By Victoria Griffith
The recent assassination of environmental activist Edwin Chota, who fought tirelessly to expel illegal loggers who operated with impunity in the Amazon rainforest, has implications that go well beyond the loss of a single man, as important as his work was for the defense of the Amazon. For decades, those fighting on the front lines of the green war have been terrorized in a bid to silence them and demoralize others who might take their place. And the rest of the world has failed to take notice.
Chota’s demise is all the more tragic because it was so preventable. Despite the death threats he had been receiving for months, authorities failed to provide adequate protection.
Chota, killed on Sept. 8, 2014, with four colleagues from the Asheninka tribe, led the battle to gain title to native lands on the Peruvian side of the Amazon rainforest. The murders were reportedly revenge by criminal loggers who Chota reported to authorities. His assassins were hardly lurking in the shadows. Rather, the men were killed as their entire village looked helplessly on, an example to anyone else who might dare to defend their native land. The slaying fits an ongoing pattern of Mafioso-style murders meant to subvert opposition to local gangs’ illegal activities.
It’s been more than 25 years since Brazilian rubber tapper Chico Mendes was gunned down outside his house in an incident that shocked the global green movement. The conviction of the men who ordered and carried out his execution was meant to hail a new era of accountability for violence against environmental activists. Yet since then such crimes have only escalated.
According to the U.K.-based human rights group Global Witness, 147 people were murdered in 2012 for their green convictions (the latest year data is available), compared to 51 in 2002. Brazil, where most of the Amazon rainforest is located, has the worst record; of the 908 documented environmental executions that occurred between 2002 and 2013, 448 happened in Brazil. Even those numbers vastly understate the case, according to the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), a nonprofit based in Acre, Brazil, which places the number of assassinations in the thousands.
Authorities argue that the murder sites in question are too remote to provide adequate police protection. Yet there is little doubt that the killers believe they can act with impunity. Less than 1 percent of environmentally-motivated murders are ever brought to trial, according to Global Witness and the CPT.
Justice is hard to come by even in the most high-profile cases. In 2011, green crusaders Maria and Jose Claudio da Silva were brutally killed near their home in the Brazilian state of Para by gunmen passing by on a motorcycle. While local courts convicted the two men who pulled the triggers, they failed to imprison the farmer said to have ordered the assassinations. The slayings occurred not far from the site where the Ohio-born nun Dorothy Stang was shot and killed in 2005 over her defense of the rainforest. In a travesty of justice, it took eight years to convict one of the ranchers said to have ordered her execution. The rancher’s co-conspirator was released shortly after being sentenced to 30-year jail term; he successfully argued that he should remain free pending his appeal. Reasons for the inadequate response, say green organizations, are clear: Corruption runs rampant as gangsters pay off local authorities to look the other way.
The rest of the world should not follow suit. The rape of the Amazon and other important forest areas has far-reaching implications. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, a leading green organization, deforestation now contributes more to global warming than the emissions of the entire global transportation center. The destruction of the rainforest also has a chilling impact on biodiversity. An average 4-square-mile area in the Amazon holds 750 distinct species of trees, 400 species of birds and 150 species of butterflies, says the nonprofit Nature Conservancy.
Chico Mendes once said: “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees. Then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.” The defenders of humanity need our protection. Pressure must be applied to governments at a local, state and federal level to prevent violence against environmental activists. And when violence does occur, the killers – those who ordered the assassinations as well as those who pulled the triggers – must be severely punished.
It’s time to bring the environmental war of terror to an end. This month, Chota joined a growing list of ecological martyrs. At some point, the world may simply run out of heroes.
Victoria Griffith is the author of "Amazon Burning" (Astor + Blue, October 2014), an environmental thriller based on the Chico Mendes murder.