On this International Women's Day, draw inspiration from Claudelice, a forest protector who has risked her life in the struggle for more justice and respect for the planet

Foto: Fábio Nascimento/Greenpeace

 

In Brazil, whoever defends the forest puts their own life at risk. Claudelice Silva dos Santos, 36, from the state of Pará, discovered this in the worst possible way. In May 2011, her brother José Cláudio Ribeiro and his wife Maria do Espírito Santo were cowardly murdered in an ambush by gunmen. Their murder was an attempt to silence them for reporting attacks against the forest, but little did the murderers know that many other voices would echo the messages of the protectors. Claudelice is one of the people who doesn't allow silence to prevail. "Too outspoken" – as she defines herself – she has raised her voice since the tragic events, even if it means being the next victim.

Deforestation is the leading Brazilian cause of climate change. Renowned scientists already state that the Amazon is very close to the breaking point where it will no longer be able to regenerate itself naturally. Protecting the forest means protecting us from the worst consequences of water shortages, droughts, fires, and floods.

"As a child, I grew up in an agro-extractive settlement project called Praia Alta-Piranheira. These are the names of the two rivers that meet at the Tocantins River. It is an area of ​​22,000 hectares in Nova Ipixuna, in the southeastern region of Pará, which has always been known for its chestnut trees. They take over the landscape, forming the main blocks of vegetation. It was heaven on Earth. I studied at a school for family farming workers and, there, I learned about the importance of environmental preservation and having high regard for the resources of the standing forest. Chestnut trees are huge and have high economic value – both for their wood and the production of their fruit. But for loggers, the tree is only worth something if it is logged – and a chestnut tree makes their eyes sparkle. Since the year 2000, their presence in the region has increased greatly; we are under pressure to sell our trees, to the point where we receive threats, and they invade the area for illegal logging. We have dealt with these abuses by reporting them, but the local media and public authorities have already chosen a side and have always ignored the situation. Until, in May 2011, my brother José Claudio and my sister-in-law Maria were murdered as a way to silence us. Since then, we have struggled to keep the forest standing and the people alive."

After the crime, the family was forced to move. Claudelice lives and studies in Marabá. She left the Environmental Engineering course to study "Land Law" – a course aimed at people from traditional communities, focusing on the defense of the environment and minorities. "As an advocate, I want to be even more useful to forest protectors by helping them to write and formalize complaints. This is an agrarian conflict struggle. We are dealing with land grabbers", she says. Her main initiative has been the yearly "pilgrimage of the martyrs of the forest" - or "march", for those who are not Catholic.

The activists that were murdered still inspire others to defend the forest – Fábio Nascimento/Greenpeace

 

"It started with only my family, but nowadays, we gather hundreds of people who come from far, many of them are students who get organized and travel by bus to join us here. It is an act of protest, denunciation, and critical thinking to resist this state of destruction and defend those who are also on a kill list. This awareness is increasing. They tried to criminalize our struggle, but they failed. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of impunity. Seven years have passed since the murders, and the killers are still on the loose, so people are afraid", says Claudelice.

Despite the resistance, the extractive reserve is no longer the same. "The landscape has been completely altered, to the point that, today, the greatest economic potential in the region is no longer timber, but livestock. After the chainsaw comes the cattle", she says.

"Businesses and "entrepreneurs" get rich from these interventions, but the local community is the one who pays the most for them, suffering from the impoverishment of the region and high levels of violence and crime. However, they affect a lot more lives; they kill people who are far away because the impacts are not only local, and the climate is proof of it. The change in the rainfall regime is already visible to us – the forest people. Here, in the Amazon, we live on peaks – either extreme and long droughts, which have already caused the soil to crack just like in the Northeast in Brazil, or torrential rains that flood everything."

The agro-extractive settlement Praia Alta-Piranheira – Fabio Nascimento/Greenpeace

 

Because of all these impacts, people are being forced to change their lifestyles, and in that sense, women are a lot more affected by it. "All that the people who live here want is to live well with what the forest provides them, and women have a more sensitive and intimate relationship with the forest than men. While men, due to the burden of sustaining the family, look to the immediate economic potential of the sale of timber, for women, the forest provides medicines, food, cosmetics, and fibers for their crafts. Whoever knocks down the tree only wins once. However, those who sell a liter of andiroba oil or chestnuts will always sell and, therefore, establish another kind of relationship with the environment. I believe that the little we still have of the forest in our reserve is thanks to the defense carried out by women. I saw this in practice with the group of women extractivists we formed in 2006. They produce oils, creams, teas, herbs, art crafts, all with only what the forest provides them on a regular basis. Some confronted their partners so as not to fall into the conversation of the loggers."

In this struggle, when she thinks of the speed of things, Claudelice still feels a deep sadness and unease about the future of the forest, her daughters, and the local communities.

"If the forest ceases to exist, we will disappear as well, but slowly and painfully. When people realize that they are dying because they have destroyed the forest, it may be too late. It is sad that, after so many who have fallen, we have not yet managed to sensitize people to get out of their state of conformity and demand action from the state. Today, those who are in charge are the companies that rub on our faces the concessions given by the government, accusing us of trying to stall progress. Our cries for 'save the planet' and 'save the forest' are not being heard. But even being on the weak side, we still have a lot of strength to keep shouting, fighting, and protecting the forest and people."