The US is the largest market for timber exported from Brazil. While Americans buy massive quantities of wood, often taken illegally from forests, to construct floors, outdoor paths, and piers, activists working to protect the Amazon are being assassinated and kept quiet through intimidation.
Although a properly managed and inclusive process of timber extraction could be beneficial to both local communities, extractors, and consumers, the global demand for Amazonian wood has produced a culture of lawlessness, impunity, and dysfunction among the timber industry in Brazil. Indigenous and other local forest communities have seen their land seized, their lifestyles destroyed, and their livelihoods stolen. They have also faced constant violence. Since 1996, at least 1000 activists have been murdered in Brazil while facing down the the timber industry’s chainsaws.
Last Saturday (May 24th) marked the third anniversary of the murder of husband and wife activists Ze Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espirito Santo. As Greenpeace’s Brazilian timber campaign continues, we want to take a moment to remember Ze Claudio and Maria, and all of the activists who have been assassinated protecting the Amazon. Here are the names of a very few, many of whom have worked and died in Pará state, the site of Greenpeace’s current campaign research, and where more than 200 activists have been murdered in the last twenty years.
Chico Mendes is an icon of the fight for the Amazon and its people. Originally a rubber tapper, he became an outspoken union leader and led the movement to defend the Amazon against the Brazilian military dictatorship’s ‘development by force.’ He was murdered in his home in Xapuri, Acre in 1988.
José Dutra da Costa, or Dezinho, was the president of the Rural Workers Union in the municipality of Rondon, in the state of Pará. He was a key figure in the fight to expose the slavery-like working conditions in the region’s agricultural sector. Dezinho fought for landless families and workers by campaigning against inappropriate private use of public and community lands. He was murdered in his home in November of 2000. The man who pulled the trigger, Wellington de Jesus da Silva, was arrested and condemned to 27 years in solitary confinement. However the farmer who ordered the killing, Décio José Barroso Nunes, was only convicted this year. He received 12 years.
At dawn, on August 25th, 2001, Ademir Federicci, or Dema, was murdered. Dema, a community leader for the Workers Party, spoke out against illegal logging inside indigenous lands. He exposed fraud inside the office Superintendent for Amazon Development. In the early 2000’s, at the time of his murder, he was leading a community movement opposing the construction of the Belo Monte mega-dam. Today, there is a fund created in Dema’s name for forest conservation and social justice projects in the Amazon.
Gilzan Teixeira Lima, or Brasilia, was one of the leaders of the Brasilia Settlement Project, in the municipality of Altamira, Pará state. His wife, the president of the settlement’s association, constantly received death threats for speaking up for settler rights and against the forest destruction along the BR-163 Highway. Due to his public condemnation of the threats against his wife, he was assassinated in August 2002. To date, no one has been convicted.
On February 12th, 2005, American missionary and activist Dorothy Stang was assassinated in the region of Anapu, 25 km from the Trans-Amamzonian Highway, in Pará state. Sister Dorothy lived for over 30 years in the region, working with communities supporting a different model of development for the Amazon. The Sustainable Project Development (PDS) is a concrete result of sister Dorothy’s work and was intended to ensure communities a steady source of income based on sustainably harvesting timber without destroying the forest. Her determination to bring environmental and social justice to the region opened her up to a constant stream of death threats.
The three men who participated in her assassination were given light sentences, and one, Rayfran das Neves Sales only spent eight of his 27-year sentence in jail. Of the two alleged masterminds of her murder, one had his trial overturned, the other has yet to stand trial.
Below is the trailer for the award-winning 2008 film about Dorothy Strang, her work, and the aftermath of her murder. (Warning: It contains some pretty graphic images.)
On May 24th, 2011, Ze Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espirito Santo were brutally ambushed while riding on a motorcycle in Pará state. At least 15 bullet casings were found at the scene. Ze Claudio, who grew up in Pará, began his career as a nut harvester and basket maker. Later he founded an economic cooperative based on sustainable uses of the forest. This brought him and Maria do Espirito Santo, who had joined him in his activism, into inevitable conflict with industrial timber. From humble beginnings, they became two of the most prominent activists in the Brazilian Amazon, an honor they knew put them at risk of harm.
News of their murder spread throughout the country. The triggermen were convicted and sentenced to long sentences, but the alleged mastermind, a farmer known for extensive deforestation and mistreatment of forest workers, has yet to stand trial.
In this TedX video, Ze Claudio speaks of his and Maria’s work battling deforestation in the Amazon, and how they did so fully aware that they was the target of their opponents. (Make sure to hit the ‘CC’ button for English subtitles.)