Hit Squads in the Amazon Environmentalists Risk Their Lives in Brazil

At the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro this week, Brazil intends to portray itself as a model country when it comes to the environment. But rampant exploitation continues in the country's Amazon region, where environmentalists are threatened by hit squads.



She has removed her bulletproof vest and the elite soldiers assigned to protect her have left. In return, Nilcilene Miguel de Lima, 45, had to promise the authorities that she would keep her whereabouts a secret and would not return to her native region in Brazil's Amazon rainforest, where a contract killer is waiting for her.

A mafia of timber merchants and cattle ranchers has placed a bounty worth the equivalent of €8,000 ($10,080) on her head. She is the president of Deus Proverà, an association of farmers and rubber tappers in the southern part of the state of Amazonas, where loggers and environmentalists are at war. Miguel de Lima had the audacity to file a criminal complaint against illegal logging.

Five years ago, the government settled 300 families in the rainforest, where they are running one of 21 projects to promote the sustainable exploitation of the Amazon region. The farmers tap rubber trees, collect Brazil nuts and grow pineapple, bananas and cassava. "We are the guardians of the forest," says Miguel de Lima. The families live 42 kilometers (26 miles) from the nearest federal highway. They are lacking electricity, the school that was promised them, medical personnel and police protection in the jungle.

Loggers and cattle ranchers take advantage of the absence of a government presence. They divide up the forest into parcels, falsify the land register and use weapons to drive away the small farmers. Dozens of families have already fled, abandoning their fields or selling them to the big landowners. "Nilcilene will be killed if she returns," says her companion Raimundo Alexandrino de Oliveira.

'Menu of Atrocities'

At the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, which begins Wednesday, host Brazil aims to portray itself as a modern, up-and-coming, and environmentally conscious nation. An entire package of projects to protect the environment is intended to demonstrate that the country is a model of sustainable development. On World Environment Day, President Dilma Rousseff appeared at a press conference wearing a green dress, and boasted that deforestation had declined to a historic low.

Experts say that Brazil's environmental turnaround is nothing but propaganda. "After the conference, the government will implement an entire menu of environmental atrocities," says Marina Silva, the country's former environment minister. "It is systematically eliminating the environmental legislation we have created in the last 24 years."

Eight major environmental and social organizations have joined forces to raise public awareness of the problems. They charge that Rousseff is responsible for the "biggest step backwards in environmental policy since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985."

A reform of the country's forestry code grants an amnesty to illegal loggers. In the future, farms in the Amazon region will be allowed to clear 50 percent instead of the current 20 percent of their land. In addition, the government is expediting the construction of hundreds of dams in the region. This will cause the flooding of thousands of square kilometers and displace native villages and farming settlements.

Rousseff has largely deprived Brazil's environmental agency of its powers. The government wants to accelerate major projects, permit mining in Indian reservations and build new roads. The regulation of land ownership, the biggest problem in the Amazon region, is progressing at a snail's pace. Meanwhile, farms that were established illegally are being bought and sold on the Internet.

The foreign exchange earnings from the export of beef and soybeans are one of the pillars of the Brazilian economic miracle, which explains why the president repeatedly caves in to the powerful farm lobby. But Brazil doesn't even need any new pasture or farmland, says Silva, the former environment minister. "We could double our production if we cultivated the existing areas more intensively," she says.

'Crimes Are Not Punished'

But destroying the rainforest is cheaper and more lucrative, especially since it usually goes unpunished. The destruction always follows the same cycle: First loggers cut down the most valuable trees, and then they tear down the remaining vegetation with tractors or burn it. They sow grass as soon as the jungle has been destroyed, and soon the first cattle are trotting around among the tree stumps. Soybean farms are also advancing into some parts of the Amazon region.

Getting in the way of the ranchers can be very dangerous. Last year, 29 people were murdered in Brazil because of land disputes. "The crimes are not punished," laments Francineide Lourenço of the church aid organization Comissão Pastoral da Terra in Manaus. Greenpeace workers only travel in armored SUVs in the jungle.

