- Erasmo Theofilo, an agroecologist, founded a farmers’ cooperative in one of the most hostile corners of the Amazon to defend landless and poor rural workers and promote sustainable farming practices.
- He has been the target of death threats, ambushes and attempts on his life for his work in the municipality of Anapu, in Pará state, where U.S.-born nun Dorothy Stang was killed for her activism in 2005.
- Since President Jair Bolsonaro took office at the start of 2019, land conflicts and deforestation in the Amazon have surged, with a recent report showing that Pará is the most dangerous for land rights defenders.
- Theofilo told Mongabay he believes he will never be safe in Anapu again, even if the land conflicts are resolved, and is planning to leave for good with his family.
On May 16, Natalha Theofilo rushed her 1-year-old son to the public hospital on the Trans-Amazonian Highway in the Brazilian state of Pará. Erasmo Alves Theofilo, her husband, waited outside in his wheelchair, accompanied by his father and two neighbors. It was the first time in months that the family had left their home since the death threats began to escalate. But Eduardo, their infant son, had a burning fever and needed urgent medical attention.
As the doctor shared his diagnosis of pneumonia, informing Natalha that the hospital would need to keep their son in the intensive care unit overnight, Erasmo called. A friend had just warned them that dangerous people had noticed their presence in town, and they needed to leave immediately.
Erasmo Theofilo is no fugitive or criminal. The 34-year-old is a soft-spoken agroecologist on a mission to change the world. Early-life polio paralyzed his legs and later drew him to a life of activism. When asked about his dream, he rejects the question: If he thinks something should be done, he replies, he just does it. At age 16, he became the youngest president of the Disabled People of Altamira Association before turning his efforts to the crisis unfolding in the Amazon Rainforest around him.
For the past 12 years, Theofilo has been fighting in one of Brazil’s bloodiest fronts: Anapu. This small municipality of 29,312 people has the highest number of murders in Pará, according to a 2022 study by the Pará State Public Defender’s Office. Today, Theofilo leads the farmers’ cooperative of Volta Grande do Xingu, made up of more than 300 families, defending their land rights and developing forest-friendly farms.
Less than an hour from where Theofilo lives, 73-year-old U.S.-born nun Dorothy Stang was ambushed by two men in February 2005 in retaliation for her own social and environmental activism. She was shot six times as she prayed. Pereira Galvão, the farmer who hired her killers, was tried and sentenced five years later. But the persecution of land defenders in Anapu continues.
Amaro Lopes de Souza, the priest widely recognized as Stang’s successor, was charged with property trespassing, extortion, money laundering and other crimes in 2018, all in connection to creating settlements for landless workers in the region. According to his supporters, the case has no merit and was set up to damage his reputation and criminalize his work — Souza was never sentenced on those charges.
Stang’s death is the most prominent in a region that has claimed the lives of at least 19 landless workers, environmentalists and land rights activists since 2015. Most murders go unreported, and, according to the Catholic Church-affiliated Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), only 5% are investigated.
Brazil’s Human Rights Defender Protection Program placed Erasmo Theofilo under its protection after Márcio Rodrigues, a close friend and witness in Lopes de Souza’s trial, was stabbed in the neck and killed in 2019. According to an official at the Pará state’s protection program who asked to remain anonymous, Theofilo is the person with whom the organization has the most frequent contact. “We talk almost every single day,” the source told Mongabay.
Theofilo and his wife, fearing for the family’s lives, went back home after the May 16 hospital visit. The next day, with limited police support, Natalha took Eduardo to a hospital in another city. “Making this kind of decision in an emergency, knowing what the consequences could be either way, is the hardest part,” Natalha said by phone. “I had to sign a document stating that if anything were to happen to my son, it would be my responsibility.”
‘Our death is part of the plan’
Erasmo Theofilo said he has lost count of the death threats over the years. “There were weeks when I would receive up to three verbal threats,” he said. “After Bolsonaro’s election, the threats were no longer verbal but physical.” Since 2019, when Jair Bolsonaro took office as president, Erasmo said he has suffered an attempted ambush in his car, a home invasion, and an attempted murder.
“Bolsonaro was elected on promises that he would not recognize a single inch of Quilombola or Indigenous land, and he is doing what he promised,” said Natalha, who was born into a traditional Afro-Brazilian community known as a quilombo and joined the farmers’ cooperative in Anapu in 2019, where she met Theofilo. For her, the fight for the Amazon Rainforest is just as much about its people as the forest. “It is their plan. And our death is part of that plan. Before the trees fall, a lot of blood has already stained the land.”
Amazon deforestation and violence have exploded since Bolsonaro came to power on an unabashedly anti-environment and anti-Indigenous agenda. In Anapu, 3% of the total forest cover was cleared in 2020, more than in the three previous years combined, according to data from MapBiomas, a multidisciplinary network visualizing land use in Brazil through satellite imagery. In 2021, the Brazilian Amazon accounted for almost half of the 1,768 rural conflicts in the country, and 80% of the resulting deaths, according to records by the CPT.
In recent months, Theofilo said, the death threats and murder attempts have escalated. “It has reached an intolerable level.”
On April 17, a friend warned him about a new death threat and forwarded an audio message. “Invaders need to be beaten up, or better yet, shot,” a man can be heard saying in the clip after citing Theofilo by name. For Anapu’s large landowners, rural activists are seen as “invaders” because they work to reclaim areas they see as stolen.
