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Killers of renowned anthropologist sentenced in Brazil

Killers of renowned anthropologist sentenced in Brazil

Killers of renowned anthropologist sentenced in Brazil
July 12, 2007

The men charged with the 2005 killing of University of Vermont anthropology professor James Petersen in the Amazon rainforest were sentenced Tuesday to nearly 30 years in prison, close to the maximum under Brazilian law.

Petersen, who had been doing pioneering research on advanced civilizations in the Amazon rainforest and had become a popular figure in the region, was shot and killed on August 13, 2005 during a robbery of a restaurant near Iranduba, a small town in the Brazilian Amazon. The two gunmen were apprehended within 24 hours, while their two accomplices were captured after a three week-manhunt through the rainforest.

Peterson’s Work in the Amazon

Peterson gained fame for his archeological work in the Central Amazon. Together with a handful of other researchers, Peterson collected evidence of sophisticated societies in the Amazon rainforest. These civilizations built extensive road networks, practiced large-scale agriculture, and produced elaborate pottery, but left little trace after they were wiped out by European disease in the sixteenth century.

JAMES PETERSEN (1954 – 2005)

One of the few remnants left behind by these populations, is their nutrient-rich soil, known locally as terra preta. The soil, easily distinguished from conventional Amazon earth by its black color and mineral richness, is thought to have been created by pre-Columbian people through a process of adding charcoal and animal bones to regular soil to create a highly fertile hybrid, ideal for agriculture. Charcoal is the essential ingredient of terra preta, which gives the soil a more substantial quality as organic matter latches on to the compounds within it through oxidation, retaining moisture and nutrients. Despite these benefits, charcoal lacks substantial nutrients on its own, so Indians enriched the soil with organic waste like the bones of turtles, fish and birds, giving terra preta higher quantities of calcium, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur than typical earth. Further, when managed well, terra preta can avoid exhaustion from agricultural stress far longer than regular soil — in fact, terra preta is still productive today, after 500 years of continuous use. By improving soil quality, large areas of the Amazon that have been deforested could be used to support agriculture. This could help reduce pressure on rainforest areas for agricultural land. Further, the “terra preta” soil could be used to help fight global warming since it absorbs carbon dioxide, an important greenhouse gas.

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Pre-Columbian Amazon supported millions of people. Controversial evidence uncovered over the past decade suggests that the Amazon rainforest was once home to large sedentary populations of people. Besides the well-known empires of the Inca and their predecessors, the Huari, millions of people once lived in the forests and shaped the environment to suit their own needs.

Ancient Amazonian technology could save the world. Terra preta, the ancient charcoal-based soil used by ancient Amazonians to create permanently fertile agricultural lands in the rainforest, is getting serious consideration as a means to fight global warming and meet domestic energy demand, reports an article in Scientific American.

Dorothy Stang fought for social equity in the Amazon. Dorothy Stang, an American nun who spent more than 30 years fighting for land rights for poor settlers in the Amazon, was murdered by a contract killer in February 2005 in the Brazilian state of Para. Stang, 73, was shot six times with a revolver as she read from the Bible. Stang’s confessed killer said he was hired by Amair Feijoli da Cunha, a rancher. He and a partner were offered 50,000 reais (around $25,000) to kill Stang. Stang, a member of the Order of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, was working with the Pastoral Land Commission, a Catholic Church group that lobbies for land reform in Brazil and fights for land rights for the poor, when she was gunned down.