Early last year, a dubious distinction attached itself to Tarcisio Feitosa da Silva, director of the Roman Catholic Church's Pastoral Land Commission here in one of the most conflict-ridden regions of the Amazon. After the American nun Dorothy Stang was shot to death on a jungle road, he replaced her at the top of the death list that loggers, ranchers, miners and land speculators are known to maintain.
It is, of course, a form of recognition that Feitosa, 35, and his family would prefer he not have. But it testifies to the effectiveness of his work on behalf of Indian tribes, peasant settlers and river-dwellers and to preserve what remains of the endangered rain forest here.
Along with other religious and community groups, the entity Feitosa leads has challenged forged land titles, denounced unauthorized logging and organized peasant farmers to resist land invasions. Recently, those efforts have been rewarded with a government decree establishing a system of nature reserves that, if put into practice, will force many wealthy ranchers and loggers to leave the lands they currently control, without compensation.
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"We have chosen an option that in this region seems radical, that of keeping the forest standing," Feitosa said. "That has jolted powerful interests that in every other part of the Amazon have been able to topple the forest."
Feitosa is himself a pure product of the Amazon, born and raised in this frontier town of 77,000 at the junction of the Trans-Amazon Highway and the Xingu River. His mother is a rubber tapper's daughter, while his father, originally a crab fisherman, came here as a sharecropper around 1970, when the highway was being built.
"Part of my origin is in the forest and the other part is in the water," Feitosa said. "I've had offers to go elsewhere, but I've always insisted on living and working here."
Feitosa's mother had once been a nun, and later worked in a medical clinic here that catered to the poor. It was from her, he believes, that he inherited his vocation for social service.
"My mother always said that you shouldn't be concerned just with yourself, that you have to worry about society," he said. "My mother was always linked to church and community movements, so I think that gene came from her."
She also passed along her religious faith to him, the eldest of her three children. Though he never contemplated becoming a priest "because I didn't want to spend six years in a seminary," Feitosa describes himself as devoted to the idea of living "a Christian life, by Christian principles, as a Christian citizen" and to the Church itself.
"To me, my faith is something essential," he explained. "People say I'm a real churchgoer. I was an altar boy in my parish for a long time, and used to try to pay attention to the words of the priests who were celebrating Mass. But I never really understood that phrase that comes just before communion, the one about 'behold the mystery of faith."'
But then one day, while visiting an Indian village, in an episode Feitosa describes as a turning point in his life, he was invited by his hosts to go hunting in the jungle. The hunting party killed a deer, skinned it and brought the meat back to the settlement.
"I was super happy, thinking my group would get the best part," he recalled. "But then one old woman came and cut the haunches, then another old woman and another and another. In the end, after all the ribs were taken too, all that remained for us who had made such a big sacrifice was a little piece of meat.
"My first reaction was, how could a thing like this happen? I had gone the whole day without eating, walked I don't know how many kilometers in the jungle and helped to carry that deer back on my shoulders. But then I realized that what is on the table is meant to be shared, and that is the mystery of faith. So I think that was the first true Eucharist that I ever experienced."
Feitosa divides the history of his native region into two periods: before the construction of the Trans-Amazon Highway and after. He remembers swimming and fishing as a child in areas that have been deforested and developed, and notes ruefully that one must now travel far to find truly unspoiled jungle.
"The people who came here after the highway opened saw the forest as a obstacle to development," he said, adding: "Nobody thought of biodiversity, nobody thought of the potential the forest itself offered; the rule was to destroy."
The situation worsened, he maintains, in the 1990s. He began working for the Pastoral Land Commission then, and started to confront those who saw the Amazon as a source of quick profits.
"The loggers would first come in to exploit the Indian lands and then move into the Midlands looking for mahogany," he recalled. "There were moments when you'd get really tense, because there were a lot of invasions and these were big, big companies that would run you right over."
This year Feitosa won the Goldman Environmental Prize, which comes with a US$125,000 grant, most of which he plans to use for work with jungle communities. The citation noted that Feitosa's home state of Para is now "one of the deep Amazon's most lawless and environmentally threatened regions."
As bad as things are now, Feitosa fears they are about to become worse. "The war in this region hasn't even started," he said. "It's only going to start when the authorities come to remove the ranchers from the lands they got through bogus means and then deforested illegally. Then it's going to get really violent."
Feitosa said his activities "make my wife nervous, but she understands that I can't stop doing what I do." The couple, who married when he was 19 and she 15, have two sons, ages 12 and 13, who are subjected to a strict curfew and have been given mobile phones so that they can always be in touch with their parents.
"I watch out for myself," he said. "I don't walk around alone anymore, especially at night, and I don't get into a taxi unless the driver is someone I know. Since a lot of killings have occurred in people's homes, my father has also put barriers on all the windows and doors."
Still, Feitosa said, "If they want to do it, they are going to do it. You can't impede them. I have to trust in God."
"I go to Mass every Sunday at 6:30 in the afternoon," he added. "If someone wants to kill me, they already know the route."
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