The New Statesman Christmas campaign 2013: Help keep Laísa Santos Sampaio safe

Laísa is one of the most high-profile critics of illegal logging and charcoal burning in her region of Brazil, but receives little or no protection from the authorities.

Photo by Renata Neder/Amnesty International
Photo by Renata Neder/Amnesty International

When whichever football luminaries picked to announce the World Cup draw today pull the first name out of the proverbial hat, football fans the world over will be tuning in see who their national side will play in the first round. Some may even check their bank balance and weigh up the possibility of travelling to Brazil next June to see the spectacle for themselves.

For those who do make the journey an exciting time surely awaits. As well as a vibrant culture and renowned Brazilian hospitality, there’ll be sparkling new hotels, stadia and shopping centres. Add the excitement of watching top level sport in arguably football’s greatest tournament, in arguably the most football-mad country in the world, and it could be the holiday of a lifetime.

But behind the glitz and charm, what a tourist won’t see are the forced evictions that have seen whole communities kicked out of their homes to make way for those stadia and hotels. Also likely to be hidden from view are the homicides that have reached such levels that Brazil is now ranked seventh most violent country in the world. Those most at risk are young black men - nearly 80 per cent of young people murdered in 2011 were Brazilians of African descent, a group that makes up five per cent of the population. And rural people trying to protect their land from illegal logging and charcoal burning are also under threat.

One of them is teacher and activist Laísa Santos Sampaio. Laísa is from a rural community of 350 smallholders in northern Brazil. She is a member of a group that promotes the environment and sustainable development. She has been the target of persistent death threats since 2011.

In May that year, her sister María and brother-in-law Zé Claudio, both prominent environmental campaigners, were shot dead by contract killers. Two men were convicted in April this year, but a third man who allegedly ordered the killings was acquitted and still lives in Laísa’s community. Others closely associated with the three are also present in the community, and Laísa believes they are responsible for the threats she has received.

One of the most terrifying of these threats was carried out in August 2011, when the trunk of a coconut tree was placed across a road near Laísa’s house – an act recognised in the region as a death threat. Soon after, her house was broken into and her dog was shot eight times. María and Zé Claudio experienced exactly the same immediately before they were killed.

Laísa told Amnesty International that before her sister and brother-in-law were killed, a woman had warned them they were in danger: The same woman then “wept as she told me that a strange man, who had been at the house of the man who had ordered [María and Zé Claudio’s] killings, was driving around my plot of land,” she said.

In June last year, someone from the local community told Laisa that killing Zé Claudio hadn’t been difficult, and that killing Laísa and her family would be even easier – it was just a question of getting the people who want to do it together.

Unsurprisingly, Laisa lives in fear. “I am frightened by the slightest noise, but I have to continue my work,” she said.

Laísa is one of the most high-profile critics of illegal logging and charcoal burning in her region, but receives little or no protection from the authorities.

Her case features prominently in Amnesty’s annual Write for Rights campaign, which the New Statesman is supporting in the run up to Christmas.

With the world’s media preparing to descend on cities across Brazil next June, the authorities there would rather you didn’t know about Laísa and those like her. But according Brazil’s Pastoral Land Commission, over 900 people have been killed in land conflicts in the Brazilian Amazon since the mid-1980s. However, fewer than 30 cases have been brought to trial, and only a handful of perpetrators have ever been convicted and imprisoned.

You can help to stop Laísa being the next land activist to be killed in Brazil by writing to the Brazilian Secretary for Human Rights, Mario do Rosario. Ask the Secretary to protect her and ensure she is safe to conduct her environmental work without fear. Email direitoshumanos@sdh.gov.br

You can also send a message of solidarity to Laisa, letting her know that you are thinking of her. You can send a card to Laisa c/o José Batista Gonçalves Afonso, Rua Barão do Triunfo, 3151, Bairro Marco, Belém, PA, CEP 66093-050.

For more details of Amnesty’s Write for Rights campaign and to find out about other cases, visit www.amnesty.org.uk/write