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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Environmental Activists Murdered in the Amazon

Air Date: Week of

In the space of four days, four environmental activists were assassinated in the Brazilian Amazon. Christian Poirier is the Brazil program coordinator for Amazon Watch. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that the recent violence in the Amazon is related to proposed changes in Brazil’s forest code, which will increase deforestation


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife Maria supported their family by tapping rubber trees in Brazil’s vast Amazon forest. They were modest peasants, but giants among environmentalists- working to preserve the vital ecosystem.

The couple knew their forest activism put their lives in danger. Six months ago Jose Claudio, or Ze Claudio as he’s known, gave this Ted Talk in Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon:

CLAUDIO (Speaking in Portuguese): I live from the forest and I will protect her by any means. For this I may have a bullet in my head at any time. I stand up, I denounce the loggers, and for this they think that I cannot exist. I can be here today talking with you and a month from now you know what could happen to me - disappeared.

Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva speaks at a Ted Talk in Manaus, Brazil.

GELLERMAN: On May 24th, Ze Claudio and his wife Maria were murdered. Christian Poirier is Brazil Program Coordinator for Amazon Watch.

POIRIER: Ze Claudio was gunned down in the Eastern Amazonian state of Para. He was gunned down because of his work to protect the forest, the forest he depends on for his survival.

GELLERMAN: Do they know who did it?

POIRIER: They believe it was two assassins who came up alongside he and his wife. They found 15 shell casings on the area where he was murdered. They were on their motorcycles at the time and the assassins actually cut off the ear of both he and his wife to take these items back to the people who hired them.

GELLERMAN: So it was a contract killing.

POIRIER: Definitely.

GELLERMAN: Just a few days after they were murdered, another environmental activist was murdered in the western state of Rondonia in Brazil.

POIRIER: There was…there were two murders, actually. There was one high-profile murder of the leader of the Corumbiara Farmer’s Movement in Rondonia, Adelino Ramos, and another farmer who was allied with Ze Claudio and his wife, Eremilton Pereira all in the space of four days. They were all environmental activists.

Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife Maria were rubber tappers and depended on a healthy standing forest for their livelihoods.

GELLERMAN: The government, the federal government has announced a special investigation, but it has an awful track record, both in preventing assassinations in this part of the Amazon, and finding out who did it.

POIRIER: Indeed. Of the 1,150 activists like Ze Claudio and Chico Mendez before him who have been killed in the Amazon since 1988, fewer than 100 of these cases have gone to court. Of these 100 cases, about 80 of the hired gunmen have been convicted, and 15 of the men who hired them have been found guilty. But of those 15, only one is serving a sentence today. And this is the man who is responsible for ordering the slaying of Dorothy Stang, the American nun who fought to protect the forests in the state of Para.

GELLERMAN: I’ve been to this area, it’s a vast frontier, and it’s kind of like the wild west.

POIRIER: In fact, yes, there’s even a word in Portuguese faroeste the use that same sort of terminology to talk about this lawless region. I would say we could consider this a full-fledged assault on the Amazon and its protectors.

GELLERMAN: I understand that the murder of Ze Claudio and his wife Maria took place just a few hours before the lower house of Brazil’s congress passed a very controversial change to Brazil’s forest code.

POIRIER: I would definitely say that this was not a coincidence - that the murder of these activists, these forest guardians, coming on the same day as a massive weakening to Brazil’s forestry code, sends a signal to all those who are trying to protect the forest, that they will be met with the same level of violence and impunity. The change to the forestry code is quite significant.

What was once a protection of Amazonian agricultural parcels, that mandated 80 percent of the forest remains standing, brings that particular protection down to 20 percent, and not only that it opens up very sensitive environments like hillsides and riverbeds that allows the planning of exotic plant species, often GMO crops like eucalyptus on what was once native forest land. And it also potentially opens up an amnesty for those who forested illegally previously. When this change was introduced in the Congress, we have witnessed a spike of over 400 percent in deforestation in the Amazon.

Valuable Amazon trees are cut and sold for timber. The rest are burned to clear the land for cattle and soy. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

GELLERMAN: You know deforestation was way down last year.

POIRIER: Brazilian government has done a very effective job of implementing - fairly good reforms in terms of their monitoring of deforestation. But I would also say that the lessening of deforestation, in large part because of the world economic crisis, where you saw the reduction in the cost of commodities that have driven deforestation all along- as you see the rise in commodity prices, you’re going to see the rise in deforestation.

Beef and soy and timber are probably the three top commodities that are coming out of the Amazon and driving the process for deforestation.

GELLERMAN: Before you go, I want to play a piece of tape from Ze Claudios appearance at the Ted Conference in Manaus, Brazil, and, it’s quite inspirational.

CLAUDIOS (Speaking in Portuguese): I am afraid, but my fear won’t make me quit. As long as I have the power to walk, I will denounce all those who are harming the forest. These trees that we have in the Amazon are my sisters. When I see one of these trees on a truck going to a sawmill, it gives me pain. It is as if you were watching the funeral procession, carrying the most cherished friend you have, because it is life.

Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva

POIRIER: Well we can see that Ze Claudio, his allies and people who came before him like Chico Mendez and Dorothy Stang are all we have left between the forest and those who wish to destroy it. We have seen that they can be cut down like the very trees that they stand to protect. And, they can be cut down in a land of lawlessness and impunity, in a land without any government protection. The government turns a blind eye on these crimes, again and again.

GELLERMAN: Well, Christian Poirier, thank you so very much.

POIRIER: Thank you, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: Christian Poirier is the Brazil Campaigner at Amazon Watch.



Amazon Watch

Article on murder in the Amazon


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