UPDATE: FOREST DEFENDER’S WIFE ALSO MARTYRED IN BRUTAL ASSASSINATION

José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva speaking at TEDx Amazon in 2010
José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva speaking at TEDx Amazon in 2010

[URGENT: Please join the new avaaz sign-on letter. It is in Portuguese for Brazilian officials but you can easily enter your name, email and country. Please help the Brazilian forest defenders NOW.]

More from Mongabay

José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife, Maria do Espírito Santo da Silva, were gunned down last night in an ambush in the city of Nova Ipixuna in the Brazilian state of Pará. Da Silva was known as a community leader and an outspoken critic of deforestation in the region.

Police believe the da Silvas were killed by hired assassins because both victims had an ear cut off, which is a common token for hired gunmen to prove their victims had been slain, according to local police investigator, Marcos Augusto Cruz, who spoke to Al Jazeera. Suspicion immediately fell on illegal loggers linked to the charcoal trade that supplies pig iron smelters in the region.

José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva, who also went by the nickname ‘Ze Claudio’, was a vocal critic of illegal logging in Pará, a state in Brazil that is rife with deforestation. He also worked as a community leader of an Amazon reserve that sold sustainably harvested forest products.

Da Silva had received countless death threats and had frequently warned that he could be killed at any time, however he was refused protection by officials.

“I will protect the forest at all costs. That is why I could get a bullet in my head at any moment … because I denounce the loggers and charcoal producers, and that is why they think I cannot exist,” da Silva said in a TED Talks last November, adding “but my fear does not silence me. As long as I have the strength to walk I will denounce all of those who damage the forest.”

Clara Santos, the niece of the da Silvas, told BBC that the couple had suffered death threats for 14 years. A report compiled by Brazil’s Catholic Land Commission, a human rights group, in 2008 listed Da Silva as one of the environmental activists most likely to be assassinated.

The double assassination comes at a fateful time for the Amazon rainforest. Politicians in Brazil are considering changing to its Forest Law, which would allow ranchers and farmers to cut down a higher percentage of forest on their land. A vote may occur today.

Brazilian environmental journalist, Felipe Milanez, has said the assassination of da Silva has created ‘another Chico Mendes’. Mendes was a rubber trapper turned Amazon activist whose 1988 assassination catalyzed efforts to save the Amazon.

Da Silva’s killing comes six years after Dorothy Stang, an American nun who fought against deforestation, was slain by gunmen hired by a cattle rancher, also in the state of Pará. Her death was met by a sharp crack-down by the Brazilian against illegal fore