OPINION: Europe must do more to protect landless communities in trade with Brazil

Wednesday, 3 July 2019 09:57 GMT

Machines are destroyed at an illegal cassiterite mine during an operation conducted by agents of the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, or Ibama, in national parks near Novo Progresso, southeast of Para state, Brazil, November 4, 2018. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The recently signed EU-Mercosur trade deal could lead to yet more land conflict in the Brazilian Amazon

José Batista Gonçalves Afonso is a land rights lawyer at CPT (Pastoral Land Commission) Marabá in Brazil

In the last four decades, 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed. Brazil holds roughly 60 percent of the entire Amazon biome, but the Amazon - the most important and biodiverse ecosystem in the world for regulating global climate, access to fresh water, rainfall and oxygen - is disappearing at frightening speed. In its path are the people who call this place their home.  

Unequal land ownership is one of the root causes of poverty and human rights violations in Brazil. The State's failure to protect its land assets has enabled an industry of public land grabs by powerful groups that threaten the territories of the communities that live in and defend the forest.

For decades we have been in the midst of a conflict in the Brazilian Amazon: between those who struggle to protect its forests, lands, rivers and peoples; and those who want to destroy it for financial gain, violating the rights of its inhabitants, and committing environmental crimes.

Conflicts over land are on the rise throughout Brazil. In 2018, a million people in rural areas were affected – an increase of 11 percent from 2017.

I come from Pará, the most deforested state in Brazil. As a human rights lawyer, I support landless communities to access and defend their land and to achieve social and environmental justice in the Amazon.

For the last 10 years, Brazil has been the most dangerous country in the world for land and environmental defenders and Pará state has faced the most severe rates of threats and killings, with more than 900 murders in the last five decades alone.

Threats come from large-scale farming, cattle ranching, logging and mining groups. This industry-first development model promotes deforestation, depletes soils, pollutes water sources, threatens local food systems, and occupies huge areas of land preventing landless families’ ability to support themselves. 

The implementation of large mining projects in the Amazon has attracted thousands of migrants to the region through strong governmental propaganda. Without promised employment nor a viable alternative, poor families have to join a movement of urban or rural occupation in order to obtain housing and survive. In the region I work in, 160 large rural properties are occupied by 14,000 families, who are disputing the land ownership with large cattle ranchers. 

Successive governments have failed to resolve the issue.

Many of these occupations are up to 15 years old, and families have been waiting for the government to recognise their land rights under the Land Reform Law, which requires the State to expropriate and redistribute lands that are not fulfilling their social function to poor landless communities. 

The current government has suspended all land reform processes and cut funding to maintain the land reform programme.

This has provoked eviction orders of those families who have been living on these farms waiting for the State to formally recognise their land rights and solve the ongoing conflicts. The judiciary has scheduled the evictions of thousands of families, at the request of large-scale farmers.

This situation is likely to get worse with thousands of families at risk of losing their homes and livelihoods.

The recently signed EU-Mercosur trade deal could lead to yet more land conflict in the Brazilian Amazon, due to an increase in land prices and large-scale cattle farming and soya production for export to Europe.

I have recently returned from a visit to Europe with CAFOD. Together, we are calling for EU governmental binding commitments to ensure new imports of meat, timber and minerals from the Brazilian Amazon are not the result of criminal activities against the environment and the human rights defenders that protect it for us all.