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Attorney keeps alive legacy of murdered Pará activists, despite death threats

  • Ten years after the murder of community leaders Zé Claudio da Silva and Maria do Espírito Santo, attorney Claudelice dos Santos formally created an institute named after her brother and sister-in-law to support families at risk because of their social-environmental activism in Amazonia.
  • Santos earned a law degree in order to fight for the issues that have become life-and-death matters for activists in southeastern Pará. In this historically violent region, Zé Claudio and Maria were fighting against the illegal activities of farm owners, loggers and land-grabbers inside the rainforest.
  • Known for defending standing forests, land reform and extractive community rights, the couple had received innumerous threats before they were murdered for their activism.
  • Eleven years later, the attorney still receives threats for defending this legacy and seeking justice: The two perpetrators of the crime are in prison but the man convicted of hiring them remains free.

After losing her brother José “Zé” Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and her sister-in-law Maria do Espírito Santo on May 24, 2011, Claudelice dos Santos swore she would fight for justice. Ten years later, after earning a law degree and recognition as an environmental activist in Amazonia, she established the Zé Claudio and Maria Institute (IZM). Still under threat together with her family, Santos has managed to carry on the couple’s legacy. They were community leaders shot to death in an ambush on the Praia Alta-Piranheira Agro-extractive Project (PAE) in Nova Ipixuna, southeastern Pará. The region is known as the Polígono dos Castanhais and has become a target region for unsustainable cattle raising.

The couple is believed to have been murdered because of their repeated notification to government agencies like IBAMA (Brazil’s environmental watchdog) and INCRA (the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform) of illegal activities on the parts of farm owners, loggers and charcoal manufacturers involved in deforestation and land-grabbing inside the settlement.

In response to the lack of effective monitoring or combat against environmental crimes from governmental agencies, and inspired by Chico Mendes, Brazil’s iconic rubber tapper and environmentalist in Acre, Zé Claudio and Maria staged highway shutdowns to keep trucks loaded with illegally cut logs from leaving the settlement’s forest reserve, along with other protest strategies that cost them their lives.

Historically the leading Brazilian state for illegal deforestation, in 2021, “Pará remained in first place among those states that cut down the most trees, with 4,037 square kilometers [1,559 square miles] of devastation, or 39% of all the deforestation reported throughout Amazonia,” according to Imazon (the Amazon Institute of People and the Environment). Respected for its research in the region, Imazon states that the state “showed increases of clearcut rainforest inside both federally owned as well as state-owned [protected] areas.” To illustrate the gravity of the situation, “over half of the ten Indigenous Reserves and the ten Conservation Units that were home to the most land deforested in 2021 are located in the state of Pará.”

Claudelice dos Santos (in a blue shirt) and Maria do Espírito Santo (wearing a hat) at a meeting of the GTAE Women’s Group in the early 2000s. Photo courtesy of Claudelice dos Santos.

The lost attempt to avoid the final ambush

Claudelice dos Santos studied at an agricultural school in Marabá, Pará, having been inspired by Paulo Freire’s teachings on education in which he criticized the status of oppressed peoples in society and the transformative capacity for the realities in which they live based not only on the knowledge they receive, but also on the wisdom they possess and share.

Her connection to the land has always been strong, and Santos wanted to develop sustainable agriculture projects, which led her to choose a college degree focusing on agroecology. “In my mind, the idea was to graduate and return to my community. We already had a community forest management plan, inspired by Zé and Maria,” she shares. The projects were funded by institutions like Pará Federal University (UFPA).

Because of all this involvement with her studies and plans for her future, she says she was aware of the struggles the couple was facing, although she was not aware of the real risks that Zé Claudio and Maria were running. “They had their beliefs, but they took on the fight while trying to keep the family out of it,” she says.

As time passed, the threats due to their environmental activism became more serious, including ambush attempts in fruit orchards and near the house where the couple lived, causing worry among family members. “The day before they were murdered, we had gotten together and had decided to suggest that they go away for a little while to see if it would alleviate the tension,” says Santos.

She is moved as she recalls how the family was unable to avoid the tragedy about which they had been threatened many times. “The day after [the family meeting], we received the news that they had been murdered. It was a day that changed everything in our lives. The first thing we had to do was to leave, because we had also received threats.”

The attorney and activist tells how the gunmen who killed the couple also tried to kill other farmers on the settlement to force families off land that some groups wanted to occupy. “They tried to intimidate me too, because I was following the investigations and trying to find out what was going on with the criminal proceedings,” says Santos. Her mother received a note and a phone call carrying threats that the entire family would be executed — a warning that led them to seek new security strategies while not losing sight of the fight for justice over the murders.

Attorney and activist Claudelice dos Santos at the foot of Majestade, which Zé Claudio and Maria claimed to be the mother tree of all the Brazil nut trees in the region. Photo by Thom Flint/CAFOD.

‘Death threats have no expiration date’

Claudelice dos Santos affirms that the family had to choose one of two paths following the trauma: to run or to fight, even if they were afraid. “We decided to fight,” a choice that she says brought and continues to bring many consequences. As insecurities were high and the family was mostly composed of women, children and elderly people, they were advised to leave the settlement after the murders. “But a year later, we began to come back to the settlement because we decided that if we didn’t take that territory back and mark our presence, they would really have gotten what they wanted — to kill Zé Claudio and Maria and bury the story, which is also our story,” she says.

