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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Rights activists fear the verdict will feed a culture of impunity that reigns in southern Pará and throughout the Brazilian Amazon. Of more than 914 cases of land-related killings over the past 30 years, all but a dozen gunmen have gone scot-free. Only six intellectual authors have served time in prison, amounting to a conviction rate below 2 percent.


With receding hairline and bookish eyeglasses, José Batista Gonçalves Afonso, a Catholic Church lawyer who advised the prosecution in the case against Moreira and conspirators, looks more like the priest he studied to be in his youth than the rainforest and human rights crusader he has become, a man who has received multiple death threats. He has helped file an appeal in the case, hoping to bring a new trial against Moreira. “Convicting the boss would have a squelching effect,” he says. “They’ll have to think twice before contracting killers to do their work.”

That’s unlikely to happen any time soon, in Afonso’s view. Brazil has set itself on a course that will see more land conflict, not less, as it seeks to boost commodity exports—minerals, beef and soy—to pay for massive public-works projects and social programs. It could be the government applying eminent domain over indigenous lands to dam a river. Or a rancher illegally clearing land for cattle. Wherever the challenge comes from, there will be push-back from traditional communities. “We see the greatest number of conflicts where the frontier is expanding into the Amazon,” says Afonso, who pledges to stand behind those who resist. “We’re going to confront the loggers, the cattle breeders, the ranchers. We will impede their advance.” It’s a fight he almost seems to welcome. In any case, it’s a fight that’s far from over.


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