Measured grave – the deaths in the fight for land in Brazil

Special report “Measured grave”, published by Repórter Brasil

By Daniel Camargos, Mariana Della Barba, Diego Junqueira, Daniela Penha, Gisele Lobato, Maria Fernanda Ribeiro, Joana Suarez and Pedro Sibahi (Repórter Brasil)

After one year, 61% of murder investigations in Brazil’s rural areas have yet to be concluded and nobody has been convicted

Special report “Measured grave”, published by Repórter Brasil, provides an unprecedented x-ray of rural violence and reveals impunity in the 31 murders of landless workers, indigenous people and environmentalists in the first year of the Bolsonaro government. Learn about victims’ profiles, the motivation of the crimes and the drama of bereaved family members.

The grave you’re in
Is measured by hand

It’s the land you wanted
To see them divide

(Excerpt from João Cabral de Melo Neto’s poem Morte e Vida Severina, translated by Elisabeth Bishop as The Death and Life of a Severino)

The 31 victims of rural violence in Brazil during the first year of President Jair Bolsonaro’s government have names, surnames and histories of defending their land. What they do not have is justice. After more than a year, nobody has been convicted and only one case was considered closed: that of an indigenous person in the state of Amapá who, according to the Federal Prosecution Service, drowned – a version disputed by the family, since injuries were found on the victim’s body.

Another 19 investigations (61%) have not been concluded – after a year – and one of the cases is still with the Prosecution Service. Ten cases (32%) had their police investigation stages completed but are awaiting trial, and six are related to the same fact: the Baião Massacre in the state of Pará. In only seven of the murders there has been pre-trial detention of suspects – mostly farmers and security guards – but in four cases, they have been released.

The data are part of a Repórter Brasil survey based on a report by the Land Pastoral Commission (CPT), put together on the multimedia special report Measured grave, which provides an unprecedented x-ray of violence – and impunity – in rural Brazil.

“Impunity is a structural arrangement in which victims of violence maintain their historical condition of invisibility, even when they are eliminated,” says CPT coordinator Paulo César Moreira. The organization has been releasing annual reports on rural conflicts for more than three decades.

Memorial in honor of Dorothy Stang, a nun killed 15 years ago in Anapu, state of Pará. The crosses represent rural workers who have been murdered and threatened (Photo by Greenpeace/Daniel Beltrá)

The invisibility to which Moreira refers is related to the victims’ profiles. People executed in 2019 were mostly men (93%) who lived in states of the so-called Legal Amazon (87%), linked to landless workers’ (35%) or indigenous people’s movements who died defending their territories (25%). They were poor workers who often lived under threat and dreamed of a piece of land on which to make a living – a right guaranteed in Brazil’s Constitution. The victims include a Funai employee.

The Measured grave special report also shows that most cases involve disputes over land (39%) or the defense of indigenous territories (29%), but there are labor issues and even a hate crime, when an elderly person was run over during an MST (Landless Rural Workers’ Movement) demonstration in Valinhos (São Paulo).

The brutality of some murders indicates hatred and prejudice against rural peoples. In addition to the MST activist who was run over, environmentalist Rosane Silveira, from Nova Viçosa (Bahia), was found with her feet and hands tied and signs of strangulation, besides being stabbed and shot in the head.

Suspects, people of interest to the police or charged by the Prosecution Service include farmers, private security guards hired by landowners, hunters, as well as loggers and land grabbers. But there are cases in which investigators have no clues, and situations where the police structure is poor, such as a murder in southern Amazonas in which no police report was ever filed and another one in the state of Mato Grosso, where the police station that was supposed to investigate it did not even have a commanding officer.

“Is it really going to be just like that? I stayed behind with my children, struggling,” Aluciano’s widow Elizangela Raimunda da Silva Santos complaints

According to Brazil’s Code of Criminal Procedure, a police investigation must be concluded within 30 days – which rarely happens in homicide cases, whether rural or urban. “Research on homicides in Brazil and in the world shows that, when cases are solved, it usually happens within a year. Over the months, the chances [of solving a case] drop because time erases the traces, pressure on the authorities decreases, and witnesses forget details,” says Bruno Langeani, a lawyer and manager of Sou da Paz Institute. That is, 61% of cases that are under police investigation may never reach the courts. And if they do, a trial could take more than ten years.

