An ambush on April 16, 2009, carried out by agents of a private security company left seven rural workers wounded on the Espírito Santo Ranch in the municipality of Xinguara, Pará, in the North of Brazil. Armed with high-powered weapons, the private security force shot at members of the MST (Movement of the Landless Rural Workers) who since February have been encamped in the area.
The incident was almost a repeat of another massacre – Eldorado dos Carajás, which by coincidence also occurred in Pará on almost the same day, April 17th (1996). On that day, 19 MST members were killed and dozens more wounded after a conflict with the Military Police who were trying to control the protestors.
The recent assassination attempts in Xinguara demonstrates that the violence, with new characteristics, committed in Eldorado dos Carajás continues. According to the most recent study “Conflicts in the Brazilian Countryside,” released by the CPT (the Catholic Church’s Land Commission) on April 28, conflicts continue to be a constant factor for millions of rural workers, indigenous peoples, quilombolas (descendants of runaway slaves) and other rural populations.
In addition to the recurring violence in rural areas, which already seems to be part of the structural formation of the country, the advancement of big economic conglomerates in the competition for land gives way to new forms of violence.
If in the past ranchers used the service of gunmen, this work today is more in the hands of private security companies who act as the real hit men in defending properties. So “big international companies end up adopting the practices of the old ‘colonel’ system, contracting private militia,” said Jucilino Jose Strozake, a lawyer for the MST.
In the Amazon, this practice is actually being recommended by members of public offices. “Farm groups and the CNA (Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock of Brazil), through Senator Kátia Abreu, and other pro-farm officials have consistently told farmers that they have to hire private security and protect at all costs their lands,” said José Batista Afonso, lawyer and member of the CPT.
To the contrary of what should be, hiring these security firms instead of gunmen does not mean improvement nor more transparency in relation to the violence in rural areas. According to Afonso, the majority of these firms do not even have their own regulations.
This makes it difficult, for example, to control the actual number of weapons that each company possesses. Besides this, the lack of oversight allows for the possibility of contracting gunmen to move people off properties. Far from disuse, the practice of hired gunmen is still popular, especially in the north of the country
“A company sometimes has X number of legally contracted security guards, and in these actions, they also include gunmen totally from the outside. This should necessitate a direct investigation of the Federal Police regarding these practices,” said Afonso.
In spite of the fact that all Brazilian regions have elevated indices of concentration of land ownership and consequently violence, in the Amazon the situation is most alarming. According to the CPT study, in 2008, 47% of the conflicts occurred in the Amazon, and more than half of these conflicts directly affected traditional communities. In addition, 72% of all of the assassinations happened in this region – in Pará alone were 13 of the 28 assassinations.
In Afonso’s opinion, the increase of violence in the Amazon is evidently linked to the new actors in the Brazil land stage: international businesses and large conglomerates. If in the past the large land holdings were represented by the figure of the “coronel,” this role is now occupied by big economic groups who continue to acquire land for the expansion of their capital.
The focus is on the Amazon because of the vast natural resources the region possesses, especially given the fact that prices of products such as soy, beef, and minerals are rising in the international market. “Without a doubt, the intensification of the livestock market, the expansion of monocultures such as soy, and the mining operations have provoked a wave of violence in the direction of the resources of the Amazon,” commented Afonso.
An example of this is the group Opportunity, owned by banker Daniel Dantas who alone bought nearly 500,000 hectares in the south of Pará in only two years. The case of Opportunity also serves to illustrate the irregular acquisition of public lands in the region. Currently there is a lawsuit pending for the cancellation of the sale of the Espírito Santo Ranch.
The title to the lands, which belong to the state of Pará, were illegally given to the Multran family. In the state of Pará alone, more than 6,000 land titles are registered with irregularities, according to Iterpa (Institute of Lands in Pará). These titles represent 110 million hectares of land, some of which illegally possessed.
Taking a closer look at the violence against traditional populations, according to the CPT study, in 2007, these communities represented 41% of those involved in land conflicts in Brazil. In 2008, this index rose to 53%, reducing the percentage of those involved in landless movements who were until then the principal targets of violence. Specifically in the Amazon, traditional communities today represent 65.4% of those involved in conflicts, showing the greed that capital has for new areas.
“Populations such as river folk, indigenous, and quilombolas are seeing their lands being invaded, destroyed and will suffer the effects of contamination of these big investors who are taking away the lands of these people who have lived here for a long time,” asserted Afonso.
Besides traditional populations, the violence also affects people who move to the Amazon with the promise of jobs offered by companies doing big construction projects. Here, Afonso also criticizes the federal government in its PAC (Program for Accelerated Growth), which has contributed to the migration of poor families, especially from the Northeast.
“In the region, for example, of the south and southeast of Pará, the migration is happening because of the mining projects begun by Companhia Vale, and by the damming projects that are a part of PAC in the interests of these big economic groups. When they arrive, not having any alternatives, the migrants become part of either two movements, either the occupation of urban lands or the occupation or rural lands, which inevitably will involve conflict.”
Although the forms of violence change from region to region, the assassination of leaders, evictions, attacks by militia, use of slave labor and other violations of human rights are present in all states. What differs is the degree of violence, which is much higher in regions where capital has interests, as is currently the case with the Amazon.
“Where there is capital, which in some ways is undoubtedly consolidated in the South-Central and South of the country, there is violence, but less in these regions because these are regions where capital already has control of almost all of the land,” asserted Afonso.
Economic interests are also a factor which can influence how the military police, commanded by the state governments, act. For Strozake, these interests explain why some police forces can be more violent that others.
In the state of Pará, for example, under the leadership of state governor Ana Julia Carepa (Workers’ Party), the military police now attempts to handle conflicts in a less aggressive fashion.
But in Rio Grande do Sul, under the leadership of governor Yeda Crusius, violence has increased against rural workers’ organizations and movements.
“It depends greatly on who is leading the state. If it is someone who is subservient to the interests of big business or large landowners, the military police also begins to act as the armed force of the local economic powers,” commented Strozake.
Brasil de Fato
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