The Trans-Amazonian Highway [Photo: Sam Cowie/Al Jazeera]
Successive land attacks stoke fear in Brazil's Amazon
by Sam Cowie
Sao Paulo, Brazil - At least six people have been killed in a series of deadly Amazon land conflicts in Brazil, stoking fears of rising violence in the region under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.
In two weeks, between the end of March and beginning of April, three separate attacks were recorded; two in Para and one in Amazonas states. Two police investigations are ongoing and the death toll could be higher.
Bolsonaro was elected last year with overwhelming support from Brazil's powerful farming lobby. Since taking office, the president has reduced protections for forests and indigenous lands and sought to take away the power of environmental agencies.
Observers fear these measures, coupled with the president's pro-gun, anti-indigenous rhetoric, will encourage unscrupulous farmers, loggers and land grabbers in a region where impunity reigns and disputes are commonly settled in murder.
"We foresee an intense round of violence in the beginning [of his term] and think it's going to be a growing pattern," said Jean Bellini, a national coordinator at Brazil's Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), a rural violence watchdog.
In the most recent attack, according to police reports seen by Al Jazeera, six hooded gunmen stormed a squatted rural property in Senador Jose Porfirio, Para, firing at a house with a family inside.
An occupant returned fire, killing one of the gunmen and injuring another, whose dead body was found decomposing nearby days later. A teenager and a couple who were inside the house were injured and taken to hospital.
One of the dead was military police sergeant Valdenilson Rodrigues, 54. Police investigations suggest that the group intended to carry out a violent land eviction and that Rodrigues was acting as a hired gunman.
For rural Para and other remote parts of Brazil, police working as armed mercenaries on behalf landowners or land grabbers is a decades-old problem.
In 2017, two Amazon massacres - the two largest of recent years - involved former or serving police officers clearing land and properties.
Recently, police militias have also provided security for private construction and mining projects. In 2016, a group of military police officers provided illicit private security for an Australian mining firm in Para.
"These groups utilise the equipment and knowledge of the state for private security at the expense of the population," said Armando Brasil, a military prosecutor that investigates police misconduct.
Environmental activists targeted
Land violence has long plagued the resource-rich Amazon region, home to the world's last great tropical forest. Deforestation also reached a 10-year high in 2018.
It's one of the world's deadliest places for environmental activists, with recent decades marked by high-profile assassinations Chico Mendes, Sister Dorothy Stang and Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva.
The number of land conflict killings in Brazil jumped then steadily increased from 2015, the year when Brazil fell into political and economic crisis.
According to CPT, 2017 saw 70 land and resources related killings in Brazil, the majority in Amazon states and the highest since 2003.
That number dropped significantly in 2018, according to CPT's annual rural violence report released today, to 25 killings, 15 of which happened in Para.
However, Bellini, the CPT national coordinator noted that there was an uptick in the number of leaders killed, as well as land evictions ordered by judges.
So far, in 2019, according to CPT methodology, there have been at least 10 killings, not including the two gunmen killed in Para.
In late March, hooded gunmen arrived at a rural settlement in Sao Domingos that borders the Amazon states of Acre, Rondania and Amazonas.
According to a police report, the gunmen killed 53-year-old Nemes Machado de Oliveira. Residents told police they were expelled by suspected land grabbers and houses set ablaze.
The Amazonia Real website reported four people were killed, their bodies still missing. The site also reported that the residents did not have land titles and that they had bought the land having been given false documents.
Small farmers vulnerable
Across the Brazilian Amazon, many small farmers do not have land deeds, much of which is due ot a chaotic mass colonisation process which began in the 1970s and subsequent land occupations.
According to Brenda Brito, a researcher at the NGO Imazon and specialist in Amazon land grabs, this leads them vulnerable to armed land grabbers.
"In areas that don't have land titles, powerful groups feel they are able to arrive and take the land for themselves," she said.
Alan Rick, an Acre congressman with the right-wing Democrats party, allied to President Bolsonaro, denounced the violence in the lower chamber and met Brazil's controversial environment minister Ricardo Salles.
Brazil's agrarian reform was suspended indefinitely in March, meaning the end of creation of new rural settlements for landless farmers.
Bolsonaro's secretary for land affairs, Luiz Antonio Nabhan Garcia, is former president of the Democratic Farmers Union (UDR), which has been previously accused of organising rural militias to clear land.
At the end of March, in Tucurui, Para, police arrested a farmer in connection with the murder of social movement leader Dilma Silva, 53, who previously fought the construction of a nearby hydroelectric dam.
Two of her colleagues were also killed at the same time on the rural settlement where she lived.
A police report detailed that Fernando Rosa Filho had ordered the killing because he wanted the land to construct a clandestine plane runway in which to use for drug trafficking.
The G1 website reported that he also ordered the killings of three rural workers who intended to take him to court over an unpaid labour debt. His lawyer denies all charges.
During the same period, suspected land grabbers reportedly returned to invade the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau indigenous territory in Rondonia state, having been expelled by the tribesmen in January.
Invaders told the indigenous they would return and the same month Brazil's public prosecution office urged action to protect the territory and three other indigenous lands.
Ivaneide Bandeira, coordinator of Kaninde, an NGO that works closely with the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, told Al Jazeera that a large number of land grabbers had returned.