Brazil: Land fights up, but fewer activists dead

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Brazil: Land fights up,  but fewer activists deadA man prepares his shack in a area occupied by Members of the Brazil's Landless Movement (MST) in Embu das Artes, outskirt of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Monday, May 7, 2012. According to the Landless Movement, there are about 8,000 people living in over 3,000 tents in Embu, an area with three natural springs and 4.7 million square feet of native forest that has grown into the country’s largest landless occupation.Conflicts over land in Brazil increased last year, and there are at least two that could turn into violent conflagrations at any moment, although the number of rural activists killed nationally went down slightly, according to a report released Monday by a watchdog group that has long kept a tally of threats and murders. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)(Credit: AP)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Conflicts over land issues in Brazil increased last year, although the number of rural activists killed nationally went down slightly, according to a report released Monday by a watchdog group that tallies land-related threats and murders. The report found that at least two ongoing conflicts could turn into violent conflagrations.

The Catholic Land Pastoral ‘s survey showed murders connected to land disputes fell from 34 in 2010 to 29 in 2011. Murder attempts also fell, from 55 to 38. In spite of the trend, the number of conflicts nationwide rose from 1,186 to 1,363, and the number of death threats grew from 125 to 347.

In Brazil, killings over land are common and seldom punished, as powerful landowners clash with farmers and others for control of lucrative farming and logging land.

More than 1,150 rural activists have been slain in Brazil over the past 20 years, but fewer than 100 cases have gone to court since 1988, the land pastoral said. Out of those cases, the courts have only found guilty 15 of the men who ordered the killings, and the only one serving time in prison was responsible for the much-publicized 2005 murder of U.S. nun and environmental activist Dorothy Stang.

Loggers, ranchers and farmers are responsible for most of the killings targeting protests over illegal logging and land rights. Most of the killings happen in the Amazon region, but also occur in most other Brazilian states. In nearly three-quarters of the cases, the victims come from traditional communities such as indigenous villages and settlements of slave descendants known in Brazil as quilombos, the report showed.

The CPT report said efforts to develop Brazil’s countryside and the powerful economic interests involved were behind the rise in conflicts over land.

“A battle has been declared that is expressed in the violence against those considered obstacles to development and progress, because their projects run counter to the prevailing development models,” the CPT said in a press release.

Brazil is a global export leader in products that the CPT and others say are most responsible for conflicts and deforestation in Brazil’s countryside — soy from massive farms, beef raised on ranches that dot the rainforest and iron ore from mining projects. Hundreds of conflicts over who had rights to land mushroomed last year when ranchers, farmers and miners clashed with subsistence farmers and Indians living on reserves set aside by the government.



Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is a proponent of developing rural areas including the Amazon, though in a manner her government argues is responsible and balances protecting the environment with the desire to expand the nation’s economy on the back of commodity production.

It’s a battle of economic will that’s been persistent in Brazil since Portuguese explorers arrived 500 years ago, said Antonio Brand, a historian and professor at the Catholic University of Dom Bosco.

“The argument of colonization that was used to justify the murder of so many indigenous people has been substituted by the argument of the country’s development,” Brand said. “It allows, as was the case in the past, the violation of rights and the continuation of violence.”

Just last month a man was shot to death and another injured in the northeastern state of Bahia in a 30-year-old land dispute between farmers and the pataxo indigenous group. Brazilians first learned about the case in 1997, when an indigenous man known by his first name, Galdino, went to the country’s capital to plead his tribe’s cause. He ended up burned to death by well-to-do teenagers who found him sleeping in a Brasilia bus stop.

Last week, Brazil’s Supreme Court finally ruled on the issue the victim had been championing and found that the land titles of farms operating within the 54,000-acre indigenous reserve were not valid, and that the farmers had to leave. This case was not on the Supreme Court’s schedule, but had to be resolved because it was a situation of “extreme conflict,” according to judge Carmen Lucia Antunes Rocha.

The 25 tomes that made up the law suit were full of “suffering, tears, blood and death,” the judge said in court.

Another potentially violent case involves Embu das Artes, a small town near Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most populous metropolis. According to the Landless Peasants Movement, about 8,000 people live in over 3,000 tents in Embu, an area with three natural springs and 4.7 million square feet of native forest that’s grown into the country’s largest landless occupation.

The land in this case officially belongs to a developer, which had planned to build homes for 1,200 families on the spot. In 2006, however, Sao Paulo environmentalists went to court and won an injunction forbidding any construction within the forest.

With legal case dragging on, the landless workers occupied the land in March with the support of the local mayor. Their settlement grew as more families joined in, clearing trees and erecting tents in the forested hillside.

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Associated Press writer Marco Sibaja contributed to this report from Brasilia.

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Follow Juliana Barbassa at —http://twitter.com/jbarbassa

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