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Brooklyn, New York (VICE) — On the morning of May 24 of this year, two gunmen ambushed and murdered Amazon activist José “Zé” Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife, Maria do Espírito Santo da Silva in the Brazilian state of Pará. The couple’s involvement in environmentalism began with the creation of the Alta Piranheira Beach settlement in 1997. This settlement, where fruit gathering is the only form of production permitted, is part of a program of agrarian reform designated for poor families who depend on the land for survival.
Elected out of the almost 200 poor families who live in the area, they led the fight to protect the forest. They became activists through practice, defending their property from illegal loggers the same way your dad would against drivers who clip his lawn — by going out on the curb and yelling at them. “The problems we have arrived with the creation of the settlement project. I didn’t belong to any social movement. I lived in my own little corner,” Zé Cláudio explained. “Zé Ribamar, a neighbor of mine, invited me to participate in the meetings, and I found out I was already an environmentalist without even knowing it.”
Outside Brazil, the fight for the Amazon is seen largely as an ecological matter, but here it’s a social issue. This is a country where 1 percent of the population owns more than half the land, a sickening proportion of it composed of large, completely unused tracts of farmland called latifundios.
The former rain forest around Zé Cláudio and Maria’s settlement is a prime example of such irresponsible land use. The majority of deforested land in the Amazon is used for cattle ranching. As ranchers and their supporters will point out, the beef industry is a major part of Brazil’s economy and an increasingly important source of American meat. The problem is that while clear-cutting sections of rain forest and burning out all the underbrush makes great soil for pastureland, it only does so for about three years. After that, the soil’s fertility plunges, “invasive” jungle plants like the babaçu tree begin to grow again, and ranchers are forced to find another plot of rain forest to slash and burn for their cows.
Throughout the years, six farmers who owned illegal titles were forced out by Zé Cláudio and Maria’s settlement. During this same time, the federal government, via the Institute of Colonization and Agricultural Reform, had promised to provide some form of basic infrastructure, but public support never materialized. With no alternatives, more and more of the settlers began to give up, and Zé Cláudio and Maria became increasingly isolated.
The morning of their deaths, Zé Cláudio and Maria had been driving to Marabá, the biggest and most important city in Pará’s interior. Once well within the rain forest, the city as well as its surrounding area now looks like Texas and is the capital of the state’s cattle industry. It is also one of the most violent places in the world. Locals like to call it Marabala, which translates roughly to Mara-bullets. The murder rate is a horrifying 125 per 100,000 people, second only to nearby Itupiranga, with 160.6. By point of comparison, the rate in New York City is 5.
The grisly death of Zé Cláudio and Maria — shot point-blank with a hunting rifle, and Zé Cláudio’s ear cut off to prove the hit took place — harkened back to other violent moments in the history of the Amazon, such as the assassinations of Father Josimo Tavares in 1986, Chico Mendes in 1988 and Sister Dorothy Stang in 2005. In the past 15 years, 212 community leaders have been murdered just in the state of Pará.
“I don’t blame the farmer. He doesn’t know better. The businessman is to blame. The richer he is, the more destructive power he possesses,” Maria said before her death. “The majority of farmers are just dupes of the rich.”