A Brazilian Army soldier patrols outside the Rio Centro where the "Rio +20" United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development will be held in Rio de Janeiro June 12, 2012. Reuters/ Ricardo Moraes
The message couldn’t have been clearer. The activists were shot, execution style, on the same day in May 2011 that Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies passed a rewrite of the Forest Code, the law governing economic activity in the Amazon. Zé Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espírito Santo, a married activist couple, were gunned down near their forest home in Pará, in northeastern Brazil. They were the latest of the more than 1,600 activists who have been killed in the Amazon since 1985, including Chico Mendes, the rubber-tapper and political organizer whose 1988 assassination drew worldwide condemnation.
Like Mendes, Ribeiro had received numerous death threats and predicted his own murder. In November 2010 the forest defender told an audience in Manaus, “I could get a bullet in my head at any moment…because I denounce the loggers.” Police immediately suspected that Ribeiro’s death was a professional hit, because his corpse, like his wife’s, had one ear cut off; in the Amazon, killers customarily present their paymasters with a victim’s ear to prove the deed was done. Hours later, when a legislator took the floor in the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies to urge an investigation, he was booed by members of the ruralista caucus, lawmakers allied with the large landowners who advocate maximum exploitation of the Amazon.
An ominous sense of déjà vu hovers over the United Nations Rio+20 conference on sustainable development taking place June 20–22. Twenty years ago, Rio de Janeiro hosted the landmark 1992 Earth Summit, which framed the problem that Rio+20 re-examines: how to reduce global poverty while preserving the planet’s life-support systems. Alas, two decades later, the Amazon remains a lawless place, where criminals loot natural resources with abandon and violent intimidation of activists is common. (A current example is forest defender Nilcilene Miguel de Lima, who, as reported by Brazil’s Publica news group, got so many death threats the government gave her twenty-four-hour security protection, then moved her to an undisclosed location.)
Internationally, too, the parallels between Rio+20 and the Earth Summit are disturbing. Like George H.W. Bush in 1992, President Obama refused to say for weeks whether he would attend the Rio conference, much less try to rally the world to avert planetary catastrophe. On June 12 a State Department announcement made it official: Obama will not go. When Bush was trying to duck the summit in 1992, major media outlets ran a slew of stories reminding him of the potential impact on his re-election efforts, which helped change his mind. Obama has faced no such flak for being a Rio no-show.
Why should he? After all, Rio+20 is only talking about the end of the world as we know it. A new study in the journal Nature warns that Earth is approaching a “tipping point” that could lead, within decades, to irreversible degradation of the natural systems that provide humans with food, water and other vital services. A team led by Anthony Barnosky of the University of California, Berkeley, found that the rapidly warming climate, the disappearance of countless plant and animal species, the spread of toxic “dead zones” in the oceans, and other disturbing trends could trigger a transition to a radically less hospitable planet that would be “extremely difficult or even impossible” to reverse.