Eye on the Amazon

Mounting Violence by Brazil's Criminal Miners Endangers Indigenous Leaders

Photo credit: Amazon Watch

Last weekend, tens of thousands of Brazilians took the streets in more than 200 cities and towns to decry their government's disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic to its persistent corruption and assault on environmental protections. In São Paulo alone, an estimated 80,000 people took to the streets, in loud, masked, social-distanced protest and resistance. The largest street protests in years called for the defense of democracy and human rights at a critical moment, as the Bolsonaro administration has allowed organized crime to overrun Amazonian ecosystems and communities.

Unchecked environmental destruction and violence are increasing rapidly on the lands of the Munduruku people, whose forests and waterways are being destroyed by illegal miners. At least ten prominent Munduruku leaders have routinely faced death threats for their resistance to this devastating illicit activity and last week brought a new wave of terror and conflict to Pará state's Tapajós River basin.

On May 26, a major Federal Police operation to remove illegal gold miners from Munduruku Indigenous Territory turned violent, as armed miners first attacked a police outpost and then turned their fury upon the Munduruku themselves, attacking a village, firing shots, and targeting key leaders. Two houses were set ablaze, according to a statement from the Munduruku's Ipereg Ayu Movement.

In response, a major mobilization to support the Munduruku people has been launched by national and international allies, in order to pressure Brazilian authorities to ensure the safety of their communities and the continuity of the Federal Police operation. As the violence unfolded, Amazon Watch joined partners to organize rapid response advocacy, sending an open letter to Climate Envoy John Kerry and urging him to speak out about the violence facing the Munduruku.

"We demand that law enforcement against illegal mining continues and that the security forces return to expel all the miners that are still operating within our lands and ensure the safety of our people," demanded four Munduruku organizations, in a letter released two days after the attacks, as threatened leaders had been forced to flee their homes because of the continuing threats.

On May 30th, after a broad mobilization of legal action, including support from the Association of Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples (APIB) and parliamentarians allied to the cause, a high court gave the federal government a deadline of 24 hours to redeploy security forces to the municipality of Jacareacanga. And yesterday, the Federal Supreme Court gave the Federal Police 48 hours to immediately adopt all necessary measures to guarantee the life and safety of all those in and around the Munduruku Indigenous Territory in Jacareacanga. However, according to local sources, there are no indications yet of a resumption of the operation or increased security in the region.

Maria Leusa Kabá, coordinator of the Munduruku's Wakoborum Women's Association, was one of the leaders targeted during last week's attack and remains under threat. A frequent victim of death threats, her association in the city of Jacareacanga was ransacked and burned in March. In addition to the armed invasion of Maria Leusa's village, a group of illegal miners, known as garimpeiros, attempted to overrun a police base and plunder equipment to stop agents from reaching the illegally occupied lands.

These brazen moves were a show of strength from well-financed criminal networks with the backing of corrupt local politicians and businessmen and the high-level support of the Bolsonaro regime. By terrorizing vulnerable communities and their steadfast leaders, the miners are attempting to send a message that they will not be deterred from exploiting federally-protected Indigenous territories.

The threats of illegal mining have soared under Bolsonaro. Just this year in late April, during his weekly online "live" statement, Bolsonaro clearly announced his support for illegal mining, a hallmark of his government. He also stated that he was planning a visit to the military garrisons in the northern region of Brazil and to visit an illegal mining operation. "We are not going to arrest anyone. This will not be an operation to punish irregular miners. I want to talk to people, [learn] how they live there. To start to get a sense of how much gold is produced," he said.

In the face of this destruction and Bolsonaro's failure to act, the time has come for the U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry – who is currently in negotiations with Brazil's Minister of Environment over the future of the Amazon – to also send an unequivocal message: there can be no climate deals with Bolsonaro while he openly allows attacks on Indigenous peoples and the destruction of the rainforest.

In 2020, Kerry was the keynote speaker at the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award ceremony, honoring Alessandra Korap Munduruku, an important leader and voice of the indigenous movement. In his speech he underscored Indigenous peoples in general as sources of environmental wisdom and recognized the Munduruku people in particular for actively resisting "the constant, violent, illegal, and sometimes state-sponsored push by loggers and miners to exploit their land." In lauding the Munduruku, Kerry expressed his determination to "… continue to be part of this great battle. I look forward to fighting alongside [Alessandra and other Indigenous leaders]." Alessandra and the Munduruku people are now asking him to stand by his words and take action.

In our joint letter to Kerry, with allies the Environmental Investigation Agency, International Rivers, Greenpeace, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, we call on the Biden Administration to act immediately to eliminate the threat of violence as the first step. The letter goes on, “Further actions should include an immediate response to the back-sliding on environmental and human rights legislation. This includes examining the implications for addressing the climate crisis in the Amazon. An in-depth criminal investigation into the supply chains that allow for illegal exploitation of gold and timber on indigenous lands of the Amazon, and their export to the United States, Europe, and other countries. This investigation should include the role of the Brazilian Central Bank and other federal agencies in failing to exercise effective monitoring and control over illegal supply chains."

Amazon Watch and allies have monitored this escalating threat closely, acting quickly to pressure U.S. leaders to act before tragedy struck in Munduruku communities. Two months ago twelve U.S. Representatives wrote to the U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Todd Chapman about the intensifying threats, encouraging diplomatic action. To date, the letter has not received a response from the Ambassador. Unfortunately, public statements from the U.S. government about the Munduruku situation or others, like the assault on Yanomami territory, are still lacking.

As the crisis continues to escalate on Brazil's Indigenous territories, it is essential that the international community, particularly U.S. political leaders, speak out and attempt to prevent the next attack. The Biden administration’s leadership should not only concern itself with climate change mitigation but strive for climate justice as well. It must strive to support Indigenous people in defending their rights and their territories against invasions and threats, whether from criminals or the government itself.

The Biden Administration must prioritize the protection of human rights within its strategies related to the protection of the Amazon biome. We must all denounce the violence publicly and stand with Indigenous peoples of Brazil and the Amazon. They are often the last lines of defense and without their stewardship, the Amazon as we've known it would disappear.

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