Zé Cláudio and Maria at their house in the Alta Piranheira Beach extractionist settlement, October 2010.
The scene is like something out of a Sergio Leone movie. Zé Cláudio and his wife, Maria, on the way back from the funeral of Zé Cláudio’s 96-year-old father, enter a small wooden bar off a dirt road. The bar’s situated at the edge of a tiny Amazon village with houses bunched together and covered in dust. Inside is Jose Rodrigues, a farmer who’s been threatening Zé Cláudio for the past month. Zé Rodrigues has spent the day drinking and telling everyone that he’s getting ready to finish Zé Cláudio.
Zé Rodrigues couldn’t even stomach the name of his enemy. Anytime someone else mentioned the 54-year-old nut collector or his wife, he would cut them off: “Don’t ruin my day by saying that name.” Zé Cláudio and Zé Rodrigues’s eyes meet upon entering. It’s the weekend, the sun is peaking, and the air is dry and really fucking hot.
Zé Cláudio asks for two glasses of sugarcane juice. He leans up against the bar, never turning his back on his adversary. He tells a couple of jokes; everyone laughs. Zé Rodrigues tries to play along and interact, but Zé Cláudio doesn’t respond. The atmosphere is tense. Zé Rodrigues looks a bit out of sorts. His heart is beating visibly through his shirt. He tries not to make eye contact with the person he’s already decided to kill. Thirteen days later, Zé Cláudio and Maria are dead, ambushed by Zé Rodrigues’s brother and an accomplice on the road outside Zé Cláudio’s house.
Zé Cláudio confronting a truck driver hauling illegally harvested timber. Photo by Maria do Espírito Santo da Silva.
The grisly death of the couple—shot point-blank with a hunting rifle, and Zé Cláudio’s ear cut off to prove the hit took place—harked 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 people have been murdered in land conflict-related killings in the state of Pará.
The morning of their deaths, Zé Cláudio and Maria had been driving to Marabá, about 100 kilometers south of their settlement. Marabá is the biggest and most important city in Pará’s interior. Once situated 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. The murder rate is a horrifying 125 per 100,000 people, second in the state only to nearby Itupiranga, with 160.6. By point of comparison, the same rate in New York City is 5.
When I met Zé Cláudio in October of 2010 and interviewed him for the Brazilian edition of VICE, he was already receiving death threats. The threats were public and logged by the Comissão Pastoral da Terra (Pastoral Lands Commission), an ecumenical group that defends workers’ rights out in the sticks. José Batista Afonso, a CPT lawyer, was Zé Cláudio and Maria’s right hand in preparing charges against loggers who were encroaching on protected public land, and the man who had the dubious honor of alerting the couple whenever someone threatened to kill them. “Their situation is very serious,” he said when he introduced me to Zé Cláudio. The CPT publishes an annual list of land-reform activists under threat; Zé Cláudio and Maria had been on the list since 2001.
In the days after the murder, the government of Pará said they didn’t know anything about the threats. “How could we?” rhetoricized José Humberto Melo, a delegate responsible for the investigation. “The police are neither omnipresent nor omniscient.”
In addition to publicizing death threats against agrarian reformers and community activists, the CPT also negotiates with the federal government to provide protection for the nearly 200 names on its list—the government currently does so for 30. But even after its protection has failed, making the officials get off their butts and lead an investigation is like trying to force a cow downstairs. Today, Batista is working with Zé Cláudio and Maria’s family to bring their assassins to justice. “In crimes like this, the police of Pará rarely capture the gunmen. And as for those who order the hits, that’s even rarer.”
Police and medical personnel examining Zé Cláudio’s body, May 24, 2011. Photo by AP.
According to the local police report, the reason José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espírito Santo da Silva, both 54 years old, were murdered was because they had filed charges against José Rodrigues, accusing him of illegally purchasing land in federally protected area of Alta Piranheira Beach. This settlement, where fruit gathering is the only form of industry permitted, is part of a program of agrarian reform designated for poor families who depend on the land for survival.
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 property, 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.
Zé Cláudio and Maria didn’t only have to worry about farmers pressuring residents to move so they could deforest the area and grow hay for their cattle—illegal timber loggers and charcoal producers regularly tried to poach trees from their settlement. Charcoal harvested from Amazon trees is used to produce pig iron, an essential ingredient in steel and another major export to the US.
Zé Cláudio had worked with chestnuts since he was seven, collecting them from the forest floor and using them to make nut pastes and oils. Maria was the daughter of small-time farmers, who also gathered chestnuts and produced nourishing foods in small fields. “My father never had cattle. We only lived off what the forest gave us,” she told me.
A castanheiro tree Zé Cláudio nicknamed “Majestade” (Her Majesty) poking through the forest canopy on his property in the Alta Piranheira settlement.
The couple’s involvement in environmentalism began with the creation of their settlement in 1997. They led the almost 200 poor families who live in the area in the fight to protect the forest. They became activists through practice, by defending their property the same way your dad would against drivers who clip his lawn. “The problems we have started 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. I didn’t deforest; I only lived off the forest.”
Throughout the years, six farmers who owned illegal titles were forced out by the 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. “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 told me. “The majority of farmers were just dupes of the rich.”
