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BRAZIL: Dispossessed Demand Land, Health, Justice

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 16 2007 (IPS) - The Brazilian capital woke up to another "red April" Monday. Eight hundred landless peasants occupied the headquarters of the government office in charge of land distribution, while 1,000 indigenous people camped out on the Ministries Esplanade, demanding better healthcare and the formal demarcation of their territories.

Demonstrations by indigenous and rural people have been spreading all over Brazil ever since last week, as part of "Indigenous April" and the Campaign for Land Reform led by the Landless Workers Movement (MST).

Tuesday, Apr. 17 is International Peasant Struggle Day, which marks the anniversary of a 1996 massacre in Eldorado de Carajás, in Brazil&#39s eastern Amazon region, when the police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration by some 3,000 landless peasants marching in support of land rights that day, killing 19 members of the MST.

In addition, Thursday, Apr. 19 is National Indigenous People&#39s Day in Brazil. The "Free Land Camp" in the centre of Brasilia, where leaders of many of the country&#39s indigenous groups have gathered, is to end on Thursday with a hearing that President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is expected to attend.

The camp is organised as an annual event, and this year&#39s is the largest yet, "with over a thousand participants," the coordinator of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the Northeast, Minas Gerais and Espíritu Santo (APOINME), Ilton Tuxá, told IPS. He said it indicated a greater degree of mobilisation and an opportunity for change in the relations between the Brazilian state and indigenous people.

In addition to the demarcation of a number of indigenous territories that are awaiting official recognition, the demonstration is calling for the creation of an Indigenist Policy Commission to define broader, "non-authoritarian" policies, according to Jecinaldo Cabral, coordinator of the Indigenous Organisations of the Brazilian Amazon.

They hope that President Lula will sign a document creating the Commission at the hearing on Thursday, Tuxá said.

Health conditions for indigenous people in the Amazon region is another urgent question, especially for people living in the Javari valley, on the borders with Peru and Colombia, who are being "decimated" by malaria and hepatitis due to government negligence, Cabral said.

But the land issue is paramount for indigenous people in northeastern Brazil, and it has prompted "alliances with other social movements, especially the MST, which is politically the strongest in the country," Tuxá said.

The lands that are the traditional homes of indigenous people, peasants and forest peoples, such as those living along riverbanks, fisherfolk, rubber tappers and fruit gatherers, are threatened by the advance of agribusiness, hydroelectric stations that flood extensive areas of the Amazon jungle, and highways and large mining projects, he said.

On Monday, some 500 indigenous people occupied a hydroelectric plant in Estreito for two hours, and later blocked the highway joining Brasilia with Belém, capital of the northern state of Pará. The hydroelectric station is under construction in the central state of Tocantins, and the lands and rivers of several indigenous groups and riverside peoples are threatened by it.

The 800 peasants belonging to the MST and other rural workers&#39 movements who occupied the headquarters of the National Institute for Colonisation and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) at 5 a.m. this Monday are demanding land to settle 150,000 families living in camps on occupied land and alongside highways all over Brazil, waiting for the government&#39s land reform programme to assign them plots of their own.

There are 1,800 families in this situation on the outskirts of Brasilia alone.

In Brazil, one of the countries in the world with the most uneven distributions of land, around 3.5 percent of landowners hold 56 percent of the arable land while the poorest 40 percent own barely one percent.

Occupations of land considered to be lying idle and that could be redistributed under the land reform law have mushroomed around Brazil since last week.

In the northeastern state of Pernambuco, where disputes over land are particularly numerous, the MST occupied two estates considered to be underproductive on Monday, with 100 families setting up camps on each.

But the largest occupation took place on Saturday, when more than 2,000 families entered the Pontal Sur area, a huge irrigation project along the banks of the Sao Francisco River, which flows from the centre of Brazil to the northeast.

The occupied property is "a publicly owned latifundium (underutilised estate)," as it is a government project with an area of 33,526 hectares where irrigation infrastructure is to be installed, although the project is presently at a standstill, according to the MST.

Similar actions aimed at speeding up agrarian reform were taken in the south, for instance in the wealthy state of Sao Paulo, and in parts of the Amazon region, in the last few days.

But the peasant demonstrations are also demanding an end to violence with impunity in Brazil&#39s rural areas. The Campaign for Land Reform is critical of the fact that the 150 military police responsible for the massacre at Eldorado de Carajás, 11 years ago, have gone unpunished. Those in command of the operation have been sentenced to prison, but they are still at large pending a final verdict from higher courts.

Violence is still surrounded with impunity in rural areas, the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) of the Catholic Church confirmed Monday in Brasilia, on the occasion of its annual report on rural conflicts.

In 2006, 39 people were killed in land conflicts in Brazil, one more than in 2005. But there were 72 attempted murders, an increase of 177 percent on 2005, the CPT report said.

Between 1985 and 2006, the period during which the CPT has monitored rural violence, there were 1,104 conflicts resulting in murders, and 1,464 rural workers were killed. However, only 85 of the cases went to court, and only 71 murderers and 19 instigators were convicted.

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