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Brazil’s Pankararu finally win land rights, but fight isn’t over

The Azeri Times



Brazil’s Pankararu finally win land rights, but fight isn’t over

Jatoba, Brazil – Sarapo Pankararu, 36, sits in front of his house on the indigenous reserve in Brazil‘s semi-arid Sertao region, where, after a bitter 25-year struggle, his Pankararu people have finally won their land rights.

But intitial relief has given way to tension and unease as a long-running land conflict in the region flares up again. 

“We have had cameras installed on our houses because of the threats,” Sarapo tells Al Jazeera.

The indigenous leader says the threats – physical, verbal and online – are from the settler farmers who live on the edge of the reserve and are set to be evicted this month. He and nine other Pankararu leaders are part of a state government human rights protection programme.

The settlers’ eviction was first ordered in 1993 and a final eviction was ordered in June this year. Under the order, about 300 settler families must leave the 8100-hectare reserve in Pernambuco state where 6,500 Pankararu tribespeople live and was demarcated by the Brazilian government in 1987.

In the Sertao, long-running land disputes between indigenous people, settlers and landowners are common and often deadly. Experts blame slow-moving courts, impunity and the state’s incapacity or indifference to resolve conflicts in this poverty-stricken region.

“The biggest provoker of land conflict is the Brazilian state, with its failed land policy,” says Saulo Ferreira Feitosa, a professor and indigenous specialist at the Federal University of Pernambuco.

In the early 20th century, indigenous groups began to demand their ancestral lands back [Sam Cowie/Al Jazeera]

During Brazil’s colonisation in the northeast, indigenous people were boxed into villages by the Portuguese crown. In the 19th century, these lands were given to farmers, where indigenous people were forced to work. Then, in the early 20th century, they began to organise and demand their ancestral lands back.

In February of this year, Brazil was convicted at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for its 16-year fumble to demarcate the Xucuru indigenous land, also in Pernambuco, during which several were killed, including tribal leader Francisco de Assis Araujo.

Today, in Pernambuco, where 12 indigenous groups live, only one has its land fully demarcated while hundreds of other territories across the country remain in limbo with demarcations all but frozen in recent years.

Under Brazil’s 1988 post-military dictatorship constitution, indigenous people have the exclusive right to their traditionally occupied lands. Demarcation of indigenous territories throughout Brazil was supposed to be completed by 1993.

Last year was one of Brazil’s deadliest years on record for land conflict killings, according to local watchdog Comissao Pastoral da Terra, with a disproportionate number of indigenous people attacked or murdered. 

Land conflict heats up again

The Pankararu reserve is a 10-hour drive from Pernambuco state capital Recife, through Brazil’s impoverished dry backlands, passing mud houses, failed and abandoned water irrigation projects, and vast plantations commanded by powerful local landowners. 

Sarapo and nine other Pankararu leaders are part of a state government human rights protection programme [Sam Cowie/Al Jazeera]

The reserve sits behind a mountain range by the great Sao Francisco River where centuries ago Sarapo Pankararu says his ancestors roamed the river’s banks, fishing and hunting. Today, this stretch of the river is mostly riverside properties and tilapia fish farms.

Sarapo was just a boy when Pankararu leader Quiteria Binga was forced to flee her reserve after an attempt on her life by hired gunman believed contracted by the settlers. As with most murders and death threats to life in the Sertao, there wasn’t a conviction.

It was 1993, the first time the settlers were told they had to leave. Civil society groups intervened and the indigenous reached an uneasy truce with the settlers: they could stay until the government provided them with land and compensation.

“It was like a cold war,” says Tiago Da Silva Oliveira, 34, a Pankararu leader and indigenous school teacher. But with the looming eviction, the conflict has begun to heat up again.

Pankararu leaders say the human rights protection programme installed the security cameras because a gunshot was fired at a house last year. Al Jazeera confirmed with the public prosecutor’s office that an official complaint about the gunfire had been filed and that federal police were called to the scene. 

