RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Eight years after renowned Amazon environmentalist Chico Mendes fell in a hail of bullets in Xapuri, Brazil's deadly battle for land between its traditional inhabitants and its ranchers shows no sign of slowing.
Indian leaders, their lawyers, government advocates and other backers have been murdered in recent years for their efforts to defend and expand native land rights. Most died at the hands of gunmen hired by wealthy ranch owners.
Arrests and convictions have been few, and many of those jailed have quickly escaped, as was the case with Mendes' killers, who fled prison in 1993. Darly and Darci Alves were recaptured in 1996, after Interpol became involved in the search.
No case since Mendes, however, has so inflamed passions as last week's assassination of Francisco Araujo, 48, the chief of Pernambuco state's largest Indian group and a leader of efforts to recover Indian land lost to ranchers.
Araujo was about to stroll into his sister's home in the northeast Brazilian town of Pesqueira when a tall, thin man, who had been lingering at a nearby pay phone, leaped into his path, drew a gun and shot him five times.
"He died because he fought for our land, our rights," said the chief's cousin, Antonio Araujo. "This crime is going to have repercussions."
After becoming chief of the Xucuru in 1986, Araujo launched an effort to recover traditional Indian lands lost over decades to the encroachment of farmers and ranchers.
By 1996, he had persuaded Funai, Brazil's federal Indian agency in Brasilia, to expand Xucuru territory from a handful of tracts surrounding 23 villages to a 66,000-acre reserve, land found by Funai anthropologists to be traditional Xucuru territory.
As part of demarcating the new reserve, Funai appropriated 290 tracts of land, most owned by large ranchers. Under Funai rules, dispossessed owners are paid for any improvements made to the land but not for the property itself, on the ground that it had been illegally seized from the Indians.
"The minute the government says the land is demarcated, any deed is completely worthless," said Funai spokesman Roberto Lustosa. "These lands should never have been seized from the Indians in the first place."
In Pernambuco, as has happened in much of Brazil, the new reserve did not sit well with dispossessed ranchers. Araujo, a calm, polished man despite his lack of formal education, reported an increase in the death threats he had been receiving since 1986.
In 1996, Brazilian authorities also passed a law giving landowners the right to contest seizures of land for Indian reserves. Ranchers in the Pesqueira area took quick advantage.
"After that, the climate of tension in the area worsened," Sandro Lobo, a lawyer for the Roman Catholic Church's Indigenous Missionary Council, told the Diario de Pernambuco newspaper.
With ranchers refusing to cede appropriated land and formal creation of the reserve stalled by court battles, Araujo and his 6,300 Xucuru -- confined to just 17 percent of their new reserve -- decided to fight back.
On March 17, the chief and others invaded the farm of one of the 100 ranchers holding property in the proposed reserve, arguing that the Xucuru, hard-hit by a regional drought, needed the land for crops and cattle.
"We will retake all that is ours," Araujo told a reporter for Recife's Jornal do Commercio in April. He also urged Funai to speed the delivery of payments to ranchers for the improvements on their land.
The money never came, the lawsuits remained unsettled, and last week Araujo was gunned down.
The Indigenous Missionary Council issued a statement blaming the murder on Brazil's government which, the agency said, "overlooked its constitutional responsibility to demarcate, oversee and protect Indian lands."
Federal police, who are responsible for handling Indian murder cases, have not made an arrest.
After Araujo's death, Xucuru members stormed into Pesqueira, leading stores to close their doors in fear of looting. The tribe's city council representative, however, told reporters the Indians "want just justice and to mourn the death of their chief."
"The Northeast has lost someone important," said Funai spokesman Gisela Didier. "People say, 'We've lost part of our heart.' But they also say the fight goes on."
Pub Date: 5/30/98