In February, a Catholic missionary born in the United States, Dorothy Stang, who was sorting out land rights and working on sustainable development projects in the municipality of Anapu, state of Pará, in the North of Brazil was murdered.
Since then three organizations that deal with land conflicts and violence in the state of Pará have been investigating the crime.
The Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT) [a Catholic group] and the NGOs Justiça Global (Global Justice) and Terra de Direitos (Land of Rights) have now released a report showing that there are critical land disputes in five municipalities in the state: Rondon do Pará, Porto de Moz, Anapu, Castelo dos Sonhos and Terra do Meio.
The report says that the underlying problems are disputed land claims, illegal possession of land, unproductive land occupied by owners who use violence to repel attempts to contest their possession and assassinations. Many assassinations.
According to José Batista Afonso, a national coordinator at the Pará Comissão Pastoral da Terra, in the last 30 years there have been 772 assassinations in the state, most of the dead were rural workers or rural worker leaders, and no one has ever been sent to prison for one of these crimes.
"This is a place where the climate is ‘wild west,’ in the worst sense of that term. People die like insects and in many cases there isn’t even a police investigation," says Afonso.
Darci Frigo, a lawyer with Terra de Direitos, says the present land conflicts in Pará began with the federal government decision in the 1960s and 1970s to populate the region.
"A lot of public land, Pará has 30 million hectares of public land, wound up in the hands of land speculators and plain old land thieves. They just grabbed the land," says Frigo.
In their report, the three organizations strongly recommend more action at the federal level. They want land conflict crimes to be federal crimes and more involvement at the local level by the Brazilian Environmental Protection Institute (Ibama) and the Land Reform Institution (Incra).
They also call for the Federal Police to actively participate in investigating and punishing crimes like the murder of Dorothy Stang. They emphasize the need to put an end to impunity in crimes related to land conflicts.
The report makes the reasons for calling on federal assistance very clear: it accuses state and local authorities of dragging their feet when it comes to human rights violations in cases of land conflict.
"The state police forces (military and civil) work in favor of land owners, against rural workers. The courts always decide cases in favor of land owners, as well, even when it is clear that their land deeds are false," explains Frigo.
Copies of the report are being sent to cabinet members in Brasilia, leaders in Congress, judges on the country’s highest courts, the United Nations and the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights at the Organization of American States.
"We are sending copies to international organizations because past experience has shown that the only way anything gets done is when there is international pressure," says Batista of the Comissão Pastoral da Terra.
Next week, on December 9 and 10, the trial of the men accused of murdering Dorothy Stang is scheduled to begin. Copies of the report will also be delivered to Pará state authorities in an attempt to ensure that justice is done.