“I believe that each individual barrier that we overcome is a reason for being and feeling proud. I realised that I spent last year running for fear of death. But today I am running in pursuit of life. In 2012, I was afraid of death, I was afraid that at any moment I would be defeated by a hit man. On 31 December I was so relieved that I managed to stay alive. In 2013, I am running in search of life.”
Laísa Santos Sampaio is an environmental activist who lives in the state of Pará, one of the most violent states in Brazil. Her sister Maria and brother-in-law José Cláudio were killed in 2011 for campaigning against illegal logging in the Amazon.
Since then, only Laísa remains with her family, defending her land and taking on the cause of her sister and brother-in-law. As a result, she has been facing extremely serious death threats in the aftermath of these murders, and has been living every day in fear of losing her life.
Women have been increasingly threatened and killed by loggers, ranchers and farmers for protecting the environment and fighting for land rights for rural workers in the state of Pará. And the number of women targeted is on the rise.
Dorothy Stang, an American environmental activist, was violently killed in 2005 in Pará, and in September 2013 the rancher who ordered her murder was finally condemned to 30 years imprisonment after a long legal process with high international profile. However the hitman who killed her only served three years of his 27 years’ prison sentence.
Where cases do not receive the same international coverage, women continue to live under death threat with little, delayed or no protection from the Brazilian state or recourse to justice. CAFOD’s partner, CPT (Pastoral Land Commission) is one of the few organisations that campaigns for the protection and justice for victims of violence related to land rights and environmental protection in Pará.
In May this year, the two hit men hired to kill Laísa’s sister and brother-in-law were convicted with imprisonment, but the person who allegedly ordered the murders was freed due to insufficient evidence. He and his family have returned to their plot of land, next to where Laísa and her family live.
She says: “You spend your life fighting for justice and when you expect justice to be done, this is what happened. If I could paint days, I would paint that one black as that was a day of real mourning for me. But I thought to myself: “You are not going to run from what is happening”. Even if there is danger, we need to believe that we are going to succeed in the end. But change, in the context of political justice, is very difficult indeed.”
CPT has been supporting Laísa’s case during the murder trial and campaigned for her inclusion in the Federal Programme for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. They’ve also been providing agricultural training to help Laísa continue the work of the Female Group of Artisanal Workers set up by Laísa’s sister, Maria. The group works to protect the forest and enables women living in the encampment to earn an income.
After Maria’s murder, the group of women disintegrated due to fear for their own lives and the psychological and financial impacts of their association with Maria and Laísa. But with CAFOD’s support the group has restarted, and is now extracting natural oils from native forest trees to produce and sell natural remedies. CPT are also undertaking a project in the region to help families access their land rights and to lobby for socially and environmentally just policies.
Laísa hopes that she has inspired others to stand up against injustice. “If I cannot be physically present in an event, debate or fighting for a cause, I can be in the minds of the people who met me and for whom I made a difference”.