2 Environmental Activists Shot Dead In Brazil, As Congress Debates Loosening Restrictions On Clearing Amazon Rainforest

A burnt down section of the Amazon rainforest. Photo by LeRoc.
A burnt down section of the Amazon rainforest. Photo by LeRoc.
A burnt down section of the Amazon rainforest. Photo by LeRoc.

Today in Latin America

Top Story — An environmental activist committed to protecting the Amazon rainforest was shot dead, along with his wife, Brazilian authorities said Wednesday.

Rubber tapper José Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife Maria do Espírito Santo da Silva were shot down by gunman in a small city in the northern state of Pará on Tuesday.

The murder of the couple recalled the 1988 killing of environmental activist and labor organizer Francisco Alves “Chico” Mendes, who was also a rubber tapper. A cattle rancher shot Mendes to death after being denied permission to clear a new tract of land. Killings related to environmental and land disputes are fairly common in Brazil, according to the Pastoral Land Commission, which has documented some 1,150 such murders since Mendes’ death.

The couple worked for an environmental NGO focused on the Amazon called CNS, which Mendes founded.

News of the murders came hours before Brazil’s lower house voted 273 to 182 to pass a controversial bill to reform the Forest Code. The measure would allow small farmers more liberty to cultivate and deforest protected environmental areas in the Amazon forest. The measure would also grant amnesty to those guilty of illegally deforesting the area prior to 2008 (such crimes are punishable by fines).

The driving force behind the bill is Aldo Rebelo, head of the Brazilian Communist Party (PCdoB), who says the reform will favor small farmers. Supporters also argue that the law would help boost local food producers.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, loudly oppose the measure. “I consider it an act of violence against nature,” said Alcides Faria of the NGO Ecoa, referring to the proposed law. The proposal has touched off an international controversy, as the foreign press sounds alarms over the possibility of accelerating damage of the Amazon rainforest.

There are signs that those concerns may be valid. Deforestation of the area legally defined as the Amazon rainforest rose 26 percent over the last two months, O Globo reported. Representatives of the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Resources (IBAMA, in Portuguese) said some infractors operated under the assumption that if the reform succeeds, they will not be responsible for fines.

“If people believe that, they’re completely mistaken,” said Rui Prado of the Agricultural Federation of Mato Gross. “There’s a cutoff date and it’s 2008, so whoever cuts down forest from 2008 to now isn’t getting any amnesty.”

The bill now goes to the Senate and must be approved by President Dilma Rousseff to become law. But the Rousseff administration does not support the bill as it currently stands and threatened to veto it if the Senate does not ramp up penalties for repeat offenders and remove an amendment giving state governments the power to designate protected environmental areas, according to Brazilian daily A Folha de São Paulo.

Just Published at the Latin America News Dispatch

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Image:LeRoc @ Flickr.

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