“It’s a very tense situation,” says Maria Beatriz Ribeiro Goncalves, a prosecutor who visited the reserve. “It’s clear that there are political interests involved, referring to the leaders of the settlers.”

Settlers say they’ve been cheated 

While some have already left, 302 settler families remain. They claim they’ve been cheated and that compensation cash offered for their homes and land is inadequate.

“Our fight is for all 302 families to be justly compensated and resettled here in the municipality of Jatoba,” says Eraldo Jose de Souza, 63, the group’s leader and a former city councilman for Jatoba. Souza denies the accusations by Pankararu leaders that he incited violence against them.

“This is fiction,” he tells Al Jazeera. 

Hilda Isabel da Silva, 64, will receive 88,000 Brazilian real (about $21,100) for her home where she lives with her sons Jailson and Nildo and three other family members and keeps livestock and crops. She says the money is not enough for her to buy another home in Jatoba where a three-bedroom house with no land goes for more than 100,000 Brazilian real (about $24,000). 

“We are children of this land and we want to stay here,” she tells Al Jazeera.

Hilda Isabel da Silva will receive 88,000 Brazilian real (about $21,100) for her home where she lives with her sons Jailson and Nildo [Sam Cowie/Al Jazeera]

Fernanda Antonia Bezerra, 35, who is blind, will not receive any compensation because her home was built after an agreed 1994 timeframe. Altogether, 153 families will not receive any compensation.

Brazil’s National Indigenous Foundation (Funai) is charged with providing compensation and told Al Jazeera in an email that the payments were “scientifically elaborated by official agencies and priced in the region where it is located”. 

Regarding the settlers who will not receive compensation, the agency said: Homes “existing before the timeframe are considered as having been installed in a time of good faith,” and “only such improvements are entitled to compensation.” Last year, Funai’s budget was cut by 44 percent.

The settlers also say the land where they will be resettled is not suitable for family agriculture. A report by Brazil’s state-owned Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, produced at their request, noted the land was “considered unfit for crops”.

The state needs to act, because we need our land and [the settlers] need somewhere to go

Sarapo Pankararu, indigenous Pankararu leader

Felipe Mota Pimentel de Oliveira, a Pernambuco judge who ruled on the settlers’ eviction in March, tells Al Jazeera that he has sympathy for all parties, “but above all, we must uphold the law.”

The settlers appealed, but judge Pimentel’s decision was upheld. In late June, a 90-day limit for the eviction was established. Failure to comply means police will evict the settlers.

In the meantime, Sarapo and other Pankararu leaders continue to live in unease.

“The state needs to act, because we need our land and [the settlers] need somewhere to go,” he says.

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A year after Mugabe, hopes for a new Zimbabwe still low

The Azeri Times



A year after Mugabe, hopes for a new Zimbabwe still low

Harare, Zimbabwe – A year since a trio of army generals held former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe under house arrest as part of a 10-day military operation that enabled his protege, Emmerson Mnangagwa, to take power there are mixed feelings as to how different the proclaimed “new dispensation” is from Mugabe’s autocracy.

In an unprecedented show of support for the de facto coup, on November 18, 2017, hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans marched the streets, demanding the veteran ruler step down.

Days later, just moments after a parliamentary impeachment hearing began, the then 93-year-old resigned after nearly four decades in power. But a year since President Mnangagwa’s inception, the hope some citizens had in the liberation fighter nicknamed “the Crocodile” now seems jaded.

Takudzwa Tawenga, 32, a self-employed artisan who participated in a mass anti-Mugabe protest on November 18, 2017, told Al Jazeera he was disappointed by the new regime.

“The day we marched, I really felt like Mnangagwa was the hope of the people, but it seems like the suffering we experienced under Mugabe hasn’t changed.

“It’s like the army just kicked out a dictator so they could enjoy power for themselves. There is nothing for us in this new dispensation,” he said.

