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Internet bishop sets mouse on injustice

If the name of Bishop Herbert Hermes sounds familiar, that may be because the Sept. 19, 1997, NCR carried a story about his work with the destitute in Brazil.

The bishop, a Kansas-born Benedictine monk who has spent 35 years in Brazil, is back, sort of out of the blue, via some surprise E-mail messages. He’s excited about that.

“Dear Ones All,” he begins. “With my E-mail I am spreading the word to you in the states and also to friends and human rights organizations in Brazil, Italy, Mexico and Nicaragua. Possibly I will be able to get [my message] into our Human Rights Home Page and thus reach a wider group of people.”

What he is trying to reach us about is, once again, “seriously tragic.” In Campos Lindos, in Brazil’s newest state, Tocantins, a team of Japanese and Brazilian developers are planning soybean production.

There’s just one problem. “Before the forest can be cleared, the people must be cleared off,” Hermes said. Last May, the governor, Jose Wilson Siqueira Campos, declared the entire area state property. He paid 27 ranchers, who were in fact absentee landlords, money for their so-called legal title to the land.

The governor’s purchase decree doesn’t even mention more than 100 families who “have been living on and cultivating this land for periods of up to 100 years. By Brazilian law they have a legal right to their land.” But Hermes presumes they will get nothing. They “live in isolated clusters of thatched huts, cultivate small patches of rice and beans and cannot read or write. They feel helpless before the power of the governor and his Japanese associates.”

These injustices have an added topicality in light of the recent Vatican document on land distribution and use (NCR, March 3).

One problem with such injustices has traditionally been the inability of the oppressed to focus the world’s spotlight on their problems. This is why Bishop Hermes is excited. With the Internet he can now vault over the barriers with which oppressors, who owned the media, have always kept the word from getting out. Monk that he is, he knows the power of the word.

He wishes to ask and he wishes us to ask as well: Do the Japanese people and government and banks know what is happening in the state of Tocantins? And with E-mail he intends to let them know.

He asks, further, that all financing of the Tocantins State Development be suspended until a just solution is found. The settlers aspire to an equitable solution: compensation for loss of home and crops, and fertile land with legal titles in another area nearby.

The next request is to us in the First World who can shine that embarrassing spotlight on behalf of those who can’t. “We ask you to show solidarity by communicating your disapproval to the Japanese and Brazilian governments, directly or through their embassies, and to get more people, especially those with political weight, to give their support to this cause.”

One can see history in the making here. With E-mail and such, the exploiters can run but they can’t hide. To ensure this, Bishop Hermes supplies Gov. Siqueira Campos’ fax: 0055-63-2181091/2181092, and E-mail: gabgov@nutecnet.com.br; and a fax for the Japanese embassy in Brazil: 0055-63-2420738; and the fax of local Bishop Dom Joao José Burke of Miracema do Tocantins: 0055-63-8341654; and finally Bishop Hermes’ own E-mail: heribert@brnet.com.br.

Go ahead, make a couple of calls.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, April 10, 1998