Amid police institutions’ lack of structure and the slowness of the Judiciary, impunity is repeated in both recent and older crimes: of the 1,496 cases of rural violence between 1985 and 2018, only 120 – or 8% – went to trial, according to a CPT survey. Repórter Brasil also investigated five murders that took place more than a decade ago to understand whether the time factor contributes to justice: only one of them went to trial, and the perpetrator was convicted and sent to prison.

In addition to silencing lives and struggles, violence also undermines investigations. “With so many killings, getting witnesses is difficult. People don’t want to put themselves at risk and this ends up complicating the investigation,” says Nayara Santos Negrão, an Agrarian State Prosecutor in Altamira, Pará. Pernambuco’s Agrarian Prosecutor Edson Guerra agrees, adding that some crimes leave no trace: “Nobody wanted to speak because they were afraid. It was a planned, well-designed thing, because I had no evidence,” Guerra told Repórter Brasil about one of the victims featured on Measured Grave.

Sister Jane Dwyer, who continues Dorothy Stang’s work, points to a cross next to Stang’s grave, with names of victims of rural violence in Anapu (PA). Three of them were murdered in 2019 (Photo by Cícero Pedrosa) Neto/Amazônia Real)

Police officers in charge of investigations, on the other hand, often claim that the procedures are confidential or give vague answers not to explain the sluggish police work. “There are still procedures under way that will help to complete the investigation,” one of them told Measured Grave. “The investigation is under way,” another one said.

Until justice is done, families grieve their dead, sometimes under threat, sometimes facing economic hardship. “We live in anguish; we have no peace in this situation. It’s a terrible injustice. Is it really going to be just like that? I stayed behind with my children, struggling,” says Elizangela Raimunda da Silva Santos, Aluciano’s widow (her husband was murdered in rural Pernambuco). She is now being helped by the Church to feed her three young children.

“License to kill”

“What makes these people commit crimes is that impunity is almost certain,” says former Environment Minister Marina Silva, who was born in a rubber plantation in Acre and knows rural violence up close, having lost her union activist associate Chico Mendes, murdered in 1988. But that is not all. For the founder of the Rede Sustentabilidade party, the discourse and some measures adopted by Jair Bolsonaro – such as reducing environmental inspections – increased the violence.

“Killers feel they have a license to kill. They listen to the government’s discourse against indigenous people, environmentalists, extractivist populations, and they feel they’re covered while the victims are helpless and unprotected,” the former minister says. Indeed, rural conflicts increased by 23% in 2018-2019, according to CPT – a record in the last five years.

“What makes these people commit crimes is that impunity is almost certain,” says former Environment Minister Marina Silva

To reduce the violence, the former minister understands that murderers have to be investigated and punished, as well as those who ordered the crimes. In addition, she says that when she was a minister, between 2003 and 2008, she held public selection processes to hire more employees for Ibama and strengthen environmental inspection, and she even authorized inspectors to burn machines used in illegal mines. “In many cases, it’s all you can do. By forbidding [burning machines] as Bolsonaro does, the government empowers those who are breaking the law,” she says.

Most deaths in 2019 happened in the state of Pará, with 12 of the 31 victims. It saw two massacres (Eldorado dos Carajás and Pau D’Arco) and the murder of Dorothy Stang in 2005. Unlike the victims portrayed on the Measured Grave report, the missionary’s execution gained international prominence and the perpetrators were arrested, albeit after a long legal battle.

But the area where Sister Stang used to advocate land reform continues to spill blood. In 2019 alone, three people were murdered because of land disputes in Anapu (PA): Márcio Rodrigues dos Reis, Paulo Anacleto and Marciano dos Santos Fosaluza. Their names are written on a red cross next to Stang’s grave, together with 16 others – all people murdered as a result of their fight for land reform in the last five years in the town near the Transamazônica highway.

