In an urban-centric country, now fixated on corruption scandals, a faltering economy and threats of impeachment, the media are currently showing little interest in rural issues. However, last month news broke of yet another case of the violence in the interior of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul (MS), serving as a stark reminder of the unsolved conflicts still plaguing the country’s hinterland.
On 22 June the Guarani Indian community of Kurusu Mba in MS, which had waited for many years for the government to give them back their ancestral lands to which they are entitled under the country’s constitution, reoccupied an area. Two days later 30 armed ranchers attacked them. Women were beaten, houses set ablaze. Many Guarani lost all their possessions. For over a week, two children of the community, who had fled the violence, went missing.
Unfortunately, such terrorisation of indigenous communities is routine in MS, a state that is wracked by violence between ranchers and the Guarani Indians, who live penned in by soya and sugar cane plantations. According to Fiona Watson, head of research at Survival International, an NGO that works with indigenous people throughout the world, the current situation in MS is “a humanitarian disaster”, with indigenous peoples confined to “overcrowded reserves” or living in “dire poverty on the roadside”.
The Kurusu Mba community has been a particular target since they reoccupied a small part of their land in 2007. Since then, four of their leaders have been assassinated. Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court ruled earlier this year that they should not be evicted from the area since it might well be declared indigenous one day. But, while welcome news for the indigenous, it has done nothing to resolve the conflict, rather fuelling landowner fears that they might eventually be forced to hand back a large area.
Although figures vary, it is widely agreed that the killing of indigenous peoples is once again on the rise in Brazil. Brazil’s Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), reports that assassinations jumped from 53 in 2013 to 70 in 2014, with over a third of all murders occurring in MS. In addition, there has been a further disturbing upturn in aggression towards indigenous women, children and the elderly.
In November 2014, Marinalva Manoel, 27, was raped, stabbed to death and dumped by the side of a motorway in MS. Marinalva, a Guarani, had recently been part of an indigenous delegation that went to Brasilia to put pressure on the authorities to give them back more of their land. Only a month later Julia Venezuela Almeida Guarani Kaiowá, from the Tekoha Tey’i Juçu community in MS, was shot dead by gunmen in an attack on her community. Julia was only 17.
In a recent study, CIMI blamed the government’s stalled land demarcation process for the increasing bloodshed. Under President Rousseff, only one of the 600 contested areas across the country has been approved as indigenous territory. And even this dismal progress is threatened by proposed constitutional amendments, which Survival International has described as “Brazil’s biggest assault ever on indigenous rights”. In the areas where their lands are unrecognised by the state, indigenous peoples find themselves in constant conflict with landowners, subject to local abuse, and isolated from basic services and protection. A further sobering fact is that the instability, insecurity and intimidation that Brazil’s indigenous suffer while awaiting demarcation forced a total of 135 to commit suicide last year alone.
Indigenous peoples are not the only victims of Brazil’s land conflict. In fact, landless peasants and rural workers have made up a substantial part of the death toll in recent years, particularly in the North and Northeast. The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem-Terra, Brazil’s largest landless movement, reported that in 2014 alone 11 landless workers were killed; they were the victims of hit-men hired by loggers, agribusiness and the landed elite. One of the victims — Luiz Alves de Campos, who was beaten to death in a MST camp in Sergipe — had long been subject to death threats but no measures had been taken to protect him. The number of of death threats made against rural workers also surged by 253% in 2014, according to the movement.
The Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), a Catholic Church body, has stressed that, behind the increase in violence both against the indigenous and rural workers, lies the government’s reluctance to provide more land for the landless or the indigenous and its reluctance to challenge agribusiness in any way. So rural inequality remains acute, which aggravates tensions and fuels violence. With Brazil’s government barely making token efforts to resolve land disputes, all sides are taking the law into their own hands, with deadly consequences.
What is more is that these conflicts rarely make national headlines or even reach the courts. According to the CPT, less than 10% of land-related murders go to trial, let alone result in convictions. With such a high level of impunity and no meaningful intervention from the Brazilian authorities in sight, rural violence is only set to escalate.
As Survival International’s Fiona Watson stressed: “If democracy and the rule of law are to be truly meaningful in Brazil, it’s high time that President Rousseff, her government, and congress listen to its most marginalised and vulnerable peoples. If they don’t, the outlook is bleak.”’