By Sarah de Sainte Croix, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – A leading figure in Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (the MST, or Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra), was assassinated last Thursday evening in the Northern state of Pará. Valdemar Oliveira Barbosa was shot to death by two gunmen while riding his bicycle through the streets of his home town of Marabá.
Barbosa became the fourth person involved in environmental or land rights movements to be murdered in the state in the last three months.
He was an active member of the Marabá branch of the MST and had coordinated the invasion and occupation of an abandoned former cattle ranch known as Fazenda California one year ago, only to be moved on by police towards the end of 2010. It is thought that he may have been killed to prevent his planned return to the property.
According to statistics released by the land rights watchdog group, Catholic Land Pastoral, more than 1,150 rural activists have been killed in Brazil in the last twenty years – an average of between four and five killings every month.
The organization speculates that local farmers, ranchers and loggers are hiring killers to silence or dissuade protests over illegal logging and land rights in the environmentally sensitive region.
According to the Brazilian Justice Ministry, the state of Pará is particularly dangerous, with a homicide rate of forty murders per 100,000 people in 2009 – almost double that of Rio de Janeiro, which came in at around 24 murders per 100,000 people, and almost seven times the average homicide rate registered by the Pan American Health Organization for the U.S. during the same period.
Pará, with a population of over 6 million, is the most populous state of the northern region, and second largest state of Brazil in area, second only to Amazonas.
The most recent spate of killings to blight the state began in May this year with the double murder of activists José Claudio Ribeiro and his wife Maria do Espírito Santo, who had been receiving death threats from loggers in the area since 2008. Despite intervention by the Federal Police by express order of President Dilma Rousseff, as of yet no suspects have been arrested.
The Pará killing spree coincided with a sixfold increase in deforestation rates in the area in March and April this year compared to the same period last year, according to information from the National Institute for Space Research, or INPE.
“It’s a very dangerous time,” said Philip Fearnside, an ecologist with INSPA (The National Institute of Research in the Amazon), speaking to the Financial Times.
MST is considered the largest social movement in Latin America with an estimated 1.5 million landless members. Since 1985 the MST has coordinated peaceful occupation of disused lands while petitioning the government to grant titles, and has achieved a good deal of success along the way.
According to the MST website, titles have been granted to 350,000 families in more than 2,000 settlements, amounting to a total expropriation of more than 35 million acres.