By Patricia Maresch, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Amazonian environmentalists who receive death threats will be protected by the government, and if necessary, receive protection from the national armed forces. That was the decision of an emergency meeting in Brasilia between members of the cabinet, prompted by the recent spate of assassinations of four Amazonian activists.
The most recent murder happened last Friday. Adelino Ramos (57), a farmer and leader of the Movimento Camponês de Corumbiara (Corumbiara Peasant Movement) in the state of Rondonia, was gunned down as he was selling roadside vegetables. Ramos himself was a survivor of the 1995 Corumbiara Massacre that left twelve landless farmers dead.
Ramos’ murder came days after the killing of José (Zé) Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva (52) and his wife Maria do Espirito Santo da Silva (51) in the state of Pará.
Zé Cláudio had predicted his own death in a speech at a TEDx event in Manaus in November 2010. He spoke openly about loggers wanting to silence him: “In one month you can get the news that I have disappeared. I will protect the forest at all costs. That is why I could get a bullet in my head at any moment.”
State prosecutors in Pará confirmed the killing of the couple appeared to be the work of hitmen. In response, President Dilma Rousseff immediately ordered the Federal Police to oversee the investigation.
Earlier that week, farmer Eremilton Pereira dos Santos was found shot dead in the same area as the couple. He too had been a victim of harassment and threats. However, police say there is no link between the murders.
“The government is concerned,” says the head of the Presidential General Secretariat, minister Gilberto Carvalho. “Our top priority is to provide protection by coordinated action by the federal and state governments.”
The Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) said there’s a list with 125 names of people who have received death threats. The Minister of Justice promised the most urgent cases on the list will be offered immediate police protection.
The four murders happened in the days surrounding a tense debate in Congress over changes to Brazil’s Forest Code. Congress controversially approved a revised Forest Code that relaxes protections for the Amazon and offers partial amnesties for landowners who have illegally destroyed parts of the rainforest. A law described by Amazon conservationists as “disastrous”.
The minister of Agricultural Development, Afonso Florence, sees no direct connection between the crimes and the debate surrounding the new Forest Code. “The debate has another dynamic. There is no direct association,” he told Brazilian journalists.
Despite the new measures, environmentalists remain worried that the murders will go unpunished. “There are over 200 unsolved murders in the Pará state alone involving Amazon activists,” says Leila Salazar-López, Program Director of environmental group Amazon Watch.
“The best protection the Brazilian government can give to Amazon activists is to end the era of impunity for illegal loggers, ranchers and agribusiness. It must listen to the calls of activists working to defend the Amazon from the gutting of the Forest Code, agribusiness expansion and mega-projects like the Belo Monte Dam.”
The new Forest Code must still pass the Brazilian Senate and be approved by president Rousseff.