Peasants, small farmers, and indigenous people are being massacred over land rights and environmental conflicts across rural Brazil. From January to July of this year, 52 people have been killed, according to the Land Pastoral Commission (the Comissão Pastoral da Terra, or CPT, a Catholic organization that tracks this violence). At this rate, 2017 will be far more violent than last year, when 61 people were murdered in the hinterlands – an extraordinary number that was already double the yearly average of the past decade.
The political instability generated by the impeachment of elected President Dilma Rousseff and the swearing in of her vice-president, Michel Temer, who many Brazilians consider an illegitimate leader and whose popularity rating hovers around 5 percent, has worsened an untenable situation. Since he assumed the presidency last year, Temer has sought to hold on to office by openly currying favor with Brazil’s powerful rural lobby, rolling back environmental regulations, indigenous and peasant land rights, and mechanisms to fight deforestation.
This alliance-building, which included doling out millions of dollars in federal funds to key congressional allies, including many in the rural lobby, helped Temer narrowly survive a congressional vote Wednesday on whether he should step down and face corruption charges. But it has also emboldened large landowners across Brazil to step up the use of violence as a tool for territorial expropriation and unbridled exploitation of natural resources with near-total impunity.
In many cases, the government is an active participant in the violence. State and local government agents are often themselves involved or directly responsible for the killings. On April 19, nine squatters were murdered in a massacre in Taquaruçu do Norte, near the city of Colniza, in Mato Grosso state. They were inside shacks built on a farm when they were surrounded, tortured and killed. Two of them were murdered with machete blows, and the other seven were shot with a 12mm rifle. This attack occurred in the same week as the anniversary of the Eldorado dos Carajás massacre, in which 19 rural landless workers were killed in the state of Pará 21 years ago. This day is remembered every year by landless peasants as a particularly gruesome marker of the violence they suffer.
Many of the cases this year have involved multiple murders. On April 30, men with machetes and firearms attacked members of the indigenous Gamela group in Viana, a town in the interior of Maranhão state. In the attack, 22 Gamela Indians were wounded; five of them were shot, and 17 suffered some other type of injury. Aldelir Ribeiro, a member of the indigenous group, had his hands cut off with a machete, and was shot twice — in his ribs and spine.
The area of the attack is under the control of the Gamelas, but is disputed by farmers who want to explore it. The crime happened in a critical moment of dismantling of the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI). On the same day of the attack on the indigenous group, congressman Aluísio Guimarães called the Gamela people “pseudoindigenous” in an interview with Maracu radio, and declared that, in the event of a tragedy, the responsibility would fall on FUNAI and the minister of justice Osmar Serraglio, who, according to Guimarães, were warned about the situation.
On May 24, CPT staff were taken by surprise by the gruesome images of several bodies. Ten rural workers were brutally murdered by police officers at Fazenda Santa Lúcia, in Pau D’Arco, in the southeast region of Pará. Among the victims, there were nine men and one woman. Seven people were from the same family. Police officers who were involved said they were on an operation to serve 16 arrest warrants and the situation devolved into a confrontation. Their story was soon debunked. No policemen were injured. The workers, meanwhile, were tortured and executed; many had gunshot wounds in their heads and necks. Following the arrest of 13 police officers involved in the massacre, the testimony of two of them reinforced evidence that these were extrajudicial executions.
And if gun violence were not enough, the violence of pen and paper in Brasília promises to worsen the tensions in Brazil’s farmlands. On July 11, Temer approved a measure that opens up protected areas for agricultural production and allows the legalization of illicitly cleared forestland. This encourages further grabbing of previously protected land – and violence against those who may oppose it.
For the Amazon, especially, the consequences will be disastrous. More than two thousand irregular properties on public lands could be legalized – an area that encompasses at least 10.6 million acres, equivalent to the size of the state of Rio de Janeiro.
In addition, the bill will give the government carte blanche to sell public lands, including plots where there are landless peasant camps or settlements resulting from agrarian reform, or even areas occupied by low-income families in urban cities. The onslaught against the poor people of both rural and urban areas of the country will increase, and along with conflicts and violence. Criticized by federal agencies such as the Public Prosecutor’s Office, environmental and social advocacy organizations, the bill serves the interests of major landowners group, in exchange to the support they provided to Temer.
Another issue of fundamental importance for Brazil, deforestation, also became a bargaining chip with congressmen in Temer’s daring attempt to avoid an investigation for passive corruption.
Another bill, introduced in July, would withdraw around 865,000 acres of protected land in the Jamanxim National Forest, in the Amazon region of southwestern Pará state. This bill would benefit mainly the illegal land grabbers that occupy the area. Temer vetoed the measure after international pressure, but now it returns it the form of a bill proposed by the Lower House and fast-tracked for approval, which allows steps to be skipped and avoids debates. This bill sends a clear message of support to major landowners and opens the way for further occupation of public areas.
If even legally sanctioned restraints on land grabbing and exploitation are being swept aside for expedient political alliances, the efforts of indigenous groups and peasants to stop this fire-sale of national resources become ever harder, and the fight more unjust. The price of this administration’s survival will increasingly be paid in bodies.
Passos, a social anthropologist, is communications director of the National Secretariat of the CPT