In 2007, the logging industry began arriving in the settlement region in increasing numbers due to scarcity in surrounding forests—78 percent of nearby Nova Ipixuna had been deforested. And so began a war of attrition, poaching, and deceit. Even Zé Ribamar, one of the original backers of the project, was accused of allowing his son to produce charcoal and had a chainsaw confiscated by IBAMA (the Brazilian federal agency in charge of environmental laws).
With pressure intensifying on his little parcel of forest, Zé Cláudio and Maria began to file charges. “I live in constant tension; I live with my ears perked. We are unable to sleep at night,” Zé Cláudio lamented. “The businessmen are concentrating here in the settlement region. Something they aren’t allowed to do. And so, I denounce them, I go all the way up, and I denounce them to the Public Ministry.” He feared the outcome: “We were going to be in their sight lines.”
The charges were effective. All the lumber that passed through the city was inspected by IBAMA. Since inspections began in 2007, the Tedesco madeira (sawmill) paid around R$ 820,000 in fines (roughly half a million USD). Madeira Eunapolis, also belonging to the Tedesco family, was hit for R$ 180,000, and MP Torres, of the same damn family, paid more than R$ 27,000 in 2010. While Zé Cláudio and Maria’s actions were directed at the wallets of businessmen profiting from illegal logging and charcoal milling, the effects trickled down to the individual loggers, millworkers, and small-time farmers who depended on this illegal work to make a living, and earned them a number of enemies, including Zé Rodrigues.
A slashed-and-burned castanheiro trunk on a plot of former rainforest being converted to pastureland for cattle ranching.
Following the death of Zé Cláudio’s father, Zé Rodrigues’s brother Lindonjonson Silva Rocha and Alberto Lopes do Nascimento, known as “Neguinho” (Darkie), passed by the settlement on a red motorcycle. “In southern Pará, when a hit is ordered, it’s delivered. It might take time, but the job will get done,” Maria’s sister Laissa explained.
The morning of May 23, the two were seen near Villa Sapucaia, where Zé Cláudio had been drinking sugarcane juice when he last ran into Zé Rodrigues. They passed by the couple’s lot and stopped at a bar for a beer. Then they waited for night and drove themselves to a bridge near Zé Cláudio’s house. The bridge, which crossed a tiny stream in the middle of a stand of trees, was in horrible condition. To pass on his motorcycle, Zé Cláudio had to stop and walk the bike across. It was the perfect place for an ambush.
Around 7:30 the following morning, Zé Cláudio and Maria crossed the bridge. The gunmen came out of the trees and then fired the first shot from a .38-caliber hunting rifle. The bullet hit Maria’s heart and passed through Zé Cláudio’s hand and torso, sending them both off the motorcycle. They were each shot once more; then, according to the police report, Lindonjonson took off Zé Cláudio’s helmet and cut off his ear with a kitchen knife. The killers then threw the couple’s bodies in the trees. Zé Cláudio’s body laid out near a caju de janeiro; Maria’s next to an andiroba.
Just as they were preparing to leave, a man on another motorcycle pulled up and, seeing the wrecked bike and the bodies, took off to get help. Unsure whether or not they’d been spotted, the killers returned to their hiding spots, then escaped. A week later, the potential witness’s bike was found on the edge of the forest, swarmed by vultures. His body was a few yards away.
The same day as Zé Cláudio and Maria’s deaths, at almost the same time, the National Congress in Brasilia was preparing to vote on a new forest code that would change environmental legislation and permit new areas to be deforested for agriculture. Learning of the murder only minutes before the vote, Deputy Senator Sarney Filho of the Green Party took the podium at the Chamber of Deputies and read part of my interview with Zé Cláudio in VICE. “I stand before this tribunal to talk about a tragedy that happened today,” he said, announcing their deaths.
As he read Zé Cláudio’s words from half a year before, defending the rights of the settlement dwellers and predicting his own assassination, the deputy was heckled by farmers in the chamber’s gallery, who’d come to watch the pro-agricultural bill get passed. As the boos reached Sarney, his face tightened with rage and he shouted, “These were poor people who loved nature and who were brutally murdered this morning. Can we at least respect the memory of these people, who were murdered?!”
In the end the bill passed, but the deputy’s outburst had drawn attention to the couple’s death, and soon the murder of Zé Cláudio and Maria was a national story. President Dilma Rousseff ordered the police to investigate the case, and IBAMA launched a raid shutting down all the illegal sawmills in Nova Ipixuna, which is pretty much all of the sawmills, period.
It was a good-looking start, but six months down the line it’s about all that’s happened. Despite their capture by federal police in July, the Pará state judge has refused three requests to imprison the men accused of the assassination. At the same time, a federal judge recently decided that it was not the federal government’s job to investigate the case and also ordered IBAMA to reopen the lumber factories. Frightened, the family of Zé Cláudio and Maria fear they’ll be the next victims. Recently, somebody shot the guard dog at Laissa’s house in the settlement, right across the street from Zé Cláudio and Maria’s lot. It was the same warning given to the couple three days before they were murdered.
Watch our journey through the Brazilian Amazon to investigate the deaths of Zé Cláudio and Maria later this month on VICE.com.
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