Raimundo dos Santos Rodrigues and his wife Maria were riding their motorcycle through the dense jungle of northeastern Brazil last summer on their way to the Biological Reserve of Gurupi when two men appeared along the road side.
As Santos Rodrigues – a well-known environmental activist in the Amazonian state of Maranhão – rode the motorcycle over a bridge, the two men opened fire. To make sure the environmentalist was dead, one of the attackers repeated hacked him with a machete. His wife, Maria da Conceição Chaves Lima, was severely injured in the attack.
The slaying of Santos Rodrigues drew international outcry and promises of swift justice from Brazilian law enforcement, but it took almost 8 months to make an arrest in the case. His colleagues in the Gurupi Reserve still continue receiving death threats in a country widely regarded as the most dangerous on earth for environmentalists.
“The violent death of Raimundo showed, once again, that murder may be a likely consequence for those who have the courage to defend nature in the Brazilian Amazon,” Danilo Chammas, a human rights Lawyer for Justiça nos Trilhos in Brazil, told Fox News Latino.
Many of these killings taking place in the Americas are occurring on the agricultural frontier. We’re seeing collusion between states and corporate interests in these regions.
- Billy Kyte, the campaign leader for Land & Environmental defenders at Global Witness
In 2015, 50 environmentalists were killed in Brazil – more than a quarter of those killed worldwide – and last year marked the deadliest year for environmental activists, with 185 total murders across the world. Out of the 10 deadliest countries in the world for environmentalist, seven were in Latin America, with Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Nicaragua and Guatemala all topping double digits, according to watchdog group Global Witness.
“Many of these killings taking place in the Americas are occurring on the agricultural frontier,” Billy Kyte, the campaign leader for Land & Environmental defenders at Global Witness, told FNL. “We’re seeing collusion between states and corporate interests in these regions.”
The main causes of the violence perpetrated against activists in Latin America is their advocacy for protecting the environment from agribusiness, illegal logging, ranching and widespread damming that is occurring throughout the Americas.
“The largest perpetrators of violence against environmentalists in Brazil are still those who have interests thwarted by environmentalists: illegal loggers, large farmers, extractive industries (mining and oil), builders of power plants, promoters of large monocultures,” Chammas said. “They usually rely on the help of the state security forces and, in many cases, are betting on disability of the justice system and impunity of the security forces.”
In Brazil, the logging trade operates in remote regions of the Amazon where the federal government has little to no control and loggers often work hand-in-hand with corrupt officials. Logging and a global demand for rare hardwoods has already helped deforest around 20 percent of the Amazon. About 25 percent of the world’s illegal lumber comes from Brazil.
The profitability of the illegal logging trade has created tensions between those involved in the business and activists – many of whom come from Brazil’s indigenous communities – who are being displaced from lands they have lived on for generations.
“Community leaders who live in the countryside, live simply with their families and use traditional agriculture to plant and harvest rice, cassava, corn and beans,” said Josef Wasensteiner, a Catholic Priest who works with the indigenous communities in Brazil. “They protect the earth that sustains us. They respect the trees, wildlife, water and air, everything with which they coexist.”
Global Witness has reported that members of Santos Rodrigues’ community have fled their area and are currently living in destitution. Other groups have been threatened and forced off their land by the expansion of large-scale ranches and plantations that are cropping up along Brazil’s agricultural frontier.
While less than 6 percent of the world’s population is estimated to be indigenous peoples, their territories cover 20 percent of the land across the globe – mostly in relatively pristine environments that companies and speculators are eyeing for natural resources.
Brazil – along with Colombia, Peru and Honduras – have an obligation under international law to obtain indigenous peoples’ free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) before enacting any projects on the lands these people occupy. According to the Global Witness report, however, this is practice is normally ignored – leading to conflict and, ultimately, killings.
“There is a lack of a rule of law in many of the Brazilian states in the Amazon,” Kyte said. “The killings have become politically acceptable in the Amazon.”
There have been some victories for activists in Latin America, Chile being one of them with the demise of the Hydro Aysen dam project. But Global Witness contends that some governments are becoming more aggressive toward environmentalists.
“We’re seeing a shift from these activists and the governments are labelling them as anti-development,” Kyte said. “They’re being labelled enemies of the state.”
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.