A couple of stories worth highlighting regarding the issue of land use and struggle over access to land in Brazil.
First, a new report from rights watchdog Catholic Land Pastoral has said that, while 2011 saw an increase in the number of land conflicts in Brazil, the numbers of murders of rural activists has actually declined somewhat, with “only” 29 murders and 38 attempts (compared to 34 murders and 55 attempts in 2010). That news is certainly mixed, however, and the fact that there were more documented land conflicts and more documented death threats in 2011 than in 2010 suggests that there could be instances of extreme violence in the near future. Certainly, while the numbers are in some regards slightly encouraging, it’s far too soon to make any strong long-term conclusions about a decrease in violence in a region that has witnessed the murders of hundreds of land activists in the last two decades.
Of course, one of the most violent of those historic acts of violence was the Eldorado dos Carajás massacre in the state of Pará, in Brazil’s northern region, in April 1996. In that month, police trying to remove landless peasants from an occupation camp opened fire, killing nineteen peasants, many of them at close range. The murders were one of the most violent acts of state violence against peasants, but it was far from the first case. Just months earlier, police were involved in the Corumbiara massacre in Rondônia. At Corumbiara in August 1995, police surrounded a camp occupied by peasants and indigenous people and opening fire, killing at least nine (including a nine-year-old child) and injuring dozens in an area where genocidal campaigns against indigenous peoples had existed for decades.
Now, after sixteen years, a court has finally ordered the arrest warrants for two police officers involved in the massacre at Eldorado dos Carajás. The men, Mario Colares Pantoja and José Maria Pereira de Oliveira, were sentenced to 258 and 158 years in prison, but had remained free during their appeals process. The court’s ruling means they will serve time in prison for their roles in the massacre while their case makes its way through the legal system. [Several years ago, the Brazilian courts awarded reparations to the families of the Corumbiara massacre.] As with the Catholic Land Pastoral’s report, the court’s decision is at least partially good news in the short-term, as those guilty of murder will face some prison time. However, the court’s decision is not the final word in the legal process, and Pantoja and de Olvieira may yet see their convictions overturned by a legal system that has historically been stacked against the poor and in favor of the wealthy, the landed elites, and the powerful.