Eye on the Amazon

Forest Defenders Increasingly Come Under Fire in Brazil's Lawless Amazon

Alessandra Munduruku Photo credit: Leo Otero / Mídia Índia

Incredible as it may seem, it took less than one year for Brazil's repugnant President Bolsonaro to establish a fascist regime capable of dismantling the country's young democracy. The signs are everywhere: from the regime's disregard of the Brazilian constitution, fomenting of crime and impunity, dismantling of key institutions upholding human rights and environmental protections, condoning of police violence, and propaganda-fueled ultra-nationalistic discourse. Brazil is suffering rollbacks that evoke the brutality of its twenty-year military dictatorship.

The impacts of this crisis are being felt across Brazilian society, while disproportionately impacting the country's minorities and social movements. As the Amazon rainforest falls victim to this reckless regime, forest defenders – from Indigenous peoples and traditional communities to local NGOs – are being targeted by an unprecedented wave of violence and intimidation. This translates to mounting assassinations of Indigenous leaders, the highest in at least eleven years, according to preliminary data from the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT). Of the 27 people who died from conflicts in the countryside this year (compared to two deaths in 2018), seven were Indigenous leaders, such as Forest Guardian Paulo Paulinho Guajarara and the Chiefs Firmino Guajajara and Raimundo Guajajara, all three murdered within 35 days for standing in the way of logging mafias intent on plundering their lands.

Meanwhile, the Bolsonaro regime is launching baseless attacks upon organizations and individuals protecting the forest and serving local communities, such as last month's heavily-armed police raid on the headquarters of the Health and Happiness Project and its simultaneous imprisonment of volunteers who helped fight this summer's catastrophic Amazon fires.

On November 30th, Alessandra Munduruku, one of the Munduruku people's most powerful young leaders and spokespeople, also fell victim to this indiscriminate assault on Earth Defenders when her house was invaded and her computer, cell phone, flash drives, and important documents stolen. Upon returning home with her family, she discovered the thieves had taken her camera's memory card but left the camera, clearly indicating their intention to intimidate and silence her.

Like many of her peers, Alessandra had grown accustomed to threats stemming from the Munduruku's steadfast resistance to actors operating illegally in their territories, including miners, loggers, and land grabbers. In the weeks preceding the robbery, she traveled to Brasilia as part of a 50-person contingent to denounce the toxic scourge of wildcat gold and diamond mining on Munduruku land. "We came to raise our voices because we are under threat," her fellow leader Maria Leusa Kaba Munduruku told Reuters. "They want to legalize mining in our territory, build hydroelectric dams, ports, a railway and a waterway for soy."

The mobilization successfully raised the notoriety of illegal mining in the Amazon, immediately resulting in threats to Alessandra's life. She received audio messages from local gangsters stating that they knew where she lived and how easily she could be killed. The invasion of her home came shortly thereafter, illustrating the very real threats forest defenders increasingly face in Bolsonaro's Brazil.

The security breakdown in today's "completely lawless" Amazon is indicative of Bolsonaro's frontal attack on Brazilian democracy and the civil rights it espouses. Members of his regime, most recently his Finance Minister Paulo Guedes, openly suggest that growing left-wing opposition may oblige them to institute the military dictatorship's notorious "A-5" law, which dissolved Congress and led to the detention, torture, and murder of the dictatorship's opponents. While he and others have walked back these comments in public, they should be understood as transparent efforts to normalize increasingly authoritarian discourse.

Meanwhile the repression, imprisonment, and terrorization of those working to defend human rights and protect Brazil's irreplaceable ecosystems highlights a blatant double standard in which the regime outlaws legitimate activism while permitting rampant criminal activity. Bolsonaro's absurd claims that Leonardo DiCaprio finances NGOs responsible for setting the Amazon fires is only the latest chapter in a crude, concerted propaganda campaign designed to shift the blame for this crisis from its true authors, including the president himself. Such disinformation is true to form for a politician whose entire mandate rests on fake news.

It is impossible to calculate the havoc Bolsonaro and his henchmen are wreaking in the Brazilian Amazon, but case studies such as Paulo Paulinho's assasination help to illustrate the consequences of this disaster. After his murder, Justice Minister Sérgio Moro claimed: "We will spare no effort to bring those responsible for this serious crime to justice." However, facts on the ground suggest that the so-called investigation has done nothing to shed light on who ambushed and murdered the Forest Guardian on his people's land.

The regime's apparent inability to bring those responsible for this high-profile crime to justice provides a carte blanche for regional mafias and militias to continue their attacks and environmental devastation with impunity. Last weekend's brazen drive-by shootings of four Guajarara leaders is a grim indication that the state's failure to bring justice for Paulo Paulinho's murder encourages further violence and criminality.

"I am worried for my children," Alessandra Munduruku told Deutsche Welle after her home was robbed. "We know that we are running risks because we issue denunciations and fight for our territory and for the river. Previously they feared reprisal from the Federal Police and [the environmental enforcement agency] IBAMA. No longer. The situation has worsened. They are attacking and want to eliminate us."

In response to her deteriorating security situation, Alessandra's allies in the German parliament rallied to her defense, demanding that the Brazilian government guarantee her protection. Such acts of solidarity are critically important to hold responsible a criminal regime that appears intent on allowing today's Amazonian genocide to progress unabated.

Alessandra and her fellow leaders remain defiant and determined to continue their resistance. It is clear that their struggle for life pits them against powerful, lawless forces, and could ultimately fail without local and global solidarity. Indigenous people are the last line of defense between the future of the forest and its irreversible destruction. It is therefore contingent on all of us not to simply stand by and watch as the Amazon's guardians fall to the forces of disorder unleashed by Bolsonaro's fascist regime. Working alongside the Munduruku and a coalition of Brazilian and international organizations, Amazon Watch will continue to shine a spotlight on today's crisis while striving to address its global drivers.

If you have not already done so, please take action and share the Pledge of Solidarity with Brazil's Resistance and the call for Justice for the Murder of Paulo Paulino Munduruku.

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