RONDON DO PARA, Brazil — She wants to follow in her husband's footsteps, but not to the end.
As president of the rural workers union in this corner of the Amazon rain forest, Maria Joel da Costa is as dedicated as her husband was when he had the job. But she has no desire to become a martyr for the cause that has made her a widow.
Her husband, Jose Dutra "Dezinho" da Costa, shrugged off the death threats he received for encouraging poor settlers to stand up to ranchers and loggers trying to force them off the land. He was shot point-blank 4 1/2 years ago by an alleged hit man nabbed only because the burly Da Costa collapsed onto him, pinning him to the ground long enough for residents to arrive.
Two years later, a neighbor who witnessed the slaying was snatched from his home and executed, his body dumped in the street. Then, last year, someone gunned down Maria Joel da Costa's closest aide, the union treasurer.
Da Costa and her four children now live under state protection, guarded round-the-clock as the same sort of chilling warnings once directed at her husband are now aimed at her.
"You can't get used to it. When you know that someone has an evil design on your life, each threat that arrives puts you in suspense," she said. "But I can't stop my work."
Da Costa, 41, is one of dozens of people who activists say appear on an informal death list drawn up by ranchers and loggers here in rugged Para state, on Brazil's northern coast. These marked men and women form the vanguard in a bloody, protracted battle for land in a region so lawless and untamed that some call it Brazil's heart of darkness.
The outcome may help decide not just the fate of rural residents but of the Amazon rain forest, one of the planet's largest, richest natural wonders. The struggle pits poor agricultural workers and small landholders, who advocate limited use of the forest, against powerful farmers and loggers intent on pushing ever more deeply into the jungle.
The fight over land in Para has claimed more than 900 lives during the last 25 years, or one death every 10 days, according to statistics compiled by the state and by human rights organizations. Almost all the victims have been poor rural settlers or grass-roots activists like Da Costa's husband.
But few seemed to care, critics say, until one of the dead was a nun from the United States. Dorothy Stang, who spent decades defending the rights of poor settlers in Para, was shot six times Feb. 12 in an ambush that made world headlines and focused uncomfortable scrutiny on the Brazilian government.
Her killing, allegedly by hit men at the behest of an angry local rancher, highlighted the extent to which parts of the Brazilian Amazon -- an area the size of Western Europe -- have become outposts where corruption, fear and guns rule, not the state. Officials speak openly of a Wild West-like situation in which the rich and powerful, backed by crooked local authorities, literally get away with murder.
"The climate of terror, of violence, continues," said Paulo Sette Camara, Para's secretary of public security from 1979 to 1983 and again from 1995 to 2002. "We're living in a frontier region where might makes right."
Huge swaths of Para are controlled by local oligarchs and absentee landlords who illegally clear forest for timber and pasture to help satisfy the world's growing demand for wood and beef, officials and activists say.
Some have reportedly formed their own private militias to defend and expand their holdings. Reports are rampant of hired thugs harassing and intimidating settlers, burning down whole villages to drive them out, beating up or killing those who resist. State police often do little to stop the violence, and sometimes even collude in it, officials acknowledge.
"It's clear [the system] has failed," Sette Camara said.
The steady development on what is technically federally owned land stems from policies initiated by Brazil's 1964-85 right-wing military dictatorship, which promoted settlement of the Amazon Basin as a patriotic enterprise.
The promise of free land -- acre upon acre of it -- lured waves of speculators and poor settlers, many from the country's historically impoverished northeast. These newcomers carved out holdings in areas mainly populated by indigenous tribes, who have been pushed onto reserves.
But the government lacked an efficient, transparent process for granting land titles, which has resulted in a giant mess of unauthorized, competing and falsified claims. Widespread corruption has benefited those with the financial or political clout to get their stakes recognized.
Without strong governmental institutions to stop them, illegal appropriations and strong-arm tactics have become commonplace.
There are only three federal police precincts in all of Para, watching over a state that is more than twice the size of France.