Brazilian farmers use machetes to hack off legs and hands of indigenous tribespeople in land dispute

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 May, 2017, 12:51pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 May, 2017, 9:08pm

Brazilian farmers in Maranhão state have attacked an indigenous settlement, severing the hands and feet of some of their victims in what appears to be a brutal escalation of a territorial conflict.

Thirteen members of the Gamela community were hospitalised after the assault by ranchers armed with rifles and machetes in the municipality of Viana late on Sunday, according to the Indigenous Missionary Council.

The injured included the leader of the group, Kum ’Tum Gamela, a former priest and co-ordinator of the Pastoral Land Commission who has received numerous death threats while campaigning for the lands rights of his people.

Last Friday, several dozen Gamela occupied an area of what they claim as traditional territory. It was seized during the military dictatorship (1964-85), divided up among local landowners, and is now primarily used as pasture for cattle. But the Gamela – a group of about 400 families who never left the area – insist the land was stolen, and since 2014 they have stepped up a campaign for it to be returned.

Their latest resettlement was timed to coincide with last week’s nationwide strike and an indigenous protest camp in Brasilia. It followed an earlier “wire-cutting movement” to destroy the boundary fences on the farms.

Local ranchers – who claim the land as their own – responded with violence. According to one report, they sent out a WhatsApp message accusing the Gamela of being thieves and property invaders, then gathered at a barbecue, drank large quantities of alcohol and attacked at night.

According to survivors, they surrounded the Gamela settlement, fired numerous shots, and then hacked at the limbs of two people. One man had his hands cut off and his legs severed at the knee. Another lost both hands. There were no reports of deaths, though three people were said to be in serious condition in hospital.

The Gamela have been fighting against powerful local politicians for many years, including the Sarney family of rich landowners who dominate Maranhão politics.

The Gamela said officers stood by as the bloodshed took place, and indigenous rights campaigners have released audio of what they say are local military police promising not to intervene in the conflict.

After the attack, those who could still run fled into the forest. It is feared that they may be injured but too afraid to seek treatment in hospitals.

The attack is the latest in a string of confrontations, and activists fear that it will not be the last.

Maranhão is Brazil’s poorest state and one of its most violent. Not coincidentally, it is one of the frontlines of deforestation, which had led to deadly conflicts between several indigenous communities trying to protect their forest territory from loggers, ranchers and farmers.