Brazil Land Conflicts Worst in Decades, Report Says
BRASILIA Land battles in Brazil's countryside reached the highest level in at least 20 years in 2004 as activists clashed with farmers and loggers advancing on savanna and Amazon rain forest, a nongovernmental group said Tuesday.
Documented conflicts over land among peasants, farmers and land speculators rose to 1,801 in 2004 -- nearly twice the 925 recorded in 2002 before President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took office, the Pastoral Land Commission, or CPT, said in its annual report on rural violence.
The CPT recorded 1,690 conflicts in 2003.
"There is a climate of impunity that allows big landowners to attack the poor," said Tomas Balduino, president of the CPT, a Roman Catholic human rights group representing the rural poor.
The killing of U.S. missionary Dorothy Stang last February by gunmen as she defended a federal settlement in the Amazon drew widespread attention to violence as peasants and farmers compete for lucrative land resources.
Land conflicts have risen since Lula entered office in 2003 with a promise to settle 400,000 peasant families on unused and illegally occupied land -- as Brazil's constitution allows.
Activists say he has since put the rights of big farmers before those of the landless and the environment.
Lula, who faces re-election in 2006, asked for patience from the poor Monday and said it would take time to repay the "historic debt" owed to the landless in a country where 1 percent of the population controls 45 percent of farmland.
Farmers vs. Landless
Exports of soy and other farm products are driving a Brazilian economic expansion that has maintained Lula's popularity and put Brazil on track for growth to shrink its world-leading inequalities in wealth.
In Mato Grosso state -- which aims to be Brazil's biggest producer of soy, cotton and beef by 2020 -- the CPT said landowners had used the courts to prevent the settlement of a single landless peasant since Lula took office.
In Para state, where Stang was gunned down, only 11 people had been sentenced in over 700 rural killings in the past 30 years, the CPT said.
Rural deaths fell to 39 in 2004 from 73 in 2003 after Lula failed to carry out massive expropriations and landowners disbanded militias formed to defend properties, the CPT said.
Activists increased land grabs in 2004 to speed land reform after Lula barely met a quarter of his goal halfway through his four-year term.
Tensions rose in February as the government froze 44 percent of its 2005 land reform budget to help repay debt.
In what is known as "Red April," activists are blocking highways, occupying government offices and invading ranches.
About 11 people have died in conflicts this year.