Brazil: quilombo threatened by rancher gunmen

Amnesty International reports that 45 families from the Quilombo Pontes community in Pirapemas municipality, in Brazil’s northeastern Maranhão state, are being systematically threatened and intimidated by gunmen who are patrolling the area. The gunmen are employed by local ranchers who are trying to push the community off the land. Crops and property belonging to the community have been destroyed, and its members are now struggling to provide food for their families. The Pontes community was officially recognised as a quilombo territory—communities of descendants of escaped slaves—in December 2011, but the authorities have not intervened to guarantee the integrity of their land.

Despite territorial rights officially recognized by Brazilian law, the community has been left to fend for itself in a violent and lawless region. Many community leaders have received death threats. One community leader, Zé Patrício, was included in the federal program for the protection of human rights defenders last October, but has received no assistance from the authorities since.

On Aug. 15, local ranchers released their cattle over the land of the Pontes community, destroying their crops. This included fields planted with manioc, the community’s staple food. Since then armed men have been seen patrolling the forested outskirts of the small-holder plantations that make up the community’s land, and several community members have said that they are frightened of leaving their homes.

The Pontes community, along with the neighboring quilombo of Salgado, has long suffered threats and persecution from local landowners. According to the Brazil’s Pastoral Land Commission, the state of Maranhão has become a focal point for land-related violence, with over 200 instances of violent land conflicts in 2011, and more than a hundred community leaders receiving death threats. (Amnesty International, Aug. 21)