Martyrs for the Amazon

June 6, 2019

Late in the month of May eight years ago, a husband and wife who had courageously defended rural people and protected lands were murdered in Brazil. As the Catholic community prepares for a month-long reflection on the Amazon and its people, we pause to remember the martyrs who have given their lives for this cause.

In 2011, Maria do Espírito Santo da Silva and her husband, José Cláudio Ribeiros da Silva, were killed near their home in Pará State, Brazil. They were members of groups that had advocated for protection of people and land.

Protected lands have long been under fire in Brazil, with ranchers and miners cutting hundreds of illegal clearings and razing tens of thousands of trees for industry. At the time Maria and José Cláudio were murdered, more than 1,150 farmers and human rights defenders, including priests, had been killed in disputes over the protection of land.

According to Front Line Defenders, “The murders are mostly carried out by gunmen hired by loggers, ranchers and farmers to silence protest over the illegal cutting of trees in the forests. It is reported that fewer than 100 of the cases have gone to court and only one perpetrator is currently imprisoned.”

Maria and José Cláudio were spouses, parents, grandparents, and beloved members of the community. Maria was an educator. In late May 2011, gunmen shot them multiple times. Their bodies were found inside the nature preserve they tried to defend.

Maria was an educator, and Brazil’s Instituto Transformance: Cultura & Educação has produced a book of local stories, poems, and educational resources in her memory. A downloadable version is available in English and Portuguese here.

This October, bishops from around the world will gather in Rome for a month-long conversation on the Amazon and its people. This gathering, or synod, will prompt ongoing reflection on how to protect this beautiful, endangered place and the people who share it.

We’re all invited to pray and discuss these themes, whether we live in the Amazon or far beyond it. A small group discussion guide and much more is available here.