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Illegal logging, land grabbing and deaths of Zé Claudio and Maria do Espirito Santo, Pará, Brazil


Marabá is at the heart of deforestation by ranchers and loggers in the state of Pará. In Nova Ipixuna, near Marabá, there was an attempt to build up a sustainable agro-extractivist reserve (where "extractivism" is used in the sense of Chico Mendes' "extractive reserves"), preserving the castanhais, the chestnut forests of Bertholletia excelsa. On 24 May 2011 José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espírito Santo da Silva, who had been leading the Praia Alta Piranheira Extractive Reserve Project, trying to stop land grabbing by outsiders, were ambushed near their home and shot repeatedly. They had received death threats in the past from loggers and cattle ranchers as a result of their work defending the rainforest, and had reported the threats to the police. In November 2010, at an international conference in Manaus, José Cláudio Ribeiros da Silva expressed concern for his own safety [4] as a result of threats he had received, and predicted that he would be killed as a result of his work.

The bodies of the couple were found inside the Praia Alta-Piranheira reserve, where they had been working for the past 24 years. Environmental and human rights  defenders are regularly killed on the frontier of the Amazon, with impunity. These killings occurred at the same time as amendments to the country's forest protection laws were passed in Congress. These amendments were to weaken existing environmental controls and could therefore lead to an intensification of existing disputes. As Felipe Milanez [2] [3][5] explained in his doctoral thesis and in blog entries in Carta Capital, one glint of hope in Zé Claudio and Maria’s case  for the killers to be brought to justice was the chance that they were murdered the same morning as important revisions to Brazil’s Forest Code were voted in Congress. Their death was announced to the country from the floor of the Congress in Brasilia.   The killings took place against a background of ongoing campaigns to silence land rights defenders in Brazil.

According to the Comissão Pastoral da Terra - CPT (Pastoral Land Commission), since 1988, more than 1,150 land and environmental rights defenders, small farmers, judges, priests and other rural workers had been killed in disputes over preserving land. The murders are mostly carried out by gunmen hired by loggers, ranchers and farmers to silence protest over the illegal cutting of trees in the forests. It is reported that fewer than 100 of the cases had gone to court [1]. Both José Caludio and Maria do Espíritu Santo defended the forests of "castanha do Pará", and were implementing Chico Mendes' ideas of a "sustainable extractivism" for forest preservation and use. Maria do Espírito Santo da Silva was also  a member of the socio-environmentalist group Conselho Nacional das Populações Extrativistas – CNS (National Council of Extractive Populations), and a leader of the Projeto Agroextrativista Praialta-Piranheira in Nova Ipixuna. She had a university studies. 

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Illegal logging, land grabbing and deaths of Zé Claudio and Maria do Espirito Santo, Pará, Brazil
State or province:Pará
Location of conflict:Nova Ipixuna
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Biomass and Land Conflicts (Forests, Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Management)
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Land acquisition conflicts
Establishment of reserves/national parks
Logging and non timber extraction
Specific commodities:Timber

Project Details and Actors

Project details

In this case the project was not of destruction of nature but of conservation of nature in order to give acces to land to needed people and stop illegal logging. Praia Alta Piranheira Extractive Reserve Project, Nova Ipixuna, was a conservation project started in 1997, for livelihood, making 22 000 ha available to 400 families, based on the "sustainable agro-extractivism" of Chico Mendes' "extractive reserves" principle. It ran into internal and external trouble because of deforestation, land grabbing, and particularly illegal logging. By 2010, José Claudio and Maria still continued to defend the forest, and particularly the chestnut trees. They sold products, made oil. They were killed in May 2011. Maria referred in an interview with Felipe Milanez to her life as "daring to live together with the forest", "a ousadia de comviver com a floresta".

Project area:22,000
Affected Population:2,000
Start of the conflict:2006
Relevant government actors:Courts of Justice
ICREA (land reform institute)
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:CPT (Commissao Pastoral da Terra).

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageLATENT (no visible resistance)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
International ejos
Local ejos
Religious groups
Forms of mobilization:Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Everyday peaceful resistance against illegal logging


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover
Potential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity)
Health ImpactsVisible: Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..)
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Increase in violence and crime, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Other socio-economic impactsThe conservation project tried to preserve the forest, Zé Claudio often expressed reverence towards the big chestnuts trees, "their majesties". Loggers and grileiros cut down the trees and appropriated the land, for ranching.


