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Husband-Wife Environmentalists Ambushed, Killed in Amazon

Rubber tapper Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva, left, and his wife Maria do Espirito Santo look at the camera in this undated photo in Brazil. Ribeiro da Silva, an activist who was fighting to protect the Amazon rain forest from loggers, was shot and killed

A husband and wife team of environmental activists were shot and killed in Brazil's Amazon rain forest, just before lawmakers moved closer to approving legislation to ease restrictions on using land in the world's largest forest.

Authorities said Joao Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espirito Santo were ambushed by gunmen in the northern Brazil state of Para on Tuesday. President Dilma Rousseff's office says she has ordered a federal investigation, but it was not immediately clear who was behind the attack.

Both victims had received death threats from loggers and ranchers angry about their attempts to fight deforestation and protect Amazon residents who harvest rubber, nuts and other renewable resources.

Brazil is a major exporter of soy, beef, coffee and other commodities.

On Wednesday, the Brazilian lower house of Congress approved a bill that reduces the amount of protected land in the Amazon, delegates enforcement to state governments, and grants amnesty for those who have illegally cleared trees. The bill still must pass in the Senate. It also must be signed by Ms. Rousseff, who has indicated she may veto the bill if the amnesty and enforcement provisions are not changed.

Proponents say existing laws are impossible to enforce and need to be updated. But critics say the proposed laws already have encouraged illegal logging by people who assume the amnesty provisions will pass. They point to a government announcement last week that satellite images from the past two months showed a nearly six-fold increase in land clearing compared to the same period last year.

Previously, deforestation in the Amazon had fallen to its slowest pace on record since 1988.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.