Why Do Environmentalists Keep Getting Killed Around the World?

The brutal 2011 slayings of two local rainforest defenders in the Amazon underscore the risks of activism in Brazil and the rest of the world

The deadly conflict between the advocates and ranchers was over virgin forestland near Nova Ipixuna, Brazil. (Ivan Kashinsky)
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The underlying cause of the violence appears to be the expanding reach of the global economy into hitherto inaccessible hinterlands. These are regions where governance is shakiest and where traditional, subsistence-oriented communities find themselves up against much more powerful, profit-hungry players.

“It is a well-known paradox that many of the world’s poorest countries are home to the resources that drive the global economy,” reads a 2012 Global Witness report. “Now, as the race to secure access to these resources intensifies, it is poor people and activists who increasingly find themselves in the firing line.”

A Laotian community organizer named Sombath Somphone, 60, vanished from a police checkpoint outside the capital of Vientiane in 2012. His disappearance came after he spoke up for victims of a land-grab scheme that saw village rice fields bulldozed to make way for a foreign-owned rubber plantation.

Francisco Canayong, 64, was president of a Philippine farmers association when he was stabbed to death in 2012. Two months earlier, he had rallied villagers to block a China-bound shipment of chromite ore from an illegal mine that was poisoning local water sources. He and two other activists had also testified that they’d overheard the mine’s boss making plans to kill the trio if they succeeded in shutting down the operation.

In the oak forests of southwestern Mexico, communities are under siege from illegal loggers backed by drug cartels seeking to expand their acreage of opium poppies and marijuana. Entire towns have risen up to torch logging trucks and expel corrupt officials, arming themselves against traffickers and timber poachers. But resistance comes at a high price: Several villagers have been murdered while out collecting mushrooms and firewood in what remains of the forest.

Mexico may be an extreme case, but experts say it points to the connection between the consumption of goods in the rich, industrialized nations and the environmental and human toll in poor nations. Protesters at an Australian-owned mine in Indonesia are threatened and brutalized by government troops. Park guards in Central Africa are ambushed by poachers who slaughter wildlife for tusks and body parts that will ultimately sell as high-priced aphrodisiacs in Asian markets. An uncontacted tribe in Peru faces deadly peril from the encroachment of men and machines exploring for oil that will end up in the pumps of an American gas station. In the eastern Amazon where Zé Cláudio and Maria lived and died, charcoal from illegally cut trees is used to smelt pig iron, a key ingredient in the steel assemblies of cars sold in the United States and Europe.

“There’s a resource that someone wants,” Kovarik says, describing the pattern of events that puts environmental advocates at risk of harm. “People are displaced to get it. They organize and speak up, and their leaders are killed. It’s happening all around the world, and it needs to be investigated.”

The cases are by nature difficult to investigate. Local authorities are often in the pockets of those who have a vested interest in covering up the crime. And the assassinations are likely to involve complicated conspiracies, with instigators distancing themselves through a series of middlemen from the “kill team”—often two men on a fast-moving dirt bike, one driving, the other with a finger on the trigger.


Like the murders of Chico Mendes and Dorothy Stang, the deaths of Zé Cláudio and Maria provoked such widespread revulsion that Brazilian officials were forced to act. Bringing the killers to justice came to be seen as an early test of President Dilma Rousseff’s commitment to the rule of law. It also posed a serious challenge to one of her core tenets—that Brazil can remain a bastion of biological and cultural diversity even while exploiting the riches of the Amazon Basin with massive development projects. She dispatched federal agents to investigate.

They had a lot of work to do. After all, José Rodrigues Moreira was but the latest in a long list of people Zé Cláudio and Maria had crossed paths with over the years. As the reserve’s forest cover shrank, the couple had denounced illegal land clearing, unauthorized logging, the illicit buying and selling of parcels, and the charcoal pits that not only devastated woodlands but employed slave labor to do it. And many families on the settlement had turned to ranching themselves after failing to secure credit for more eco-friendly activities such as extracting oils and salves from rainforest nuts and fruits. They came to resent what they saw as the couple’s purist hectoring.

“There was an internal ideological war underway within the settlement,” says Claudelice Silva dos Santos, 31, Zé Cláudio’s youngest sister. I’ve just arrived at the slain couple’s former home, a simple cabin set back in the woods, a few miles from the scene of the crime. Claudelice and several sisters and brothers-in-law are lounging on the front porch, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. “The association was divided between those who sought a sustainable alternative to cutting down the forest and those who were willing to partner with outside interests.” The outside interests, she says, are mostly ranchers seeking to extend their pasturelands into the settlement.

The government detectives narrowed their focus in the end to a single line of inquiry, and Moreira and the two alleged triggermen were taken into custody and charged with murder. Oddly, prosecutors did not present what appeared to be evidence of a larger conspiracy. A federal police wiretap recorded Moreira, in hiding after hearing reports that linked him to the murders. In the phone call, he instructed a relative to tell a pair of fellow ranchers to hire an attorney for his defense. Otherwise, he threatened, he would “deliver them all” to authorities. Moreira got his lawyers. The wiretap was not introduced as evidence. The other ranchers were never charged.

The jury in Marabá eventually returned a verdict that astounded everyone in the packed courtroom. The hit men were found guilty; Moreira was absolved and set free. Lawyers on both sides called it “schizophrenic,” contradictory. Without a prime mover—an “intellectual author,” in legal terms—the murders made no sense; neither of the killers had any known connection to the victims, except through Moreira. By the jury’s logic, it was a crime without motive.

The decision left the families of Zé Cláudio and Maria stunned and fearful. Not only were the apparent co-conspirators who Moreira threatened to expose in the wiretapped conversation still on the loose; now Moreira himself was as well. “Sure, we’re afraid,” says Claudelice, her darting eyes probing the nearby forest. The memorial has been shot up, and gunfire has been heard close to the house as well. It’s an intimidation tactic that dates back to the years when Zé Cláudio and Maria were still alive. Back then, she says, Zé Cláudio often maintained a nighttime vigil from the crook of a tree to counter shadowy figures who took potshots at the house that she believes were intended to kill her brother. “Thank God they didn’t succeed...” Claudelice starts to say, then catches herself in mid-sentence at the unintended irony. They did, in fact, succeed all too well. Quickly shifting gears, she adds: “But my brother and his wife fought till the end for an ideal. Who are we if we don’t show the same courage? It was our blood, not just theirs, that was spilled here.”

She and a brother-in-law, Luíz, take me on a short hike back through the woods. Despite the pastureland pressing in from all sides, the 50-acre property feels like a small reserve in its own right, practically all of it intact, virgin rainforest. The decaying leaf litter exudes a spongy dankness underfoot. In ten minutes we reach a towering castanha—a Brazil-nut tree—so wide that it would take at least eight people joined hand to hand to encircle its base. Zé Cláudio had estimated the colossus to be about 600 years old—older than the discovery of the New World itself. Hundreds of similar behemoths inside the reserve have already been toppled to make way for cattle and charcoal.


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