The Defense of Life within the Forest

Documenting Courage and Audacity through Film

By Felipe Milanez

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José Claudio. Photo by Felipe Milanez

“The most important thing is audacity,” the Amazonian environmental activist Maria said to me.

“If you have the courage to fight, then fight,” her husband, Zé Claudio, emphasized.

When I went to visit the courageous couple José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espírito Santo da Silva for the first time, I knew they could be killed, but of course I did not expect that to happen. 

I’m not so much interested in describing my filmmaking experience in this article, but rather how I used film to get out the untold story of an environmental defender couple in the Amazon, and how I learned a deeper meaning to life from Zé Cláudio and Maria— and how they changed me after I saw them through the lens of my camera.

October 10, 2010, was another beautiful sunny day in the southern Amazon dry season in Brazil. We saw some fires in the forest and pastures on the way that were still burning when we came back in the late afternoon — I remember seeing a castanheira— a Brazil nut tree—in flames in the middle of a degraded pasture. I was investigating Amazon deforestation driven by illegal charcoal production, associated with illegal logging and illegal land grabbing, a kind of chain of destruction. This investigation I conducted on the ground for Greenpeace led to the campaign Driving Destruction in the Amazon: How steel production is throwing the forest into the furnace, launched in 2012.

I also knew that in the area where Zé Claudio and Maria lived, the Praialta Piranheira Agro-Extractive Settlement Project (PAE), many poor families had to make a living by illegally selling timber from their individual plots of forest, and by producing illegal charcoal from the trees. They would then sell the charcoal to pig-iron mills in the city of Marabá —who would then sell their iron produced from Amazon trees to many industries in the United States and Europe. Zé Cláudio and Maria, who were both 54 years old in 2010, were well known in the region as committed grassroots environmentalists, opposing and denouncing environmental crimes. They were distinguished leaders of the peasants’ social movement in the region, defending a sustainable life with the forest in Praialta Piranheira. A lawyer from the Pastoral Land Commission (Comissão Pastoral da Terra, CPT), and a good friend of mine for some years, José Batista Afonso, told me their situation was very critical and that they were receiving death threats, and that I should “do something.” I was not doing any filming that day, rather I was working as a freelance investigative journalist, having edited the National Geographic Brasil magazine until a few months before. But I knew this could be an important meeting and I decided to take my very simple gear to record everything I could, even though I was not planning any special report. 

Felipe Milanez (left) and Zé Claudio

We spent a great day together, as I was introduced to them by an employee of the Pastoral Land Commission who drove me to the area who was a trusted friend of theirs and have been assisting them in the past years. We had some marvelous cupuaçu juice from a fruit collected by Zé Cláudio and prepared by Maria for breakfast. After that, Zé Cláudio and I set out for a first interview in the forest while Maria prepared lunch — I remember she used homemade Brazil nut oil and Brazil nut flour and a dessert made out of cupuaçu cream with Brazil nut, all of it absolutely delicious. I conducted a few interviews, most of them filmed, in total three hours and 40 minutes of material. It was a very pleasant day, while they showed many things they liked in their house and their lives, and parts of the forest they loved, such as the wonderful Brazil nut tree that Zé Cláudio called Majesty. When I asked him to open his arms to show how big the tree was, I suddenly realized I was in front a powerful picture that could depict his work as a defender of the forest.

Maria’s was the last interview I made, for just one hour, by the end of the day and right before we left. We all knew that it was going to be tough, that she was going to say everything that needed to be said, without softening any of it. The interview was intense: she cried, I cried, everybody there cried, Zé Claudio, our friend from CPT, and I had to cut her off because it could be dangerous to drive late at night, and she knew that. 

We made plans for me to return soon and I did believe I would visit them again. After all, we had become such good friends in this beautiful patch of forest, which Zé Claudio had invited me to revisit and learn more.

But after the interview with Maria, reality sank in and I got the bad feeling I usually have when I’m walking in dangerous places—a feeling I had many times after that. At the end of the day we could trust each other and we knew people were trying to kill them, and I was there to bring attention to this situation. She told me that the interview had everything she wanted to say, and that it needed to be taken to a television network. Despite our rapport, I was afraid to tell her the that I had no contact with any networks, that I was only a freelance journalist working in a hidden investigation and it would be hard for me to do so, but I did not say anything. I only told her that I was going to do everything I could to share what they had told me, the threats to their lives and their love of the forest, that I cared so much for them and that they could count on me for everything. I became part of their group of allies. The first thing I did was invite them to speak at a TEDxAmazon conference I belonged to. And it worked out and Zé Cláudio came a few weeks later to Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas, where the conference took place. In only nine minutes, his talk shocked and drew attention of the audience, and later became a posthumous powerful account of the violence against forest defenders: “I live from the forest. I will protect her by any means. For this, I live with a bullet in my head at any time. Because I stand up, I denouce the loggers, I denounce the charcoal makers, and for this they think I cannot exist.”