This is how the dead couple’s plot of land came into use by community projects developed by women from the Artisan and Extractive Workers Women’s Group. “We went there in protest to occupy their land [whose forest had been 90% preserved] and developed a number of projects, mostly with the women’s collective that they helped to create in 2006. The group is still active today. We produce andiroba oil and subproducts like soaps. This is the fruit of the fight that started back then, and this is why we stay in a group that also comes under attack,” she reports.

Santos tells how, even under constant pressure when she hears people say things like “that’s worthless, just something in the heads of environmentalists,” she decided to carry on with her mission. She had to double security measures when visiting both the community project and the home of relatives in the settlement, where she can no longer live. “I still go there, but I’m really careful. I can’t stay for more than two or three days. It makes me sad because 11 years later, we still have to take these precautions. But I remember a professor of mine telling me that death threats have no expiration date,” she says.

She recalls a scare in 2020 when her oldest daughter and her niece were chased by a pickup truck on their way back from the PAE, nearly rolling their vehicle trying to escape. In an Amazonia under increasing pressure because of environmental crimes, where women defending human rights and nature are the main targets, as found in a study by the Igarapé Institute, Santos explains that these situations have become commonplace, with attacks disguised as accidents. After that episode, the young woman upped her personal security and also decided to enroll in a law program so she can also take up the family fight for human rights and nature in the region. She began her studies this year.

And even in the city where she lives with her two young daughters, the activist — who refers to herself as a solo mother — says she also doesn’t feel safe. “My home has security cameras, a reinforced gate and an electric fence. But when you’ve been threatened once, you never really relax. We are never really free. I feel like I’m more locked up than the guy who masterminded this crime, who is still running free. I’m behind the bars in my home and with the security measures I need when I go out. I feel like a prisoner, and that’s really hard,” she says.

Activist families gathered at the Conferência dos Defensores, an event sponsored by the Zé Claudio and Maria Institute with its partner organizations. Claudelice dos Santos is standing on the left in a lilac T-shirt. Photo from personal archives.

Understanding how the case unfolded

In a second trial in absentia in 2016, cattle farmer José Rodrigues Moreira, who had been accused of hiring the hitmen, was sentenced to 60 years in prison. He had been acquitted during the first trial in 2013, which led to public outcry and protests to overturn the decision. This happened in 2014 with support from the family and the Pastoral Land Commission, which has been reporting increased violence in the Brazilian countryside over recent years.

“To illustrate how absurd the level of impunity is in our country, especially the state of Pará, the judge mentioned during sentencing [in the first trial] that Zé and Maria, to a certain degree, contributed to their own murders. It’s as if they died because they deserved it,” the activist says.

Activists Zé Claudio and Maria, Claudelice dos Santos’ brother and sister-in-law, community leaders murdered in 2011 in the region known as Polígono dos Castanhais, southeastern Pará. Photo from personal archives.

Identified as principals in the first degree, Lindonjonson Silva Rocha (brother of the man accused of hiring the hitmen) and Alberto Lopes do Nascimento were sentenced in 2013 to 42 and 45 years in prison, respectively. Rocha escaped from the Mariano Antunes Penitentiary in Marabá in 2015 and was only recaptured in 2020. It was when Claudelice dos Santos learned of this episode that she decided to go to law school in 2016, graduating in 2021.

Even though she is not satisfied with the outcome of the case, she recognizes that her family has had many victories, the first of which being the repeal of the first conviction, as well as the upheld convictions of the two gunmen and a revision of the process leading to a new trial only for the principal. “We still talk about this because we want everyone to know that justice has still not been served, since the person who hired the hitmen still hasn’t gone to jail. Because he was acquitted, he walked out the front door of the courthouse and is free until today.”

She also tells of what she considers “a sordid detail” that will stay with the family members forever: “While they were reading José Rodrigues’ acquittal, Maria’s sister [Laísa Santos Sampaio], my partner in grief who together with me told the story of what had happened many times, had a stroke.” Later, Sampaio had other health problems that required her to stop participating in the struggle for justice.

With regard to governmental protection for herself and family members under threat, Santos says she has none and that they prefer to seek other alternatives from collective networks that support each other. “Today we have an institute [the Casa de Respiro at IZM] that takes in activists who receive threats and that focuses on the debate regarding protection and self-care. We should require the state to protect those who receive death threats. But we also have to protect ourselves and create our own mechanisms for individual and collective defense,” she concludes.

Brazil: the leading nation for murdered environmentalists

Brazil tops the lists of global assassinations of environmentalists according to a recent report by British NGO Global Witness revealing data from a decade of their monitoring. Of a total 1,733 cases reported between 2012 and 2021, Brazil hosted 342 (followed by 322 in Colombia and 270 in the Philippines). Over 85% of the deaths occurred in Amazonia and about one-third of the people killed defending their territories and nature were either Indigenous people or Afro-Brazilians.

Data from the same source say there were 200 assassinations of environmental activists worldwide in 2021, Brazil ranking third with 26 murders, preceded by Mexico with 54 and Colombia, with 33. Of the total number of deaths, three-fourths happened in Latin America.

Banner image: attorney and activist Claudelice dos Santos. Photo by Thom Flint/CAFOD.


Guia de Proteção a Defensoras de Direitos Humanos e Meio Ambiente na Amazônia. (2022). Retrieved from Instituto Igarapé website:

Década de Resistência: Dez anos informando sobre o ativismo pela terra e pelo o meio ambiente ao redor do mundo. (2022). Global Witness.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Oct. 5, 2022.

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