Too Little, Too Late?

20 Jul

Chico Mendes and his son Sandino in 1987

Back in the late 1980s, there was a period of perhaps 18 months within which three people I knew were murdered. They all lived in the Amazon, and all but one engaged in political activism focused on the rights of  peasants and forest dwellers in that enormous region. One, Chico Mendes was  — and became even more  — famous; his life, struggles for rubber tapper rights and death was the subject of films and books(including one of my own).

Another, Expedito Ribeiro de Souza, was president of the Sindicato de Trabalhadores Rurais, or Rural Workers Union, in Rio Maria, Para. He was exposing the appalling but widespread use of slave labour on big cattle ranches splayed among the stands of rain forest, and for that was threatened and killed.

The third was an affable, mild-mannered family man named Antenor Moreira. And he was murdered one day while working on his plot of land by a land dealer. They are just a few of the estimated 918 people killed in the Amazon between 1985 and April of this year.

Yet only now is the Brazilian government – already in its third Workers Party government – offering some kind of protection to people like them. At least 131 rural leaders, environmentalists and human rights defenders are slated for either regular visits from police to round-the-clock vigilance. And that list would have been larger if not for the fact that 42 people already on it have already been killed. Among them: the Silvas, a husband-and-wife team killed for trying to stop illegal loggers and charcoal-makers. They had already spent ten years alerting authorities to the threats they were receiving – and which in the end were carried out in cold blood last May.

The big question of course is not why has this taken so long – although that is a big question! – but will the promise of protection do any good? Will it change anything? In the end, if the Brazilian government makes it clear that harassment and killings of activists is always going to investigated and always going to be punished, there will be a lot less incentive to shoot someone for a $4000 (the price on the head of Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva ,for example.)

But that message is not being sent.

It would have to begin with the trials and sentencing, to name just one case, of the military personnel responsible for killing 19 Sem Terra rural workers in the state of Para in 1996. It would have to go on to bring justice to the many other criminals who are easily identified but living safely because of the power they (or their bosses) wield economically and politically in the region. It might even veer towards taking away or severely reducing the holdings of these people and turning them into extractive reserves, thus actually preserving rain forest.

Lucio Flavio Pinto

Meanwhile, another friend – and valuable source of information on the dirty dealings at play in the Amazon – Lucio Flavio Pinto, continues to receive threats.  The editor of the renowned  Jornal Pessoal, he received an International Press Freedom award in 2005 from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Yet the fact that he still has ample subject matter to expose in the Jornal Pessoal would seem to indicate that something far deeper than individual protection for those who seek justice in the Amazon is seriously lacking.







The Amazon, photo by Andrei Smoler


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