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BRAZIL: Activists Call for Stronger Action against Violence in Amazon

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 1 2011 (IPS) - Organisations of small farmers and human rights groups are disappointed with the measures announced by the Brazilian government to address the problem of violence in the Amazon jungle region, after four environmental activists were murdered in less than a week.

The administration of Dilma Rousseff of the left-wing Workers Party called on rural leaders and local authorities Tuesday to take part in discussions on the creation of a special “crisis cabinet” and to help analyse the protection measures ordered for 125 activists facing death threats.

The government also promised to step up efforts against deforestation in the rainforest and to earmark special funds for the task.

The latest string of murders began on Tuesday May 24, when a husband and wife team of activists, José Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and María do Espírito Santo, who spent years fighting illegal deforestation in the jungle, were killed in the Praialta-Piranheira nature reserve in the northern Amazon state of Pará.

Three days later, on Friday May 27, environmentalist Adelino Ramos was killed in the northwestern Amazon state of Rondonia. And on Saturday May 28, Erenildo Silveira dos Santos, who the police believe was a witness to the murders of the couple in Pará, was also killed.

Joao Pedro Stedile, one of the leaders of the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST) – the largest rural movement in Brazil – said the measures announced by the government were merely aimed at “showing society that it is doing something.” But he said the creation of an inter-ministerial crisis cabinet “won’t solve anything.”

To truly resolve the problem, he said, it is necessary “to break the economic power of the ‘latifundistas’ (large landholders)” and make it possible for the courts to bring to trial and punish those responsible for hundreds of unresolved murders of rural activists, who are mainly killed by gunmen hired by large landowners, ranchers and loggers to intimidate those involved in the struggle for forest conservation.

Only 91 trials have been held for a total of 1,580 cases of rural activists killed in the last 25 years, and just 21 of the masterminds behind the murders and 73 of the gunmen were convicted, according to the Catholic Land Pastoral (CPT), which tracks rural killings in Brazil.

Isolete Wichieniski, a CPT leader, told IPS that the only person who has actually served a sentence for ordering a killing was Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura, for the 2005 murder of U.S.-born nun and rainforest activist Dorothy Stang.

The problem of rural violence has been aggravated in recent years by the growth of agribusiness and logging and mining activities, said Wichieniski.

In Pará, for example, “logging companies that pressure communities trying to preserve their nature reserves have made a lot of headway,” he said.

The production of soy for export and crops for making biodiesel has also grown.

But he said the main cause of the violence is the impunity enjoyed by those who order and carry out the killings.

Although he said the government’s decision to set up a crisis cabinet is “well-intentioned,” he called for “structural, not mitigation measures.”

After similar emergency measures were adopted in 2005, rural conflicts momentarily went down, but later they flared back up, in the face of an inoperative justice system, he said.

In Pará, still one of the most violent states, 212 people have been killed in conflicts over land ownership and use since April 1996, when police opened fire on a crowd of landless farmers holding a peaceful protest march on a rural highway in Eldorado de Carajás, killing 19 and injuring hundreds.

The CPT reported that since that year, another 809 people in Pará have received death threats, like the husband and wife team of forest conservationists before they were killed.

The family of Ribeiro da Silva and Espírito Santo pointed out that the threats from logging companies had been fully reported to the police.

Stedile linked the murders to the recent vote in the lower house of Congress, which approved a reform of the 1965 forest code that would make it easier to clear land in the Amazon jungle for agriculture.

Among other things, the bill introduced by Communist legislator Aldo Rebelo would grant an amnesty on fines to landowners who illegally chopped down forest on their property, as long as the deforestation took place before July 2008 and the farm is 400 hectares or less in size.

The forest code sets out how much of their land farmers can clear. Currently, 80 percent of the forest must be left intact on property in the Amazon jungle, 35 percent in tropical savannah zones within what is known as the “legal Amazon” – which encompasses the nine Brazilian states partially or totally covered by rainforest – and 20 percent in the rest of the country.

But the new law on land use would reduce the amount of forest that farmers must preserve, allowing them to cut trees along rivers and on hilltops and hillsides, which are currently protected.

“I think some logging and charcoal companies in the region interpreted the circumstances as favourable to them, so they felt free to commit these barbaric acts,” Stedile said.

The reform of the forest code, which is still pending Senate approval, also faces opposition from the Rousseff administration.

A total of 700,000 hectares were deforested in Brazil’s Amazon jungle in 2009 and 2010, the lowest level of destruction since records on deforestation began to be kept in 1988.

But a government report whose preliminary results were released on May 19 stated that from August 2010 to April 2011, deforestation rose 27 percent with respect to the same period the year before, with the destruction especially concentrated in the soy-growing western state of Mato Grosso – a phenomenon that the government blames on expectations that an amnesty will be approved.

Stedile blames the violence on the lack of a land reform policy “that would effectively break up and distribute the large landed estates, breaking their economic and political power.

“Because the large landowners see that even though the agrarian reform process is stalled, occupations of land and conflicts continue because of the high level of poverty and lack of land, they resort to using force,” he said.

The MST leader said large landowners, often in alliance with regional lawmakers and state governors, are responsible for the killings.

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