RIO DE JANEIRO - A land rights activist and descendant of slaves has been shot dead in Brazil's Amazon, authorities said, raising concerns of increased violence tied to property disputes.
Nazildo dos Santos Brito, 33, was killed on Saturday night in the remote rural area of Tome-Açu, civil police in the northern Para state said in a statement.
Brito was a quilombola, as slave descendants are known, and the subject of lawsuits filed by palm oil company Biopalma da Amazonia SA, a subsidiary of giant mining company Vale.
The company accused him of disturbance, invasion, threats and other crimes, according to local news website Amazonia Real.
In an email, Biopalma said its activity always complies with the law and human rights and that it "prioritized dialogue with communities."
The company said it filed a single lawsuit, in 2015, to investigate the invasion of its property in Para state that involved members of quilombolas and indigenous communities.
Brito's motorcycle was not taken when he was slain, likely evidence that he was killed not in a robbery but for his activism in the Amazon region, rights groups said.
"Everything indicates that it was an execution. He was a 'marked' guy," said Ruben Siqueira, a member of the Pastoral Land Commission, set up by the Catholic Church to combat violence against the rural poor.
When huge business interests are at stake and activists speak out, "they are eliminated," Siqueira told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Brito had been head of a community association of quilombolas and farmers, police said.
Amazonia Real and local activists in Para state said Brito had sought to join a witness protection program.
South America's largest country, Brazil is rich in land ripe for development and low on deeds and property records, leading to enormous tension and conflict over rights.
It was the world's most dangerous nation for land rights activists in 2016, with about 50 people killed, according to London-based Global Witness.
The Pastoral Land Commission says there were 70 murders in the Brazilian countryside in 2017,the most since 2003. Para state, where Brito was killed, led with 21 of the murders.
However, the rights group estimates the number of killings is actually higher but many cases go unreported.
Fundacao Cultural Palmares, a government body that promotes Afro-Brazilian culture, said it "sees with apprehension the escalation of violence in the country's conflict areas."
"In a democratic nation, one can not admit in any way the use of brutality as a substitute for dialogue," it said in a statement.