BRASILIA An Amazon rainforest activist and his wife were shot dead in northern Brazil on Tuesday as the country's Congress debated a divisive land bill that threatens to fuel deforestation.
Joao Claudio Ribeiro da Silva, a rubber tapper and leading forest conservationist, and his wife Maria do Espirito Santo were ambushed and killed in the Amazon state of Para, federal police and government officials said.
It was not immediately clear who shot the couple but Da Silva had warned of death threats against him by loggers and cattle ranchers.
Both victims were active in the same organization of forest workers that was founded by legendary conservationist Chico Mendes, who was assassinated by ranchers in 1988.
Da Silva, who frequented local and international seminars on Amazon protection, worked in defense of forest dwellers who make a living by extracting renewable resources such as nuts, rubber and fruits.
His death renews concern over the often violent conflicts surrounding natural resources in Latin America's largest country -- and comes at a particularly sensitive time for the government.
The lower house of Congress was debating an overhaul of Brazil's law on land usage that critics say represents a surrender to farming interests and would set back recent progress in protecting the Amazon.
Last week officials reported a sharp rise in deforestation that environmentalists said was likely fueled by expectations the new law, which gives amnesties much of the illegal tree-felling in recent decades, would pass.
President Dilma Rousseff ordered a federal police investigation into the murders of Da Silva and his wife, her office said. Brazilian federal police normally deal only with homicides in cases of human rights violations.
"Jose Claudio had been marked to die long ago, since he began denouncing deforestation and the illegal extraction of timber in the region," the grassroots network Forum of the Eastern Amazon said on its web page. "Once again they kill those who defend the forest."
Each year dozens of people in Brazil are killed in land disputes, many in the sprawling and sparsely policed Amazon region.
U.S.-born nun Dorothy Stang, who defended poor peasants and opposed the destruction of the Amazon rain forest, was shot dead times in February 2005.
(Reporting by Raymond Colitt; Editing by Stuart Grudgings)