by Isabella Kenfield and Roger Burbach
In the Brazilian state of Paraná, Valmir Mota de Oliveira of Via Campesina, an international peasant organization, was shot twice in the chest at point blank range by armed gunmen on an experimental farm of Syngenta Seeds, a multinational agribusiness corporation. The cold blooded murder took place on Sunday, October 21 after Via Campesina had occupied the site because of Syngenta’s illegal development of genetically modified (GM) seeds.
Via Campesina and the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST), the main Brazilian organization involved in Via Campesina’s actions, are calling the murder an execution, declaring, “Syngenta used the services of an armed militia.”
Syngenta is the world’s largest producer of agrochemicals and the third largest commercial seed producer. Between 2001 and 2004, Syngenta was responsible for the largest case of genetic contamination on the planet when its GM Bt-10 corn, approved only for animal feeds, was mixed with U.S. grain meant for human consumption. Via Campesina first occupied Syngenta’s site in March 2006, after it discovered that Syngenta was illegally cultivating GM soybeans and corn. The occupation drew strong international support, and in November state governor Roberto Requião signed a decree of intent to expropriate the Syngenta farm, proposing to turn it into an agroecological research center that would benefit poor rural families. The decree was a huge political victory for the rural and environmental movements, challenging the power of agribusiness in Brazil.
When the MST organized a march to the Syngenta site in late November last year, its busses were halted by a blockade of tractors formed by about a hundred members of the Rural Society of the West, a group representing large landowners and commercial agricultural producers in western Paraná. It is part of a larger network known as ruralistas, which represent reactionary landed and agribusiness interests at the regional, state, and national levels. Some Society members were on horseback and armed with guns. As the marchers began to cross the barricade, the Society fired shots into the air, and beat the marchers with sticks and clubs, resulting in the injury of nine people.
When asked why the organization had confronted the MST, Alessandro Meneghel, President of the Rural Society, responded, “To show that the rural producers do not peacefully accept land invasions and political provocations…. Attitudes such as these, of legally questionable [land] expropriations, send a bad message to investors, chasing them away and provoking ‘Brazil risk.'” Meneghel threatened, “For every invasion of land that occurs in the region, there will be a similar action by the Society. We are not going to permit the rural producers … to be insulted by ideological political movements of any kind.”
Syngenta, through its alliances with the Rural Society and other large landed interests, succeeded in overturning Governor Requião’s decree. In July of this year, the Via Campesina was evicted from the site, re-locating to the MST’s Olga Benário settlement, located next to Syngenta. The de-occupation occurred in conjunction with a peaceful march by the movements after Requião ordered the police to stop the Rural Society from confronting the marchers. Control of the property was returned to Syngenta, and it was then that the corporation hired the private NF Security company to guard the site.
A statement on Syngenta’s Web site claims the corporation “specifically agreed in the contract with [NF] security company not to use any force or carry weapons.” Yet, in late July, families at Olga Benário were threatened by armed NF security guards, which entered the settlement and remained there for about 40 minutes. At night, the guards fired shots into the air. These events were reported to the authorities.
As a result, in October the federal police raided NF Security’s headquarters, where it confiscated illegal arms and ammunition. The police report concludes that the NF Security company contracts individuals, many with criminal records, to form armed militias that carry out forced land evictions, and that the Rural Society numbers among its clients.
At dawn on October 21, about 150 members of Via Campesina reoccupied Syngenta’s site, where they encountered four armed security guards, who were disarmed and left the site. At about one in the afternoon, Via Campesina reports, “a bus stopped in front of the entry gate and about forty armed gunmen got out, firing machine guns at the people that they saw in the encampment. They broke down the gate, then shot [Mota]. The militia attacked the encampment to assassinate the leaders and recover the illegal arms of the NF Security company.”
Five MST/Via Campesina members were wounded and remain hospitalized. Security guard Fábio Ferreira, who apparently returned to the site, was also killed. The reason for his death is unclear, although one MST member believes Ferreira was murdered because he had incriminating information he might have divulged. MST members Célia Lourenço and Celso Barbosa were chased and shot at, but managed to escape. It appears the two were being targeted to die like Mota.
Earlier this year, Meneghel of the Rural Society verbally threatened Lourenço at a public forum, and the MST reports that on March 27th, its office in Cascavel, Paraná received an anonymous phone call advising Mota, Lourenço, and Barbosa to be careful because “a trap was being prepared for them.” Mota himself registered the death threats with the local authorities. On August 28, Terra de Direitos, a human rights organization, registered the threats with the National Program of Human Rights Defenders, and requested protection for all three activists.
The owner of NF Security, Nerci Freitas, has admitted he gave the order for the attack on Syngenta. He has been arrested and charged with homicide and the formation of illegal gangs. No one has claimed that the Via Campesina/MST occupants were armed. The organizations are calling for the immediate arrest of Rural Society’s Meneghel, and are demanding that Syngenta leave Brazil immediately, declaring, “Syngenta Seeds should be held responsible for what occurred.”
Mota’s murder exhibits an unsettling arrogance and disregard for the law and the government by the Rural Society, NF Security, and Syngenta, not unlike that being played out on a grander scale by the Blackwater security company and U.S. corporate interests in Iraq. It also highlights the increasing number of conflicts between agribusiness and rural civil society sweeping Latin America, as the alliance between national and international agribusiness deepens from country to country. Mota’s death could well signal a new era of continental violence and bloodshed as powerful agribusiness interests come up against the progressive social movements shaking the Americas.
Isabella Kenfield is an associate of the Center for the Study of the America (CENSA) who has just returned from living in Brazil. She writes on agribusiness, agrarian conflicts and social movements. Roger Burbach is director of CENSA who has written extensively on Latin America and US policy. He is currently at work on “The New Fire in the Americas.”