A single shot to the temple was Mouth Organ John’s reward for spilling the beans. His friend, Junior Jose Guerra, fared only marginally better.
Guerra’s prize for speaking out against the illegal loggers laying waste to the greatest tropical rainforest on Earth? A broken home, two petrified children and an uncertain exile from a life he had spent years building in the Brazilian Amazon.
“I can’t go back,” said Guerra, one of the Amazon’s newest environmental refugees, three months after his friend’s brutal murder forced him, his wife and his two children into hiding. “We’ve been told that they are trying to find out where I am. The situation is very complicated.”
Mouth Organ John, 55, and Guerra, 38, lived along the BR-163, a remote and treacherous highway that cuts from north to south through the Amazon state of Para. They were migrants from Brazil’s south who came in search of a better life.
Neither man was a card-carrying environmentalist and both had reportedly been previously involved with environmental crimes. Still, they opted to commit something widely considered a cardinal sin in this isolated corner of Brazil — they informed on criminals allegedly making millions from the illegal harvesting of ipe trees from conservation units in a corner of the Amazon known as the Terra do Meio, or Middle Land.
In a region often compared with the Wild West, betraying those pillaging the rainforest all too often leads to a coffin or to exile.
Mouth Organ John, an amateur musician and mechanic whose real name was Joao Chupel Primo, met his fate first.
In October last year, he and Guerra handed the authorities a dossier outlining the alleged activities of illegal loggers and land-grabbers in the region. Within days, two men appeared at Primo’s workshop in the city of Itaituba and shot him dead. A bloody photograph of his corpse, laid out on a mortician’s slab, made a local tabloid.
“There are signs this was an execution,” the local police chief, Jose Dias, told the paper.
Guerra escaped death, but he too lost his life. Told of his friend’s murder, he locked himself indoors, clutching a shotgun to ward off the gunmen. The next day, he was spirited out of town by federal police. Since then Guerra has embarked on a lonely pilgrimage across Brazil, journeying thousands of kilometers in search of support and safety. He became the latest Amazonian exile — people forced into self-imposed hiding or police protection because of their stance against those destroying the environment.
“They will order the murder of anyone who reports them [to authorities],” Guerra said this week over a crackly phone line from his latest hideout. “We thought that ... if we reported these crimes they [the government] would do something ... But actually Joao was murdered as a result.”
In June, Brazil will host the Rio+20 UN conference on sustainable development. World leaders will gather in Rio to debate how to reconcile economic development with environmental conservation and social inclusion.
Brazil will be able to trumpet advances in its battle against deforestation — in December the government claimed Amazon destruction had fallen to its lowest level in 23 years. However, the continuing threats to environmental activists represent a major blot on its environment credentials.
“What is at stake ... is the government’s ability to protect its forests and its people,” said Eliane Brum, a Brazilian journalist who has won numerous awards for her dispatches from the Amazon. “If nothing is done ... the government will be demoralized on the eve of Rio+20.”