In Brazil, Murder of Activists Underscores Bitter Fight over Amazon’s Resources
Locals Say Timing of killings and Approval of Belo Monte Dam Far From Random
“The forest cries,” read a sign at the funeral of José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espirito Santo. The Amazon activists had been murdered, execution-style, by unknown assailants, less than 24 hours after Brazil's lower house of congress voted to roll back forest protections.
Photo by Lou Gold
Chillingly, Ribeiro had predicted his own death at a TEDx talk in Manaus six months earlier. He had been receiving threats from loggers in the area of his home near Nova Ipixuna, in the lawless Brazilian state of Para.
“I could be here today talking to you and in one month you will get the news that I disappeared,” Silva said. “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 the charcoal makers, and that is why they think I cannot exist.”
Three days after his murder, on May 27, land rights activist Adelino Ramos was killed in Rondonia. The next day, Eremilton dos Santos, a possible witness to Da Silva's death, was murdered in Pará.
On June 1, Brazil's environmental agency, IBAMA, approved construction of the controversial Belo Monte mega-dam on Pará's Xingu River. The same day, Joao Vieira dos Santos (aka Marcos Gomes da Silva), another Pará forest activist, was killed. And on June 9, Obede Loyola Souza was shot dead — yet again, in Pará.
Six killings in just over a month: All forest activists in one way or another, even if just farmers of small plots of land coveted by neighboring ranchers.
The day before the murder of Silva and Espirito Santo, the Brazilian lower house of Congress approved a bill that reduces the amount of protected land in the Amazon, opening the door for more deforestation. It also granted amnesty to those guilty of illegally clearing forest.
The New York Times called it a “grim coincidence.” But most Brazilians I spoke with said the timing was far from random.
Deforestation rates in the Amazon more than doubled in May as Brazilian farmers become more confident they would be granted amnesty for illegal logging. Now that landholders may no longer be required to maintain 80 percent forest cover on their lands, there seems to be a reversal in deforestation rates, which had been steadily declining since 2004. New satellite images show that in March and April this year nearly 593 square kilometers of forests were razed — an increase of more than 470 percent compared to the same period in 2010. In May, another 268 square miles of trees were wiped out, 144 percent more than in May 2010, reports Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE).
Most of the clearing has been taking place on private lands, whose owners will be the main beneficiaries of changes in the forest code.
Deforestation in May was highest in the municipality of Altamira, Para, where the gigantic Belo Monte dam is to be constructed.
Belo Monte's price tag is a substantial $19 billion, but its actual cost is even higher. The dam, which will be the third largest in the world, will both flood more than 500 square km, including parts of Altamira, and dry up more than 100 km of the Xingu River. The particular section of the river most affected, called the Big Bend, happens to be home to indigenous and riverine communities such as the Juruna, Arara, and Kayapó. The project would cause the disappearance of entire species of birds, reptiles, and fish, and displace tens of thousands of people.
Photo by Karen Hoffman
At the peak of the construction activity, forecast for 2013, the total number of people attracted to the region will be 96,000, doubling Altamira's population, according to figures by Norte Energia's, the Brazillian consortium that’s building the dam. Altamira has many low-lying neighborhoods made up of palafitas, houses built on stilts over creeks. Parts of the city below 100 meters of elevation will be flooded. These areas already flood during the rainy season, so they don't stand a chance against Belo Monte. Families with nowhere else to go have resorted to occupying vacant land in Altamira. This has led to violent clashes with police in the past weeks.
Objections to the Dam
Eleven civil actions lawsuits against the Belo Monte Dam, filed by the Para Federal Public Prosecutor's Office, are still pending in Brazilian courts. In May, 20 Brazilian scientific associations sent a letter to President Dilma Rousseff, requesting the suspension of the process of licensing the dam.
“The Brazilian government is trying to frame itself as concerned with balancing environmental sustainability with economic growth. We want to shine a spotlight on these inconsistencies,” says Christian Poirier, Brazil campaigner for the NGO Amazon Watch. “It's a waste of money — companies have pulled out because they can't afford the spiraling costs. The expense falls on the Brazilian taxpayer to subsidize this boondoggle in the Amazon."
In April, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IAHCR) recommended that Brazil take urgent action to guarantee the rights of Indigenous peoples before going ahead with dam construction, as required by the Brazilian Constitution as well as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization. Brazil responded by cutting off formal relations with IACHR and recalling its ambassador to the Organization of American States, a step that could jeopardize its chances for a coveted permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Internationally, the dam has been criticized by everyone from Amnesty International to James Cameron, director of Avatar, who has visited Altamira several times. When Brazil approved the license to build Belo Monte on June 1, protests were held from the chic Avenida Paulista in Sao Paulo to Salvador, Bahia, and even Washington, D.C.
Closer home, in Para, everyone is wondering: will the investigation into the murders be serious?
“The government will react,” Para's governor, Simao Jatene, told a local daily. “We will not allow this to keep happening.” President Rousseff held a press conference with the senators from Para, Amazonas, and Rondonia, formed a commission to “protect forest workers,” and ordered a federal investigation.
But more than a month later, no arrests have been made.
Karen Hoffmann is a freelance journalist covering human rights, science and culture, with a focus on Latin America.