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Environment

Brazil's Atlantic Forest hides a deadly secret

Brazilian conservationists are risking their lives if they speak out about environmental atrocities occuring in the Atlantic Forest. Critics say the country's justice system is not doing enough to stop the violence.

Lush vegetation, birds, flowers and butterflies can be still be found in one of the last remaining patches of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. The Mata Atlantica, as it is known locally in Portuguese, used to cover almost 20 percent of the country.

Over the past few decades many of the trees have been felled, and animals have either died out, or moved on. The forest has been replaced by farms, cities and huge factories. Less than 10 percent of the original forest still remains.

But, the forest harbors a horrible secret. Several months ago, Sergio de Lima, a local landowner paid by the government to protect a section of forest lost a close friend. Fellow forest campaigner Gonzalo Hernandez was found dead under a waterfall. He had gun shot wounds to his head.

Police say the 49-year-old’s murder may have been retaliation for the frequent complaints he made against illegal logging and palm tree ranchers who exploited this protected area.

Fighting to the end

Gonzalo Hernandez worked as an activist for 16 years in Brazil, planting more than 4000 trees in the region. He and the work he did to protect the Mata Atlantica are sorely missed, says Sergio de Lima.

Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva with his wife Maria

Da Silva and his wife Maria were ardent eco activists

"The loss of Gonzalo hurt us, but it will not discourage us," de Lima tells DW. "He was a determined man, a defender of his ideals. His death is definitely linked to his fight for the environment."

Targeting environmentalists is nothing new in Brazil. Back in 2011, rainforest conservationist Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife were shot dead in a forest reserve in the northern state of Pará.

Who owns what?

Manuel Cunha, president of the National Council of Extractivist Populations which represents the people living and working in Brazil's forests, believes many of the conflicts happen because land ownership remains problematic.

"It's the lack of government policies that result in these conflicts," Cunha tells DW. "They happen because of unresolved questions of land ownership and disputes over environmental resources."

Cunha believes violence towards environmental activists will only continue if these issues are not resolved immediately.

Rio's state government has offered a reward to anyone with information about the murder and can assist in catching those who killed Hernandez. But, chances those responsible for this heinous crime will be caught and sentenced remain quite slim. Conviction rates across Brazil for these sorts of contract killings are particularly low.

‘Ineffective judiciary’

A 2012 report published by the non-governmental organization Global Witness says that of the 711 environmentalist deaths around the world in the last 10 years, almost 600 of them occurred in Latin America. Brazil alone had 365 deaths, more than half of all cases globally.

A forest worker cuts down a tree in Brazil

Less than 10 percent of the Atlantic forest is still standing, as logging and plantations take over

The president of the Brazilian arm of the World Wildlife Fund, Cica Wey de Brito, agrees that the country’s ineffective justice system is the main problem. She says it allows people with power and influence to keep running their companies in Brazil's forests without reprisals.

Brazil has made some progress when it comes to persecuting and punishing those responsible for attacking conservationists, but it’s not nearly enough, de Brito adds.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is making an effort though, de Brito says. Recently she ordered police protection for dozens of environmentalists and informers who have received death threats. And, her administration points out that the number of activist killings in Brazil has declined over the past few years.

"Our judicial system gives people the feeling… that they can do whatever they want," de Brito says. "Brazil is dealing with this, but we are far from getting rid of this situation."

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