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.

Paulo Santos/Reuters
Brazilian federal policemen stand guard as government workers load onto barges logs that they confiscated for having been cut illegally from virgin Amazon rain forest, as part of the Arch of Fire operation to stop illegal logging in 2008.

Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife, Maria Do Espirito Santo Da Silva, were ambushed and murdered on Tuesday, May 24, close to their home in the village of Nova Ipixuna, in Para state (in Brazil). The couple had spent years campaigning against illegal logging in the area, including setting up roadblocks to stop timber vehicles passing through.

They were killed with gunshots to the head, which investigators said were likely fired by at least two assassins. The police said they were working on the theory that it was a hit ordered by "loggers in the region."

This was given further weight by the murder of Eremilton Pereira dos Santos, a young man who lived in the area who went missing (last month) and was later found dead. His relatives said that he may have been killed because he'd witnessed the activists’ murderers fleeing the scene of the crime.

Ribeiro, as has been widely reported, was filmed some months before the killings making a speech at a TED Amazon conference (see video at Insight), in which he tells the audience he is in danger of being murdered by groups who were illegally exploiting the forest around his home.

"I denounce the loggers and the charcoal makers, and because of this they think that I should not exist," he told the crowd at the prestigious gathering.

Another apparent hired killing took place in the region on June 1 in Eldorado dos Carajas, a village less than 200 km from Nova Ipixuna. When onlookers tried to take the victim to hospital, gunmen stopped the car and shot him again. Some reports said the dead man was an activist, while others said he was a farmer with no connection to campaign groups or labor movements.

Brazil has a history of such dark events in the land around its valuable rainforest. A study released by Agencia Brasil in 2007 found a significant correlation between areas of high deforestation and those with high murder rates.

The homicide rate in Nova Ipixuna, which has fewer than 15,000 inhabitants, stands at 65 per 100,000 residents. This puts it on a par with some of the most dangerous cities in the world, higher than Medellin, Colombia, or Cape Town, South Africa. It has also suffered a high rate of deforestation: Some 72 percent of the original forest in the area has been destroyed.

The Amazon's 'arc of deforestation'

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."

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.

Many of the victims in the state are activists, including 19 who were allegedly massacred by the police in 1996 while demonstrating for land rights.

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.

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