Activist for rights of Brazil's landless peasants murdered

Sat, Apr 3, 2010, 01:00

A BRAZILIAN activist who campaigned for the rights of landless peasants was shot dead by gunmen on Wednesday night in the latest incident in Brazil’s long-running and violent land war.

Pedro Alcantara de Souza was with his wife on the outskirts of the remote town of Redenção in the jungle state of Pará when two men approached on motorbikes and opened fire.

Police said the murder bore the hallmarks of a contract killing. A police spokeswoman said a man with a gun was arrested on Thursday; the gun is being tested to see if it matches the weapon used in the murder.

Mr de Souza, who was a leader of the Federation of Family Farmers, was prominent in the battle to settle poor rural families on smallholdings. Half of Brazil’s arable land is owned by just 1 per cent of the population while several million peasants are landless or practise slash-and-burn farming in remote regions.

Brazilian law allows landless peasants to appropriate unused farmland, but attempts to do so have sparked decades of often violent confrontations between large ranchers and landless farmers. This struggle has resulted in an estimated 1,200 deaths across Brazil in the last 20 years. Most of those killed have been activists of landless rights groups.

Last year Mr de Souza, who served for 14 years on Redenção’s municipal council, led an occupation of a local ranch that sparked a bitter stand-off with the ranch’s owners and a rival landless organisation that also occupied part of the farm. Local media reported that Mr de Souza swapped death threats with the leader of the rival landless organisation. Brazil’s land dispute is particularly violent in Pará which in recent decades has seen a large influx of land-hungry peasants from other parts of Brazil eager to carve out plots from the Amazon rainforest. This has brought them into conflict with local ranchers and loggers, many of whom have no legal title to their holdings and operate illegally.

Wednesday’s killing came hours after a state court delayed the retrial of a prominent Pará rancher for ordering the murder of American nun Dorothy Stang in 2005. Sr Stang had backed local peasants in their struggle against ranchers, who prosecutors say ordered her killing.

The prosecution of the rancher is a rare case of authorities pursuing the landlords who are believed to order the killings of landless activists. Typically in Brazil those sentenced for killing landless activists are contract killers as opposed to those who hire them.