28 May 2011

Early last Tuesday, José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva, a forest activist and tree nut harvester, and his wife, Maria do Espirito Santo, drove a motorcycle through Brazil’s northern Para State, in the Amazon rain forest. As they crossed a river bridge, gunmen lying in wait opened fire with a pistol and shotgun, killing them.

It was a gruesome attack: before they fled, the assassins severed one of Mr. da Silva’s ears as a trophy, a signature of hired gunmen in the region. At least 15 bullet casings were found at the scene, reports said.

News of the slayings, emerging on the same day that Brazil’s parliament was to vote on a controversial revision of the country’s forest protection laws, rocketed through Brazil’s political classes. Within hours, senior government officials were briefed on the crime and President Dilma Rousseff had ordered an investigation by the federal police.

Yet whether that investigation results in punishment for the killers — or those who likely hired them — is deeply uncertain. More than 1,000 rural activists, small farmers, religious workers and others fighting the region’s rampant deforestation have been slain in the past 20 years, but only a handful of killers have ever been successfully prosecuted, according to a statement by the Pastoral Land Commission, a Catholic organization that tracks rural violence.

The successful prosecution of the powerful farmers, ranchers, loggers and industrial interests behind the killings, meanwhile, is almost nonexistent in the region, the group said.

Environmental campaigners said that endemic corruption in Para State’s judiciary has allowed the murder of forest activists to be committed with impunity.

“Corruption is part of the process here,” said Paulo Adario, the Amazon campaign director for Greenpeace. “Para is a state completely out of control. It continues to be the Wild West.” …

Murder of Activists Raises Questions of Justice in Amazon



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