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Brazil: Rural Activists Killed in New Wave of Violence

by Mario OsavaInter Press Service
September 3rd, 2001

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Rural trade unionist Miguel Freitas da Silva, a 44-year-old father of eight, was killed Monday outside his home in Ipa, in the northern Brazilian state of Par, the area with the highest level of rural violence in the country. Freitas da Silva was the sixth rural activist murdered since July.

The activist, the head of the Association of Rural Workers of Ipa, was shot and killed in front of one of his daughters, by two gunmen riding a motorcycle.

Freitas da Silva's murder is part of a new wave of violence against a backdrop of conflicts over the expansion of soy bean farming and the transportation of the product in large boats along the Araguaia and Tocantins rivers that cut across central Brazil and run into the Atlantic Ocean in the northern part of Par.

The prospects for soy bean production and exportation feed landowners' and agribusiness companies' thirst for land along the banks of the two rivers.

That is leading to an increasing concentration of land and ''leading to the displacement of riverside and peasant communities, and the consequent conflicts, as has already occurred in other areas,'' Guilherme Carvalho with the Forum of the Eastern Amazon, which links several local non-governmental organisations (NGOs), told IPS.

On Aug 25, the violence claimed another victim: Ademir Alfeu Federicci, a rural trade unionist fighting for the preservation of the basin of another major Amazon river, the Xing, which runs through the centre of the state of Par.

Federicci was at home in the city of Altamira, in central Par, when he was shot in the mouth and killed. The activist had denounced corruption in agencies set up to promote development of the Amazon, and was working to block the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam on the Xing river.

The Movement for the Development of the Transamazonic and Xing (MDTX), founded and coordinated by Federicci, is an umbrella group linking 113 peasant, women and indigenous organisations as well as teachers' associations and church groups.

The MDTX is working for sustainable development, and fights megaprojects that benefit large companies at the expense of local people and the environment.

The police said Federicci's murder occurred during an attempted robbery. Several days later Julio Cesar Santos Filho was arrested, and reportedly confessed to killing the victim in an attempt to rob his home.

However, social activists and leftist politicians claim that the murder was commissioned by powerful local residents.

Ana Paula Santos, the coordinator of the Live, Produce and Preserve Foundation, an MDTX affiliate, said Federicci was killed in reprisal for his outspoken denunciations of corruption, his work defending small farms, and his activism on other social issues.

Violence is not new to the farming region of Par. A total of 453 murders occurring in the context of land disputes were committed between 1985 and October 2000, according to the Pastoral Land Commission, a Catholic church group.

Of the total of 1,190 homicides of rural activists committed in Brazil in that same period, only 85 percent were even investigated - an indication of the level of impunity surrounding rural violence in the context of disputes over land in this country of 170 million.

The statistics thus indicate that Par accounted for 38 percent of the murders of rural trade unionists, leaders of the landless movement, and those backing their cause, like priests, lawyers and parliamentarians.

Compounding the impunity are the dismal conditions in which police work in Altamira, and in the state of Par overall. Santos pointed out that local NGOs had to donate the fuel to enable the police to investigate Federicci's murder.

After getting off to a good start this year, with six months free of murders of rural activists, Par was once again shaken on Jul 4, when peasant farmer Manoel Messias de Souza was shot and killed by gunmen from an estate near Marab, the main city in the most violent area of Par, the southern part of the state.

Five days later, rural trade unionist Jos Pinheiro Lima was killed along with his wife and 15-year-old son in the region of Marab, the Pastoral Land Commission reported.

The landless rural workers and small farmers led by Federicci have joined forces with the environmental movement to try to block, or at least curb the impact of, the construction of dams and waterways, against the pressure of large landowners.

Environmentalists complain that the Araguaia-Tocantins Waterway, work on which has been blocked in the courts due to the lack of adequate environmental impact studies, would modify the rivers, affecting the environment and riverbank communities, especially indigenous people.

But the waterway is defended by landowners keen on expanding soy bean production, and by the National Confederation of Industry, which is holding seminars as part of a campaign to drum up support for the waterway.

Something similar is occurring with giant dams that are to be built in order to generate electricity.

The dams will contributes little to local development, while displacing thousands of families and flooding millions of hectares of Amazon jungle, environmental and social groups protest.

Three large hydroelectric dams are planned on the Xing River. Belo Monte is to be Brazil's second largest dam, following Itaip, which is shared with Paraguay and located on the border between the two countries.

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