Rethinking the Amazon killings

Maybe all these killings are getting a little complicated, and not as simple to deconstruct in one headline.


    The full page spread in Rio daily O Globo on Wednesday was headlined with the screamer: “More Blood in the Forest.”

    It was in relation to the latest revelation that another Amazon activist was killed this week, brining the number to six killed in a little over a month.

    The latest murder made big news not only inside Brazil, but also sparked a new round of coverage of the Amazon kilings in the global press like here, here, and here.

    But what exactly is going on? New revelations seem to indicate that perhaps the latest activist killed was, well, not as much of an activist as first thought. Maybe all these killings are getting a little complicated, and not as simple to deconstruct in one headline.

    Now is a good time to take a step back and look at the facts, and answer some questions still lingering.

    First, a recap of the killings and what we know on each:

    Date: May 24

    Names: Jose Claudio Ribeiro and his wife, Maria do Espirito Santo.

    Location: Nova Ipixuna, in Par? state.

    Sumamry: The husband and wife were gunned down, execution style, while on a motorbike on a dirt road while leaving the remote Amazon reserve where they lived. (My impressions from his funeral here, video here). Both were outspoken anti-logging activists who made well-documented calls about the death threats against them. Of all the recent killings, Jose Claudio Ribeiro was the most high profile and well-known person. Local police have put out sketches of two men they think were the gunmen. No arrests have been made. 

    Date: May 27

    Name: Adelino Ramos

    Location: Vista Alegre do Abun?, in Rondonia state.  

    Sumamry: Ramos, a longtime activist in the landless workers movement, was ambushed, shot several times and died - all in front of his wife and young kids, who were not injured.

    At the time of his killing it was 10 am and he was taking produce to the local farmers market to sell. In 1996 Ramos survived one of the Amazon’s most famous and deadly incidents when police killed 10 land rights activists in an encampment they occupied.

    At the time of his killing last month, he was leader of a small farmers movement that would occasionally denounce illegal logging activities. He had received death threats, and had filed reports with police. Two days after the killing, local police arrested a 38-year-old man they suspect had killed Ramos. The motives are still not public. 

    Date: May 28

    Name: Eremilton dos Santos

    Location: Nova Ipixuna, in Par? state

    Summary: The 25 -ear-old subsistence farmer lived on the same Amazon protected reserve as Jose Claudio Ribeiro and his wife Maria, and was killed less than 10km from where they were shot. Dos Santos reportedly was on his motorbike going to buy fish when he was apparently ambushed and killed on a dirt road.

    One theory is that he was a witness to people on motorbikes who killed Ribeiro and his wife, and was killed to be silenced. Dos Santos was likely going to give testimony to police on what he knew of the Ribeiro killing. But local police say, while they are investigating all hypothesis, it would be slightly odd Santos would be singled out when many other people were going to give testimony as well in the Ribeiro case.

    They are also looking at other angles to see if dos Santos was involved in criminality unrelated to illegal logging that would have made him a target. There are no known indications he received death threats and he did not appear to be a vocal anti-logging activist.  Nobody has been arrested for his killing.

    Date: June 1

    Name: Joao Vieira dos Santos

    Location: Eldorado do Caraj?s in Par? state

    Summary: The small-scale farmer lived on an Amazon settlement in a highly deforested area and apparently was shot execution style, initially leading many to the instant conclusion he was another killed for his anti-logging activism work. But later police said dos Santos was a fugitive from a neighbouring state and using a false name.

    The local investigator says it’s unlikely he was killed because of land conflict or activism work. Nobody has been arrested for his killing. 

    Date: June 9 (death confirmed on June 14)

    Name: Obede Loyola Souza

    Location: Pacaj? in Par? state

    Summary: The 31-year-old was killed with a bullet though the head less than a kilometre away from his home in the Amazon reserve where he lived and cultivated a small plot of land. Initially his killing was reported as another environmentalist killed, but late Wednesday a representative from a local NGO said Souza was not an "environmental activist" and his name was not on a list of those receiving death threats. There are conflicting reports. Police are still investigating. No arrests have been made.

    File 34261

    Some of the recent Brazilian press coverage of the Amazon murders. Photo: Gabriel Elizondo/Al Jazeera.

