When illegal loggers pointed two loaded pistols at her head, Nilcilene Miguel de Lima tried to run, but her legs betrayed her. “Don’t worry, you’re not going to die today,” one of them said. Her knees trembled as they continued:
“You have one month to disband the association and stop bothering us. Try to report this and we will burn your house down.”
The loggers had found Nilcilene, a 45-year-old smallholder farmer and head of the local farmer’s association, on her own land – a small plot set within a government settlement in the south of the Amazon rainforest. A month earlier they had beaten her up in front of a government inspection team to whom she had denounced the illegal deforestation.
Nilce, as she is known among friends, could not ignore the felling of the cedars, andirobas, ipês and other tropical hardwood trees that had been standing in the forest for more than 100 years, so she reported their threats to the police. While she was still in town, her husband called: “It’s all been burnt,” he told her. She lost her house, clothes, furniture, animals and the crops of bananas, pineapples and coffee on her five-acre plantation. A lighter was left hanging in a nearby tree – a message that the fire had been no accident.
In her attempt to hold onto her land and prevent illegal deforestation, Nilce has endured a series of threats and violent attacks from sawmill owners and loggers.
In May last year she finally left. A professional assassin had grabbed her 11-year-old niece by the arm and told her how Nilce would be tortured before dying.
She did not leave without regret. “The loggers are clearing it all,” she says.
“When they felled the [Brazil] nut trees, I felt it in my heart. These trees provided my children with milk and meat; my family was raised under their protection. I owe them so much.”
Nilce has been in hiding ever since, protected by the Pastoral Land Commission (PCT), an organisation linked to the Catholic Church.
Upon understanding that her interview would reach an audience beyond Brazil, Nilce repeatedly pleaded: “Please send out my call for help. I am alone in this war.”
Her battle is just one of many being fought by inhabitants of the Amazon – those born and raised in the native forest – against ranchers, sawmill owners and loggers, who cut down not only trees, but also the lives of those who stand in their way.
Violence against smallholders and rural inhabitants is common but it is becoming increasingly prevalent in the rainforest. According to government figures 49 “human rights defenders” are currently under protection in Para state, while another 36 witnesses are also receiving protection.
“The loggers are getting too strong, they are making the law in the forest,” Nilce says.
“I have been threatened, beaten up and lost everything I had in the fire. I reported it all to the police and what happened to the ones who did it? Nothing.”
The CPT tracks land-related violence and issues an annual list of death threats linked to land disputes. Of the 177 names listed today, 98 are residents of the Amazon. Nilce is on the list.
“The state is not present in these areas,” says Marta Valéria Cunha, CPT coordinator for the Amazon.
“Loggers and land grabbers are growing stronger because they are free to dictate the law as they see fit. It is like we are living back under a feudal system but, instead of landlords, it’s loggers and ranchers who make the rules.”
Like Nilce, most of land row victims are local inhabitants of the Amazon, considered a traditional forest people. They are descendants of Native Brazilians and immigrants from other parts of the country, but they do not have the same rights as indigenous rainforest communities. Born into small communities, they developed techniques, such as extracting rubber from the trees, and created family plantations. Over the years, the Brazilian government has formally recognised their land rights by creating extractive reserves and settlements from land once considered government property.
In 2003 Nilce joined a group of smallholder farmers occupying unused federal lands near the town of Lábrea, in the state of Amazonas. Despite government recognition of their settlement in 2007, ranchers and sawmill owners have repeatedly tried to take over the territory. “First, they attacked our shacks with fire. Then they used fake documents to claim the territory as theirs. We had to fight for our piece of land,” Nilce recalls.
“Trying to appropriate federal land in the Amazon is an old tactic; big ranchers have been doing it since we were a Portuguese colony,” says geographer Ariovaldo Umbelino de Oliveira, a professor at the University of São Paulo and coordinator of the Brazilian Land and Land Reform Atlas. “Brazilian homesteaders – the true owners of this land – became nomads, violently pushed out by ranchers and, most recently, by sawmill owners.”
This is the story of Nilce’s life. When she was a child, one of the oldest of 14 brothers and sisters in a family of rubber tappers, her family was forced to abandon their land. Years later, with three children of her own, Nilce’s first husband was murdered after refusing to leave their plot.
The complete lack of infrastructure in Nilce’s area is pointed out as an open door for illegal activities and one of the main factors that allow the spread of violence. It is so remote that it is hard to track what is happening. Around 33km (20 miles) from the nearest town, Nilce’s settlement has no roads, electricity, telephone cables, police station or hospital. Within weeks of first arriving, one of her neighbours left after finding jaguar steps circling the homes.
Impunity is the second factor that allows violence to spread throughout the forest, according to the head of the State of Amazonas Justice and Human Rights department, Carlos Lélio Lauria Ferreira. “The serious situation we face today is the result of decades of abandon,” he says.
No one has ever been convicted and held responsible for the killings related to land dispute in the Amazon, with the exception being the American nun Dorothy Stang, who fought for rainforest conservation. Her assassin is in jail, but the police never pursued the ranchers who had hired him.
Before fleeing, Nilce received a phone call from a friend, Adelino Ramos, another Amazon activist, who not long afterwards became another victim. “Be careful, they’re after us,” he said. He was killed on May 27 last year in the presence of his wife and 20 people, while attending a rural market. The assassin was fully unmasked as he pulled the trigger.
Nilce’s and Ramos’s persecutors should have been imprisoned in November, when the State Justice issued ten arrest warrants. “Months went by, and nothing happened,” says Gercino José da Silva Filho, the national agrarian ombudsman, who arbitrates among parties in land conflicts. “I sent official letters to the chief of the civil and military police, but the police did not act.” Filho notes that, had the arrests been made, Ramos might still be alive.
In response to the rise in the number of killings in the Amazon, the federal government created a committee, Em Defesa da Vida (In Defence of Life), to protect forest activists who are under threat.
Last July last year, almost two months after going into hiding, Nilce was called by the committee to give her testimony in Brasília, the capital.
“I asked for a police escort to go back home, but they told me to wait. For how long?”
“She is one of the most serious cases we are dealing with, but an escort would be a measure of last resort,” says Clarissa Jokowski, head of the Human Rights Defenders Protection Programme. For now, the programme committee is paying Nilce a small stipend and provides therapy sessions. She cries a lot, finds it hard to sleep and suffers muscle twitches.
“Moving me is not a solution, I need to go back,” she complains. “What kind of justice is this, one that lets criminals walk free while I have to be the outcast?”
The day she returned from Brasília to her hiding spot, she decided to pack up and return. But her husband called. “They know everything you said and they are mocking you, promising to throw a party when you die,” he warned her.
“Don’t come; I’m leaving too.”