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On anniversary of nun’s murder Amazon land rights activists at high risk

  • Fifteen years ago this month, land rights activist and Catholic nun Dorothy Stang, “Sister Dorothy,” was brutally assassinated in Anapu municipality, Pará state, Brazil. While her death caused a loud international public outcry, and resulted in Brazil cracking down on such violence, those corrections didn’t last.
  • Less than 5% of the more than 550 killings that have occurred since Stang’s murder having gone to court, according to data collected by Brazil’s Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) and analyzed by Mongabay. In Pará, the state where Stang was murdered, just 6 of more than 190 land conflict murders have been judged in court.
  • Experts say the majority of such killings are plotted by land grabbers and powerful land owners trying to intimidate peasant farmers seeking land reform, or trying to protect their small land holdings. Local corruption in government, law enforcement and in the courts leads to few prosecutions.
  • Analysts fear President Jair Bolsonaro’s polices will worsen the problem. In December, he issued executive order MP 910, which critics say effectively legalizes land grabbing. The decree, supposedly benefiting smallholders, provides a pardon for past large-scale land grabbers and could embolden land grabbing in future.
Dorothy Stang carried to her grave in 2005. Photo credit: Brasil de Fato on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA.

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — “Gunmen loose, loggers cutting down!” wrote American nun Dorothy Stang in an impassioned 2004 letter, alerting Brazilian authorities to escalating violence and illegal deforestation in Anapu municipality, Pará state.

In February 2005, fifteen years ago this month, the Catholic nun known as “Sister Dorothy,” who fought for the land rights of poor landless peasants in the Brazilian Amazon, was brutally murdered; killed execution style while walking a lonely road on the way to a land rights meeting.

Evidence proved that she was killed at the behest of Anapu land grabbers and powerful land owners opposed to her activism in Pará state.

To date, two gunmen, two ranchers who ordered the killing, and an intermediary who allegedly promised R$50,000 (US$11,250) for the nun’s execution, have all been convicted.

The six shots that killed Dorothy Stang resounded round the world. Her death generated national and international outrage and front-page headlines that helped bring about the convictions of powerful figures in a nation where final justice in Amazon land conflict-related murder cases is extremely rare.

Fifteen years later, the vast majority of land- or environment-related killings in Brazil continue to go unsolved. Less than 5% of the more than 550 that have occurred since Stang’s murder having gone to court, according to data collected by Brazil’s Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) and analyzed by Mongabay. In Pará, the state where Stang was murdered, just 6 of more than 190 land conflict murders have been judged in court.

José Batista Afonso, a CPT human rights lawyer in Marabá, Pará, told Mongabay that it is this stunning lack of law enforcement that helps perpetuate the chronic ongoing violence against rural land rights workers and environmental and human rights activists.

“This sense of impunity ensures the continuation of crime,” he said. “Landowners have a lot of economic power and political power. Because of this, they exercise strong influence in police and the judiciary. This will always create difficulties for any criminal case against them to proceed.”

A truck carries suspected illegally logged timber on the Trans-Iriri highway in Pará state. Image by Sam Cowie.

Batista and other experts interviewed by Mongabay agreed that the decades-old problem of powerful rural elites ordering the killings of those who go against their interests — and of escaping punishment — is unlikely to see any respite under Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro.

Since taking office in January 2019, Bolsonaro’s administration has worked to reduce forest and indigenous protections. In December, he issued executive order MP 910, a measure that critics say effectively legalizes large scale land grabbing. The administrative decree, ostensibly benefiting smallholders, provides a sweeping pardon for past large-scale land grabbers as well, and amnesty experts say the measure is likely to embolden land grabbers in the future.

“The people at the back of the line will be the smallholders, people that don’t have legal representation, people that don’t have the vast capital that it requires to draw up a georeferenced map of a [claimed] property,” explained Jeremy Campbell, a professor of anthropology at Roger Williams University and author of “Conjuring Property: Speculation and Environmental Futures in the Brazilian Amazon.”

“People that are marginalized already will be bought off or scared off, or swindled,” said Campbell.

Under Bolsonaro, Amazon violence has continued: Last week, Fernando Ferreira da Rocha, a lawyer who worked with peasant families was executed in Boca do Acre in Amazonas state, a region dominated by cattle ranching interests.

Agents from the Pará State Secretariat for the Environment and Sustainability examine illegally logged timber during a deforestation crackdown. Image by Sam Cowie.

In 2019, large landowners, military police and members of Brazil’s Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) were arrested — accused of collaborating in a huge land grabbing and deforestation scheme, involving an area the size of 86,000 football pitches, aimed at expanding cattle herds in Boca do Acre, while expelling and threatening locals, including an attempted homicide of a small-scale farmer.