During Brazil’s U.S-backed military dictatorship of the 1960s to the 1980s, the government distributed municipal land to potential investors under a series of conditions, most of which were not met, said João Batista Uchôa, general coordinator of the local Fundação Viver Produzir e Preservar (“Live, Produce, Preserve Foundation”) and the Workers’ Party candidate for vice mayor in Anapu’s last election.
Illegal land grabbers often replicate the paperwork from that period or bribes local officials for paperwork, while smallholders occupy the largely abandoned land and file competing claims under land redistribution laws, Uchôa said. “Land conflict is a permanent feature here.”
In a police report that Erasmo filed about the taped death threat, obtained by Mongabay, he identified the voice as that of Jurandir Plínio, the regional director of Bolsonaro’s program to legalize land plots, Titula Brasil, appointed by the mayor of Anapu. Critics of the program say it has made land grabbing in the Amazon easier by transferring the authority to grant titles to municipal councils. On May 27, Plínio was formally suspended from his position for 60 days. Local police told Mongabay that the case is still being investigated.
“Jurandir is a main articulator for land grabbing here. He is part of an incredibly dangerous group that wants a police chief on their side,” Uchôa said. “They think that by eliminating these political leaders, they will silence the voice of the people.”
Mongabay reached out to Plínio for comment, but was unable to reach him. A former colleague, Walter Alves, told Mongabay in a message that Plínio had recently changed his phone number. According to an official at the Federal Prosecutor’s Office who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, prosecutors recently subpoenaed Plínio in an investigation into land grabbing and corruption — a case they say is still in its initial phase — but he failed to appear for questioning.
For Theofilo and his family, the protection he currently receives from the government amounts to two police drive-bys a week, he told Mongabay. Often it’s less than that, he added.
“The lack of protection is really tough. I’m physically handicapped but can move around really well,” he said. “To put it into context, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office requested a gun license for me. If no one was able to protect me, they said, I should be able to protect myself. I passed the training and all the tests, but the license was denied because ‘human rights defender’ was not accepted as a profession.”
Mongabay reached out to the state-level Human Rights and Justice department responsible for the protection program for comment, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
Lot 96: The latest battlefront in Anapu
Theofilo fights to get federal areas officially recognized as part of the Brazilian land reform mechanism. Over the years, he has successfully thwarted at least seven repossession and eviction attempts by large landowners and land grabbers, making powerful enemies along the way, he told Mongabay.
He first visited a plot of land called Lot 96 seven years ago, accompanying a group of landless workers with a small donkey. Thirty families lived there in makeshift houses with no roads or access to electricity. To reach the lot, the residents had to walk 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the nearest road, Theofilo told Mongabay.
The federal agency for land reform, Incra, is now in its final administrative stages of conferring land rights to the workers, following a May 16 decision by a federal court. The land, however, is also claimed by the heirs of Antonio Borges Peixoto, a landowner and industrialist from São Paulo who died in April 2022. The 2,248-hectare (5,555-acres) farm has been the target of escalating violence this year.
On May 11, 10 masked men armed with pistols and shotguns drove up to the settlement in three cars claiming to be police with an eviction notice. The men burned two family homes to the ground and threatened several other families, according to information contained in a June 9 ruling ordering increased police protection for the residents of Lot 96.
“I asked if he had an eviction notice or a warrant. He showed me his gun and said, ‘Here’s the document,’” a woman named Selma said in a video statement the following day. “My daughter was next to me crying, and my house was on fire. We were unable to remove our belongings.”
On June 6, two families at Lot 96 reported hearing gunfire close to their homes at 3:30 in the morning. Both families fled their homes and hid in the forest until dawn.
The Peixoto family lawyer, Rutileia Emiliano de Freitas Tozetti, said her clients are not involved in the recent unrest. “We were as surprised as anyone else to hear the news. Peixoto was concerned with the well-being of the families and children and never took matters into his own hands, which many others do. He trusted the justice system,” Tozetti told Mongabay by phone. “His heirs, a 78-year-old widow and a 56-year-old son with health issues, would not disrespect his wish of wanting to resolve this legally and not through violence.” The Agrarian Police Unit of Pará state told Mongabay that it is investigating the case and that the details remain confidential.
Today, there are now 57 families living on Lot 96 who grow cacao, bananas and other native fruits using agroecology techniques taught to them by Theofilo. In mid-July, local authorities are due to present an evaluation on Lot 96. If it goes in their favor, the families will be granted the right to live and work on the land. Theofilo said he feels positive about their future, but less about his own.
He, Natalha and their five children are now planning to leave Anapu for good — leaving their home, life and farm behind. Theofilo said he believes he will always be a target.
“You win the case, the media coverage goes away, state protection is dropped. Then one day, I’ll be out buying bread and get killed. It has happened before, and the situation wasn’t as serious as it is today,” he said solemnly. “No matter where I go, I will never have what I have here. My life is here. Every tree I planted is like a child to me.” Erasmo Alves Theofilo’s mellow voice breaks a bit. “But I have to preserve my life.”
Erasmo and Natalha started a crowdfunding campaign to cover the costs of relocating to a safer town. Donations can be made here.
Banner image: Erasmo and Natalha Theofilo plan to leave Anapu, Pará, following escalating conflict and threats in the region. Image by Midia Ninja (CC BY-NC 2.0).
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