RIO DE JANEIRO – 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 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 released Monday 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.
The report was released on the same day a state judge ordered two former high-ranking police officials to be jailed for their part in the worst massacre carried out during a land conflict in Brazil — an April 1996 clash that saw police open fire on some 2,000 landless peasants, killing 19 of them.
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 only one had been serving time in prison before Monday, a man responsible for the much-publicized 2005 murder of U.S. nun and environmental activist Dorothy Stang.
However, a Para state court on Monday ordered the arrests and jailing of former police Lt. Col. Mario Pantojo and former Maj. Jose de Oliveira. Officials said Pantojo had already presented himself at a jail and that Oliveira would do so on Tuesday. Both were convicted more than five years ago and sentenced to over 100 years each for their leadership role over the officers who carried out the 19 killings and for wounding another 69 landless peasants. But they have managed to remain free using the Brazilian legal system's extensive appeals process.
About 150 other police officers were indicted for those killings but were eventually acquitted.
The massacre was carried out in the eastern Amazon town of Eldorado dos Carajas as the landless peasants gathered to protest for land reform. It has been symbolic of the impunity that exists in Brazil to this day when it comes to killings over land conflicts. It's also a rallying cry for land rights activists, who each April invade and occupy land to honor those killed. Under Brazil's 1988 Constitution, unproductive terrain may be expropriated as long as the owner is compensated. Agrarian reform remains a hot-button issue in Brazil, where just 3.5 percent of mostly rich landowners control more than half of the arable land in Latin America's largest nation and one of the globe's biggest agriculture powers.
Officials say that loggers, ranchers and farmers have always been 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 Land Pastoral 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 Catholic Land Pastoral said in a press release.
Brazil is a global export leader in products that the Land Pastoral 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 (22,000-hectare) 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 (440,000 square meters) 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 the 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.
Associated Press writer Bradley Brooks contributed to this report from Sao Paulo.
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