After losing her brother, José Claudio Ribeiro da Silva, and sister-in-law, Maria do Espírito Santo, on May 24, 2011, Claudelice dos Santos swore to fight for justice.
Ten years later, with a degree in Law and recognized as an environmental activist in the Amazon, she formalized the creation of the Zé Claudio e Maria Institute (IZM).
Today, even though she and her family are still living under threat, she has managed to continue the legacy of a couple of community leaders shot dead in an ambush at the Agro-Extractivist Project (PAE) Praia Alta-Piranheira, in Nova Ipixuna, southeastern Pará, region known as Polígono dos Castanhais that became the target of unsustainable livestock.
The murder, which had national and international repercussions, was motivated by the couple’s complaints to public bodies such as the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) and the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (Incra) about the illegalities committed by farmers, loggers, and charcoal burners, involved in deforestation and land grabbing in the settlement.
In the absence of effective inspection actions and the fight against environmental crimes by public bodies, and inspired by the struggle of rubber tapper leader Chico Mendes in Acre, Zé Claudio, and Maria promoted roadblocks to prevent the transit of trucks loaded with illegally extracted wood from the settlement’s forest reserve, among other coping strategies that cost them their lives.
Historical leader in deforestation, according to the Institute for Man and the Environment of the Amazon (Amazon), in 2021, “Pará maintained the first place in the ranking of those that deforest the most, with 4,037 km² devastated, 39% of that registered in the entire Amazon ”.
The reference organization in research in the region reported that in the state “there was an increase in forest clearing both in federal and state [protected] areas”.
To give you an idea of the seriousness of the problem, “more than half of the ten Indigenous Lands and the ten Conservation Units that deforested the most in 2021 are located in Pará”.
Sem manage to avoid the final ambush
Claudelice studied at an Agricultural School in Marabá, also in Pará, being inspired by the pedagogical guidelines of Paulo Freire, a world reference in Education who critically discussed the place of oppressed peoples in society and the ability to transform the reality in which they live based not only on of the knowledge they receive but also of the knowledge they possess and share.
The bond with the land has always been strong and Claudelice desired to develop sustainable agriculture projects, so much so that the chosen course had an emphasis on agroecology.
“In my mind, there was that ideal of finishing school and returning to my community. We already had a community forest management plan, encouraged by Zé and Maria”, he emphasizes. These actions were supported by institutions such as the Federal University of Pará (UFPA).
Because of all this involvement with her studies and plans for the future, she says that she followed the couple’s struggles, although she didn’t have the real dimension of the risks that Zé Claudio and Maria were already taking. “They had this vision, but they did this confrontation seeking to protect the family”, she observes.
Over time, threats from socio-environmental activism began to get stronger, with attempts to ambush the orchard and the surroundings of the house where the couple lived, leaving the whole family apprehensive.
“The day before they were murdered, we got together and decided to tell them to spend some time outside, to see if the tension would ease”, says Claudelice.
But she recalls with emotion that the family could not avoid the tragedy announced several times. “The day after [the family meeting], we received the news that they had been murdered.
For us, that was the day that changed everything in our lives. The first thing we had to do was get out of there because we started to receive threats too.”
The lawyer and activist report that the gunmen who killed the couple also tried to kill other farmers in the settlement to force the eviction of families from the land that some groups intended to occupy.
“They also tried to intimidate me, because I was following the investigations and trying to find out what was going on in the criminal process”, says Claudelice.
Her mother even received a note and a phone call with threats of execution for the entire family, warning that she demanded new security strategies, without losing sight of the fight for justice for the murder.
“Death threat has no expiry date”
Claudelice claims that the family had two paths to follow after this trauma: fleeing or reacting, even though they were afraid.
“We decided to fight”, a choice that, according to his argument, had and has had many consequences. As the feeling of insecurity was extreme and most family members were women, children, and the elderly, the recommendation was to leave the PAE after the murder.
“But, a year later, we started going back to the settlement, because we thought that if we didn’t take back that territory and keep our presence there, then yes, they would have achieved their objective, which was to kill Zé Claudio and Maria, burying together this history that is also ours”, he reiterates.
This is how the lot belonging to the murdered couple gave way to community work carried out with women, members of the Group of Artisan and Extractivist Workers (GTAE).
“We went there, in resistance, to occupy their lot [with more than 90% of conserved forest], where we developed several works, mainly with the collective of women that they helped to create, in 2006. The group still exists today. We produce andiroba oil and by-products such as vegetable soaps.
This is the result of the fight that started back there and that’s why we remain in a group that also suffers attacks”, she reports.