“The frontier of deforestation is expanding,” said Joel Bogo, a federal prosecutor from neighbouring Acre state and a member of Brazil’s Amazon task force, who works in the region. “These [land grabbing] groups are going to new areas that were previously untouched.”

Meanwhile, back in Pará, it’s widely understood that elite ruralists involved with Stang’s murder are still at large, as well as being responsible for continuing violence today in Anapu where she was gunned down.

“These [elite] groups act collectively, in congress with their [bancada ruralista] caucus to make demands to the government. But also when it comes to crimes, they’ll rarely act individually,” explained CPT’s Batista. The ruralist lobby, dominated by agribusiness and mining interests, gained increased legislative power in Brazil’s 2018 national elections.

“In the case of Sister Dorothy, certainly there were more people who participated in the decision of her killing,” Batista added.

In 2018, Repórter Brasil in partnership with Mongabay, reported that Silvério Fernandes, a powerful Anapu landowner and local confidant of president Bolsonaro, was “working” to imprison Stang’s successor in the landless movement, Father José Amaro Lopes de Souza.

Amaro, who was jailed for 92 days on charges made by Fernandes, accuses the rancher of being part of the same “consortium” of landowners, loggers and land grabbers that ordered Stang’s murder.

Father Amaro, the successor to Dorothy Stang in the Anapu land reform struggle. He wears a shirt emblazoned with a photo of missionary Stang, whom he considered his mentor. Image by Repórter Brasil.

Today, Anapu continues to be a hotbed of violent land conflict, land grabbing and illegal logging. The municipality consistently tops the Imazon Research Institute’s monthly list of the Amazon’s most deforested municipalities.

Last August, this Mongabay reporter was present during an operation led by state environmental enforcement agencies in the municipalities of Anapu, neighboring Altamira and Senador José Porfírio, where large sums of highly valued timber from increasingly rare Amazon tree species was seized.

“It’s all noble woods — there’s Ipe, Angelim, Jatoba — it’s a significant amount,” said Everton Dias, one of the operation’s agents.

Anapu, a municipality roughly the size of the island of Jamaica, was founded during the Transamazônica highway expansion conducted during the 1970s during Brazil’s military dictatorship — a time when indigenous and traditional community rights were ruthlessly violated and rural violence was rife.

The Trans-Amazonian Highway near Altamira in Pará. The building of roads through the rainforest offers access to illegal loggers and land grabbers, often leading to land conflict and violence. Image by Sam Cowie.

In recent years, Anapu has seen an escalation of violence following a brief respite in the years after Stang’s murder. Altogether, according to CPT, at least 19 people have been killed in land conflict related killings since 2015 there.

In December, Márcio Reis — an ally of Father Amaro and a long-term enemy of landowner Silvério Fernandes — was stabbed to death while working as an Anapu taxi driver.

Five days later, Paulo Anacleto, a former Workers’ Party councilman, was shot to death by gunmen in front of his son.

The day after that, a gunman attacked the home of local agricultural leader Erasmo Teófilo, who lives under constant death threats.

At the time, Brazil’s Prosecutors Office (MPF) requested that Pará state security forces be sent into the municipality to protect locals and it issued the following statement: “For the MPF, the current scenario in the municipality shows the occurrence of repeated threats directed at human rights defenders in the countryside.”

Andréia Barreto, a public defender working on agrarian conflicts in the region, believes that the gutting of agrarian reform budgets, along with Bolsonaro’s incendiary rhetoric, which is copied by rural elites in the region, were to blame for the latest eruption of violence.

While some of those involved in Dorothy Stang’s killing have been brought to justice, locals say that others who were part of the conspiracy are still at large. Photo credit: Tio Palhaço Ribeirinho on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA.

Stang’s activism led to the creation of the PDS Esperança agrarian reform settlement, a Portuguese acronym for the Sustainable Development Project Hope, which still exists today, but continues being threatened by ruralist elites.

Her death also prompted a major shift in government environmental policy under then president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. “Within a year’s time, there had been a very ambitious policy of creation of parks and indigenous reserves,” said professor and author Campbell. Bolsonaro is working to undermine many of those conservation advances.

“There was an increasing bitterness coming from the rural elites in the region after” Sister Dorothy’s death, he said. “They were very scared that the crackdown after her murder would lead to increased enforcement operations, confiscation of properties or jail time.”

Sustainable Development Project Hope has suffered from internal divisions, death threats and illegal deforestation since at least 2011. The settlement was invaded by a group of armed men in 2018.

Last year, Brazil’s Prosecutors Office requested the reactivation of security towers in the region. Most experts expect an uptick in land related violence in future as Bolsonaro pushes ahead with environmental deregulation and advances his plans for Amazon development.

Banner image caption: Catholic Nun and Amazon land activist Dorothy Stang, murdered 15 years ago this month. Photo credit: midianinja on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA.

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