Conservation news

Leading Amazon dam rights activist, spouse and friend murdered in Brazil

  • Dilma Ferreira Silva, long time regional coordinator of the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) in the Tucuruí region of Pará state, was brutally murdered last Friday at her home, along with her husband, Claudionor Costa da Silva, and Hilton Lopes, a friend.
  • Silva was one of 32,000 people displaced during the construction of the Tucuruí mega-dam. The internationally recognized activist has in recent years been pushing the Brazilian government to adopt legislation establishing the rights of those displaced by dams, providing them with compensation; the government has so far done little to create such laws.
  • The killers of public officials, environmentalists, landless movement and indigenous activists in the Amazon are rarely found or brought to justice. However, in this case, Civil Police have arrested a large landowner, farmer and businessman, Fernando Ferreira Rosa Filho, known as Fernando Shalom.
  • While the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and deputies in the Brazilian Congress, have condemned the killing of dam activist Silva, her husband and friend, the Bolsonaro administration has failed to issue a statement of any kind.
Dilma Ferreira Silva (in foreground, right) during the National Meeting of Women Affected by Dams, organized by the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) in Brasília, in 2011. Image courtesy of MAB

Dilma Ferreira Silva, regional coordinator of the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) in the Tucuruí region of Pará state, was murdered last Friday at her home in the rural settlement of Salvador Allende, along with her husband, Claudionor Costa da Silva, and Hilton Lopes, a friend of the couple.

Hours earlier, neighbors saw three motorcycles ridden by five men arrive in front of Silva’s house. Shortly thereafter, very loud music began playing inside, and continued to play throughout the night — not typical behavior for the couple, according to neighbors.

The three were tied up and gagged, and the two men were killed first. Then the killers cut Silva’s throat.

Typically, murders of environmental, landless movement and indigenous activists in the Amazon go unsolved. So it came as a surprise when late on Tuesday, MAB leaders were interrupted during a meeting with the Secretary of Public Security and Social Defense of Pará, Ualame Machado, and told that arrests had been made in the case.

Police have arrested landowner, large-scale farmer and businessman, Fernando Ferreira Rosa Filho, known as Fernando Shalom. He has been detained over the murder of Dilma Ferreira Silva, her spouse and a friend. Image found on Pará Governor Helder Barbalho’s Twitter feed

Machado received a phone call from the Civil Police who said that had detained a large land owner, businessman and farmer, Fernando Ferreira Rosa Filho, known as Fernando Shalom. Filho owns rural properties, a supermarket and a hotel in the municipality of Novo Repartimento, 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the Tucuruí dam.

“Secretary Machado had said that solving this crime was a priority for the state of Pará, [whose reputation has been] tarnished by so many conflicts and murders,” Iury Paulino, MAB’s national coordinator told Mongabay. “The rapid response of the State in this case is proof that if they want, they are able to mobilize resources and find answers. Unfortunately, the discovery of the culprit alone does not solve the problem of those affected by the Tucuruí [hydroelectric] plant. Crimes will continue to happen as long as there is much misery and inequality in the region due to the State’s omissions.”

Silva, who was 48-years old, was part of a contingent of 32,000 people displaced from their homes and livelihoods to allow construction of the Tucuruí hydroelectric dam on the Tocantins River. Quilombolas (the descendants of runaway slaves), indigenous people, peasants and traditional riverside dwellers were among the groups forced to leave their homes. The mega-dam project was begun during Brazil’s military dictatorship, in 1974.  Silva was forced out of her home during a second stage of the dam construction, in the 2000s.

Since then, she and thousands of other families have struggled to improve their living conditions and to gain government compensation for lost properties and livelihoods. In the Salvador Allende settlement, where she lived for five years after being displaced, in the rural area of the Baião municipality in Pará, public services were, and remain, precarious or nonexistent: electricity is largely unavailable, there is no piped water or basic sanitation. The closest public health clinic is many miles away and there is no public transport. Two years ago, President Michel Temer’s administration cut the monthly basic food provision that affected families who had received that benefit through a BNDES (Brazilian Development Bank) program.

According to the Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME), at least 500,000 families in Brazil are not served with public electricity. Of this total, 70 percent live in Amazonia.

In 2011, activist Dilma Ferreira Silva (right) participated in an event with then Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (left) in which she presented a document requesting the creation of a national rights policy for those affected by Brazil’s dams. Image courtesy of MAB

A short, well-fought life

In 2005, Silva took a position as MAB’s regional coordinator. In 2011, the activist participated in a meeting with then President Dilma Rousseff in which she presented a document requesting the creation of a national rights policy for those affected by dams, with special attention to the women affected. That policy has not been adopted by the government.

Silva is mentioned prominently in a 2010 report by the National Human Rights Council (CNDH), which identified the existence of a systematic pattern of human rights violations in the construction of dams across Brazil.

Days before Silva’s murder, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, received representatives of the MAB movement in Geneva, Switzerland. The trip was intended as a means of drawing attention to the plight of thousands of families who are victims of human rights violations due to Brazilian dams — including not only river dams, but also mining tailings dams. The collapse of a tailings dam in Brumadinho this year killed hundreds, while another such dam failure caused 19 deaths in Mariana three years ago; both those dams are in Minas Gerais state and affiliated with Brazilian mining company Vale.

In a statement, the South American Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said that it “condemns the murders of the human rights defender and regional coordinator of the Movement of the People Affected by Dams, Dilma Ferreira da Silva, of her husband Claudionor Amaro Costa da Silva and Hilton Lopes.” The statement also called on the “Brazilian authorities to conduct a full, independent and impartial investigation into these killings, which would make the perpetrators responsible.”

The OHCHR stressed that “the Brazilian State has the responsibility to guarantee the full protection of the human rights defenders in the country so that they can fulfill their fundamental role in society, especially in defending the rights of the most vulnerable populations.”

In Brazil’s House of Deputies, the president of the Human Rights and Minorities Commission (CDHM), Helder Salomão, asked Pará Governor Helder Barbalho, and Secretary of Public Security and Social Defense Ualame Machado, to take swift action to investigate the murder.

The three killings came as part of a wave of Amazon violence against landless movement, environmental and indigenous activists that escalated during the campaign of rightist presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, and which has continued since he took office in January. The Bolsonaro administration did not make a public statement condemning the most recent killings. The Pará state governor made a short statement on Twitter.

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The  Tucuruí mega-dam on the Tocantins River displaced 32,000 Brazilians. Just days before Silva’s murder, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, received MAB representatives in Geneva, Switzerland. The trip was planned as a way to draw attention to the plight of thousands of families, victims of human rights violations due to Brazilian dams. Image courtesy of International Rivers.