large agribusiness companies, large rural companies, and real estate speculators, is responsible for another 9% of the conflicts. As we shall see below, the fires are associated with broader contexts of invasions, illegal deforestation, and land grabbing, that is, activities linked to the expansion of agribusiness.

Who are the victims of fire-related violence?

Indigenous peoples suffer the highest number of fire attacks in rural conflicts (39%), followed by quilombolas and traditional communities (21%), highlighting the greed for traditionally occupied lands. Agrarian reform settlers (14%), squatters (11%), and landless farmworkers (8%) come next.

Traditional communities with documented cases include geraizeiros, rubber tappers, riverine, fishing, fundo e fecho de pasto[17], and traditional extractive communities.

Although fundo e fecho de pasto communities are found only in the state of Bahia, they have suffered 5% of all fire-related conflicts in 2021. Among them are Fecho de Pasto Vereda da Felicidade, and the communities Cacimba Velha, Cacimbinha, Lagoa do Virgulino, Comandante and Baixão do Jacu, Caboclo dos Mangueiras, and Baixão do Egídio, with most attacks occurring in the dry month of August. In this case, the Campo Alegre de Lourdes Forum of People’s Organizations suspects that mining companies are behind the actions to expel peasants from their territory.

Cerrado transition areas are categorized here based on the methodology used by the Laboratory for Social Movement and Territoriality Studies (LEMTO) at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF).

See CHAGAS, Afonso M. Das (2022). “Violência estrutural dos conflitos agrários no Brasil”. In: Conflitos no Campo Brasil 2021. Centro de Documentação Dom Tomás Balduíno CPT Nacional: Goiânia. Available here.

The term “garimpeiro” in Brazil refers to the person that exploits mining substances, in watercourses or on land, with various levels of technological complexity. The garimpo mining process is carried out by informal groups or cooperatives of miners, in hierarchical schemes. There is, for example, the figure of the “owner of the garimpo”, who is the illegal owner of the mineral exploitation and of all the extracted products. The garimpo hides corrupt schemes in which big businessmen and politicians participate invisibly. Most of the garimpo in Brazil takes place within indigenous lands and preservation areas, which is absolutely illegal. Here we use the term “illegal mining” or “gold mining” to refer to garimpo due to the predominance of this kind of mineral exploitation.
Geraizeiras are peasant communities that have a strong relationship with the commons of the Cerrado, known as Gerais. Fundo e fecho de pasto communities are traditional pastoralist communities from Cerrado’s plateau-valley landscapes of the west of Bahia state.

Types of Fire Use in Conflict: Two Capitalistic Weapons

Fire can be used in two ways against rural peoples. The first one – and the one that gains more prominence in the media – is forest arson[18], which result from the use of fire as a weapon to consolidate land grabbing. Generally, they are caused by invaders in a more distant and anonymous way, which is why it is so difficult to identify where the actions started: 64% of the perpetrators of fires appear in the CPT database as undetermined. This is also due to delays in the investigation of cases.

Because it is not controlled fire, it spreads especially during the dry season and – intentionally or not – often reaches areas in rural communities. Its impact is no less serious, because it can destroy 60% or more of a community’s territory[19], and even cause droughts that last into the following year[20].

The level of violence and brutality is even higher in the second form of violence, when fire is used as a direct and explicit weapon. Without even hiding their faces, hired gunmen invade territories and burn houses, places of worship, crops, and belongings in order to impose fear and to expel, contain, or silence rural peoples. In these cases, only 10% of the culprits are reported as undetermined, cases in which impunity and the refusal to investigate once again prevail.

Both forest arson and the burning of community assets are weapons to control more territory in the drive to expand agribusiness, but they are different approaches to achieving that end. One destroys the conditions for the existence of communities’ livelihood, while the other attacks their people directly to strike fear.

