Cicero Guedes, a former sugar cane cutter turned land rights activist, worked in Campo dos Goytacazes, a settlement in Brazil. There he organized with the Landless Workers Movement (MST) to help families achieve what he had received: legal claim to land as part of Brazil’s agrarian reform movement.
For his tireless work, Cicero was murdered, shot more than a dozen times while he rode his bicycle to the fields. His assassination seemed intended to send a message to other would-be land rights activists: organize and you will pay the ultimate price.
The assassination of Cicero Guedes is far from an isolated occurrence. The global consolidation of land into fewer and fewer hands has exacerbated tensions between small farmers and peasants who have been living on the land for generations and industrial agriculture and mining interests that want to swoop up natural resources for export and profit.
Grassroots International, a global grantmaker and advocate for the human rights to land, water and food, provides support to the MST. Since 1983, Grassroots has supported some of the most progressive social movements around the world, offering both financial and political solidarity in their struggle to secure a dignified life. And in the last few months, a steady stream of alerts has reached the Grassroots’ office from around the globe.
“Our partners are targeted because they are organized and powerful, and thus a threat to those who want to take away the land and water from the people,” explains Saulo Araujo, Grassroots’ Program Coordinator for Latin America.
“In addition to the death threats and even murders, more of our partners have had their offices raided or faced arrests or intimidation,” adds Mina Remy, Program Coordinator for the Middle East and Haiti.
A new scorched earth in Latin America
Stories from the field provide names to accompany the statistics of mounting violence.
Brazil experienced a 24 percent increase between 2011 and 2012 in the number of people murdered in land conflicts according to the Land Pastoral Commission. And in the Honduran region of Aguan alone, more than 88 peasants have been killed since 2010 as a result of land disputes with agribusinesses.
Geronimo Sol Ajcot was a member of the National Indigenous and Peasant Coordination of Guatemala (CONIC) until he was gunned down on Monday, March 11 while walking to work at a farm. Sixty-eight year old, Geronimo had received death threats earlier because of his work for indigenous and peasant rights. Six armed men turned that threat into a tragic loss for the community in the village of Chacayá, Santiago Atitlan, Solola.
“The indigenous struggle for land hasn’t changed and, like before, it remains rooted in a struggle for social and economic justice and equity,” explains Araujo. “The civil war that claimed thousands of innocent lives in Guatemala was about land, and it still is. And those who stand up for the rights to land continue to face incredible dangers. What has changed is the widespread criminalization of social movements through anti-terrorism laws, often inspired by the USA Patriotic Act.”
In fact, according to Araujo, land rights activists today encounter additional challenges due to the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Those who have been living on the same land for generations now encounter a new system that supports international investment over community rights, and that neglects the UN-mandated requirement for “free prior and informed consent.” Instead, current development policies favor big businesses, mining companies and industrial agriculture over the rights of peoples to their historic territories.
As a result, Araujo explains, investors and powerful forces claim that indigenous communities are barriers to progress. Further, those who act as barriers are often labeled national security threats, thus clearing the way for their criminalization. As a result, small farmers and organizers who mobilize for their land rights often wind up in jail, with the chilling effect impacting others left behind.
Rafael Alegria knows first-hand the impact of threats. Co-coordinator for the Via Campesina-Central America and a leader of the agrarian reform movement in Honduras, Alegria’s closest legal advisor, Antonio Trejo Cabrera, was murdered last year. Now Alegria himself faces death threats. Such violence (in deeds and in words) fit into a broader pattern of brutal repression against peasant and indigenous movements in Honduras today, repression that stems from land-grabbing elites and a post-coup government that has received support from the United States.
“At this moment in time, there is a very serious agricultural conflict taking place – the campesinos [peasants] want to work and produce their own food to feed their families and to contribute to the national economy,” explains Alegria. “I am being targeted by a campaign to blacken my name and am being threatened by groups who are opposed to agrarian reform … That is why we are asking for international solidarity for the Honduran movement and its leaders,” he told The Latin America Bureau in an interview last year.
In fact, according to Sandra Carolina Ascencio of El Salvador’s National Roundtable against Metallic Mining, the crisis in Central America has risen to a severe state. “They used to say that the next world war would be fought over water,” Sandra said. “Well, that war has already started.”
Indeed, in a country known for the murder of its Bishop (Oscar Romero) and other human rights figures in the 1980s, El Salvador’s current victims are community activists opposed to the expansive mining operations, as well as small farmers “in the way” of hydroelectric dams or road construction or agrofuel plantations.
