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Bloody June: fifth rural activist assassinated in Brazil this month

Violence in the Brazilian Amazon continues, 5th rural activist assassinated this month

A rural worker who confronted illegal loggers operating in the Brazilian state of Pará was found murdered near his home, reports the Associated Press. Murdered on the Esperanca landless settlement, his death is likely related to ongoing conflicts between loggers and farmers in the Esperanca community. The victim, Obede Souza, is the fifth person to be murdered this month after standing up to illegal loggers.

“There is in this region a really dangerous group of loggers. He had a fight with one of them over the cutting of these trees, and he was [a] marked man from then on,” explained Hilario Costa, the coordinator for the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT). A human-rights watchdog group, the CPT monitors threats by loggers, farmers, and ranchers against environmental and social activists.

Obede Souza, 31, was a rural worker who lived in Esperanca (Hope), a landless settlement formed in 2008, which is occupying unused farmland in hopes of pushing agrarian reform; Souza and his family farmed while waiting for the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) to settle the community’s land claims. According to the Associated Press, Souza argued with a representative of loggers harvesting Brazil nut trees (Bertholletia excelsa), a species protected by law. Souza wanted the loggers to halt their operations because their trucks continually blocked Esperanca’s roads and made them impassable, posing difficulties for the whole community, reports Paraná Online.

Murders tied to land disputes in rural Brazil, cumulative total of 383 since 2000
Murders tied to land disputes in rural Brazil, cumulative total of 383 since 2000.

Souza’s body was found in the forest surrounding his house in the Esperanca. Paraná Online reports he had been executed by a rifle shot through the ear less than 500 meters from his door on June 9th. Hilario Costa says witnesses told him four men in a pickup truck had asked for Souza, adding that Souza’s wife and three young children now fear for their lives. Federal officers took Souza’s body to the state capital, Belém, for an autopsy, and returned the body Tuesday for burial, reports the Associated Press.

This month five activists have been executed in the Amazon, four of them in Pará. A witness to two of the murders was also assassinated. According to Paraná Online, a woman who believes that she may have seen Souza’s murderers was advised to leave the area.

Land and logging conflicts have led to the deaths of 1,150 rural activists in the past twenty years according to CPT, which is monitoring an ongoing list of 125 activists whose lives are currently in danger. Souza was not on the CPT’s list: unlike Adelino Ramos and José Claudio Ribeiro da Silva, both assassinated earlier this month, Souza was not an environmental campaigner who spoke against deforestation, but a frustrated citizen whose community was being hassled by illegal loggers in an ongoing conflict.

In January, government representatives met with rural workers with the Esperanca Sustainable Development Project to discuss illegal harvesting and sustainable management, according to a news report by BrasilAtual. The threat of further conflict between farmers and loggers at that time prompted Pará’s government to reinforce police presence in the area. The meeting was set to address demands by the Esperanca settlement for checkpoints with armed guards to keep out loggers and their trucks. At the time, the regional superintendent of National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), Cleide Antonia de Souza, promised to look into the legal possibilities for security requests.

The Esperanca settlement is only 50 kilometers from Anapu, where American activist nun Dorothy Stang was murdered in 2005. She had been working with sustainable development projects for the rural poor similar to the Esperanca settlement.

Brazilians throughout the country have condemned the recent killings, prompting the government to create a working group on violence in the Amazon. Federal officers, highway patrol, and the Brazilian National Guard have also reinforced the police presence in southern Pará.

Francisco Evaristo da Conceicao, president of an older landless settlement that is associated with the Esperanca camp, said that he, too, has had conflicts with loggers, including being threatened by men he believes may be part of the same group that murdered Souza.

“We have a lot of problems with the loggers—they invade land, and clear out forest,” said Conceicao, “We fight them, but it’s complicated. Men have stopped at my house looking for me. Now I have to be more careful.”

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