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Brazil’s new president: A threat to the Amazon and its indigenous people

The Philippines may have replaced Brazil for the first time as the most dangerous country on earth for people who defend their land and environment but that does not make the Latin American country a paradise for indigenous people – quite the contrary. The tribes of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest fear they will be destroyed by the new right-wing government which, in their view, represents the gravest threat in decades.
As a congressman, new President Jair Bolsonaro compared the “smelly” inhabitants of indigenous reserves to animals in zoos. He also once said: “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry wasn’t as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated their Indians.”
Bolsonaro’s first act, minutes after being inaugurated on 1 January 2019, was to strip the main responsibilities of FUNAI, the National Indigenous Foundation created in 1967 to safeguard indigenous rights. He also declared that he will reduce or abolish Amazonian indigenous reserves, which make up 13 per cent of Brazil’s territory. He claims the protected areas are an obstacle to profitable agribusiness and has pledged not to demarcate one millimetre of new indigenous land. Critics have described this as a “catastrophe” for Brazil’s 900,000 indigenous people, who, without protection, could face total annihilation. 

“For us, denying the right to our land is to deny our own existence,”

said Sonia Guajajara, Brazil’s top indigenous leader, who ran for last year’s general election as a vice-presidential candidate and lost to Mr. Bolsonaro in the first round. When we spoke on the sidelines of the Brazil Forum at the London School of Economics, she shared a premonition of violence against her community. Disturbingly, this turned out to be prescient within a matter of weeks.

Ms. Gujajara told me that invasions of indigenous lands have increased since Bolsonaro took office and she fears the consequences of his hateful rhetoric. A few weeks later, Emyra Waiãpi, an indigenous leader in the state of Amapa, deep in the Amazon forest, was murdered after armed men – presumably illegal gold miners – raided his village. President Bolsonaro has said there is no evidence of foul play and denied that Waiãpi was murdered. An investigation is ongoing.
The UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet explicitly linked the “reprehensible” killing to the pro-mining policies of Brazil’s president. Bolsonaro has called on rich nations to help exploit the “absurd quantities of minerals – gold, manganese, iron and copper – in the rainforest”. Bachelet said the “proposed policy to open up more areas of the Amazon to mining could lead to more incidents of violence, intimidation and killings of the type inflicted on the Waiãpi people.” She added in a statement: “It is also a disturbing symptom of the growing problem of encroachment on indigenous land – especially forests – by miners, loggers and farmers in Brazil.”
According to Amazon Watch, a non-profit advocacy organisation working to protect the rainforest and indigenous peoples’ rights, at least 14 cases of illegal advances into indigenous territories by loggers and miners were documented across Brazil in the first three months of the year. 

“Of course, NGOs and other countries don’t want [to legalise mining in the rainforest]. They want the indigenous to remain trapped like they’re prehistoric humans,”

Bolsonaro told foreign journalists at a conference in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital.

Globally, mining was the sector responsible for the most killings – 43 – last year, according to Global Witness, an independent watchdog based in London. But the group has warned that this is almost certainly an undercount since in most countries the crimes go unreported. According to Sesai, Brazil’s indigenous health department, 110 indigenous people were killed in 2017 in Brazil. The figures for 2018 have not yet been published.
Eager to “develop the Amazon” and open the forest for dirty business, Bolsonaro is facing a major backlash. The trade deal accord, two decades in the making, between the European Union and Mercosur (economic bloc founded by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) could be jeopardised. After the murder of the Waiãpi leader, an EU spokesperson said that respect for indigenous rights in Brazil is “an essential element” required to ratify the deal. In addition, 600 scientists called on the EU “to strengthen efforts on sustainable trade and uphold its commitments on human rights, environmental protection, and climate change mitigation.” 

Gun laws

Now that the mining and farming lobbies have found a champion in Brazil their workers feel entitled by the president’s comments to take control over the indigenous land, warned Sonia Guajajara. She grew concerned after Bolsonaro signed an executive order easing gun ownership and increasing the amount of ammunition that can legally be purchased per month, including by those living in rural areas.

“It’s like giving the agribusiness sector and its workers the authorisation to kill us,” she said. “We have an arrow, they have a rifle, it’s an unequal fight.”

Her main weapon is education: she teaches indigenous people to stand up for their rights peacefully, to bring their demands to National Congress and to try to hold the government accountable. She knows it is not easy, but she has become more politically engaged and successfully organised a rally of 4,000 indigenous people representing Brazil’s 305 tribes. Together they managed to reverse Bolsonaro’s decision to transfer the control of reservation land to the agriculture ministry. “Resistance is at the core of democracy,” she told me. 


Along with the direct threat to the indigenous people of the Amazon, deforestation is accelerating rapidly. The planet’s largest rainforest has lost more than 1,330 square miles since Mr. Bolsonaro took office. That is a 39 per cent increase over the same period last year, according to INPE, the government agency that tracks deforestation. The situation continues to worsen: in July alone, the rate of destruction rose drastically by 278 % more than last year. As predicted by the Guardian, July was set to be the first month in five years in which Brazil will lose an area of forest bigger than Greater London.

To Bolsonaro, this is fake news. His pronouncements have alarmed scientists and even his own government. He has questioned official satellite data and called concern over threats to nature reserves a form of “environment psychosis” and “a problem that only vegan people worry about”. The president has also warned that the Amazon belongs to Brazil only and accused European leaders of pushing for stronger conservation because they hope to develop it themselves. “Brazil is like a virgin that every pervert from the outside lusts for,” he said. 
To indigenous people, the forest – the world’s best defence against global warming – belongs to those who defend and preserve it. To raise awareness of the risks they are facing (and to raise money), Brazilian indigenous leaders have been touring the world. Raoni, a famous indigenous chief, recently met Pope Francis and French president Emmanuel Macron, and it seems that reports of the atrocities committed against indigenous people and the destruction of the Amazon reverberate louder internationally than domestically.

In Brazil, a climate change sceptic, elected by a majority of votes, will be in charge for the next three and a half years, at least. The indigenous people promise not to be deterred and to keep fighting for their “non-negotiable sacred territories.”

“Today, the indigenous fight is not an exclusive cause to the native communities, it is a humanitarian cause,” Guajajara concluded.

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