Brazil’s indigenous people are struggling to protect their home, the Amazon rainforest. They risk their lives to defend the forest from anyone who tries to destroy it. But protecting it means putting their lives in grave danger as they confront loggers who brazenly violate Brazil’s environmental laws — and who threaten, attack, and even kill those who stand in their way.
The defenders protect the Amazon with little expectation that the state will protect them. In fact, even the state is a perpetrator. Since Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro was elected last 2018, the government has cut back on enforcing environmental laws and placed significantly less focus on fighting illegal mining, logging, and ranching. The president even argued once that conservation policies are bad for Brazilian economic development. His negligence with one of the largest carbon sinks has resulted in a rise in deforestation and severe wildfires.
The National Institute for Space Research reported that the Amazon Rainforest lost 3,769 square miles of rainforest due to deforestation between August 2018 and July 2019. This marks the highest deforestation since 2008 and is a 30% increase from 2018. During that time, an intense surge of fires raged, attracting international attention to the irreversible damage being done. While these environmental issues have devastating implications for the Amazonian ecosystem and climate change, the indigenous communities are more at risk than ever.
Even the "uncontacted" indigenous tribes in the Amazon are at risk. According to the World Economic Forum, an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas, Brazil's uncontacted tribes, some of the last on Earth, depend on large areas of unspoiled forest land to hunt animals and gather the food they need to survive. However, illegal loggers and militias continue to destroy their home.
In 2018, Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a Brazilian advocacy group, released satellite imagery showing about 4,600 acres (1,863 hectares) of deforestation in the Ituna Itata indigenous land in northern Para state. "This situation is very worrying. There is a series of risks, not only to indigenous territories of uncontacted tribes but also to other indigenous territories in the area,” Juan Doblas, a senior geo-processing analyst at ISA, said.
Violence Against the Indigenous People
The indigenous tribes in Brazil have been facing violence linked to illegal deforestation. In 2017, Naraymi Suruí, a leader of the Suruí Paiter Indigenous people, was attacked by gunmen after he confronted illegal loggers inside the Sete de Setembro Indigenous Territory in Rondônia state. While the government has launched several efforts and programs to protect these defenders, these provide little meaningful protection. Generally, it involves nothing more than occasional phone check-ins.
Throughout his time in office, Pres. Bolsonaro has shown little interest in protecting not only the Amazon but also the indigenous people. He publicly campaigned for rolling back on indigenous rights, leading to land incursions, illegal natural resource extraction, and property damage in indigenous areas doubling in the first nine months of his administration. Former UN Special Rapporteur on indigenous people Victoria Tauli-Corpuz stated that putting them at risk was discriminatory and racist.
However, most of the violence committed against the indigenous people in Brazil is underreported. Of the more than 230 cases of fatal attacks, involving more than 300 victims, fewer than 4% have gone to trial. The Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, presented statistics to this claim. In Pará, the state with the highest number of killings, only 4 out of 89 cases have gone to trial since 2009; in Maranhão, only 2 out of 46; in Rondônia, only 3 out of 66, while there have been no trials in Mato Grosso, which had 16 cases, and in Amazonas, which had 8.
No justice was served because the police don’t conduct proper investigations. “There is impunity because of the failure to apply even basic investigative methods,” Pará federal prosecutor Paulo Oliveira said.
Land Invasions Amid COVID-19 Pandemic
COVID-19 has already reached the indigenous people in the Amazon. Social News, an Indo-American News website, reported that there have been 17 confirmed coronavirus cases and 22 other suspected cases among the indigenous population, although civil society organizations and authorities believe that the numbers are likely higher. At least three members of the tribes have reportedly died of coronavirus, including a 15-year-old member of the Yanomami ethnic group. The rising deforestation and ongoing pandemic put indigenous people more at risk of both violence and infection.
Indigenous leaders and advocates fear that illegal loggers and land grabbers would take advantage of the pandemic to attack indigenous territories. “These criminals won’t respect social distancing. Much the opposite: they will take advantage to be able to work more peacefully,” Antonio Oviedo, a monitoring coordinator at the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), an NGO that defends indigenous rights, said.
This kind of threat isn’t new for the country’s indigenous people. Thousands have already been killed from diseases brought by settlers over the last 50 years in Brazil’s Amazon. The Karipuna indigenous people, for instance, was nearly wiped out during the 1970s by contagious illnesses. Currently, there are only 58 members, with several indigenous members more than 60 years old. Illegal miners and loggers, however, continue to attack their territories.
According to Mongabay, a nonprofit provider of conservation and environmental science news, an estimated 11,000 hectares (27,200 acres) of the reserve’s 153,000 hectares (378,000 acres) of forest cover has been destroyed over the past few years. “We’re scared that they take advantage of this time when we are vulnerable when authorities are in quarantine,” Adriano Karipuna said.
During these times, upholding Brazil’s environmental laws is important to protect both the rainforest’s ecosystem and the indigenous people who need the Amazon to survive. Amnesty International said that the government should to step up monitoring and patrols of Indigenous territories and environmentally protected areas in the Amazon region, while also ensuring the safety of government officers.