Bitterness over the worsening state of the economy and the contentious aftermath of the July polls risks creating a rift between the people, the Crocodile, and the military they once hailed for ousting Mugabe.

Gun between people and the state 

On July 30, millions of Zimbabweans cast their ballots in the first election without Mugabe as a candidate. Mnangagwa won by a narrow and disputed margin of 50.6 percent against his younger rival Nelson Chamisa of the MDC Alliance.

An independent commission of inquiry led by former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe is currently looking into the post-election violence that saw the military deployed onto the streets of the capital.

At least six people were shot dead and dozens more were wounded, but army commander Phillip Valerio Sibanda denied troops killed civilians and said the firing of “warning shots” was constitutional.

“They fired in the air but I do not believe any could have aimed shots at the civilians.

“We would have been very foolish as the defence forces to give orders to the troops to open fire on the civilians with all these people [election observers and foreign journalists] in the country,” Sibanda told the Motlanthe Commission on Monday.

Human rights observers have dismissed the army chief of staff’s testimony. Dewa Mavhinga, southern Africa director for Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera the commander’s claims were false.

“The blatant denials on the documented and video-recorded role of soldiers on 1 August is an insult to Zimbabweans. It is a blatant attempt to hide the truth and sweep things under the carpet,” he said.

Although Mnangagwa initiated the Motlanthe Commission and put a stagnant national peace body into motion in an attempt to chart a different path from Mugabe’s closed authoritarian style, he has struggled to break with the past.

According to Mavhinga the general approach of the security forces in the post-Mugabe era has been one of “arrogance, continued impunity, and lack of sincerity”. 

Despite promises of a new era, the blurred role of the military in state governance and party affairs continues to raise concern.

Piers Pigou, senior consultant for the International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera although Mugabe was gone, the system of non-separation of powers between the state, the ruling party and the executive was still in place.

“There is still no effective civilian oversight of Zimbabwe’s military and intelligence community, which both retain in practice partisan loyalties to [ruling] Zanu-PF. Notwithstanding provisions in the constitution setting out non-partisan responsibilities, no significant action has been taken to alter this reality.

“Although there is a new sheriff in town, Mnangagwa, like Mugabe, must navigate around both security sector and ruling party interests,” he said.

But as Mnanagagwa struggles to balance the desires of those who helped him into power with his own, he also grapples with the dilemma of preventing the economy from collapsing. 

Nation on the brink

A recently introduced tax on all electronic transactions above $10 has sparked a wave of price rises in basic commodities such as bread, sugar and cooking oil and spurred fuel shortages.

The two percent levy aroused fears of a return to the hyperinflation era under Mugabe, when the Zimbabwe dollar rapidly devalued and price increases became uncontrollable. 

WATCH: Is Zimbabwe’s new tax generating shortages and uncertainty?

Under a multiple currency regime adopted in 2009, the US dollar is used in daily transactions. However, because of cash shortages a local surrogate currency known as bond notes are more commonly used, but even this is in extremely short supply and of lesser value.

On the black market the coveted US dollar currently trades at an average of US$1: $3,20 although the official rate is 1:1.

For Margaret Moyo, 47, a shopkeeper, keeping up with the price increases has made life difficult.

“I can’t keep up with the cost of things anymore. When I go out to order my goods some suppliers now demand US or they say the price is double if you are paying with bonds.

“This money is worthless, we are back to the Zim [Zimbabwe] dollar days again,” she said.

Despite a public outcry against the rising cost of living and the devaluing of the local surrogate currency, the government is pressing ahead with its reforms to widen the tax base.

President Mnangagwa has urged citizens to grit through a Transitional Stabilization Programme, which is part of his long-term vision to transform Zimbabwe into a middle-income country by 2030.

“[T]here are pains to be borne and sacrifices to be made before things start looking up for the ordinary man in the street.