    Four questions

    Are all the people being killed ‘environmental activists’? Depends how you define "environmental activist". A person sitting in an office in London or Los Angeles might view an environmental activist as one who discreetly goes on a bridge to unfurl a huge banner protesting against jungle deforestation before getting forcefully arrested by police. Brazil has those types. But the people being killed recently here are generally not those types of activists, if they’re even "activists" at all.

    Even in Brazil there are no easy definitions, as words used to describe those killed range from trabalhador rural (rural worker), lavrador (farmhand) to ambientalista (environmentalist). Jose Claudio Ribeiro was a clear environmentalist/activist. But some of the others killed, such as Souza, might have simply been seen as an environmentalists by the very nature of living on a protected reserve.

    Based on my experience, most of the people who live on Amazon reserves or are squatters on Amazon land do so not out of pure activism, in the traditional sense of the word, but out of their own self interest, well being, and survival.   

    Why are all these killings happening now? No clear answer to this, but I’ll start with another [cynical] question: Maybe it’s been going on all along, but nobody was paying attention until now? Para state is one of the most violent in all of Brazil, with 40 murders per 100,000 residents, almost four times more than Sao Paulo state, and almost 25% more than famously violent Rio de Janeiro state. In the vast and remote area that makes up Para, killings are not uncommon in rural areas.

    Rarely are they covered in Brazil’s mainstream press it would be impossible to do so, just like anywhere else. But after the death of Jose Claudio and his wife Maria, there has been more urgency and willingness to cover subsequent killings as part of a broader storyline of risks 'activists' face. So maybe in between high profile Amazon killings like that of Dorothy Stang and Jose Claudio Ribeiro, there are a bunch more nobody ever hears about - making it all the more disturbing.

    But aside from this, in Para state, there is another factor as well on perhaps why there seem to be more killings: Diminishing Amazon resources. Para is - by far - the most heavily deforested of Brazil’s Amazon states. Fly over the eastern half of the state at low altitude - like I have over a dozen times - and look out the window and you would never know you're in the Amazon because there are few thick swaths of forest can be seen.

    Why? Because it was all cut years ago. Therefore, the little Amazon left in Para has more value both to those who want to protect it, and those who don’t. Bottom line: More conflict.

    File 34241

    A map from Greenpeace In this photo showing part of Para state in Brazilian Amazon. The parts in red indicates areas that have been deforested. The finger pointing to the general area where the most recent Amazon killings took place. Photo: Gabriel Elizondo/Al Jazeera. 

    Why can’t police stop it? Three words: It’s not easy. The Amazon state of Para alone - where most of these murders have taken place - is almost exactly 5 times larger than all of England. Para is made up of basically the capital city of Belem [1.3 million people], a few cities in the 100,000-400,000 population range, and then a whole lot of nothing. Most residents of the state are poor and 25% are ‘functionally illiterate,’ according to the government’s own statistics.

    The state has vast areas, and few police, usually poorly paid. Cell service is almost non-existent in many of the rural areas where land conflict is the most deadly. So, frankly, it’s easy to get away with murder. The federal government knows this. It’s no state secret that the local cops can’t handle it alone, and that is why Pres. Dilma Rousseff is sending in federal agents, and not the first time - click here for 2008 video report from Para.

    Here's one more example: In the most recent murder, the name of the victim was first reported as Obede Loyla Souza and repeated in most of the press coverage. But his name actually is Obede Loyola Souza. Minor point, I know. But it shows how in these remote areas, where information is often passed word-of-mouth, even basic things can be misconstrued. How can we expect the police to solve the murder of a man whose name we can't even get right?   

    Is it only about forest? Hardly, because there is hardly any forest left in some of Para state. It’s a conflict over land. Wood only makes up 4% of the state exports, and cattle (another cause of deforestation) only 5% of state exports.

    The combination of iron ore, aluminums, and minerals made up 78% of Para’s $8.3 billion in exports in 2009. This is an industrial state, where huge mining and mineral companies with headquarters in places like Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Beijing, make their profits.

    Underneath the multinationals are literally thousands of medium sized farmers, ranchers, loggers, mining interests, fighting for what’s left: That 9% of the $8.3 billion dollar annual pie still is a lot of money in a place with low public security and diminishing Amazon resources.

    Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel


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