Vast swaths of rainforest are being felled to provide land for Brazil’s booming soya industry – and those who protest face violent retribution. Alex Bellos meets the land-rights activists risking death to save their communities.

In a remote corner of the Amazon rainforest, two men pointed their guns at a passing car and asked the woman inside to get out. Dorothy Stang, a 74-year-old nun, stepped outside. She showed them her Bible and said, ‘This is my weapon.’ The men listened as she read out a passage, and then shot her six times. They left her corpse face down in the mud, her white blouse stained with blood.

Stang, an American, had lived in the Brazilian Amazon for more than three decades and was a prominent campaigner on behalf of the local poor. The brutality of her death, in 2005, provoked outrage worldwide. And one shocking aspect of what happened was that it had been predicted. In Pará, the Brazilian state where she lived, there is a ‘death list’ of activists at risk of assassination, compiled by campaign groups to raise awareness. Stang had been on the list for years.

It was only because she was American that Stang’s death was reported internationally. Between 1971 and 2004 at least 772 rural poor and those protecting their human rights have been murdered in Pará. For the others on the death list, Stang’s murder brought home their own possible fates. ‘The night I heard she died I cried a lot, and so did many people who didn’t know her,’ Ivete Bastos, a Brazilian charity worker who is on the death list herself, said. ‘I also thought – I’ll be next in line.’

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