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Latin America

Epidemic of violence sweeping Brazil

Brazil stood out last year for having 17 of the 50 most violent cities in the world, part of a worsening trend across the hemisphere. Among those killed were 197 "land defenders" who seek to protect natural resources, wildlife and indigenous territories.
24 May 2018 – 10:14 AM EDT
Painted Kuikuro indian from the Xingu River basin, 2016. Left, a member of the Kuikuro painted "Temer Out" on his back, a reference to the unpopular president, Michel Temer, who has rolled back environmental safeguards and the status of indigenous reservations. Crédito: Felipe Milanez/Univision

Last month a historic number of indigenous communities gathered in Brazil's capital for the annual "free earth" protest, with over 2000 people hailing from all corners of the country. In a dramatic show of defiance, the streets were painted in blood red paint to symbolize the loss of life, land and culture of indigenous communities that have suffered disproportionately from land-related conflicts and environmental crime.

The protesters were seeking to draw attention to an epidemic of violence that is sweeping the country. Brazil stood out last year for having 17 of the 50 most violent cities in the world, part of a worsening trend across the hemisphere.

Demonstrators in Brasilia held up signs reading "who killed Marielle?" a reference to the recent high-profile killing of Marielle Franco - not an indian but a young black council woman from the city of Rio de Janeiro who had decried the recent military take over of security in Rio's slums. Franco had also denounced extrajudicial killings by police, which have been on the rise.

On March 14th she was shot four times by two assassins who remain on the loose; her case is still being investigated, but many suspect her killing is connected to the police.

"What happened with Marielle in Rio is happening all over Brazil," says Felipe Milanez, an expert on the political ecology of violence and professor at the Federal University of Bahia, who attended the protest in Brasilia. "There's a state-level policy of violence," adds Milanez, which, he claims, is driven by a renewed pressure for natural resources and land. (Brazil continues in a deep economic recession.)

Franco's murder struck a national nerve; she had become an icon as the first black LGBT politician in Rio - a minority figure that had broken through to the establishment - and in the days after her death thousands of Brazilians took to the streets in protest.

Police killings are at a 15-year high, according to government figures, precisely what Franco had been campaigning against as an expert on police violence. A report published in April by the Igarapé Institute, a Brazil-based think tank, found that there had been 2.5 million murders in Latin America since 2000 - making it the bloodiest continent in the world. Latin America suffers 33% of the world’s murders despite having only 8.2% of its population.

The high number of guns is cited as being a major factor behind the homicide rates, as in the United States.

Milanez claims that the hike in murders in Brazil this year reflects the predominance of the "bible, bullets and beef" lobby in parliament, a term used in Brazil for politicians linked to powerful agricultural and mining interests.

Many of these politicians are self-proclaimed evangelicals and couch controversial policies, such as the elimination protected lands, in religious or racist terms. Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right politician running as a candidate in this year's October presidential elections, has publicly said that Afro-Brazilian communities known as Quilombolas - that have a special status similar to that of indigenous reservations - "are not even good enough for breeding anymore."

What's most dangerous about these policies, explains Milanez, is that they effectively give a carte blanche to land-thieves and loggers, which has fatal consequences.

Killing of "land defenders"

Global Witness, a human rights watchdog that tracks the killing of "land defenders" worldwide - activists defending their right to land, wildlife or natural resources - reports that 197 were killed last year. Brazil, for the third year running, had the most land defenders killed, with 46 cases. The report states that the murders are being driven by the expansion of cattle-ranching and by mining, and occur mostly in remote forest regions in the developing world.

The Environmental Justice Atlas, which tracks human rights violations, states that there has been 2,335 cases of harassment, threat and assault against land defenders this year.

Philip Fearnside, a leading climate scientists at the Brazil-based National Institute for Research in Amazonia (INPA) has warned that a renewed push to mine in the Amazon presents a monumental threat to land defenders, as the most lucrative mining projects are sighted in national parks and indian reservations.

One of the first moves by the current president, Michel Temer, upon entering office, was to invite foreign companies to mine in the Amazon.

Since then, much attention has gone to the Volta Grande Project in the Amazonian state of Pará, a projected $388 million-dollar gold mining venture headed by Canadian Belo Sun company. If built, it would be the largest open pit goldmine in Brazil. The project is seen as an emblematic struggle as it lies in the country's epicenter of land conflict and environmental crime.

More land defenders have been killed in Pará this year than any other state - four last month - and it has some of the highest rates of illegal logging in Brazil. Less than one-third of landowners in Pará have a legal title to their land. The local environmental minister, where the planed goldmine is situated, has received death threats since entering office last year. The last environmental minister in the region was shot dead outside of his home in 2016.

Increasingly, there is less and less legal protection for those who are threatened. "Ever since Dilma [the former president] left office, there is no special police force assigned to protect people whose lives are under threat," says Milanez, the bahia professor.

There is currently a move in congress to remove the protection of lands, which put together would encompass an area the size of Costa Rica, in order to allow mining. Meanwhile, in the face of a mounting security crisis in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, a rightwing former military officer who has been likened to US president Donald Trump for his outspoken and brash statements, has suggested bringing more weapons into the country in order for people to defend themselves.

Whatever the results in Brazil’s next presidential elections, to be held in October, what the latest protests have shown, both those in Rio and Brasilia, is that there is also mounting resistance to the "bang bang" politics of the past.

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