For Amazonia, in the defence of the sacredness of life and of its people, there have been many who gave their lives in the struggle for justice. These include religious, lay people, priests and even bishops. Their blood has become for many the seed of hope and courage.
On 15 July 1976, the German Salesian Rodolfo Lunkenbein, one who stood in the front line in the defence of the Bororo communities, was killed at Meruri, in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, together with the layman Simáo Cristino Koge Ku-dugodu, by ranchers wishing to drive the Indios off their lands.
On 12 October Joáo Bosco Penido Burnier, a Brazilian Jesuit was assassinated by a bullet to the head fired by a policeman at the police station of Ribeiráo Cascalneira, in Mato Grosso, where he had gone with Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga to ask for the release of two women who had been tortured by the police. Fr. Burnier was connected to the Indigenous Missionary Council (Cimi). He had done pastoral work among the small farmers and indigenous people, denouncing the violence committed by the land-owners and the police.
It was on 11 April 1980, when Chief Marçal de Souza, in a heartfelt appeal to Pope John Paul II in Manaus said: “Holy Father, our lands have been invaded, our lands have been stolen; we are a nation subjected to the powerful, a despoiled nation that is gradually dying. We bring before you our misery and our sadness at seeing our leaders coldly assassinated by those who despoil the land, land that for us is life. We are living on promises but we have no hope”. A few months later he too would be killed.
The year 1985 would be a sad year for the Church in Brazil. Four religious would be killed. Sister Adelaide Molinari, a religious of the daughters of Divine Love, was assassinated by landowners on 14 April at Eldorado dos Carajas, in the Brazilian state of Pará, while she was speaking with a trade-unionist at the bus terminal. She was only 47.
A few days later, on 28 April, Sister Cleusa Rody Coelho, an Augustinian religious was assassinated on the bank of the river Passia, at Lábrea, in the state of Amazonia, by an assassin paid by the nut merchants of the zone. For 32 years she had worked devotedly side by side with the small farmers deprived of land.
At midday on Saturday10 May, Father Josimo Moraes Tavares parked his Jeep in the busy main street in the centre of Imperatriz, in the south of Maranháo, in the state of North East Brazil. Having parked the car, he set off on foot for the regional office of the Pastoral Commission for the Land (CPT), and organ of the Catholic Church of which he was in charge at regional level. As he went up the low staircase, a man waiting by the door shot him in the back at point blank range. Fr. Josimo, a Brazilian aged 33, had been living for years under the threat of death for his activities in defence of the small farmers. Just a month earlier, in fact, he had escaped an attempt on his life: on his way back from a meeting with the farmers, his car was struck by a volley of machine-gun fire.
Two months later, on 24 July, Father Ezekiel Ramin, an Italian Comboni missionary, accompanied by the President of the Union of Rural Workers of Cacoal, Adilio di Souza, set out early in the morning with the intention of persuading a group of farmers not to take up arms against the landowners.
They reached the farm without incident and gathered the farmers with whom they shared the concerns of the missionaries. The meeting was brief and before midday they were already on their way back when seven jagunços (people armed and in the pay of) stopped the car and opened fire on Fr. Ezekiel who fell to the ground, riddled with bullets. His body could not be retrieved until the following day. His shirt and trousers were soaked in blood and his face was disfigured by a shotgun blast at close range, his arms crossed as if defending himself.
On 6 April 1987, the Spanish Jesuit Vicente Cañas, who for ten years had lived among various autochthonous peoples (Tapayuna, Myky and Enawené Nawé) of the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, sharing their customs, was killed by the landowners who wanted to take over the indigenous lands. Among the signs of the violent murder were the overturned hut, spectacles and teeth broken, a wound to the skull and a perforated abdomen. His body, left for the animals to eat, was discovered forty days later. It was then embalmed and preserved. On the morning of 22 May, it was buried according to the indigenous customs by many representatives of the indigenous peoples, Enawene Nawe, Rikbaktsa and Myky.
On 21 July 1987, Mons. Alejandro Labaka, a Spanish Capuchin and Bishop of Aguarico, in Ecuador, and Sister Inés Arango, a Colombian Capuchin Sister, were killed by a group of Tagairi Indios whom they wanted to protect from the imminent arrival of the men of the Petrobras oil company.
Francisco Mendes, known as Chico, leader of the rubber collectors (seringheiros), remarked to a friend “I do not know how long I can escape being killed by the gunmen paid to kill me”. He did not succeed. He was barbarously killed in the courtyard of his house on the evening of 22 December 1988 by a shot from a rifle, at Xapurì, in the Brazilian state of Acre. Chico would become the first martyr of the ecology movement in the world.
On the morning of 12 February 2005, the assassins paid to kill her had surprised her alone in the middle of the Amazon forest. Sister Dorothy Stang, 73, an American but a naturalised Brazilian, had with her a Bible and some documents with instructions for the Sustainable Development Project (Pds), a development project for sustainable development which she was conducting with passion, together with her companions in her congregation. As she usually did, Sister Dorothy was going to visit some families in the forest who were supporters of the project.
