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The Scarlet & Black

Global Cold Cases: Brazil


By Elisa Carrasco Lanusse 

The Amazon is the biggest rainforest in the world, spanning 2.587 million mi² across Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, French Guiana, Guyana and Suriname. As it is one of the planet’s biggest green areas, the Amazon is responsible for producing 20% of the world’s oxygen, and nearly two-thirds of it can be found inside the borders of Brazil. Because of its environmental impact, it is quite common to find environmentalists and conservationists fighting against the repeated attempts of governments, companies, and similar institutions to exploit its rich resources. One such figure was couple José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espírito Santo. The couple worked as community leaders at a forest reserve in Pará and campaigned against illegal logging, deforestation and ranchers. Due to their heavy environmental and political work, in a 2008 report issued by Brazil’s Catholic Land Commission they were named as part of a group of activists considered at risk of violence or murder. 

José Cláudio was well aware of the risks involved in his profession, saying during a TED talk in 2010, “I will protect the forest at all costs. That is why I could get a bullet in my head at any moment – because I denounce the loggers and charcoal producers.” Still, it was quite the devastating shock when on May 24, 2011, two bodies were found in the Praialta-Piranheira reserve, the couple’s workplace for 24 years. They had received threats from a multitude of groups, and had actually faced an assassination attempt only a month before their death. Although José Cláudio and Maria had gone to the police before in search of protection, they never received it. Local jurisdiction refused to interfere in the violence and threats, rendering them even more vulnerable due to the dismissal of the danger on part of the authorities.  

The day of the murder, the couple was ambushed by the killer, who shot them repeatedly in Maçaranduba 2 near their home. From the beginning, there was no doubt in the minds of friends, coworkers, family or authorities that the murder was related to their activism work. At the time the two activists had been working on a campaign against the eviction of rural workers and deforestation by José Rodrigues Moreira, a farmer from the area. Almost two years after the fact, on April 4th, 2013, a jury in Pará sentenced two men for the murder. Lindonjonson Silva Rocha was given 42 years and Alberto Lopes do Nascimento was given 45 after being proven to have shot the guns that killed José Cláudio and Maria. The killers were believed to have been connected to the local farmer, Moreira; however, this was never directly proven. 

Moreira was acquitted by the court due to a lack of conclusive evidence. The prosecution believed that Moreira had paid Lindonjonson Silva Rocha and Alberto Lopes do Nascimento to get rid of the activists that were interfering with his plans of turning some land he had bought in the Nova Ipixuna reserve into cattle pastures (and subsequently displacing the families living in the land). Following the case, outrage ensued at the inefficiency of the authorities. Even after repeatedly asking for help from the authorities, both from the couple and in the face of reports naming them at high risk, it ultimately resulted in the protection of dozens of activists who had received similar threats by the president. 

Still, justice remains unserved and the issue of activist assassination remains. Brazil continues to be one of the most dangerous countries for environmental activists. According to Global Witness, at least 448 environmentalists were murdered between 2002 and 2013 (about half of the environmentalists murdered globally within that time span). The question remains, will justice ever be served for José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espírito Santo? Will there be justice for all the other activists that have been killed under the hands of groups who have been actively destroying our forests? 




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