Boca do Acre, BRAZIL, July 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - S tanding beside broken floor boards and corrugated iron that once made-up his two-room house in the Amazon rainforest, Brazilian farmer Manoel Freitas da Conceicao is on the frontline of the world’s most violent country for land activists.
Data released on Thursday by London-based campaign group Global Witness showed that 49 of 200 land rights activists killed last year were from South America’s largest country, making Brazil the world’s most dangerous nation for campaigners.
“By the time I got here, (security forces) had already broken down the door and taken my things,” Conceicao, 36, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, recalling his eviction from his home in the southwestern Amazonas State seven months ago.
“Then they knocked down my house.”
Outside the wreckage of his home, neighbours also say they were forced out by military police at the behest of a powerful local rancher who wanted the land.
Activists say impunity for powerful ranchers in remote regions like the Amazon, coupled with the growing power of Brazil’s farm lobby in congress, is fuelling land violence.
At least 200 people were killed in land disputes in 2016, up from 185 in 2015, according to Global Witness, making it the bloodiest year on record with 60 percent of killings in Latin America.
Maristela Lopes da Silva, an activist with the Rural Workers Union in Boca do Acre, a Brazilian advocacy group which supports smallholder farmers during land conflicts, said violence is rising because of inequality and impunity.
“Here, the law only belongs to the powerful,” da Silva told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a wooden house which serves as the Workers’ Union headquarters in Boca do Acre.
As well as Conceicao and his neighbours in the last six months, more than 200 households have been displaced in Boca do Acre, a municipality with about 30,000 residents, da Silva said. “The government only issues measures to favor big ranchers,” she said.
While Global Witness recorded 49 land-related killings in Brazil last year, local rights groups put the number at about 61 - with 2017 set to be worse, according to the Pastoral Land Commission, an advocacy group linked to the Catholic Church.
Brazilian prosecutors say they are investigating the evictions of Conceicao and his neighbours as part of an effort to crackdown on land violence.
Having security forces knock down houses without prior warning and not allowing residents to remove their possessions is unlawful, said federal prosecutor Fernando Soave.
If the rancher did have a legitimate claim to the land where Conceicao and the others were living then evictions still are not supposed to happen until there has been a public meeting between the conflicted parties, the prosecutor said.
“There are a lot of illegal (evictions) happening in this region,” Soave told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
But he said he feared that if local authorities could not reduce conflicts, large farm operators in the region will form “armed militias” - as they have in other rural areas - to drive smallholder farmers from the land.
Local security forces say they acted lawfully in destroying Conceicao’s home and impunity for big ranchers is not a major problem in the region.
“We would never abuse our authority, I would never put my career at risk,” Lieutenant Miqueias Mariano de Oliveira, who led operations in the area, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
He said conflicts in the area are due to small farmers like Conceicao “invading” land that belongs to large operators.
“The rancher is the victim. There is an increasing risk of confrontation from invaders against owners and death in the region,” Oliveira said.
Conceicao and his neighbours said they had a claim to the land, although they did not have full formal ownership over the property - a common problem in rural Brazil where most farmers do not have complete title deeds to the land they work.
“They said we are land invaders, but it’s not true,” said evicted corn grower Aureolindo Nascimento Barbosa, 47.
The rancher could not be reached for comment.
Analysts believe new measures signed by Brazilian President Michel Temer this week will further stoke land violence.
These include measures to allow rural property owners to regularise up to 2,500 hectares of public land if they have been farming it, up from the current 1,500 hectares.
Critics say the rule will allow large farmers to claim swathes of land occupied by smallholder farmers like Conceicao.
Supporters of the changes say they will help farmers formally register their properties, making it easier for authorities to track who owns land and reducing conflicts.
“The new limit of 2,500 hectares could contribute to increasing violence, impunity and a lack of justice in land claims,” said Josinaldo Aleixo, a sociologist with the International Institute of Education in Brazil.
"Areas that large are only claimed by big ranchers." (Reporting by Chris Arsenault @chrisarsenaul, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)