One environmental activist is killed each week trying to save the Amazon rainforest
June 16, 2014
No one could accuse Nilcilene Miguel de Lima of being easily afraid. When loggers beat her and burned down her home in Lábrea – in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon – the environmental activist refused to give up her struggle. When they killed her dog and frightened away the armed guards who had been sent to protect her, she carried on without them. But after they murdered her fellow campaigners and warned her she would be next, the mother of four finally fled.
Today, she is in hiding hundreds of miles from home, looking out of the bars on the window of a temporary refuge in Manaus and wondering what happened to Brazilian justice and the world’s interest in protecting the planet’s greatest rainforest. “I’ll be hiding for the rest of my life. The people who killed my friends and destroyed nature should be the ones in prison, but I’m the one who has no liberty,” she says. “All I ever did was protect the families who tried to conserve the environment.”
That is an increasingly dangerous ambition in Brazil where, according to a recent report by Global Witness, more environmental and land-rights campaigners have been killed than the rest of the world put together. The study found that, on average, one activist has been killed in the country every week since 2002. If that trend continues, four will die during the course of this World Cup, though very few cases are likely to make headlines.
Most of the murders occur in remote regions of the Amazon – places like de Lima’s home of Lábrea in Amazonas state, where loggers, ranchers and land-grabbers are seizing property from smallholders, subsistence communities and indigenous tribes. Guns and muscle make the rules. Police are usually either absent, complicit or too weak to deal with the gangs of armedgrileiros. The ethical consequences are immense.
Located in an arc of deforestation that stretches from Mato Grosso, through Acre and Rondônia across the Bolivian border, Lábrea is among the most remote, dangerous and important frontlines of environmental protection on the planet. Whether fighting climate change or conserving biodiversity, there are few more pressing struggles in the world than the one taking place here. Yet it rarely gets much attention in Brazil, let alone the rest of the world. The stage is too distant, the drama plays out too slowly and the economic interests are weighed against the activists, who are often accused by their enemies of holding back development.
Getting to the flash points is a challenge. Most occur deep in the forest. The terminal at the nearest local airport is little more than a shed and it receives only seven scheduled flights a week. The road network is even less developed. Lábrea is at the end of the Trans-Amazonian Highway – a 4,000km road that was supposed to stretch from the east coast all the way to Peru, before the project ran out of funds and became mired in the mosquito and disease-infested swamps around the town.
As the town at the end of this line, Lábrea is a surprisingly bustling, sometimes surreal place with a population of more than 40,000 people – an indication of just how much human pressure is growing in the Amazon. A 20m statue of Mary with a neon halo dominates the central plaza along with dozens of brightly coloured – and almost completely unused – recycling bins placed every 10 metres along the path. A short walk down to the Purus river is a slum of boat-dwellers living on fetid waters; vultures perch on their corrugated tin roofs.
From here it is still three days’ journey by motorboat to de Lima’s home in south Lábrea. She is president of Deus Proverà, an association of Brazilian nut farmers and rubber tappers in the community of Gedeão in the south of Lábrea. Located several days canoe ride from the town, the area is dominated by a gang of gunmen who work for loggers and farmers. It is a hotspot for murder and intimidation. According to the Comissão Pastoral da Terra (Brazilian Pastoral Land Commission), six community leaders were assassinated in the Lábrea area between 2008 and 2013 and 51 local activists continue to receive death threats. Precedent suggests one in 10 of them will be murdered in the coming years.
De Lima is tougher than most. Struggle and tragedy have defined her life. She grew up in Xapuri in Acre, the headquarters of Brazil’s most celebrated campaigner Chico Mendes, who was murdered in 1988 after he tried to halt loggers and establish extractive reserves for small farmers. These were areas where the right to harvest natural resources were granted to subsistence farmers, fishermen, rubber-tappers or nut harvesters, normally as buffers against the big farms and ranches that are responsible for the worst deforestation. De Lima’s father was a co-founder of the Union of Rubber Tappers alongside Marina Silva, who later became the country’s most effective environment minister. Her husband was killed, de Lima says, on the orders of loggers and half a dozen fellow community leaders have been shot, stabbed or beaten to death in arguments over land and conservation.