Conflict outcome / response:Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Violent targeting of activists
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The project of preserving the forest of castanha do Pará in that particular location failed. However, the court case against the killers of José Claudio and Maria made slow progress and in December 2016 the notorious grileiro (land grabber) Jose Rodrigues Moreira who ordered the killing, was sentenced on appeal to 60 years in prison - but he had got away long before this court decision. [3]

Sources & Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[2] Felipe Milanez Pereira, 2015, doctoral thesis in Portuguese, "A ousadia de conviver com a floresta": uma ecologia política do extrativismo na Amazônia. Coimbra : [s.n.], 2015. Tese de doutoramento. . The thesis includes long interviews with Maria and Zé Claudio.

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

[5] 2013. O gosto amargo da impunidade, por Felipe Milanez — 27/05/2013. Assassinato de casal de ambientalistas Maria do Espírito Santo e José Cláudio Ribeiro, no Pará, completa dois anos com pistoleiros na cadeia e mandante solto.

[1]Case History: Maria do Espírito Santo da Silva

Tom Phillips, Amazon rainforest activist shot dead.

Tom Phillips, Hundreds of Brazil's eco-warriors at risk of assassination

[3] 2016. Zé Claudio e Maria: justiça histórica, por Felipe Milanez — 12/12/2016. Em um segundo julgamento, José Rodrigues Moreira, apontado como mandante do assassinato, foi condenado a 60 anos de prisão

David Hill interviews Felipe Milanez on Zé Claudio and Maria: You say “humanitarian catastrophe.” Can you elaborate? FM: I mean the genocides, ethnocides, epistemicides, slavery, forced displacement of social groups, dispossession and the disruption of social systems. This is happening today in different parts of Brazil. From 2003 to 2014 there were 390 Indians killed in Mato Grosso do Sul, mostly Kaiowa Guarani, fundamentally in conflict with ranchers and soya plantations. The Guarani consider this genocide. And to combat falling commodity prices, the government now wants to increase extraction of natural resources such as iron ore and weaken indigenous rights and the rights of nature. The Belo Monte mega-dam alone affects 12 indigenous lands and 21 maroon communities.

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

The Crying Forest. Al Jazeera's Gabriel Elizondo follows the story of an activist who lived and died for the Amazon Rainforest. 07 Nov 2011. Elizondo, who covered the aftermath of the couple's murder for Al Jazeera, travels to the activist's former home, a rainforest settlement now abandoned by terrified family members and friends.

Amazon Deforestation & Slavery Toxic VICE (an excellent video)

[4] Zé Claudio Ribeiro's speech, a few months before his death (with rather bad English subtitles)

Other documents

Photo by Felipe Milanez

Other comments:Felipe Milanez (2015): "This thesis elaborates on a core case-study, the murder of Maria do Espírito Santo and José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva, a couple of ‘environmentalists´of the people’ in the southeast part of the state of Para, in the Eastern Amazon, to investigate broader contradictions of development and the role of violence and resistance in socio-environmental conflicts, focusing on subalternized classes in the struggle for the commons and alternatives to existence... My hypothesis is that there is a main contradiction between the role of state institutions and the economic model, which produces a permanent tension between public interests and private benefits; this tends to produce an antidemocratic association of interests between State and the private sector, which limits the exercise of politics, understood as the opposite of violence. Building upon the analytical framework of Political Ecology, I investigate the expansion of capitalism from its main effect of "time-space compression" in unequal global exchange, a process that constructs spaces of extraction where any obstacle to the advancement of capital must be violently removed. In order to situate locally the understanding of violence in environmental conflicts, I propose a socio-historical review of the forestry space of the castanhais (chestnut forest) of Bertholletia excelsa (Brazilian nut) as an anthropogenic environment, inhabited by human populations through the past 9.000 years and, until recently, a territory occupied by Tupi and Macro-Jê Amerindians populations. This anthropogenic forest has been transformed into a space of territorial and environmental conflicts through the expansion of capitalism and enclosures during the last century. Using the sociological perspective of the "ecology of knowledges", I develop a process of investigation that aims to articulate different experiences in the construction of economic alternatives and alternative forms of existence as they emerge from the struggle of labor/ social movements in the rural areas of Amazonia. These are built around the idea of agroextractivism as a possible alternative to sustainable development and deforestation, in a counter-hegemonic movement against the privatization of the commons and overexploitation of labour. .. The main theoretical contribution of the thesis is a reflection on the concept of "dare" (ousadia), as Maria do Espírito Santo would describe what motivates her and Zé Claudio to fight for the forest..."[2]

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Last update27/01/2017





Photo by Felipe Milanez