Remembering Maria and Zé Cláudio : Earth Defenders from Amazonia, 10 Years On

2 June 2021

(Photo credit: Felipe Milanez, 2010)

On May 24, 2011, Maria do Espirito Santo and Zé Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva, nut collectors and members of the agroforestry project (Projeto Agro-Extractivista, PAE) of Praialta Piranheira in the Brazilian Amazon, were brutally murdered as a consequence of their engagement in protecting the forest from illegal logging and timber trafficking. Making their lives out of a non-exploitative and regenerative relationship with the forest, and passionate about the defence of the rights of both Amazonia and its people, Maria’s and Zé Cláudio’s deaths belong to the number of earth defenders whose lives are being taken, year after year, for opposing the infinite expansion of global economic growth and social metabolism (Global Witness 2019). In 2012, the pair were posthumously recognised as Forest Heroes by the United Nations Forum on Forests Secretariat for their work fighting illegal forestry.

This May we honoured their memory and talked about their legacy for environmental justice struggles in Brazil and beyond. Zennström Professor in Climate Change Leadership, Stefania Barca, and Bartira Fortes, representative of Latinamerikagrupperna, held a moderated discussion with: 

  • Claudelice de Silva Santos, Zé Cláudio’s sister and frontline defender, who continues to oppose the human rights and land violations happening in the wake of land grabbing and logging. Claudelice fights for, in her words, the ‘the right to land and to life’, and was nominated for the 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, organised by the European Parliament. She is completing a law degree at the Federal University of South and Southeast Pará.
  • Felipe Milanez, one of Brazil’s leading journalists documenting the Amazon, regular contributor to CartaCapital and VICE magazine, and former editor of National Geographic Brazil. He lived and worked closely with Maria and Zé Claudio before their murders, his documentary 2011 film Toxic Amazon tells their story. Felipe is now a professor at the Institute of Humanities, Arts and Sciences and the multidisciplinary Culture and Society graduate program at the Federal University of Bahia. 

You can find recordings from the event in English and Portuguese here.

The tragedy of Zé Cláudio and Maria’s murder is not in isolation. In 2019 alone, it is estimated that over 200 environmental defenders were killed as a consequence of their commitment to protect the environment and indigenous lands. Indigenous leaders and Indigenous women leaders in particular have been at the forefront of this struggle. How can we make sense of the violence against earth defenders in a time when their work is all the more important in the context of climate change? What can we learn from their stories about the transition to a post-carbon future?  

We strongly encourage watching the freely available 60min documentary film from Vice Magazine, Toxic Amazonto give context for the discussion. You can also watch Claudelice’s speech at the European Parliament here (begins at approximately 15:25, select your choice of language.) We also recommend reading more about Maria and Zé Cláudio’s story and other environmental defenders to learn more about the context. This recent book, Environmental Defenders : Deadly Struggles for Life and Territory, includes contributions by Claudelice and Felipe. 

This event was a collaboration between Climate Change Leadership at Uppsala University and Latinamerikagrupperna.

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