Anti-logging activist murdered in Amazon

Brazilian police say Jose Ribeiro was likely killed in retaliation for speaking out against illegal forest loggers.

Jose Claudio Ribeiro
Ribeiro’s killing has been compared to that of Dorothy Stang, who was also shot dead in Para after voicing opposition to loggers [Photo by Rodrigo Fonseca] 

An Amazon environmental activist and his wife were killed late on Monday and the crime is being investigated as a possible assassination to silence the outspoken forest defender, according to police.

José Claudio Ribeiro da Silva, also known by his nickname of “Ze Claudio,” was shot and killed along with his wife, Maria do Espírito Santo da Silva, in Nova Ipixuna, a rural town of 15,000 people in the northeast Brazilian Amazon state of Para, about 40km from the nearest city, Maraba.

Exact details and circumstances of the death are not yet clear. However, Felicio Pontes a federal prosecutor in Para state, as well as Marcos Augusto Cruz, the local civil police investigator, told Al Jazeera by phone late on Tuesday that the killings have all the signs of a cold-blooded murder for hire.

“We are working on a hypothesis that this was an execution because the shooters cut off one ear of each of the victims,” Cruz told Al Jazeera.

“Usually this is done as proof to give back to whoever ordered the killings,” Cruz told Al Jazeera, before adding that is was likely he was killed in retaliation for speaking out against illegal loggers.

Ribeiro was a community leader of a rural Amazon sustainable reserve that produces nuts and natural oils native to the forest.

But as loggers moved into Para state, Ribeiro increased his candid denouncements of illegal clear cutting in the region, which earned him praise from environmentalists but allegedly scorn from logging and business interests who hold enormous influence in the heavily deforested region.

Death threats

Ribeiro received many death threats.

He told an audience at a TED summit last November that before the loggers moved in, the region where he lived had 85 per cent native Amazon vegetation.

“Today with the arrival of loggers… there is only 20 per cent of the native negotiation left,” Ribeiro said at the TED Summit. “It’s a disaster for people like me who live off of the forest.

“I protect the forest in any way I can.  That is why I live at gunpoint all the time, because I don’t just sit down, I stand up and denounce loggers, and coal burners and that is why they think I shouldn’t exist.”

In another video interview posted on YouTube last November, Ribeiro looks off camera and says to the interviewer: “I have received death threats by businessmen who work with loggers, who don’t want the forest standing.”

The news of the killing of Ribeiro and his wife came on the same day the Brazilian congress debated a controversial set of new laws called “Forest Code” which, according to environmentalists, would be harmful to the Amazon, reducing the amount of land preserved from clear cutting.

At the time of writing, the law was still being debated in congress.

In Brazil, Ribeiro’s killing has quickly been compared to that of Dorothy Stang, the American born Roman Catholic sister who was brutally shot and killed – also in a rural area of Para state – by two men after her vocal defense of the Amazon angered local loggers. (Four men in total have gone to trial for that murder and are serving jail time).

For environmentalists, rural parts of Para state are often known as the “land without law”, because of its reputation as a place where powerful loggers exact revenge on anybody who dares cross them.

State of impunity

“Para state is a place with a lot of impunity; there are over 400 murder cases unsolved involving people in rural areas,” Pontes, the state federal prosecutor told Al Jazeera.

President Dilma Rousseff reportedly ordered Federal Police to oversee the investigation on Tuesday.

While details of the killing are still unclear, more details have started to emerge.

Maria do Espirito Santo Silva and José Claudio Ribeiro da Silva, were killed  in the northeast Brazilian Amazon state of Para [Conselho Nacional das Populacoes Extrativistas]

Ribeiro’s niece, Clara Santos, told Al Jazeera by phone: “He left (Monday night) from the house to go to Maraba on his motorcycle with Maria. About eight kilometers from the house there were other men on motorbikes with their faces covered, waiting for them. The men shot Maria first. She fell from the motorcycle and right after they shot him.”

Ribeiro’s sister, Claudelice Silva dos Santos, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday her family is devastated.

“They have practically destroyed our family,” dos Santos said. “We want justice. We want the people that ordered this killing, as well as the shooters to be brought to justice. We don’t want this to end in impunity. We don’t want him to be just one more environmentalists killed.”

Despite the threats against him, Ribeiro reportedly never asked for protection.

Ribeiro is survived by two children from a previous marriage, and one adopted son, age 16.

The funeral services could be as early as Wednesday in Maraba, Brazil.

Gabriel Elizondo is an Al Jazeera correspondent based in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Follow him on Twitter: @elizondogabriel

Source: Al Jazeera