Last year, 49 environmental activists and small farmers received death threats in the state of Amazonas alone. The government had provided three of them, including Miguel de Lima, with armed guards.

The petite woman greets visitors in a house more than 1,000 kilometers from her native region. She takes sedatives, and her eyes well up with angry tears as she tells her story. "They burned down my property," she says, showing photos of the charred remains of her house.

She fled from the region a year ago after a hired killer had tracked her down. The government granted her an armed escort from the Força Nacional, or National Public Security Force, a special-forces unit made up of the military and police. She returned in November, with the protection of nine soldiers, and wore a bulletproof vest day and night. "We shoot in the head," the mafia threatened after that.

In her absence, the cattle ranches had moved close to her settlement. Ranchers had blocked the paths with fences and destroyed the rubber trees.

But Miguel de Lima refused to be intimidated. Her parents were rubber tappers, and she comes from the same area as Chico Mendes, an environmental activist and rubber tapper who was murdered by two farmers in 1988, four years before the first UN environmental summit in Rio. His death triggered a worldwide campaign against deforestation, but his murderers are now out of prison again.

Bodyguards Afraid

Dinhana Nink, an acquaintance of Miguel de Lima, was shot to death in April. "She ran a small bar that served as an information exchange, and she knew the plans and routes of the loggers and farmers," says Miguel de Lima. "She wanted to report them to the police." Nink's murderers came at daybreak. When her father found her hours later, her young son was wiping the blood away from his mother's chest.

A few days after Nink's death, an armed man on a motorcycle positioned himself in front of Miguel de Lima's hideout. Her bodyguards became afraid and forced her to leave the region. "The timber merchants slaughtered an ox in celebration," says Miguel de Lima.

Meanwhile, the overexploitation continues unabated. Cattle ranches are penetrating farther into the southern part of Amazonas, and trucks carrying soybeans thunder along BR-364, the last segment of the famed Trans-Amazonian Highway. The government has financed construction of the road to near the Peruvian border. It connects Brazil with ports on the Pacific coast.'

Cattle ranches and wasteland line both sides of the road, where the charred remains of Brazil nut trees are the only reminder that this was once a rainforest. The provincial capital Porto Velho, on the Madeira River, a tributary of the Amazon, was once a sleepy jungle town. Today the SUVs of farmers' sons line up at night in front of the Broadway Bar, a local nightclub.

The city outskirts are crowded with endless worker camps. Migrants from all over Brazil have flooded into Porto Velho, where they are helping build the Santo Antônio and Jirau dams, two giant hydroelectric plants. Thousands of hectares of jungle and wasteland along the Madeira River will be flooded in the coming years.

Lumber Trucks Every 15 Minutes

In Vista Alegre, a few kilometers from Miguel de Lima's settlement, the lumber trucks emerge from the forest about every 15 minutes, accompanied by an armed motorcycle escort. The drivers use ham radios to announce their arrival.

The logs are processed into boards in illegal sawmills on the outskirts of the city, and the remaining wood is left to rot in the mud. "Forged papers are drawn up for the lumber, and it is transported south," says Miguel de Lima. The giants of the rainforest end up as construction lumber in the mega-city of São Paulo.

Meanwhile, the bananas are rotting on Miguel de Lima's property, while weeds grow rampantly over the charred remains of her hut.

Amnesty International has launched a worldwide campaign for Miguel de Lima, and the governor in Manaus receives letters of protest from around the world every day. She dreams of returning, and she speaks by phone with her allies in the jungle as often as possible.

Meanwhile, they are hoping for help from faraway Norway. The government in Oslo has made $1 billion available for the "Amazon Fund" to protect the rainforest. At the UN summit in Rio, the oil-producing nation will present the project as a model for the sustainable rescue of the Amazon rainforest.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.


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