I met Zé Claudio again in Manaus at his extraordinary TEDxAmazon talk — I gave a talk about the genocide of the indigenous people Kawahib/Piripkura. And I called them many times by phone, and Maria and I cried when we spoke for the last time. Ze Cláudio and Maria were assassinated just six months after our first meeting, on a cold morning during the rainy season, on May 24, 2011. The rancher José Rodrigues Moreira, who was trying to illegally acquire land inside the protected reserve and was denounced by Zé Cláudio and Maria, hired two gunman, one of them his violent brother Lindonjonson Silva Rocha, who worked together with Alberto Lopes do Nascimento. Hiding by a precarious bridge that Zé Claudio and Maria had to cross very slowly in their motorcycle, they ambushed the couple and shot the couple point-blank with a hunting rifle. The gunmen threw their bodies on the road, taking Zé Cláudio’s motorcycle helmut and cutting off his ears with a knife to prove they had carried out the killing. Zé Cláudio’s body was abandoned near a very tall Cajuaçu tree of (Anacardium giganteum), while Maria’s laid next to an andiroba tree (Carapa guianensis). Both trees are still there, as Laisa Sampaio, Maria’s sister, reminds me when we pass by the area. Maria loved andiroba, Laisa once told me, collecting the fruit to extract its oil. 

In my last phone call with Zé Claudio and Maria, I had offered to write news pieces and two articles were turned down, but I published a short interview for Vice Magazine and another personal article in a web magazine called Terramagazine — these two stories helped bring attention to their murder, and the Vice piece was read in the National Congress. I almost came back with a filmmaker friend I was trying to convince to help me make a film about Zé Cláudio and Maria in the month of February of 2011, but he thought the story was not related to a film he was doing in another conflict area in the region. So my friends were killed, and I had recorded their voices, their images, their expressions, and these would serve to fight to bring justice to this horrible crime.

I have written many times about the killing of Zé Claudio and Maria—for various outlets, research articles and a Ph.D. thesis on their thoughts and their struggle. But nothing compares to the power of their calmly describing, in their sweet voices and ironic tones, how they learned to live with the forest. Zé Claudio showing me Majesty, the beautiful Brazil nut tree. Or both telling me how they were analyzing the conflicts and contradictions of Brazilian society, modern slavery and deforestation. And how, looking into the camera, sometimes out of focus, they knew they could be killed, but their fear would not keep them from fighting against injustice.


The camera as public eye

When I filmed them, we built a rare trust. I was very much interested in everything they were saying, and I could express that with my gestures and my eyes. I have always loved listening to stories. But as I was filming them I also knew that I was not going to be the only one to whom they were speaking. So somehow, they concentrated more on telling me the things that should be said. I became a bridge to reach an audience, a very important position I have tried to build—since I was not there to study their life, but to fight with them. Maria was very critical of academics who would go there only for their knowledge, and she realized it could be different with my position as a journalist who could spread their voice.

Fora madeireiros (Out loggers)

Their killing was traumatic to me, and after that I’ve tried to use my camera against oppression. My Twitter account, where I first publicly reported their deaths, has since become a way to speak loudly against injustice. In the months following their deaths, I investigated the case deeply until the rancher who ordered the crime and the two gunmen were arrested — the rancher and his killer brother later escaped. I went back with Vice to do my first documentary, and I gave all the footage I had to Bernardo Loyola, the co-director—I could not watch it both for technical and emotional reasons. When the film Toxic: Amazon came out, it was much more powerful than I had expected. I saw myself doing a kind of film that followed in the steps of Adrian Cowell, a great inspiration to me, like he had done with Chico Mendes and the documentary Killing for Land. My friend Adrian died a few weeks before Toxic: Amazon was released, but the inspiration in his work was there. Suddenly a film like the series The Decade of Destruction could be made again, and it was sad. It meant we were once again facing terrible times in the Amazon, like we had during the dictatorship in the 70s and the 80s.


Guarani Genocide

In the months following the killing of Zé Cláudio and Maria and the release of Toxic: Amazon, I decided to fight against all death threats and killings of environmental activists. I went to the state of Mato Grosso do Sul three days after Nisio Gomes, a shaman of the Guarani Kaiowa people, was killed. I had a good relationship with one of the leaders, Tonico Benites, who I had known since the time I worked for the Brazilian Agency of Indians Affairs (Funai). So I joined a leadership meeting, Aty Guassu, and interviewed all of them to understand what was happening. Their answer was: genocide. All of them were receiving death threats from ranchers, and one told me, “We will not give up on living, we will continue to exist.”

