‘Environmental defenders are being killed’: living on the frontline of global heating


‘Environmental defenders are being killed’: living on the frontline of global heating

From extreme weather obliterating homes to rising sea levels ruining crops, climate breakdown is a terrifying daily reality for many

Claudelice dos Santos by 'The Majestade' - a centuries-old tree covered in spiders' webs and greenery.

Tom Phillips
in Rio de Janeiro

Last modified on Mon 8 Nov 2021 02.02 EST

Throughout the 2021 United Nations climate change conference, the Guardian will be publishing the stories of the people whose lives have been upended – sometimes devastated – by the climate breakdown.

Claudelice dos Santos, Maraba, Brazil

Editor’s note: Claudelice’s brother, Jose “Ze” Claudio Ribeiro da Silva, and sister-in-law, Maria do Espirito Santo, were conservationists who campaigned against logging in the Amazon rainforest and were assassinated in 2011.

When Ze Claudio and Maria were murdered it was as if the world had vanished from beneath our feet. We knew my brother and sister-in-law were being threatened for defending the environment – but we never imagined they’d actually be killed. The state knew about all the violence their community was suffering from land-grabbers and loggers, and nothing was done.

Ten years later it still hurts so much. Each morning I remember. Every day my mother cries. But we knew we wouldn’t find peace until there was real justice. So eventually we decided that rather than just mourning, we had to fight.

We were part of the struggle for social and environmental justice long before Ze Claudio and Maria were killed. But when you’re driven by pain and fear, and above all injustice, it makes you bolder. So I embraced my fear, my despair and my pain. Some days I couldn’t even get out of bed for fear of being shot because of the death threats I was getting. Or because I was consumed by the pain of losing Ze and Maria. I overcame all this because we believe change is possible.

'Some days I couldn't even get out of bed for fear of being shot': Claudelice dos Santos.

What’s crucial is our capacity for resilience. And our ability to stand up and say: “I’ll fight. I’ll denounce things. I’ll ask the international community to pay attention. I will not remain silent.”

Ze and Maria fought until the very end because they wanted a better world for others. They wanted to live in peace in the place that was theirs – just as so many others continue to fight for their lands, forests and waters around the world. Yet today, the situation remains the same, and in some ways is even worse – because there’s even less forest and more environmental defenders are being killed. Everything Ze and Maria fought against while they were alive continues: the killings, the destruction of the forest.

This is a struggle that will never end because just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, along comes [Brazil’s president, Jair] Bolsonaro. Never in my worst nightmares could I have imagined we’d face such regression.

We’ve reached the limit of everything. Nature’s limit. The limit of our own strength. But we are still alive and we will continue to resist.


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