“We must all gird for belt-tightening measures, leaders and ordinary citizens alike,” he wrote in a Sunday column in the state press. 

Hope in re-engagement

After years of isolation under Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s hope for a lifeline may lie in re-engagement with the international community. However, following the election controversy, the US renewed targeted sanctions urging the post-Mugabe regime to demonstrate greater efforts towards reform.

Pigou told Al Jazeera that Mnangawa’s efforts to change from the authoritarian order of the past will be under close scrutiny if relations with the West are to improve.

“[T]he international community is primarily interested in an economic dispensation that actively promotes fiscal transparency and accountability, and that upholds the rule of law and protection of property rights… With some form of electoral mandate, the months ahead will be crucial for seeing how the Mnangagwa administration translate promises into action,” he said.

Follow Tendai Marima on Twitter and Instagram: @i_amten

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Sri Lanka parliament ‘votes against newly appointed PM Rajapaksa’

The Azeri Times



Sri Lanka parliament ‘votes against newly appointed PM Rajapaksa’

Sri Lanka’s parliament passed a no-confidence motion against newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government on Wednesday, opposition lawmakers said, throwing the country deeper into crisis.

The move comes a day after the Supreme Court overturned a presidential decree dissolving the legislature and calling for snap elections.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya ruled that a majority of the 225-member assembly supported a no-confidence motion against Rajapaksa, 72, who was appointed prime minister on October 26 in place of Ranil Wickremesinghe.

I rule that this House does not have confidence in the government (of Rajapaksa)

Karu Jayasuriya, the Speaker

“The ayes have it,” the Speaker announced over his public address system  “I rule that this House does not have confidence in the government (of Rajapaksa).”

Opposition leader R Sambanthan told Reuters that the motion presented by an opposition party was taken to a voice vote and had the majority support.

Chaotic scenes

Amid chaotic scenes, Rajapaksa, a former controversial president, and his legislator son Namal walked out of the chamber just before the Speaker called for a vote.

Members of Parliament loyal to Rajapaksa attempted to grab the mace, the symbol of authority of the legislature, to disrupt the vote, but Jayasuriya went ahead.

Jayasuriya, the parliament Speaker, has opposed president’s decision to appoint Rajapaksa [Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

The result does not automatically mean that Wickremesinghe, whose United National Party (UNP) is the biggest in parliament, has won the constitutional showdown.

President Maithripala Sirisena retains the power to choose the next prime minister.

Sirisena’s October 26 decision has left the South Asian island nation with two prime ministers, with Wickremesinghe holed up in the official residence and refusing to step down.

The UNP had “vehemently” rejected the sacking of the parliament and demanded a House vote to prove that the deposed leader still had the backing of at least 113 legislators.

The United States, European Union and other members of the international community have raised concerns over the crisis.

Only China has recognised the appointment of Rajapaksa, who during his decade as president until 2015 relied heavily on Beijing for diplomatic and financial support.

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40 years on, Khmer Rouge leaders face genocide verdict

The Azeri Times



40 years on, Khmer Rouge leaders face genocide verdict

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Vang Tam, 65, is in little doubt over what he would do if he ever encountered the Khmer Rouge responsible for the death of his parents and four siblings in the 1970s.

“Even if I died, I would take his head off. I’d do whatever,” he shouts, dragging on a cigarette inside his floating home on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap river.

“Our ancestors were executed near the mountains, I was the only one not killed.”

Tam is an ethnic Vietnamese fisherman who was born in Cambodia. Like hundreds of thousands of others, he was evacuated to Vietnam soon after the Maoists under Pol Pot took control of Cambodia, but many of his family stayed behind.

When he returned home in 1980, after the Vietnamese had overthrown the Khmer Rouge, he discovered about 40 of his family were dead.

Those who hadn’t been executed had died from overwork or starvation.

On Friday, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), better known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, will hand down its verdict on whether the regime’s “Brother Number Two,” Nuon Chea, 92, and its head of state, Khieu Samphan, 87, committed genocide against ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslims, another minority.