She had already received death threats and when the young armed men stopped her she immediately realised she was in danger. A few words. Six shots at close range and she fell to the ground there in the middle of the forest. A tropical storm that broke immediately afterwards washed her blood into the land that she loved so much and daily defended.
Father Ruggero Ruvoletto, an Italian Fidei Donum missionary aged 52, was killed on 19 September 2009 at his parish in the outskirts of Manaus (Brazil). He was killed with a bullet to the head. He was interfering with the projects of death run by drug dealers and local criminal gangs.
The mafia of the woodcutters and drug cartels had for some time transformed some areas of the Peruvian Amazon forest into a route for drug trading, arms and timber. This provoked indignation among the Indios, one of whom was Edwin Chota who, for many years had been a hero among the environmentalists in all of Latin America. Chota became the leader in a long and fierce legal (he was an esteemed lawyer) case against the deforestation of the Amazon Forest and drug trafficking along its rivers. He was of the Ashaninka Indios, and came from a small indigenous community living in Alto Tamaya, an area on the border between Brazil and Peru. He intensified his condemnation especially between 2012 and 2013, when the increase in illegal deforestation had reached new heights. However, his struggle had a sad outcome. On 1 September 2014, Edwin Chota was brutally assassinated together with three of his supporters due to his disturbing activities. His death brought deep pain to all the Peruvian activists who mobilised themselves to loudly demand justice, the rule of law and the fight against corruption.
In Amazonia, large financial interests and criminals will stop at nothing to carry off illegally such resources as timber and gold from protected lands. Mauro Pío Peña, an Asháninka leader of a community in Peruvian Amazonia, paid with his life due to this ruthlessness.
On 27 May 2013, Peña was killed by armed men on a motor cycle who shot him outside his own home. He was 57 years of age.
On 1 December 2013 Ambrósio Vilhalva, a Guaranì leader who fought to guarantee his people the right to live on their own lands, was killed. The man was found dead in his hut at Guyra Roká, in the state of Mato Grosso in Brazil, with multiple stab wounds. Vilhalva had taken a strong stand against the plantations of sugar cane occupying the lands of his community and against Raízen, a joint venture by Shell and Cosan which were using sugar cane to produce biofuels. The campaign by his community forced Raízen to cease obtaining supplies of sugar cane produced on Guaranì lands.
In July of this year, Emrya Wajãpi, 68 years old and leader of the indigenous Wajãpi people was killed in Amapá, a region in the far north of Brazil, bordering French Guyana. Witnesses saw a number of gold miners enter the protected reserve of the Wajãpi community and stab their leader to death.
The Wajãpi territory is near the frontier with Pará and contains 1,300 indigenous people of this ethnicity. Demarcated in 1996 by the government of Fernando Enrique Cardoso, it covers an area of 6,000 square kilometres rich in gold, much desired by prospectors and mining companies. Only the indigenous people are allowed to mine the gold by hand. Half of the territory is inside the National Reserve of Copper and Associates (Renca), which the government of Michel Temer tried to eliminate in September 2017 by presidential decree. The reserve covers 4.6 million hectares of Amazon forest between the states of Pará and Amapá and represents an obstacle for the mining corporations of the region.
On April 3, at Iquitos, in the north-west region of Peru, at the Intercultural Studies Community, some young hostel residents found the lifeless, charred body of Paul McCauley, 71, a British missionary and member of the congregation of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, the De La Salle Brothers.
Brother McCauley had dedicated his life to the education of the young indigenous people. He lived together with them in the hostel where he was killed as well as directing the Loreto Public Pedagogical Institute run by the Brothers of the Christian Schools. In his struggle to defend the indigenous populations and cultures, Brother McCauley had become a reference point in the defence of the environment in that district of the Peruvian Amazon. He also started Red Ambiental Loretana, an organisation devoted to preventing deforestation and oil and gas drilling to exploit the deposits of oil and gas that lie beneath the forest.
It was because of this Catholic missionary’s commitment to the people and the environment that the government of Peru issued a decree of expulsion against him in 2010, while pursuing a defamatory campaign in the local media. In the end, a local court annulled the decree and the religious could continue to stay in the country.
The Brothers of the Christian Schools in Peru wrote: ‘Brother Paul gave his life for the poor of Amazonia. His commitment to guard our ‘Common Home’ was his evangelical mandate’.
On September 6, Indigenist Maxciel Pereira dos Santos was killed before members of his family. Santos was shot twice in the head as he rode a motorbike down a main street of Tabatinga, located deep in the Amazon rainforest on Brazil’s border with Colombia and Peru. Santos served more than 12 years at Funai, including five as chief of environment services at the Vale do Javari reservation, to protect uncontacted Amazon tribes.
In 2018, Global Witness documented 164 killings worldwide of people fighting to protect their land and ecosystems from destructive industries.
Nearly a quarter of those murdered were indigenous. And more than a quarter of the killings were associated with opposition to mining and mining industries.