- Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian communities in Brazil’s Pará state have accused the country’s top palm oil exporter, Brasil BioFuels S.A. (BBF), of violence during attempts to repossess in a disputed area in the Acará region on April 12 and 16.
- The company denies the accusations, saying it’s the community leaders who attacked its employees, holding 30 of them “in private captivity for three full days due to the blocking of the road.”
- The Federal Public Ministry in Pará said it’s investigating the action of armed militias and private security companies in the region, and possible crimes and irregularities by palm oil companies.
- The Public Defender’s Office questioned the legitimacy of the injunction used to justify the repossession as it was issued by a civil court instead of the due agrarian court; a hearing with an agrarian judge is scheduled for April 28.
A new wave of land conflicts between a major palm oil company and local communities has recently broken out in the Brazilian Amazon, raising concerns about escalating violence in the region.
Indigenous peoples and Quilombolas — descendants of runaway enslaved Afro-Brazilians — in northern Pará state accuse the country’s top palm oil exporter, Brasil BioFuels S.A. (BBF), of violence during attempts to repossess a disputed area in the Acará region. The company denies the accusations, saying it’s the local communities that attacked its employees instead. Authorities are investigating the case.
An Indigenous Tembé source, who asked to not be identified for safety reasons, described to Mongabay the incident on April 12: “They were threatening the Quilombolas and the Indigenous people practically all week. The company’s security guards came here armed to make us leave the areas.” The source said the Indigenous leaders “resisted and they ended up not hurting us,” but that soon after the guards went to the area occupied by the Quilombolas and “fired shots.” “They didn’t resist and ended up leaving because of the attack,” the source said in an audio message.
The Quilombolas then took the initiative to build a gate, along with Indigenous leaders, the source said, on the border of the area to which they claim ancestral rights, to hamper access by BBF’s security guards. “That’s when BBF rebelled against us again,” the source said, adding that in the early hours of April 15 and 16, “a lot of police and guards came,” expelled the Quilombolas and destroyed the gate.
In the past three years, Mongabay has published investigative stores revealing land-grabbing accusations, violence, water contamination and other environmental crimes attributed to palm oil companies in Pará. In BBF’s case, the “palm oil war,” as reported on by Mongabay in October 2022, resulted in the suspension of purchases from some of its buyers.
The area under dispute is located in the surroundings of the headquarters of BBF’s Vera Cruz farm. In an emailed statement, BBF said a group of 30 farm employees “remained in private captivity for three full days due to the blocking of the road.” It said that “an armed group formed by quilombola leaders prevented the employees from receiving food, water, medicine and fuel for power generation at the site.”
The company said its employees were only released on April 16 “thanks to the action of the Military Police,” following an injunction. “The employees reported having lived moments of terror, due to threats and lack of food, water and fuel.”
BBF added that a group of 30 Quilombolas invaded the Vera Cruz farm on April 12 to steal palm oil. “They threatened to kill employees of the company and invaded the facilities of the Vera Cruz Pole, aiming to destroy equipment and machinery. The Military Police removed the invaders from the site, but they returned to the company’s farm on the 14th, claiming new victims.”
The company said that it had filed four police reports for invasions allegedly promoted by the Indigenous and Quilombola groups in the week of April 12, adding to the more than 750 police reports it has filed since 2021 for “robbery, theft, arson, attempted rape, aggression against workers, attempted murder, firearm shooting, among others.”
The communities denied the accusations. According to the Tembé source, the blocked road is a secondary unpaved access to the farm. “We were just putting up the pillars for the demarcation of the area and what we didn’t accept was that the security guards passed by armed so that they wouldn’t attack us the way they did [on April 12].”
Abuses of power being investigated
Authorities in Pará are investigating the allegations of abuses by both BBF’s private security guards and the police in the reported episodes. The Federal Public Ministry in Pará said it’s investigating the action of armed militias and private security companies in the region, and possible crimes and irregularities by these companies, a spokesman said in a voice message.
State prosecutor Ione Nakamura told Mongabay she had asked for a hearing with an agrarian judge, scheduled for April 28. She said she was leading negotiations “to build a coexistence agreement while the public agencies allocate the area to the rightful owners,” given the Quilombola claims that the farm overlaps onto their territory. But as long as there’s conflict, she said in a text message, there’s no way to allocate the area. “Unfortunately, with the intensification of the conflict and violent situations, there are no conditions for dialogue. That is why I asked for an agrarian hearing for the judge.”
In an emailed statement, the Pará Secretariat of Public Safety and Social Defense said that specialized teams from the civil and military police carried out “an integrated action” for the “evacuation and unblocking of the access roads” to the farm, in compliance with a court order issued April 16. “The action was accompanied by a bailiff and no weapons were fired,” it said, adding that an inquiry would be opened to investigate the facts.
Public defender Andreia Barreto, however, questioned the legitimacy of the injunction, which was issued by a civil court instead of the due agrarian court. “There was a violation of the jurisdiction of the court, since in Pará state the agrarian court has jurisdiction over collective conflicts over land ownership and tenure,” she told Mongabay in an audio message, adding that both the agrarian judge and she were on duty on April 16.
Barreto said previous injunctions obtained by BBF from civil courts had been dismissed but the company keeps filing its repossession requests in civil courts “because it seems that the civil courts grant the repossession with reduced caution compared to the agricultural courts and end up granting the company’s request.”
Banner image: Oil palm harvest in Pará, Brazil. Image by Miguel Pinheiro/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
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