They came looking for gold. Earlier this year, several dozen unauthorized prospectors, or garimpeiros as they are known in Portuguese, invaded a 1.4 million acre indigenous reserve in Brazil’s remote northern state of Amapá. Soon after they arrived, the corpse of an indigenous leader, Emyra Waiapi, was found riddled with stab wounds and discarded in a river. Tribe members sent desperate messages to local politicians and police, pleading for help. Many already had dark memories of past invasions that had almost wiped them out with infections and violence.
Brazil’s protected forest reserves and the people who inhabit them are getting little sympathy from the country’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro. He has referred to indigenous groups as “prehistoric” peoples in need of the civilizing influence of development. Bolsonaro’s environment minister, Ricardo Salles, himself under investigation for violating environmental laws in São Paulo, has dismissed reported violence against indigenous groups as fiction. Since coming into power in 2019, the Bolsonaro administration has systematically deregulated protections of indigenous reserves and reduced spending on public entities like the Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) and the National Indigenous Fund (FUNAI), the primary agencies responsible for investigating and prosecuting environmental crimes and protecting indigenous lands.
The global assault on the world’s environment is not only targeting forest resources, mineral reserves, and endangered animals, but also the people defending them. That leaves environmental activists across Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia fighting to protect not just biodiversity, but their own lives. At least 1,558 of them were assassinated between 2002 and 2017, according to a study in Nature Sustainability. The numbers are increasing. Roughly three environmental defenders – people who take peaceful action to protect the land and associated rights – are murdered every week, according to Global Witness. The problem is spread across dozens of countries, but few are as bloody as Brazil.
Brazil has been a dangerous place for environmental activists and investigative journalists for as long as anyone can remember. Although the current administration is dismissive of indigenous groups, the culture of impunity – less than 10% of all assassinations result in a conviction – precedes it. There are signs the campaign of violence could accelerate. As the country’s authorities aggressively push to open up tropical forests to everything from gold mining to palm oil production, Bolsonaro has levied increasingly outlandish accusations against NGOs, accusing “radical” environmentalism of setting fires to the Amazon in an effort to deflect criticism from his government without offering a shred of evidence.
We are joining other researchers to monitor violence perpetrated by state and non-state actors against environmental defenders in the Brazilian Amazon. Our team has gathered data from a wide range of organizations including the Indigenous Missionary Council (Conselho Indigenista Missionário), the Pastoral Land Commission (Comissão Pastoral da Terra), Global Witness, and Human Rights Watch, among others. Our assessment is expanding over the next year to encompass most countries in the Amazon Basin, including Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela, but the preliminary findings in Brazil are chilling.
We documented 2,540 separate violent incidents targeting environmental defenders in Brazil’s so-called Legal Amazon, an area covering nine Brazilian states. These include at least 406 assassinations, 378 attempted assassinations, 33 physical assaults, 339 suicides, 1,303 death threats, and 81 cases of sexual violence. Given uneven reporting and the high likelihood of cover-ups, this is surely an undercount. Overall, the northern state of Pará registered the highest number of reported events (27%) followed by the smaller states of Maranhão (25%) and Rondônia (14%).
The murder rate has been fairly steady in recent years, varying from 66 to 80 a year between 2015 and 2018. Indigenous people make up a third of all documented victims, followed by landless people (sem-terra), individuals who generally lack stable jobs and land tenure. Men make up over eight out of every ten victims. The plurality of killings occurred in Pará (29%), followed by Rondônia (23%) and Amazonas (13%).
Despite the relatively constant level of actual killings, the numbers from recent years show, oddly, an over 50% increase in attempted murders of environmental defenders. The rise in reported attempts may have resulted from increased coverage of the situation by non-governmental organizations in Brazil. Most of the people targeted are landless and indigenous leaders – and the perpetrators seem to be made up of loggers, farmers and land-grabbers.
It is critical we move quickly to ramp up of efforts to protect environment defenders. These men and women are critical to safeguarding the world’s largest tropical forests and preventing their increased exploitation. At a time when satellite-based evidence of deforestation is being questioned by the Brazilian government and scientists are under attack from politicians, we cannot afford to lose those working on the front lines. Since proactive leadership does not seem to be forthcoming from Bolsonaro or his environment minister, Brazilians must look elsewhere for action.
Brazilian legislators must launch an investigative commission, known as a CPI, and hold public hearings to identify, map and disrupt the criminal networks that are targeting environmental defenders. They should also ratify the Escazú Agreement, which requires states to protect those who defend the forest. Despite the current political climate, public entities such as the Ministry of Human Rights must be pressed to prioritize the issue. They have the mandate to document incidents and strengthen federal and state-level programs to protect local activists.
Meanwhile, the Attorney General and federal and state police forces must also increase their efforts to protect defenders and dismantle the criminal networks involved. The Attorney General’s office will need to ensure that its Amazon working group has sufficient resources to investigate and prosecute those behind illegal deforestation and violence. Against all odds – given the Bolsonaro administration’s record to date – IBAMA, FUNAI and the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform need additional funding just to do their jobs. That said, the current violence against environmental defenders will persist until structural reforms are undertaken to ensure that land titles are secured and respected and that indigenous communities are protected, imperatives that few previous governments have successfully addressed.
The protection of the Amazon’s environmental defenders is a national – and a global – responsibility. Their violent deaths leave traces of blood on everyone’s hands. It is not enough just to wait for the government to take action, though, to be sure, it has a Constitutional obligation to protect all citizens. Protecting and advocating for defenders is also fundamentally the responsibility of business and society as a whole. We must give them the tools they need to effectively carry out their activism and ensure their safety when they are at risk. After all, they are fighting for all of our survival.
Muggah is the co-founder of the Igarapé Institute and the SecDev Group and Foundation. Franciotti is a researcher at Igarapé.