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BRAZIL: Dorothy Stang Sentence – More Than Symbolic?

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, May 16 2007 (IPS) - Forty percent of the 1,237 murders linked to land disputes in Brazil between 1985 and 2001 took place in the northern state of Pará. But things could begin to change there if the sentence handed down to the rancher who ordered the killing of U.S.-born nun Dorothy Stang does not end up as merely symbolic, said French priest Henri Burin des Roziers.

Wealthy landowner Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura was given the stiffest possible sentence, 30 years, on Tuesday for being one of the masterminds behind the February 2005 murder of the 73-year-old defender of the Amazon rainforest and landless people.

The verdict "is very important, first of all because it was the maximum sentence and secondly because he is actually in prison," unlike what occurred in three similar cases in the region, Roziers, who like Stang before her murder is on a death list in Pará, told IPS.

But "it would be overly hasty to come up with an optimistic analysis" said the priest and lawyer, who has worked for over 15 years with the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) in Xinguara, in the southern part of the state, helping landless peasant farmers gain legal title to their land and fighting slave labour.

"We have to wait to see if Sister Dorothy&#39s case means a real change or was only an exception brought about by the enormous international repercussions that it had because she was from the United States," said Roziers. Stang was a nationalised Brazilian citizen who lived in this country for 23 years.

"It is still early" to say that the sentence may contribute to bringing about peace in Pará, which is characterised by a heavy concentration of land and economic and political power in the hands of a few elite landowning families, and impunity surrounding the frequent killings of human rights, environmental and land reform activists.


"Other landowners who have ordered the murders of trade unionists and activists are fugitives from justice, and the state and federal police have not yet captured them," he pointed out. "The sentence could have a dissuasive effect. But we will have to wait and see, because this is the first case of someone being sentenced and jailed for ordering one of these murders. Also, the case is being appealed in a court in Brasilia, and we have to see what happens there."

Stang was shot six times in the back on a lonely rainforest path in Pará. She had received death threats ever since she started to work on behalf of landless farmers in the region of Anapú in sustainable development projects, and to fight the illegal logging practiced by large landowners in that part of the Amazon jungle.

In 2005, farm hands Rayfran das Neves Sales and Clodoaldo Carlos Batista were found guilty of shooting Stang, and were sentenced to 27 and 17 years in prison, respectively.

Amair Feijoli da Cunha, the rancher who Neves Sales worked for, was given a 27-year sentence for hiring the two killers. Regivaldo Pereira Galvão, another landowner accused of masterminding the murder, was released on bail while he awaits trial.

After Stang&#39s death, murders in the area not only continued but actually increased in number, with 39 more killings in 2006 than in 2005, said Roziers.

"The concentration of land is a scandalous problem. There is a great deal of land in the hands of a few, and on the other side are rural workers with little or no land. That is what causes the conflicts," said the priest, who did not disregard, however, other causes like the interests of logging companies.

Stang, whose 23 years in Brazil were spent in Anapú, began to help local residents when the logging companies started to force them off their land to seize their wood. Her activism made her one of the top enemies of powerful local landowners, who were used to resolving land dispute problems with their own methods.

Roziers&#39 analysis of the situation was echoed by the leader of the Landless Workers Movement (MST), João Pedro Stédile, a powerful national group that is fighting for faster, more effective land reform and is involved in other activities, such as combating abuses by agribusiness.

In an interview with IPS, Stédile applauded Moura&#39s conviction and sentencing, pointing out that "in Brazil there is a tradition of impunity for those in power and for the murderers of workers and land reform activists."

"We hope this will serve as an example for other landowners and that it will encourage other judges to speed up the prosecutions in more than 700 cases of rural murders that have gone unpunished, including the (April 1996) ‘massacre of Carajás&#39 in which 19 members of the MST were killed," said Stédile.

Although the sentence will not resolve land problems in the region, it could contribute to that aim if public institutions like the Brazilian Environment Institute, the National Land Reform Institute and the federal police "act together to combat the illegal occupation of land (by large landowners), slave labour and illegal logging, and to regularise land ownership" for landless farmers who occupy unproductive rural property, he argued.

Another route, said Stédile, would be to ban lumber exports to Europe, since "Europeans also share in the responsibility."

But the activist said he did not believe Moura&#39s sentence would help achieve peace in the region, because "on one hand we have these retrograde landowners who don&#39t really care about the justice system or the press. They are used to simply buying everything. And on the other hand, we have the logging companies that just want to turn a fast profit."

In his view, while one of the historic roots of the conflicts is the lack of a broad, profound land reform programme that would put limits on the size of privately-owned rural properties, the current causes are the lack of an integral development project based on the rational use of land and oriented towards the needs of the local population.

According to the Pastoral Land Commission, 3.5 percent of Brazil&#39s landholders own nearly 60 percent of the best farmland, while the poorest 40 percent of farmers have a mere one percent.

Aton Fon, a lawyer for the Social Network for Justice and Human Rights, told IPS that the verdict was "very positive," because those who order this kind of crime are not generally tried, "much less jailed."

"In theory, the conviction should play a role in reducing human rights violations" and contributing to bringing about peace, said Fon, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case.

"But for this to be meaningful, a greater number of masterminds will have to be sentenced. If in five years, for example, between 80 and 90 percent of intellectual authors were convicted, we would begin to see practical repercussions" – a scenario that is overly optimistic for Brazil in the short- to medium-term, however, said the attorney.

 
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