Marina Silva was Brazil’s Environment Minister when Dorothy Stang was executed, and she was with federal police in Pará on the day she died. “I sent them to the crime scene, because I thought that, if that murder remained in the hands of the State Justice, some maneuver would be attempted to protect the murderers,” she recalls. “When the police arrived at the crime scene, the Military (State) Police wanted to incriminate an ally of Stang’s. It’s a lawless land.” Silva also recalls that, when Sister Stang’s body arrived in Anapu, some people set off fireworks to celebrate her death.

Dorothy Stang’s 2005 Funeral in Anapu, Pará; the state continues to be the scene of rural violence, with 12 of the 31 victims killed in 2019 (Photo by Alberto César Araújo/Amazônia Real

Sister Stang, like many of the victims featured on the Measured grave report, struggled to democratize access to land in the country. “Inequality in land distribution in Brazil is among the world’s highest, being associated with historical processes of land grabbing, social conflicts and environmental impacts,” concludes a study by Imaflora (Institute of Forest and Agricultural Management and Certification) after finding that 10% of the largest farms occupy 73% of Brazil’s agricultural land. One of the measures to reduce inequality, the study continues, is land reform – which was suspended in 2019 by the Bolsonaro government, as Repórter Brasil showed at the time.

Economist João Pedro Stédile, one of the coordinators of the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST), sees a pattern in the cruelty against rural workers, which has remained the same for decades. “This violence is present in judicial persecution and police work, and it culminates in the murders,” he says. That shows how the Brazilian State is elitist and biased, which guarantees repression to peasants and impunity to landowners, Stédile says. “The Bolsonaro government, with its fascist rhetoric, induces even more impunity,” claims the MST leader.

The Secretariat of Land Affairs of the Ministry of Agriculture did not answer the questions sent by the reporters. Secretary Nabhan Garcia also declined to be interviewed.

Indigenous leaders targeted

After landless rural workers, indigenous people were the main victims of rural brutality. In 2019, nine of them were murdered for defending indigenous territories, seven of whom were leaders. It was the highest number of murders in the last 11 years, according to CPT. “The invaders felt totally authorized to be violent,” says Sônia Guajajara, executive coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (Apib).

Guajajara considers that the current peak in violence against indigenous peoples began when President Jair Bolsonaro declared that he would not demarcate even an inch of indigenous land. Its more than just discourse. In practice, not a single inch was demarcated in the first two years of his government and requests for demarcation are not seeing progress. Funai president Marcelo Xavier declined to be interviewed and the agency did not answer the questions sent by the reporters.

Paulino Guajajara was a member of Guardians of the Forest. He was murdered by invaders of the indigenous territory Arariboia. (Photo by Patrick Raynaud)

“I get threats but I’m not afraid. I just miss him so much,” says Paulino Guajajara’s father José Maria Guajajara

Among the indigenous people murdered in 2019, Paulo Paulino Guajajara’s case had the strongest repercussion. He was a member of Guardians of the Forest, a group formed by indigenous people to protect the territory from loggers and encroachers. “Their work is very risky because there’s no protection. [The Guardians] are doing the State’s work in protecting public lands,” says Sônia, who, despite the risk, stresses the importance of the group. “They are significantly reducing the number of loggers that enter the territory.”

A year after the crime, which gained international repercussion, Paulino’s family is facing economic hardship and threats. “The whole world heard about my son’s death and the criminals are angry with me. I get threats but I’m not afraid. I just miss him so much,” says Paulino’s father José Maria Guajajara.

The two loggers indicted for Paulino’s murder had their pretrial detention ordered, but they are still at large. After Paulino’s death, four other indigenous people were killed in the same region.

While the fight to defend the territory or to achieve a piece of land can take a heavy toll, the same can be said about the battle against impunity. “The struggle to punish the perpetrators has not been very successful,” complained Father Moreira from the CPT.

The Role of Financial Institutions

Financial institutions must endorse and implement a zero-tolerance approach to attacking against attacks on defenders, in their investment decision making. They must require companies in which they invest to conduct and act on human rights due diligence assessments, which should cover their entire chain of custody. In addition, these assessments should take into account the regional context and assess how the sector in which a company operates contributes to violence and impunity.

Visit the multimedia special report Cova Measure (in Portuguese) to learn more about the landless workers, indigenous people and environmentalists silenced by violence and impunity.

Find more information on what financial institutions and companies can do on the Zero Tolerance Initiative site.