A landless peasant activist was killed by a gunshot to his head outside his home in Brazil — the fifth murder in a month likely tied to the conflict over land and logging in the Amazon.
The body of the victim, Obede Loyla Souza, was found over the weekend in the dense forest surrounding his home in the landless settlement of Esperanca, near the town of Pacaja in the Amazon state of Para, said Hilario Lopes Costa, coordinator for the watchdog Catholic Land Pastoral in Para.
Costa traveled to the remote settlement to interview witnesses and support the victim's wife and children, who are also afraid for their lives.
Police from the nearby town of Tucurui confirmed the death and said the investigation was ongoing. Members of a national police force created by the federal government earlier this month to control violence in the region took the body to the state capital, Belem, for an autopsy. It was returned Tuesday for burial. They could not be immediately reached for comment.
The state law enforcement agency in charge of land conflicts, the Agrarian Conflict Delegation, is not participating in the investigation, a spokesman said, declining to give his name because of department policy.
The Catholic Land Pastoral monitors the threats made by loggers, ranchers and farmers to silence protest over illegal extraction of wood and the violation of land rights in the environmentally sensitive region. More than 1,150 rural activists have been killed in conflicts over land and logging in the last two decades, and group has a list of 125 activists who know their lives are in danger.
Souza wasn't on that list, said Costa.
'A really dangerous group'
The 31-year-old peasant was part of a landless settlement that occupied unused farmland in 2008, setting up a camp whose name, Esperanca, means Hope. He had been farming a small plot there alongside his wife and three children and waiting for the government land redistribution program to recognize their claim.
Costa said that in January, Souza got into an argument with a representative of loggers who are illegally harvesting wood in the region — targeting the region's Brazil nut trees, which are protected under law. He knew he was in danger from then on, said Costa.
"There is in this region a really dangerous group of loggers," said Costa. "He had a fight with one of them over the cutting of these trees, and he was marked man from then on."
Witnesses who did not want to give their name told Costa they saw four men in a pickup truck asking for Souza. They and Souza's wife are now afraid for their lives as well, Costa said.
Within the last month, four activists have been shot to death, along with a witness to two of the murders.
The increase in execution-style killings led to an outcry in Brazil's government, which created a working group to monitor the region, and reinforced paltry local police forces with officers from federal police, highway patrol and national guard.
Help must come quickly, because there are others whose lives are in danger, said the president of another landless camp, Francisco Evaristo da Conceicao.
He was friends with the victim, and part of the same movement to seize unused farmland for peasants without land. He heads the Barrageira settlement — a more established community of 107 families.
Like the victim, he's had run-ins with loggers, and has been threatened by men he thinks are part of the same group who killed Souza.
"We have a lot of problems with the loggers — they invade land, and clear out forest," he said. "We fight them, but it's complicated. Men have stopped at my house looking for me. Now I have to be more careful."