Five murdered in 2020 Brazilian Amazon land conflicts, adding to 2019 surge
by Sam Cowie
A burned, deforested clearing inside the Karipuna Indigenous Reserve, Rondônia state. Illegal deforestation like that seen here is resulting in land conflicts across the Brazilian Amazon. Image by Sam Cowie.
At least five people have been killed so far this year in Brazilian land conflicts, leaving activists fearful of a violent year ahead, as President Jair Bolsonaro is poised to push measures that would further reduce indigenous and forest protections.
“2020 has begun with a series of situations that show it will be a very difficult year,” said Antônio Cerqueira, executive secretary of Brazil’s Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI).
Barely a week into the new year, three Miranha indigenous men were murdered in Coari municipality, an oil and gas rich town on the banks of the Amazon River, 363 kilometers (225 miles) from Manaus, the Amazonas state capital. Two more murders occurred in Maranhão state, on the Amazonian frontier.
According to a police report seen by Mongabay, indigenous teacher Joabe Marins was shot and killed at his home within the Cajuhiri Atravessado Indigenous Reserve, reportedly by a group of five non-indigenous men.
Francisco Alves, president of the Association of Indigenous Communities of Coari (ACIC), told Mongabay that more than 100 non-indigenous people live on the reserve.
“The non-indigenous people living in the community bring other non-indigenous there to collect Brazil nuts, take out timber, to fish, to hunt. This creates conflict,” he said.
Police confirmed the current conflict was motivated by a long running land dispute, which turned violent when a shotgun was allegedly stolen from one of the non-indigenous men. A police source involved with the arrest said the man who fired the fatal shot told him that Joabe appeared at the window of his house armed. The killer is apparently married to an indigenous woman from the community.
The victim’s brothers, Marcos and Francisco, sought to avenge the killing and boarded a boat looking for the killers along the river. But when the two groups crossed paths, the indigenous men were overpowered, forced into the water and drowned. Three non-indigenous men were later arrested and charged with homicide.
In the past, law enforcement operations like this one in 2018 in Rondônia state conducted by Ibama, Brazil’s environmental agency, along with Army and Military Police units, kept illegal deforestation and violence in check. Under Bolsonaro, such operations have become far more rare. Image courtesy of Ibama.
According to Alves, Brazil’s National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI) was supposed to remove the non-indigenous people from inside the 12,500 hectare (30,888 acre) reserve, officially recognized by the Brazilian government as indigenous territory in late 2015.
But over the last three years, the agency has suffered from deep budget cuts and hamstringing of its mission, first under president Michel Temer, and since January 2019, under Bolsonaro.
Last year, Sidney Possuelo, one of Brazil’s most respected indigenous experts and FUNAI president in the 1990s, described the agency as “dead” and “extinct.”
FUNAI’s technical team (CTL) in Coari, which acts as a go between with the Brazilian state — providing birth registrations, legal assistance and aiding with territorial protections — hasn’t had a coordinator or staff in place for at least a year, leaving indigenous populations vulnerable to conflict from land grabbers, illegal loggers and others.
“We are totally abandoned,” Alves said, adding that he feared further violence on the Cajuhiri Atravessado Reserve, noting that previous official complaints have been ignored by authorities.
He also said that indigenous people in Coari have increasingly been harassed by “river pirates”: armed groups that rob narcotics shipments of cocaine and hydroponic marijuana floated down the Amazon River from neighboring Colombia and Peru.
“They steal motors, gasoline, food… there’s so much violence,” he said.
River travel as seen here on a tributary of the Amazon River has become increasingly dangerous as lawlessness has escalated over the past year. Photo credit: World Bank Photo Collection on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND.
Elsewhere, in Arari, in Maranhão state, on the Amazonian frontier, Celino Fernandes and his son Wanderson were executed by four hooded gunmen inside the rural community of Cedro less than a week into 2020.
According to Brazil’s Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), the murdered peasants had regularly complained to authorities that the family of a local judge had illegally privatized and fenced off common lands held by the government where the rural community previously fished and raised animals sustainably — a land use right guaranteed to traditional people by federal law.
“It’s a type of conflict that happens historically in the region,” said Diogo Cabral, a lawyer with the Maranhão Society of Human Rights. He says the problem has gotten worse this year.
“On the one hand, you have resources for agrarian reform and Quilombolas [descendants of fugitive slaves] being cut [by the federal government], while you have the stimulation of farmers and armed groups,” Cabral said.
Also early in January 2020, in Dourados municipality, in the central west agricultural state of Mato Grosso do Sul, local media reported that an indigenous man was shot in the face and others were injured — including a child who lost fingers playing with a non-lethal grenade left behind by private security guards who had attacked indigenous people because they had occupied local farmlands in an attempt to take back what they say is their ancestral lands.
The region is a hotbed of violent conflict, with indigenous people — who live cramped inside a tiny reserve — attempting to retake land they see as theirs.
In addition, in the remote Vale do Javari region, in Amazonas, six indigenous children died of flu, diarrhea and other common ailments thought to have been contracted during long trips with their families to collect Brazil’s Bolsa Familia cash payment, all within the last forty days, deaths that advocacy groups blame on the “destructuring” and dismantling of Brazil’s federal indigenous healthcare system.
Last year, President Bolsonaro sought to reduce forest and indigenous protections which analysts say led to a spike in deforestation and invasions of indigenous lands by illegal loggers, wildcat miners and land grabbers.
The first nine months of 2019 saw 160 such invasions compared to just 109 the year before, according to data compiled by CIMI, while the number of indigenous leaders killed was the highest in eleven years.
The murder of Paulo Paulinho Guajajara in November by invaders of the Araribóia Indigenous Reserve in Maranhão hit international headlines.
Experts point to a series of measures in 2020 that could lead to further increases in violence against indigenous people, traditional populations and small-scale farmers.
Isolete Wichinieski, a CPT national coordinator, cited an executive decree issued by Bolsonaro late last year, MP 910, that critics say allows for far easier land grabbing. While already in place, the measure still has to be approved by Congress within 120 days or it becomes null.
MP 910 gives amnesty to those who occupied and deforested up to 2,500 hectares (6178 acres) of public lands before December 2018, a measure which experts say will encourage further land grabbing. The amnesty could turn over vast swathes of public land to large-scale private owners, likely escalating conflicts with indigenous and traditional communities who utilize those lands.
Juliana Batista, a lawyer with Brazil’s Social Environment Institute (ISA), an NGO, said the bill could leave indigenous lands awaiting demarcation especially vulnerable to invasions which could lead to conflicts.
The Bolsonaro government also says that it is finally ready to unveil a long-awaited bill to allow mining on indigenous lands, a practice forbidden under the 1988 Brazilian Constitution. That bill’s draft is reportedly making the rounds of the European Union Parliament, in order to head off a possible EU public and political outcry from one of Brazil’s major trading partners.
Serious doubts remain as to whether the indigenous mining bill, which experts say violates international norms, will pass. Brazilian House of Deputies Speaker Rodrigo Maia has said he won’t put it to a vote.
But Alessandra Korap, a Munduruku indigenous leader from the Tapajos River basin in Pará state, the epicenter of Brazil’s modern goldrush, says that Bolsonaro’s rhetoric in favor of mining on indigenous territory has already emboldened more wildcat miners to invade.
“The president says ‘let’s legalize’ so people say ‘I’ll take my space there!’” she said in an interview with this reporter last year.