Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

The Defense of Life within the Forest

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

The Defense of Life within the Forest

Article excerpt

Documenting Courage and Audacity through Film

"The most important thing is audacity," the Amazonian environmental activist Maria said to me.

"If you have the courage to fight, then fight," her husband, Zé Claudio, emphasized.

When I went to visit the courageous couple José Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espirito Santo da Silva for the first time, I knew they could be killed, but of course I did not expect that to happen.

I'm not so much interested in describing my filmmaking experience in this article, but rather how I used film to get out the untold story of an environmental defender couple in the Amazon, and how I learned a deeper meaning to life from Zé Claudio and Maria- and how they changed me after I saw them through the lens of my camera.

October 10, 2010, was another beautiful sunny day in the southern Amazon dry season in Brazil. We saw some fires in the forest and pastures on the way that were still burning when we came back in the late afternoon - I remember seeing a castanheira- a Brazil nut tree-in flames in the middle of a degraded pasture. I was investigating Amazon deforestation driven by illegal charcoal production, associated with illegal logging and illegal land grabbing, a kind of chain of destruction. This investigation I conducted on the ground for Greenpeace led to the campaign Driving Destruction in the Amazon: How steel production is throwing the forest into the furnace, launched in 2012.

I also knew that in the area where Zé Claudio and Maria lived, the Praialta Piranheira Agro-Extractive Settlement Project (PAE), many poor families had to make a living by illegally selling timber from their individual plots of forest, and by producing illegal charcoal from the trees. They would then sell the charcoal to pig-iron mills in the city of Marabá -who would then sell their iron produced from Amazon trees to many industries in the United States and Europe. Zé Claudio and Maria, who were both 54 years old in 2010, were well known in the region as committed grassroots environmentalists, opposing and denouncing environmental crimes. They were distinguished leaders of the peasants' social movement in the region, defending a sustainable life with the forest in Praialta Piranheira. A lawyer from the Pastoral Land Commission (Comissao Pastoral da Terra, CPT), and a good friend of mine for some years, José Batista Afonso, told me their situation was very critical and that they were receiving death threats, and that I should "do something." I was not doing any filming that day, rather I was working as a freelance investigative journalist, having edited the National Geographic Brasil magazine until a few months before. But I knew this could be an important meeting and I decided to take my very simple gear to record everything I could, even though I was not planning any special report.

We spent a great day together, as I was introduced to them by an employee of the Pastoral Land Commission who drove me to the area who was a trusted friend of theirs and have been assisting them in the past years. We had some marvelous cupuaçu juice from a fruit collected by Zé Claudio and prepared by Maria for breakfast. After that, Zé Claudio and I set out for a first interview in the forest while Maria prepared lunch - I remember she used homemade Brazil nut oil and Brazil nut flour and a dessert made out of cupuaçu cream with Brazil nut, all of it absolutely delicious. I conducted a few interviews, most of them filmed, in total three hours and 40 minutes of material. It was a very pleasant day, while they showed many things they liked in their house and their lives, and parts of the forest they loved, such as the wonderful Brazil nut tree that Zé Claudio called Majesty. When I asked him to open his arms to show how big the tree was, I suddenly realized I was in front a powerful picture that could depict his work as a defender of the forest.

Maria's was the last interview I made, for just one hour, by the end of the day and right before we left. …

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