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Brazil ignored U.N. letters warning of land defender threats, record killings

  • United Nations rapporteurs sent two letters to the Temer administration in 2017. The first warned of threats to human rights activists in Minas Gerais state. The second condemned the record number of environmental and land defender killings in Pará state last year. Brazil ignored both letters.
  • The State Public Ministry (MPE), the independent public prosecutor’s office in Minas Gerais, had requested the inclusion of six laborers and their families in the Protection Program of Human Rights Defenders, of the Secretariat of Rights of the Presidency in May, 2017.
  • The laborers say they were threatened by representatives of Anglo American Iron Ore Brazil S.A., a subsidiary of London-based Anglo American, a global mining company. In March Anglo American Brazil reported a mineral duct rupture which contaminated the Santo Antônio and Casca rivers, and riverside communities.
  • 908 murders of environmentalists and land defenders occurred in 35 countries between 2002 and 2013. Of those, 448, almost half, happened in Brazil. In 2018 so far, at least 12 Brazilian social activists and politicians have been slain — twice as many as compared to the same period in 2017.
Shocked members of the Akroá-Gamellas indigenous group just after a brutal assault by Brazilian farmers in April 2017. Photo by Ruy Sposati / Cimi

It has come to light only this month that the administration of Brazilian president Michel Temer failed to respond to two letters sent by United Nations rapporteurs in 2017 warning of pending threats to, and condemning the murders of, human rights activists in Minas Gerais and Pará states. That’s according to the U.N. Human Rights office in Geneva.

Last November, the U.N. warned about the threats six peasants and their families received in Conceição do Mato Dentro, Minas Gerais, after they opened a lawsuit against the operations of Anglo American Iron Ore Brazil S.A. in that state. The company is a subsidiary of Anglo American, a global mining firm based in London.

The State Public Ministry (MPE), the independent public prosecutor’s office in Minas Gerais, had previously requested the inclusion of the laborers in the Protection Program of Human Rights Defenders, of the Secretariat of Rights of the Presidency in May, 2017. One of them, Lúcio da Silva Pimenta, was reportedly threatened and expelled from his land several times without receiving compensation by representatives of Anglo American. The company did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment.

Anglo American of Brazil is currently waiting for licensing approval in order to begin the expansion of the Sapo iron mine, which is part of the Minas-Rio Project/System that connects the mine (located near the town of Conceição Mato Dentro), to the export terminal Port of Açu, in São João da Barra, Rio de Janeiro, via a 529 kilometer (328 mile) mineral duct.

This month’s Anglo American Brazil mineral duct rupture contaminated two Brazilian rivers, and impacted two communities along those waterways. Photo Fala Chico blog

On 12 March, the company halted iron ore production in Minas Gerais after the rupture of a mineral duct in the rural area of Santo Antônio do Grama, which leaked 300 tons of mining material into a local stream, said Anglo American. The Secretary of State and Environment (SEMAD) of Minas Gerais said that the heaviest ore contamination occurred in the Santo Antônio River, while the Casca River was also effected.

According to London Mining Work, an alliance of organizations that supports communities impacted by London-based mining companies, ammonia is added to the Minas-Rio duct, allowing ore powder to remain suspended in water for transport in the pipeline. When leaks occur, as happened this month, toxic ammonia and other pollutants can end up in waterways.

Earlier this month, the Minas Gerais State Public Ministry (MPMG) filed a public civil action in court against Anglo American requesting R$400 million (US$121 million) in damages compensation to the communities of Conceição do Mato Dentro, Dom Joaquim, and Alvorada de Minas (MG), where Anglo American operates. The MPMG argues that the company has brought social and environmental impacts to the towns, including increased violence, criminality, water shortage, pollution and inequality.

Lúcio da Silva Pimenta, a small scale farmer whose land in Minas Gerais was reportedly taken by Anglo American Iron Ore Brazil S.A. Photo by Joana Tavares / Brasil de Fato

Brazil holds record for land defender killings

In a second unanswered letter, the U.N. denounced the murders of ten rural workers by police in the municipality of Pau D’Arco, Pará, and the killing of a human rights advocate, all occurring between May and July 2017.

“Over the last 15 years, Brazil has seen the highest number of killings of environmental and land defenders of any country, up to an average of about one every week. Indigenous peoples are especially at risk,” declared U.N. rapporteurs Victoria Tauli Corpuz (Rights of Indigenous Peoples), Michel Forst (Human Rights Defenders), John Knox (Environment), and Francisco Eguiguren Praeli (Rapporteur of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, IACHR), in the 2017 document.

“We are particularly concerned about future [indigenous] demarcation procedures, as well as about indigenous lands which have already been demarcated,” said the U.N.

An investigation by Global Witness has identified 908 murders of environmentalists and land defenders in 35 countries between 2002 and 2013. Of these, 448, almost half, happened in Brazil.

In 2018 so far, at least 12 social activists and politicians have been slain in Brazil, including Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco, killed last Wednesday. That’s twice as many as compared to the same period in 2017. Over the last five years, 194 activists have been killed in Brazil, according to the O Estado de S.Paulo newspaper.

The Brazilian Ministry of Human Rights was contacted for comment by Mongabay, but did not respond.

“The omission of the Brazilian government regarding the U.N. letters is a clear indication that it is not concerned with the lives of human rights and environmental defenders of the country, nor with the deepening of violence against indigenous peoples, quilombolas [communities of runaway slave descendants] and peasants,” Cleber Buzatto, executive secretary of the Catholic Church’s Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), told Mongabay.

Kum’tum, a leader of the Akroá-Gamellas, who was wounded in the April 2017 attack. Indigenous and environmental leaders are often targeted by Brazilian ruralists attempting to settle land disputes with violence. Photo by Tiago Miotto / Cimi

Constant menace

A member of the Gamela people, Kum’tum was attacked last April, along with others of his indigenous group in Viana, Maranhão state. They were attempting to occupy a portion of their ancestral lands claimed by farmers, when they were assaulted by men armed with machetes and firearms. Two indigenous people had their hands cut off, some were shot, including Kum’tum. He told Mongabay: “Violence has been increasing as soy plantations, eucalyptus [tree farms], mining and livestock expand. Places where people and communities lived are being torn [apart] with the advance of these sectors.”

The Gamelas people have received several additional death threats against them if they continue trying to recover and demarcate their tribal lands.

“The killings are the end point of the violence, but while alive we are assaulted, called bums and thieves, and the government does nothing about it,” said Kum’tum, who now lives in a recovered Gamela area. “When the night comes, I wonder what might happen, who will be next, and hope that the dawn will come soon.”

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A grieving Akroá-Gamellas woman just after the April attack. Members of the indigenous group were assaulted by Brazilian farmers while trying to occupy their indigenous ancestral territory in Maranhão state. The hands and feet of some victims were cut off with machetes. Photo by Ruy Sposati / Cimi