Amnesty International’s “Report 2012: The State of the World’s Human Rights” summarizes the situation described by Ascencio this way: “The failure to respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples had a negative impact not only on livelihoods, but also resulted in communities being threatened, harassed, forcibly evicted or displaced, attacked or killed as the drive to exploit resources intensified in the areas where they live. “
The other casualties of this war are the land and waterways themselves, now polluted with runoff from the mines and industrial agricultural fields (including arsenic, cyanide, chemical pesticides and other poisons) that make the once fertile area inhospitable to farming for the foreseeable future.
Palestine: An island in the middle of land
As a land occupied and controlled by a foreign government, Palestinian land rights activists face a series of unique challenges and dangers.
As Dr. Taha Refa’ie, of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees explains, across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip Palestinian farmers are enmeshed in an existential struggle that affects not only their everyday livelihoods, but also who will control their lands in future generations. Palestinian farmers are systematically being driven off their land by: the Separation Wall and the Buffer Zone that restrict access to land; Israeli policies that destroy wells and rainwater collection systems used for domestic consumption and agriculture; checkpoints that prevent farmers from accessing local markets while Israeli products flood Palestinian markets; and, settler violence committed against Palestinians and their farms.
Many are also removed from their land by arrests and detentions.
Palestinian farmers, fishers and organizers have come under an intensified arrest campaign conducted by Israeli Defense Forces in the occupied West Bank. For example, employees of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees were detained, held without charges and denied legal representation – all because of their work defending Palestinians’ fundamental rights to land, water and food.
- The director of the UAWC Jericho office, Mohammad Nujoom was also abducted on July 16 as he re-entered the West Bank from abroad.
- The Director of Development and Operations, the engineer Fouad Abu Saif, was arrested on July 26 in an early morning raid on his home in Hebron. His computer, mobile phone and other communication devices were seized.
- On July 31, Dr. Moayad Ahmad Bisharat (coordinator of UAWC’s Jericho office) was abducted at dawn from his home. The UAWC office in Jericho was then ransacked by Israeli forces, which confiscated the computers, laptops, and files of the organization.
- In addition, UAWC Board Member Ahmad Soufan, held in administrative detention for one year, was recently ordered into a third term of six months in arbitrary administrative detention without charge or trial. Two other UAWC leaders, Abdel Razzak Farraj, administrative and financial director, and Board member Dr. Yousef Abdul Haq, were both finally released from administrative detention after multiple renewals of their imprisonment.
These arrests – and the lack of due process – are part of the ongoing attacks on Palestinians’ rights to land, water and food. Farmers and fishers are struggling to remain on their lands and on their seas as these life-giving resources are stolen and used for Israeli settlements, military use or buffer zones. Food and agricultural production are crucial to Palestinian communities’ ability to survive. And, ultimately, the struggle for land and water is rooted in the larger struggle for Palestinian self-determination.
International law and treaties are supposed to protect the Palestinian people and their rights to their land, water and self-determination. However, Israeli policy has imposed a different set of regulations and practices contravening international law. Thus far, the international community has not prevailed upon Israel to abide by these universally recognized laws.
According to ADDAMEER Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, more than 650,000 Palestinians have been detained by Israel since 1967. That amounts to roughly 20 percent of the total population, and 40 percent of the men living in the occupied Palestinian territories have seen time in the inside of a prison or detention center.
Remy believes that the pace of arrests in Palestine has accelerated since the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution acknowledging Palestinian statehood. Israeli occupying forces continue to demonstrate that Palestinians cannot assert their own security in the region.
“On the ground, Palestinians continue to resist just by staying on their land in any way they can: farming, home gardening, demonstrating.” Yet, she acknowledges, “our partners in Palestine have experienced more office raids and arrests” as the tensions continue to escalate.
Hassan Karajah, Youth Coordinator of Grassroots International partner, Stop the Wall Campaign, experienced that first-hand the morning of January 23, 2013. Israeli military forces in the West Bank village of Safa, near Ramallah raided his home and have held him in detention, without charges, since.
Karajah’s arrest is by no means an isolated incident – it is part of a disturbing trend of Israeli repression of Palestinian civil society, which seems to be particularly focused on people and groups who are involved in struggling for or defending human rights. His arrest follows a nonviolent protest organized by Stop the Wall in which a coalition of youth groups, farmers and trade unions came together to defend land in an area slated by the Israeli government for settlement expansion in the West Bank, Bab Al-Shams.
