SAO PAULO -- An activist fighting to protect the Amazon rain forest from loggers was shot and killed with his wife, Brazilian authorities said Wednesday.
The killings occurred just hours before Brazil's lower house of Congress passed legislation environmentalists warned will increase deforestation in the region.
Rubber tapper Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife were ambushed by gunmen Tuesday in an interior city in the jungle state of Para in northern Brazil, police said. Authorities were investigating the crime and no arrests had been made.
The Catholic Land Pastoral, known as CPT, a watchdog group that tracks violence against environmental activists, said more than 1,150 activists, small farmers, judges, priests and other rural workers have been killed in disputes over preserving land since the 1988 murder of Brazil's renowned rain forest protector Chico Mendes.
Most of the killings go unpunished, especially in the Amazon region where there is little government presence and where local governments are easily swayed by powerful loggers, ranchers and farmers who illegally clear forest to make way for more crop and pasture lands.
Federal prosecutors say the violence usually is ordered by rich producers who contract gunmen to kill anyone standing in their way.
Of the killings since 1988, fewer than 100 cases have gone to court, according to the CPT. About 80 of the hired gunmen have been convicted. About 15 of the men who hired them were found guilty, but just one is serving a sentence today, a man found guilty of ordering the assassination of a U.S. nun.
In the most recent case, the CPT said that the gunmen cut off Silva's ear, likely to use it as proof to whoever hired them that they indeed killed the activist.
"The state will not tolerate this type of violence in our territory," Para state Public Safety Secretary Luiz Fernandes Rocha said in a statement. "We've mobilized a team to investigate what happened and detain those responsible for the crime."
Silva, 52, had clashed with loggers before and recently had denounced some of them to authorities. The CPT said Silva and his wife, Maria do Espirito Santo, were tenacious Amazon defenders and were active against loggers who pressured rubber tappers in the region.
The group said in a statement that the couple went out of their way to block roads, stop logging trucks and denounce illegal loggers to Brazil's environmental agency and the government, all despite knowing they were putting their lives in danger.
"In past years they received several death threats from loggers and farmers," the statement said. "Last year, they escaped an ambush when gunmen went looking for them at their house."
In 2005, 73-year-old U.S. nun Dorothy Stang was killed in a rural area of Para state for being active in the defense of the land in the region.
Brazil's lower house passed legislation Tuesday night that would loosen restrictions on how small farmers use their land in the Amazon forest, allowing those with small holdings to work land closer to riverbanks and to use hilltops.
Legislative leaders dropped a provision that environmentalists feared most, which would have removed most limits on destroying trees for small farmers and ranchers. But they still warn that the approved changes will lead to flooding, silty rivers, and erosion in the rain forest, an area the size of the continental U.S. west of the Mississippi River that absorbs the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.