Dangerous times on Brazil's Amazon frontier
Amazon land activist Deurival Santiago has the look of a hunted man.
Unshaven, his eyes bloodshot and his head bowed, the 53-year-old sits in the back room of a safe house near Brazil's muddy Trans-Amazonian highway as logging trucks roll by outside.
A friend watches the gate for gunmen he says were hired to kill him after he clashed with land grabbers advancing on the prized eastern flank of Brazil's Amazon rain forest.
Activists like Santiago often protect peasant settlers in jungle areas where the government still has little control.
That puts them in conflict with large-scale loggers, ranchers and land speculators pushing into an area of Para state known as the Terra do Meio, or Middle Land. It's the main battleground in the fight to slow destruction of the world's largest rain forest.
"I had to run because I was going to die that day," says Santiago, who left behind his wife and children in November in Pacaja, 125 miles (200 km) southeast of regional center Altamira.
Brazil this year created the world's biggest environmental protection area in the Terra do Meio to slow deforestation after U.S. nun and Amazon defender Dorothy Stang was murdered in February 60 miles (100 km) from Altamira. Two Brazilian men were convicted on Dec. 10 of her murder.
The government raised funding for settlement of peasant migrants to farm and selectively small areas, without totalling destroying the forest.
But President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has not committed enough resources to police the rain forest and ensure the 30 percent reduction in deforestation during 2004-2005 becomes a permanent trend, federal officials and activists say.
Plans to someday asphalt the Trans-Amazonian -- an impassable quagmire half the year -- and build a hydro electricity plant near Altamira have increased the influx of migrants and intensified battles for unprotected jungle areas.
Five people were murdered in land feuds in the Altamira region this year, some involving peasants killing one another.
A rancher and deputy mayor of Altamira, Silverio Fernandes, said the activists add to the violence. "They are trying to do the federal government's job," he said.