She says that even hearing opinions like “this is worthless, it’s just in the minds of environmentalists” and still feeling under permanent pressure.
Claudelice decided to insist on the mission, even though she has to redouble her safety strategies when she visits the community project so much as for the family home in the settlement, where he can no longer live. “I still go there, but with great trepidation. I cannot spend more than two or three days.
It makes me sad because eleven years later, we still have to take this kind of care, but I remember a teacher I had who said that death threats do not have an expiration date ”, she laments.
His analysis makes even more sense when recalling the scare he suffered, in 2020, when the eldest daughter and a niece were chased by a pickup truck on the PAE route and almost overturned, trying to escape.
In an Amazon that is increasingly pressured by environmental crimes, and with women defenders of human rights and nature being the main targets of criminals, as indicated by research by the Igarapé Institute, the lawyer explains that these situations have become commonplace, with attacks ordered in disguise of accidents.
After that episode, the young woman redoubled her care for her safety and also decided to enroll in law school to join the family’s struggle in defense of human rights and nature in the region. Training in the area began this year.
And even in the city where she lives with two young daughters, the activist who calls herself a single mother says she doesn’t feel calm either.
“My house has cameras, a reinforced gate, and an electric fence. But anyone who has been threatened once never relaxes. We do not have the right to total freedom.
I consider that I am more of a prisoner than the person who ordered the crime and who is still at large. I am behind the bars of my house and the security schemes when I need to go out. I feel like a prisoner and that is very hard”, she denounces.
To understand the unfolding of the case
In a second trial in absentia, which took place in 2016, cattle rancher José Rodrigues Moreira, accused of being the mastermind of the crime, was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
He had been acquitted in the first trial, in 2013, provoking revolt and social mobilization actions to reverse the decision — a victory achieved in 2014, with the support of the family and the Pastoral Land Commission, which annually has documented an increase in violence in the countryside in Brazil.
“To get an idea of how absurd impunity is in our country, especially in our state of Pará, the judge mentioned in the sentence [in the first trial] that Zé and Maria contributed, in a certain way, to their murders.
With that conclusion, it is as if they had died because they deserved it”, criticizes the activist.
Indicated as the material authors of the crime, Lindonjonson Silva Rocha (brother of the accused of being the mastermind) and Alberto Lopes do Nascimento were sentenced in 2013 to 42 years and 45 years in prison, respectively.
Rocha even escaped from the Mariano Antunes Penitentiary, in Marabá, in 2015, only to be recaptured in 2020. It was upon learning of this episode that Claudelice decided to study the Bachelor of Law, a training that she completed between 2016 and 2021.
Despite being unhappy with the outcome of the case, she recognizes that the family achieved many victories, the first of which was the revocation of the first trial, in addition to maintaining the conviction of the two gunmen and the dismemberment of the process so that there was a new trial only for the principal.
“We still talk about it because we want everyone to know that justice hasn’t been served yet, as the boss is still on the loose. Because of the acquittal in the first trial, he left through the front door of the courthouse and is still at large.”
She also talks about what she considers “a sordid detail” that would mark the couple’s family forever.
“During the reading of José Rodrigues’ acquittal, the sister of Maria [Laísa Santos Sampaio], my fighting partner, who was with me denouncing what happened, suffered a stroke [Cerebral Vascular Accident]”.
Later, the friend had other health consequences that interrupted her active participation in the search for justice.
Regarding public power protection for herself and threatened family members, Claudelice informs that they do not have it and that they prefer to seek other alternatives from networks and collectives that support each other.
“Today we have an institute [with the so-called Casa de Respiro, at the IZM] that welcomes threatened defenders and seeks to evolve a lot in the debate around protection and self-care.
We must charge the Brazilian State to protect defenders who suffer death threats. But we also have to protect ourselves and create our individual and collective defense mechanisms”, he concludes.
Brazil: leader in murders of environmentalists
Brazil leads the world in terms of murders of environmental defenders, according to a recent report that presents the results of a decade of monitoring by the British NGO Global Witness on the subject.
Of the total of 1,733 cases registered between 2012 and 2021, Brazil accounted for 342 (followed by Colombia, 322, and the Philippines, 270).
In this context of violence, more than 85% of deaths occurred in the Amazon and approximately one-third of the people who lost their lives in defense of their territories and nature were indigenous or afro-descendants.
The same source informs that, in 2021, there were 200 murders of environmental defenders in the world, with Brazil in third place with 26, behind Mexico (54) and Colombia (33). Of the total deaths, more than three-quarters were registered in Latin America.