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The Deadly Fight To Protect Brazil's Amazon


For Brazilians working to preserve the Amazon rainforest, how far they'd go to combat climate change is a serious question. Deforestation is up sharply, in part because of the surge in fires this year. Many of those fires are set by criminal groups stealing land. As NPR's Philip Reeves reports from Brazil, protecting the forest often falls to courageous individuals willing to risk their lives.


PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: People of the rainforest are holding a meeting. Men, women and children in shorts and flip-flops are sitting inside a wooden pavilion in a clearing among the trees. They're here to talk about routine forest stuff.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: A woman grumbles about the timetable of the ferry on the nearby river.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: They discuss who's going to use the communal tractor.


REEVES: The relaxed mood is deceptive. Julio Barbosa is president of the residents association that called this meeting.

JULIO BARBOSA: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: Barbosa says, "people here are actually deeply worried." We're in the Amazon's western part in the Brazilian state of Acre. People around here are mostly subsistence farmers and rubber tappers who rely on the forest for their livelihoods. Word's just reached them that their neighbors a few miles away are illegally setting fires to clear land for cattle.

BARBOSA: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: Barbosa says that's a disturbing setback, especially for activists who've risked their lives defending the forest. Barbosa is 65. He's been an environmental activist here all his adult life. Years ago, one of his fellow activists was shot dead by illegal ranchers. Now, as deforestation surges, Barbosa believes people protecting the forest face a growing threat.

He's not alone.

DANIEL WILKINSON: I think it's become significantly more dangerous.

REEVES: Daniel Wilkinson directs the environmental rights program at Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch has been investigating the deadly tactics that criminal organizations in the Amazon use against those who stand in their way. Brazil's far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, wants to exploit the forest's economic potential and is often accused of cheering on these criminal groups. Wilkinson says the problem started long before Bolsonaro took office, but adds...

WILKINSON: What's new is that Brazil has a president who is openly hostile to the Brazilians who are trying to protect the forest, including the government's own environmental agencies.

REEVES: Killings and conflicts over Amazon land and resources are common in Brazil. Brazil's Pastoral Land Commission, which tracks these, says there have been more than 300 in the last decade. Only 14 cases went to trial, says Wilkinson.

WILKINSON: When people get killed in this part of the Amazon, the killers are almost never brought to justice. The police blame the fact that communities where killings happen often are remote. But, in fact, even when killings happen in town, there rarely is any serious investigation.

REEVES: These criminal groups often have connections in high places and plenty of weapons. Activists, and also environmental enforcement officials who dare to challenge them, can expect their lives to be turned upside down.

AGEU LOBO: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: Just ask Ageu Lobo. Lobo's 37 and an indigenous Brazilian. He lives deep in the rainforest in a fishing community in the state of Para. Last year, Lobo launched a campaign to stop illegal loggers and miners invading his community's land. He put handmade signs on trees pointing out their land's protected by law and telling land grabbers to keep out. It wasn't long before he started getting death threats.

LOBO: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: Lobo says some loggers and miners decided to kill him and set up an ambush. He escaped because he received a last-minute tipoff. Lobo's now enrolled in a Brazilian government protection program for rights activists under threat, although he says it only provides limited security, mostly check-in calls and police escorts when he travels.

In the same program is this man.

DANIEL PEREIRA: (Through interpreter) I wouldn't wish this life on anyone. There's a lot of suffering.

REEVES: That's Daniel Pereira, an environmental activist also from Para. He and his wife took on illegal loggers and awoke one day to find two freshly dug graves outside their home. They've spent the last six months at a secret address in Brazil's capital Brasilia and have no idea when they'll return to the forest. Even in the big city, they don't feel safe.

PEREIRA: (Through interpreter) The people who are against us belong to organized groups. They are rich criminals who have the money to go wherever they like.

REEVES: The emotional toll of living at constant risk is huge, says Ageu Lobo.

LOBO: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: He says he avoids public places and has stopped hanging out with friends. "You're aware that you could be killed at any moment," he says. "You don't know who to trust."

Lobo's considered giving up his campaign to protect the forest on which his community depends.

LOBO: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: He's decided to carry on because he says in his heart, he knows...

LOBO: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: ...He's doing the right thing.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, the Amazon rainforest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.