I gave all the footage to the same editor from Toxic: Amazon, Paulo Padilha, who edited The Guarani Struggle. It was supposed to be published online by a Brazilian magazine, but they lost interest in the story with no explanation, so we just released it on a Word Press website called A Luta Guarani and on YouTube. I believed it was more important to amplify the voice of those being killed than to present an official production, even though we were not paied. I wanted to film, document and denounce the brutality of Brazilians ranchers, loggers and landgrabbers killing the people who would later come to be called “environmental defenders.” The genocide of the Kaiowa and Guarani is one of the worst crimes being commited in Brazil in the past years. 


Filming became an anti-conquest war and a counter-colonial weapon for me. I just had to listen to stories, record them and have colleagues who shared the same ideology, such as Padilha, help tell people in Brazil and abroad that we need to change society. 


Lives at risk

For many years, filming became something dangerous for me: I could record an untold story that soon could stay only in my archives. It happened when I travelled with another film director (who decided not to film Zé Cláudio and Maria) to another settlement in the Amazon, where Sister Dorothy Stang was killed in 2005. We followed a raid in the forest with the settlers to investigate illegal logging activity, and we took pictures of this expedition. Later I found out three of them had been killed. In 2012, a few months after Toxic: Amazon came out, I went with a crew to film the construction of the Belo Monte dam in the city of Altamira, where we recorded many other sad stories. One of the people we interviewed was José Carlos, the leader of the Arara indigenous people whose territories were threatned by the dam.  He just died from Covid-19.

Life had changed for me after the experience of filming Zé Cláudio and Maria. It’s not that I became more or less engaged in fighting for justice, or more politicized,  but. life became more urgent. I learned that life is short, and the way we conduct our lives matters. Zé Cláudio and Maria became a type of unconscious voice that I sometimes hear. Some conversations reverberate in my head, such as this: 

My partner had psychological problems because of the threats. Because of so many things we've been through here. Yes, it's tough, you see. But we, we do, how do you say, we have a flag we fight for. We have an obligation as citizens. I will never see an injustice and keep my mouth shut, I will not shut up. No way. Not even if, for that reason, it costs my life. But I do not shut up. As long as I have a breath of life and live here, I fight the injustices. Whether it is the destruction of the environment or the appropriation of the land, that no one has the right to own the land alone. The land has to be distributed to all.

Zé Cláudio is talking about the cost of living to fight against injustice. And he wasn’t afraid—it meant he could deal with fear and control his fear, holding his dream at a higher position:

Felipe Milanez: And aren’t you afraid?

José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva: I am. If I say I'm not afraid, I'm lying, right? Because the almighty knew he was going to die, but he was coming back on the third day and he was afraid. Why should I not be afraid? That life is very good, right, my friend [laughter]. I am afraid, but ... [mentions João Canuto] I am afraid but, at the same moment that I am afraid, besides having my obligation as a citizen, the impulse I get when I see an injustice, it takes away my fear. It makes me have the courage to fight. Because a man is what he is. So, if you have the courage to fight, fight. Better to die trying, than to die being indifferent.  

One of the questions I asked Maria was about her dreams. I’m glad today I did so. I have learned and still learning with her reply. Maria knew she could be killed so  she knew the importance of registering what she was saying — she told me she wanted to write a book but, if she would be killed before she finished, she was leaving her writing to be collected by someone. Inspired by her message, I’m organizing her book together with her sister Laisa, her sister in law Claudelice Santos, and José Batista Afonso, the laywer of CPT who introduced them to me. I wanted to listen to them so much, and I believe we still need to learn from the experience of forest defenders in the Amazon, not only for the fate of the forest, but of all people on this planet.

Felipe Milanez: What is your dream here?

Maria do Espírito Santo: My dream, today, I can’t say that it’s an individual dream anymore. Because before it was a collective dream, to see this forest, these 22 thousand hectares, these almost 400 families that now live here, everyone adding value to their income as extractivists. That was the dream.

Felipe Milanez: Living with the forest?

Maria do Espírito Santo: Living together with the forest in a sustainable way, ecologically sustainable and viable and fair, right. However, this was a dream that has already become a utopia.

My last words to Maria recorded in this interview we made were, “This is the beginning of a conversation.” And Maria replied, “Okay, we're here, Felipe” — as if they would be available for other visits that never happened. We were siting outside their house in the balconnny, and the sun was getting down in a colorful sunsent. I wanted to make a picture of them with that beautiful light to show their love in their lovely yard.


These last words have the shades of a beautiful sunset to me, a very bright yellow with orange set behind the dark green of the forest. As I filmed this scene, I remember not only the words, but the whole scenario and different senses, so filming reinforced my memory and I’m glad that I have filmed that day. “We are here” also recalls the sweet smell of the Brazil nut flour and the cupuaçu juice, and when my head hangs down in sadness and nostalgia, I can see on the floor a carpet made out of the rose flowers of a jambo tree. Their utopia of living with the forest, of relearning how to share this planet with nature and other human and non-human life, has become an urgent need for all of human society. 


Felipe Milanez is Associate Professor at the Institute for Humanities, Arts and Sciences, Federal University of Bahia, Brazil.