Site icon Conservation news

Killings, invasions escalate in fight for land in Brazil’s Maranhão state

  • Violence has escalated in Brazil’s northeastern state of Maranhão, where rights groups have recorded a spate of land conflicts targeting Indigenous people and rural workers.
  • A rural worker was killed on July 11 in the municipality of Codó after having relocated in 2019 to seek refuge from death threats related to land conflicts in the interior of the state, according to Catholic Church-affiliated Pastoral Land Commission (CPT).
  • In an unrelated case, land grabbers invaded the Indigenous territory of the Indigenous Akroá Gamella group in the municipality of Codó, the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI) said.
  • Maranhão has a history of impunity surrounding crimes against Indigenous people, according to a recent report that notes that most killings of Indigenous people there between 2003 and 2019 remain unresolved and are directly related to land conflicts.

A recent spate of violence related to land conflicts in northeastern Brazil has targeted Indigenous people and small-scale farmers, raising concerns from activists about impunity in the region.

On July 11, a rural worker was killed in the municipality of Codó in Maranhão state, the fourth death recorded in 2021 linked to land conflicts in the state, according to the Catholic Church-affiliated Pastoral Land Commission (CPT). In the same weekend, squatters entered the traditional territory of the Akroá Gamella Indigenous group, in the municipality of Viana, Maranhão, and tried to build a fence to split the territory, the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI) said.

The CPT identified the victim in the July 11 killing as José Francisco de Sousa Araújo, locally known as Vanu, who leaves behind a wife and four children. According to the Maranhão Society for the Defense of Human Rights, Vanu was shot and executed by two men on a motorcycle in the Pinheiral do Norte community of Codó, where four people from Vanu’s family were murdered since 2012 and a survivor also claims to be marked for death. The whole family had reportedly received multiple death threats in recent years due to land conflicts, leading them to seek refuge in Pinheiral do Norte in 2019. Mongabay was unable to confirm whether police are investigating the case.

“The killing of rural workers is announced and denounced every year in the state of Maranhão, without there being an answer that offers a solution to change this reality of massacre of peoples and communities, through the cowardly action of gunfire,” the CPT said in its note of condolence.

A sign calls for justice for Paulo Paulino Guajajara, a 26-year-old Indigenous Guajajara leader killed in November 2019 in an ambush, allegedly by loggers in the Arariboia Indigenous Reserve, one of the country’s most threatened Indigenous territories, in Brazil’s Maranhão state. Indigenous leader Laércio Guajajara was hit by gunfire too, but was able to escape. Both were members of “Guardians of the Forest,” a group of 120 Indigenous Guajajara who risk their lives fighting illegal logging in the Araribóia reserve. Image by Mídia Ninja.

Last year, the CPT’s Maranhão office recorded 203 conflicts over land in rural areas of the state, involving 20,864 families. In the first half of 2021, it has recorded four killings and one attempted killing.

Land conflicts in the state also often involve Indigenous peoples. On July 10, land grabbers invaded the Akroá Gamella traditional territory, a four-hour drive from the state capital, São Luiz. They arrived with the alleged purpose of installing a fence to split up the land, according to CIMI; the Indigenous community stayed on watch at the site to prevent the action.

Gilderlan Rodrigues, the CIMI coordinator in Maranhão, told Mongabay that military police helped fend off the invaders, although they didn’t speak with the Indigenous community. “They only approached the non-Indigenous people,” he said. The military police and Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency (Funai) didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

According to Rodrigues, Indigenous leaders have remained on the location to keep the invaders away and have called on government authorities to take action to prevent new invasions over the long term. Among the agencies they appealed to are the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), the federal and the agrarian police, the Federal Public Defender (DPU), Funai, and Maranhão’s human rights office.

The invasion reported by the Akroá Gamella people took place on the Taquaritiua Indigenous Territory, which is still in the process of being officially demarcated. CIMI said the area has been the site of several cases of violence: an attack by outsiders in 2017 left 20 Indigenous people injured, including two who had their hands cut off.

Maranhão has a history of impunity surrounding crimes against Indigenous people, according to a report released last week. Most killings of Indigenous people between 2003 and 2019 remain unresolved and are directly related to the land conflicts, according to the report “Indigenous Peoples and Access to the Justice System in Maranhão,” published July 5.

It attributes the problem to a “silent state structure with regard to the protection of Indigenous rights and a discourse of institutionalized violence in land conflicts between loggers and the original peoples who occupy their traditional territories.”

The report was prepared by the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) and Dutch NGO Hivos, in the framework of the “All Eyes on the Amazon” program. It received the support of the Coordination of Indigenous Coalitions and Organizations of Maranhão (Coapima), Greenpeace Brazil and the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB).

The report sheds light on access to justice for Indigenous peoples, highlighting that the judiciary has contributed to the difficulty of achieving demarcation for Indigenous lands. It also shows that environmental crimes within Indigenous territories go largely unpunished, and that the Indigenous rights to self-determination and self-representation routinely go unfulfilled.

Edilena Krikati, coordinator of Coapima and an adviser to COIAB, said the report provides evidence that supports Indigenous people’s common complaints that are often disregarded by the rest of society. She said there’s a refusal to acknowledge patterns of violence against Indigenous people, even though they are all connected to the fight for land rights, and to environmental and humanitarian issues.

Akroá Gamella Indigenous people protest while land grabbers build a fence in an area that is part of the Taquaritiua Indigenous Territory. Image courtesy of the Akroá Gamella people.

“We realize that the ineffectiveness of the state, the lack of will in relation to Indigenous issues, goes unnoticed. People do not care,” Edilena Krikati told Mongabay by phone. “The report comes at a time when we needed to qualify our complaints, to have subsidies and concrete arguments to make the complaints.”

She said the comprehensive report denouncing the role of the judiciary in the impunity enjoyed by violators of Indigenous rights will help NGOs, communities and leaders make official complaints to both national and international organizations.

As a next step, she said, she hopes to produce a video explaining the study’s findings to facilitate its sharing with all the locals who participated in the investigation, since Indigenous people traditionally communicate orally rather than in writing.

“I would like to give information back to the communities that participated in the study, because it was a lot of leg work,” Edilena Krikati said. “I want to transform the complicated formal language of the report into something audio-visual, since we do not have the habit of reading, especially in Portuguese.”

Banner image: Akroá Gamella’s Indigenous people take over its land and stand watch against any attempted land grab. Image courtesy of the Akroá Gamella people. 

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.