Environmental Activists Shot to Death in Brazil

June 13, 2011

Many people think of Brazil as a land full of resources and promise.  However, environmentalists face a terrifying reality.  While they are only trying to preserve and protect the beauty and nature of the nation’s land, they are frequently subject to blatant threats and attacks.

Since May 24, 2011, the described menace turned not into one, but four cold-blooded killings in the northern states of Pará and Rondônia.  Although the killings were anything but unannounced, the authorities shamefully failed to protect these brave citizens.

Environmental activists José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife Maria do Espírito Santo da Silva were ambushed and shot dead at a bridge in Nova Ipixuna, Pará.  According to reports from local NGOs, one of the gunmen cut off José Cláudio’s ear to keep as proof of the killing. The killings took place at a reserve where three hundred families earn their living from harvesting Brazilian nuts and cultivating tropical fruits. As a respected community leader, José Cláudio had denounced incursions into the reserve by illegal loggers and cattle ranchers. His bravery was soon met by threats and right before his death, he said he was living with the threat of “a bullet in the head at any moment”.

A few days later another rural leader, Adelino Ramos, was shot dead in Vista Alegre do Abunã, Rondônia. An activist from the Movimento Camponês Corumbiara, Ramos had denounced illegal logging and received numerous death threats. During an event in Manaus in July 2010 he told the National Agrarian Ombudsman and the Commission for the combat of Rural Violence and Conflicts that he feared for his life and he passed on details of those making the threats against him.

According to the federal government, 98% of the murders that occurred in Para’s countryside in the past 10 years remain unpunished. Out of 219 murders between 2001 and 2010, only 2,2% had some kind of condemnation. According to the Pastoral and Land Commission, over 1,800 rural activists have received death threats over the past decade; of these 42 have been killed, with a further 30 suffering attempted homicides.

To make things worse, the killings are occurring while Congress actively debates legislation that could greatly weaken the country’s forest protection laws. Local NGOs are now concerned that these changes will generate further conflicts and rural violence, as small farmers and extractive reserves come under increasing pressure from illegal loggers and ranchers.

While Pará has long been a focal point of rural violence in the country, illegal loggers and ranchers also operate in Maranhão, Mato Grosso and Rondônia, where rural conflict and violence are common practice. Indeed, the lack of effective state presence and political will to intervene has meant that rural elites have been able to use force with impunity against environmental and land activists.

The region’s long history of impunity and lawlessness must end.  To this end, authorities recently announced enhanced cooperation among municipal, state and federal forces to combat the violence in Para. Unfortunately, this action comes too late for several victims. We can only hope that authorities work together, pooling information to investigate all threats and protect those at risk. Those responsible for the killings, including those who ordered them, must be brought to justice.