Violence against Women
Just 11 days after the murder of Cicero Guedes, the body of his colleague Regina dos Santos Pinho was found, half-naked with a scarf tied around her neck, the apparent victim of a brutal murder. While it is not clear as of this writing if her death was connected to Cicero’s, it is clear that women like Regina face violence and threats worldwide, often as a result of their political activism, but also simply because they are women.
“Violence against social movements is often gender-based,” reports Araujo. “After the coup in Honduras, many women were killed and raped, either because of their own leadership in the movements or because they were the wives or mothers of key organizers.”
In 2011, according to the Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace, 637 women were murdered in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – four times the number from a decade ago. Systemic as well as personal violence against women prompted the Via Campesina to launch a Global Campaign to End Violence against Women, working in close concert with the World March of Women, an international feminist movement. As an international network of more than 200 million small farmers, producers, fishers and foresters, the Via prioritized this issue as central to their struggle for liberation. According to a statement issued at the campaign’s founding:
… all the forms of violence that women face in our societies – among them physical, economic, social, cultural and macho violence, and violence based on differences of power – are also present in rural communities, and as a result, in our organizations …. We recognize the central role of women in agriculture for food self-sufficiency, and the special relationship of women with the land, with life and with seeds. In addition, we women have been and are a guiding part of the construction of the Via Campesina from its beginning. If we do not eradicate violence towards women within our movement, we will not advance in our struggles, and if we do not create new gender relations, we will not be able to build a new society.
Grassroots International has supported the Via’s Global Campaign to End Violence against Women, as well as its women’s commissions in various regions and countries. Evelinda Miranda, a 25-year-old Mayan community organizer, worked with the National Women’s Commission of the Via Campesina-Guatemala. Evelinda and seven other community representatives were attacked as they returned from a meeting with congressmen to discuss tensions between the government and local communities. Evelinda’s murder happened just the day before the Commission’s meeting. Acknowledging her loss, and the dangers they themselves faced, the women chose to meet in her honor.
Seneida Consagua Perez, the national secretary of the Women’s Sector of the Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC), put it this way: “In Guatemala, people are being prevented from defending their rights. But we women will continue speaking up, demanding an end to the violence, the repression and evictions from our land.”
And speak up they do! Because of their tireless work, and the commitment of other women and men to end violence against women, last year Nicaragua’s National Assembly passed a landmark bill on February 26, 2012 that establishes comprehensive measures to « prevent, punish and eradicate violence against women, as well as assist victims of violence in seeking redress” against perpetrators. Inspired by this milestone victory, women’s commissions and groups elsewhere in Central America are pushing for similar protections and rights in their countries.
Defending those who defend human rights
The systemic crack-down on human rights activists and defenders sends a chill through communities facing intense repression and danger. Yet they are refusing to back down. Rafael Alegria continues to stand up for the rights of Honduras’ small farmers and landless peasants.
Indigenous communities and those affected by mining in El Salvador hold fast to their right to informed consent, and the rights of the earth itself to be free from deadly poisons.
Youth in Palestine, like Hassan Karajah, are choosing to stand up to occupying forces to keep their lands, despite severe and relentless attacks.
And there are innumerable stories like these of oppression and courageous resistance that we hear every day at Grassroots International from partners and allies across the world, including in Asia and Africa. The statistics tell a devastating narrative of ongoing danger and threats to those who stand up for the human rights to land, water and food. Yet people continue to resist, and endure. Human faces illustrate the walls of tragedy around the world.
“The stakes have never been higher,” says Nikhil Aziz, Grassroots International’s executive director, “Capitalism in its neoliberal phase is waging an all-out assault on the last frontiers of extraction and accumulation – natural resources including the land we depend on for food, the water we drink and, even, the very air we breathe. The science fiction of [the movie] Avatar is an everyday fact for hundreds of millions of peasants, indigenous peoples and women around the world.”
For 30 years, Grassroots International has partnered with courageous human rights leaders around the world and the organizations they work with. Some, like Cicero Guedes of the Landless Workers Movement and Evelinda Miranda of the Via Campesina-Guatemala Women’s Commission, have lost their lives in this new world war for natural resources. Others, like Rafael Alegria of the Via Campesina. Hassan Karajah of the Stop the Wall Campaign and Sandra Carolina Ascencio of the National Roundtable against Metallic Mining, refuse to keep silent about injustice.
In our role as a funder, advocate and solidarity organization, Grassroots International remains committed to standing with our partners, amplifying their voices and struggles, telling their stories, and engaging other donors and activists to support their vital work.
We join the chorus of others who recite the all-to-long scroll of heroes of humanity with the call: Presente!