Latest activist murder in the Amazon highlights battle over land, logging
The death of Obede Loyla Souza in Para state in the Brazilian Amazon is the fifth murder in a month. It may have been the result of a land conflict, underscoring a pattern that pits development against the environment.
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One analyst quoted in the Brazilian media after the recent killings said this relationship between violence and logging is because the state has been co-opted by economic and criminal interests in these areas. This usurption of state power has led to what the analyst called an almost permanent state of conflict in the Amazon's "arc of deforestation."Skip to next paragraph
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At the heart of this violence are disputes between local residents and the interests of industrial groups, timber merchants, and ranchers. The Pastoral Land Commission (Comissao Pastoral da Terra - CPT), a non-governmental organization, found in its most recent report that 2010 had seen a growing trend of violence over land conflicts in Brazil.
Almost half of all conflicts over land in that year were located in Para and the neighboring Amazonian states of Maranhao and Tocantins. Of the 34 people killed in these conflicts in 2010, 18 were in Para. The campaign group blamed impunity for what it called the persistent violence, noting that fewer than 40 percent of such killings in recent years were even investigated by the authorities.
Government boosts security
In response to the murders, Brazil's government has upped security in the region. Government environment agency Ibama, which monitors and enforces environmental rules, announced it had increased surveillance operations in Nova Ipixuna. It said that following the assassinations, it had moved federal environment officials into the area, who would remain there indefinitely.
By May 31, the agents had identified 14 deforested areas and 120 kilns for illegal charcoal production, fined two companies for breaking rules on timber registration, and announced plans to prosecute all those involved in these "environmental crimes."
The new state presence comes too late for the slain campaigners. Brazilian legislator Jose Geraldo told the press that the reason for the killings was that the government had not regularized land tenures in the area, and that Ipama had failed to carry out proper surveillance.
But even increasing law enforcement in the Amazon region will not solve the problem at the root of the violence. Brazil has one of the most unequal land distributions in the world, and the government's 2006 agricultural census showed that the distribution was "virtually unchanged" over the previous 20 years, with almost half of all establishments smaller than 10 hectares.
The situation bears comparison to that of Colombia in the last two decades, when massacres and selective killings were carried out by paramilitary organizations at the behest of large-scale landowners. The areas of the highest displacements correspond in large part to economically valuable land, to be used for palm oil cultivation or cattle ranching.
Brazil's valuable Amazon forest appears to be providing an even bigger and more hotly-contested driver of conflict.
--- Hannah Stone is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of her research here.