The way each approach complements the other in the context of rural violence is striking. When we look at the 132 communities hit by fire-related conflicts in 2021, 27% of them suffered the destruction of houses, 27% suffered the destruction of other possessions, and 24% suffered invasions. The role of arson in the cycle of land grabbing is also outrageous, as 26% of these communities suffered from illegal deforestation and 11% of them were victims of land grabbing. It gets even worse in areas of the Legal Amazon, where 44% of communities hit by fires also suffered from illegal deforestation and 18% from illegal land occupation.

In comparison, of the 102 conflicts involving forest fires in Brazil, only 41% are associated with other forms of violence. Of the 40 cases of more direct use of fire as a weapon[21], 95% were associated with at least one other form of violence.

While the most prevalent use of forest fires is against indigenous people, the direct use of fire as a weapon mostly hits peoples and communities who are fighting to expand and acquire their territories (indigenous people in retaken areas, landless farmworkers, and deedless squatters). That was the case in the São Vinicius Camp, in Pará, in the Olhos D’Água Camp, in Minas Gerais, in the Maria Bonita Camp, in Tocantins, and with the Guarani and Kaiowá people who were directly attacked with fire.

To counteract the federal government’s absolute inaction in the face of criminal fires, after the “Day of Fire” and the fires in the Pantanal, several state governments launched large-scale temporary fire brigade hiring programs and set up more monitoring and firefighting infrastructure, for example in the state of Mato Grosso[22]. Even some private agribusiness brigades were set up[23].

Mainstream media has already suggested the magic solution of making agribusiness and its criminal fires something “sustainable”. This is part of an attempt to promote an idea that only a multi-class approach can fight such fires, as if the criminal fires were caused simply by the carelessness of large landowners and large undertaking projects, on the one hand, and by traditional communities, indigenous people, and farm workers, on the other. The two classes, however, are not equally impacted by fire, nor are they on anything like equal footing, as victims and perpetrators.

There is still much to be done. The data show that the fire-related conflicts are part of a broader context of land grabbing and illegal deforestation, some of which involves the outright invasion of territories and the destruction of belongings, crops, homes, and places of worship. This is a strategy of territorial appropriation by ranchers, land grabbers, loggers, and corporations that use fire as a weapon. All this information goes beyond what mere satellite data can convey. In conclusion: as long as there is agribusiness, there will be arson!

It should be noted that fires in rural communities caused by lightning or by the rupture of electric wiring, for example, are not counted as conflicts. Nor have we included cases in which a communities’ own traditional fire gets out of control and spreads.

This happened in 2017 in the Tadarimana Indigenous Land, in Mato Grosso, when 60% of the territory was destroyed in a fire. See: G1 Globo. 20/10/2017. Causas de incêndio que destruiu 60% de terra indígena são investigadas em MT. Available here. Accessed on: 17/05/2022.

According to Daniel Maciel, who lives in the São Francisco riverside community, in the Paraguay Mirim region, in the Pantanal: “The environment was very out of balance in the region. Today we can’t plant anything there. New pests have appeared, like rats. After the snakes died in the fire, the number of other animals increased. They destroy everything we plant. (…) With the fire came the drought and the fish died or disappeared. Today, we live off the help of friends, neighbors, and NGOs.” Available here (in Portuguese). Accessed on: 17/05/2022.

Among these other forms of violence, we consider those in which fire is related to the burning of houses, burning of prayer houses, burning of belongings, or burning of croplands

Diário de Cuiabá. 14/04/2022. “MT vai investir R$ 64 milhões no combate às queimadas”. Available here. Accessed on: 03/10/2022.

G1 GLOBO. 17/07/2022. “Brigada busca prevenir e combater incêndios no Pantanal”. Available here. Accessed on: 03/10/2022.

Gustavo Serafim is employed as a documentalist at the Dom Tomás Balduíno Documentation Center of the Pastoral Land Commission (CEDOC/CPT) and works on the Agro é Fogo Network team.

Valéria Santos and Diana Aguiar collaborated in the interpretation of the data, especially by suggesting how to aggregate community data and deal with the Cerrado, Amazon, and Pantanal categories.