Former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan on screen in the media centre at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal [Pring Samrang/Reuters] 

Judges will also rule on whether the two men are guilty of crimes against humanity related to prisons, worksites, forced marriages and sexual violence.

The court sentenced both men to life terms in 2014 for crimes against humanity for their role in the forced evacuation of cities soon after the Khmer Rouge took power.


Friday’s decision comes with the tribunal facing widespread criticism for lengthy delays, government interference, and corruption.

While some argue the court has delivered long-awaited justice for victims, others have labelled the process a waste of time and money with convictions against only three people in 12 years.

Opinion was split among Cham and ethnic Vietnamese survivors of the regime interviewed by Al Jazeera. Many know nothing about the tribunal.

Sa Rom Ly, 62, a Cham who managed to survive mass purges in Kampong Cham by pretending he was ethnically Khmer, said he was sure the Khmer Rouge attempted to wipe out his people – something prosecutors have been attempting to prove.

“The Khmer Rouge wanted to get rid of Cham because of our religion,” he said, adding he supported the tribunal.

“We are happy that the ECCC held a trial of the senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge because it can help hold them accountable for their actions,” he said.

“They deserve to be punished because they were the ones who ordered the regional chiefs to execute people and they followed their orders. If not, they would be killed too.”

Talking after prayers at a mosque in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district, Kop Math, 64, recounted similar brutality meted out to Chams in Battambang after they had been evacuated from the capital.

“My father sneaked away to pray but they spotted him and took him away to be killed,” said Math, who lost 16 of his 20 close family members.

Math, who visited the tribunal twice during the genocide segment, said he believed the court was delivering true justice to the victims, but he wanted to see more people in the dock.

“I think they should bring regional commanders to justice … but we don’t want the lower levels. If we demand [the lower levels] to be brought to justice this could result in confrontation,” he said.

Kop Math sits outside a mosque in Phnom Penh [George Wright/Al Jazeera]

Looking for justice

Down a winding alley that runs alongside the Mekong River, El Los, 72, explained how he lost all his parents and siblings after being told they had been taken away on a boat and executed in Kampong Cham.

Los said he knew nothing of the tribunal but that all Khmer Rouge, from top to bottom, should be made to pay for their crimes.

“We really want to find justice but where are they? We are suffering but what can we do?” he said. “The lower levels point and say they were following orders – but all should be held accountable.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who helped overthrow Pol Pot after defecting to Vietnam, has been vocal in his opposition to further trials, claiming it could plunge Cambodia back into civil war.

Cambodia’s court upholds Khmer Rouge life sentences

Both Cambodian and international judges sit in the court and both sides have to agree on decisions. Local judges and prosecutors have been accused of being under the influence of the government, especially in ongoing investigations of mid-ranking former Khmer Rouge.

The fact such a small number from the regime have been brought to justice is a common frustration among many Cham survivors, explained Farina So, principal deputy director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia and author of The Hijab of Cambodia.

The Cham researcher said although the tribunal – particularly the genocide case – was important to many Cham, creating public forums for dialogue between victims and perpetrators and their children was vital in helping communities reconcile.

“It’s also effective because you need to get things out of the court and into the community. Then they can discuss openly without fear,” So said.

‘Just a show’

Back on the Tonle Sap river, barely any of the 15 ethnic Vietnamese interviewed said they knew about the tribunal.

“Nobody talks about it. I have no idea what this court is,” said Chroeng Yan, whose father was clubbed to death by a Khmer Rouge soldier.

Vang Tam, one of the few who was aware of the court, was scathing in his analysis.

“It’s just a show, it’s meaningless,” he said.

His friend sitting next to him, Veeng Thhan Yoeng, 65, interjected.

“About 40 of my relatives were killed… I don’t think we can get justice,” he said. “We want to see more on trial.”

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