On the edge of a lonely dirt road that winds through farmland and forest in the eastern Amazon Basin of Brazil stands a simple marble slab. It’s a memorial to a local rainforest defender who was gunned down on his motorcycle, together with his wife, on the site on the morning of May 24, 2011.
Nearly two years later, I stand on the road by a swollen brook, trying to reconstruct the chain of events that led to the brutal deaths of José “Zé Cláudio” Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espírito Santo. The afternoon is muggy and overcast, with low-hanging, leaden clouds threatening more rain, raising the prospect of getting stuck out here in the middle of nowhere.
“The gunmen were hiding in the brush over there,” says Maria’s brother-in-law José Maria Gomes Sampaio, who has accompanied me on a bouncy two-hour ride in a 4x4 across flooded plains and fields dotted with dilapidated ranchos and herds of white, hump-backed steers. A wiry man with pleading dark eyes and an Adam’s apple that bobs when he speaks, Sampaio, 49, walked past this very spot only a half-hour before the ambush. “They were already here when I went by,” he says, pointing into the shadows beyond the washed-out bridge that forced the victims to slow their dirt bike to a crawl, putting the couple directly in their gunsight.
The killers evidently knew when the couple would be traveling. In the predawn darkness, they took up positions behind a blind of thicket close by the decrepit bridge. It was a time of day when there would likely be no witnesses. And the shotgun with its spray of buckshot would confound efforts to identify a murder weapon. It was a well-planned operation. Not likely the work of two illiterate, down-and-out men in their early 30s. Certainly not acting on their own, anyway.
From this vantage point at the bottom of a gentle slope, I get an uncanny sense of straddling the very edge of Brazil’s most violent frontier. On the one side of the road, electric-green cattle pastures roll away into the distance, as far as the eye can see. On the other side, colossal castanha and andiroba trees, draped in thick lianas, soar to neck-craning heights, the remnants of a virgin rainforest Zé Cláudio and Maria died trying to defend from the chain saws that had already leveled much of the forest in this part of the Amazon Basin.
Somewhere in the treetops, a toucan yelps. I turn back to inspect the memorial more closely. “They want to do the same thing to me they did to Chico Mendes and Sister Dorothy,” it reads. Prophetic words, spoken by Zé Cláudio at a public gathering six months before he and Maria were gunned down. The inscription is mostly intact, but it’s been vandalized by the impact of two bullets, leaving it fractured.
It has been 25 years since the assassination of Chico Mendes, the rubber tapper who made defense of the Amazon rainforest an international cause célèbre after he was shot dead by the son of a rancher. And it has been nine years since Ohio-born nun Dorothy Stang was killed in similar circumstances. The shattered plaque offers a grim testament to how risky it still is to stand up for the rainforest. Environmental activists in Brazil and around the world continue to pay the ultimate price for their convictions. And their numbers are mounting.
Zé Cláudio and Maria, both in their early 50s at the time of their deaths, had been married for nearly 30 years. For even longer they’d been fighting to protect their lush forestland from illegal loggers, ranchers and the operators of clandestine charcoal pits that reduced magnificent, centuries-old trees to sacks of briquettes. In 1997, they helped succeed in petitioning the federal government to create the Praia Alta-Piranheira agro-forestry settlement, 84 square miles of public land to provide themselves and other family farmers a sustainable living while keeping the forest intact. Its purpose stood in stark contrast to other pursuits that had turned so much of southern Pará, a state in Brazil, into an epicenter of violence and devastation.
But the boundaries of the reserve could hold back neither the bloodletting nor the pillage. Fourteen years after Zé Cláudio and Maria helped found the settlement, its forest cover had shrunk from 80 percent to 20 percent. Speculators snatched up parcels and sold off the timber. They flipped the land to cattlemen and wheeler-dealers looking for a quick buck. They imposed their own brand of frontier justice, tapping when necessary into an abundant pool of underemployed enforcers, or jagunços, from the rough-and-tumble slums of Marabá, Pará’s fourth-largest city, which boasts one of the highest murder rates in Brazil.
Evidently, it was to this reservoir of talent that the enemies of Zé Cláudio and Maria turned in the spring of 2011. Nearly two years later, two out-of-work day laborers—Alberto Lopes do Nascimento, 30, and Lindonjonson Silva Rocha, 31—sat in prison blues in a Marabá courtroom, charged with carrying out the murders with coldblooded calculation. Silva Rocha, named in honor of the 36th president of the United States, happened to be the brother of José Rodrigues Moreira, a rancher whose efforts to acquire land inside the reserve had been repeatedly frustrated by Zé Cláudio and Maria. Moreira, a tightly wound and fervently religious man of 43 with short-cropped auburn hair and pinched brow, was also on trial, accused of ordering the killings.
Violence unleashed against green activists is on the rise. London-based rights group Global Witness says more than 700 environmentalists were murdered in the decade that began in 2001. Either because documentation of such crimes is more thorough in Brazil than elsewhere or because its frontier is the most violent—perhaps both—more than half of the global death toll was recorded within its borders. In any event, Brazil is considered the most dangerous country in which to work as an environmentalist today.
Many of the victims of environmentally motivated violence are not your typical placard-waving rabble-rousers, but rather are grass-roots leaders who stand up for their communities when threatened by environmental calamity. “Often these people become involved because they’re fighting for what’s being taken away from them and their communities,” says Jane Cohen, an expert in environmental health at Human Rights Watch in New York City. “They’re especially vulnerable because they usually don’t have a support network, and things can really escalate before their stories get on the national or international radar.”
Worldwide, the most violent years were 2010, when 96 activists were killed, and 2011, the most recent year assessed, when 106 were slain. At that rate, chances are that someone will be killed somewhere on the planet this week for investigating toxic runoff from a gold mine, protesting a mega-dam that will flood communal farmland or trying to shield endangered wildlife from well-armed poachers. Rights advocates warn the upward trend is likely to continue. And because of the spotty quality of reporting, the overall number of killings is likely to be a good bit higher.
“We may be seeing just the tip of a much larger iceberg,” says Bill Kovarik, a communications professor at Radford University in Virginia who tracks cases of abuse perpetrated on green activists. “The world needs to be aware of the people who are dying to save what’s left of the natural environment.”