By Lucy Jordan, Senior Contributing Reporter

BRASÍLIA, BRAZIL – The number of people murdered in Brazil over land and environmental disputes rose by more than ten percent in 2012, to a total of 32 deaths, according to a land rights watchdog. Rio de Janeiro state saw a sharp rise in killings, from an average of one per year to four in 2012.

MST, Landless Workers, Brazil News
Members of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), seen here protesting on Paulista Avenue against forced evictions, have been amongst those killed in land disputes, photo by Marcelo Camargo/ABr.

According to the statistics, released Monday by the Pastoral Land Commission, a Catholic organization known by its Portuguese initials CPT, rural activists, indigenous leaders and landless peasants were murdered at an average rate of one every eleven days in 2012.

The numbers represent a 10.3 percent increase on 2011, when 29 were killed, and a six percent increase on the average rate of the past seven years of thirty deaths per year. Nationally, from 2000 to 2012, 458 people have been murdered in violent land disputes.

Bloody land disputes are common in Brazil, as large agribusiness interests and hired forest-clearers clash with traditional communities over the country’s remaining natural resources. Experts say that these conflicts are born out of a vastly unequal division of wealth and land.

Well over half of the country’s arable land is in the hands of just 2.5 percent of the population, according to thinktank CEBRAP. These wealthy landowners or ‘ruralistas’ as they are known, own vast ranches called latifúndios, devoted to commodity crops like soy, sugar and cattle.

The ruralistas yield considerable political power; last year they were the driving force behind an overhaul of the forest code that watered down protection for the dwindling Amazon jungle. Brazil’s current agricultural model concentrates 85 percent of the total value of production in just eight percent of all agricultural establishments.

Amazon Clear Cutting, Brazil News
Many of the murders resulted from conflicts over illegal logging, photo by Threat to Democracy/Wikimedia Creative Commons License.

Meanwhile, there exist 3.7 million agricultural establishments – 72.9 percent of the total, which are unable to achieve a monthly income greater than two minimum wages. Also, there are millions more landless peasants who struggle to feed themselves, and have been known to work on latifúndios in conditions close to slavery.

Rio saw two deaths over eviction threats, and two over water disputes. Isolete Wichinieski, national coordinator of CPT, noted that most conflicts in Rio arose over water, “between fishing communities and petrochemical plants, and between Petrobras and the communities who are being evicted for implementation of the Port of Açu,” she told The Rio Times.

“Of the nineteen people in Rio de Janeiro who were threatened in 2012, sixteen were for water-related conflicts,” she added.

Most of the killings in 2012 happened in the remote Western states of the Amazon, where conflicts between illegal loggers and indigenous and maroon communities frequently turn violent. Seven people were killed in Rondônia, up from two in 2011.

Killings in Pará decreased overall, from twelve in 2011 to six last year. Most of these deaths arose from conflicts over illegal logging, the CPT said, such as that of 28-year-old Dinhana Nink, who was murdered in front of her 5-year-old son for reproving a group of land grabbers.

Wichinieski attributed the drop in the number of murders in Pará to an increased governmental presence following the high profile 2011 murder of rubber tappers and rainforest activists José Claudio and Maria do Espirito Santo. “Even so,” she said, in Pará “we had 53 people threatened with death and 44 people suffered assassination attempts.”

This year is so far proving no less dangerous for land activists. In January, leader of the Landless Workers’ Movement, known for its Portuguese initials MST, Cicero Guedes was shot ten times while cycling home from an MST meeting in Campos dos Goytacazes, Rio state. He was the third MST leader to be killed so far this year.

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