Environmental official slain in Brazilian Amazon

Luiz Alberto Araújo, who headed the environment department for the municipal government of Altamira in Brazil's Amazonian state of Pará, was killed by two unknown gunmen Oct. 13. The assailants drove up to his car and fired nine shots into him, in front of his wife and two step-sons. Nothing was stolen and the killing is believed to have been a political assassination. In his endeavors to enforce environmental legislation in the largely lawless Amazonian region, Araújo made powerful enemies. Earlier this year, he provided information to the Federal Police and Federal Public Ministry that prompted them to launch Operaçāo Rios Voadores (Flying Rivers Operation). This crackdown on illegal logging enterprises led to 24 arrests—including that of the ring-leader, Antonio José Junqueira Vilela Filho, known as AJJ. He and his son were accused of illegally invading rainforest lands, extracting valuable timber, and clearing the remaining forest and turning it into cattle pasture.

According to Luciano Evaristo, director of environmental protection at Brazil's environmental agency, IBAMA, AJJ developed a new method for clearing the forest. "He employed geo-processing technicians to organize numerous small-scale operations," he said. The technicians made sure that the tallest trees were left standing so that the satellites operated by the National Institute of Space ResearchI (INPE) did not detect the wide-scale felling that was happening below the canopy. According to the police, the laborers clearing the forest were held "in conditions analogous to slavery."

AJJ's group cleared 294 square kilometers (113 square miles) of forest around Altamira. AJJ was fined R$119.8 million ($37 million), the biggest fine ever imposed in the Brazilian Amazon, for 10 years of illegal forest clearing.

Luis Alberto Araújo also contributed to Operação Castanheira (Brazil Nut Operation) in 2014, which uncovered large-scale illegal forest clearance around the town of Novo Progresso in southwest Pará.

More recently, in February of this year, Araújo's team collected tons of dead fish secretly buried near the giant Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, located on the outskirts of Altamira, that began operation earlier this year. As a result, Norte Energia company was fined RS$35.3 million ($11.0 million) for the 16.2 tons of fish illegally killed during the flooding of the dam's reservoir.

Araújo is the latest in a long list of environmentalists assassinated in Brazil. According to the group Global Witness, 448 environmentalists were killed in Brazil from 2002 to 2013. This was half of the total killed worldwide. (Mongabay, Oct. 17)