Indigenous activists demand justice after 5 shot in Amazonian ‘palm oil war’
by Karla Mendes
- The incidents occurred in a part of the Amazonian state of Pará that’s been dubbed the “palm oil war” region, where Mongabay has over the past year documented the escalating tensions.
- Pará’s State Department of Public Security and Social Defense said the security guard identified as the mastermind of the initial shooting has been arrested, and inquiries to identify the other suspects are ongoing, along with increased security in the area.
- Palm oil company Brasil BioFuels S.A. (BBF) has denied the accusations, saying the Indigenous people had invaded part of its property and initiated the attack on its private security officers during an attempt to evict them.
“Guys, Dayane [Tembé] is very bad, because she bled a lot from her mouth. She is going to the hospital, we are going there. I was shot twice, once in the shoulder and once in the thigh.” That was the audio message from Felipe Tembé that Indigenous leaders shared with Mongabay, describing a violent attack on his Indigenous community on Aug. 7 in a part of the Brazilian Amazon dubbed the “palm oil war” region.
That Monday morning, private security guards from palm oil company Brasil BioFuels S.A. (BBF) allegedly also shot an Indigenous woman, Erlany Portilho Ferreira Tembé, and Indigenous man, Pylikape Tembé, in Tomé-Açu municipality, in the state of Pará, according to Indigenous leaders. Three days earlier, on Aug. 4, “heavily armed” BBF guards and military police deployed from the state capital, Belém, allegedly shot 19-year-old Kauã Tembé in what leaders have called an “arbitrary action” in the Bananal Indigenous village.
In all, five Indigenous people were wounded in just 72 hours, activists say. Dayane Tembé was shot in the neck and her situation is very serious; she’s at a hospital in Belém and was scheduled to undergo surgery on Aug. 8, Urutaw Turiwar Tembé, chief of the Yriwar Indigenous village, told Mongabay in a voice message.
“The attack on Friday last week was [against] my son, who was also shot by one of the security guards of the company BBF. And today, Monday morning, four more Indigenous people were shot.”
Last May, Lúcio Tembé, chief of the neighboring Indigenous village of Turé, was shot in the head and survived.
In an Aug. 8 emailed statement, Pará’s State Department of Public Security and Social Defense (Segup) said the security guard identified as the mastermind behind Kauã Tembé’s shooting had been detained Aug. 7 in the neighboring municipality of Castanhal. Segup said it is taking all measures to clarify the circumstances of what happened: “Policing in the area has been reinforced and the Civil and Military Police are taking steps to clarify the facts, initiate inquiries and identify the other suspects involved in this Monday’s case.” However, Segup didn’t respond to Indigenous peoples’ accusations about the involvement of police officers in the attack on Aug. 4.
In an emailed statement, BBF denied the accusations and accused the Indigenous communities of invading an area that “is not demarcated indigenous land but the company’s private property,” and also of attacking its outsourced private security. The company said the disputed area belongs to BBF since 2008 and it has all the legal documentation.
According to the company, the latest escalation in the conflict started on Aug. 3, after a specialized military police battalion went to the area “with the aim of removing the invaders from the site and allowing the workers to carry out their work activities,” BBF said, adding that the military police officers were also threatened.
“In the action, about 30 armed invaders threatened and assaulted company workers, before setting fire to dozens of tractors, agricultural machinery and company buildings. The company’s private security team managed to contain the criminal action of the invaders and safeguard the lives of the workers who were on site,” BBF said in its statement. The company added that it has taken “the appropriate legal measures with the judiciary” and requested support from state security agencies for a quick resolution to the case.
BBF added that the “criminal actions” date back to July 6, when “about 30 armed invaders prevented rural workers from entering the farm.” The company said the details are described in a July 8 report filed with the Tomé-Açu Civil Police, alleging claims of use of documents of dubious origin by the Indigenous. BBF said it also filed a July 18 police report against “about 100 invaders” and a July 26 police report into robberies and theft of palm fruit, the assault of a company worker, and two employees being held hostage. BBF’s full statement in Portuguese is available here.
‘Have you arrested the security guard who shot my son?’
The weekend’s shootings are the latest outburst in a chain of violence tied to the disputes between Indigenous communities and palm oil companies over land in the region, which Mongabay has consistently reported on over the past year.
“We are going through a difficult time here, being shot, it is becoming a real slaughter here in Tomé-Açu,” Paulo Nailzo Pompeu Portilho, chief of the Turiwara Indigenous people, said in an audio message. “We urgently ask for help.”
On Aug. 6, the Acará Valley Tembé Indigenous Association sent a letter to Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Pará Governor Helder Barbalho to demand justice.
“[W]e will not remain silent in the face of the murder and erasure of our relatives and call on Your Excellencies to give due attention to the situation of this conflict and to adopt the urgent and necessary measures to guarantee the rights of these peoples,” said the letter signed by Indigenous leader Miriam Tembé, the head of the association. “Do not let them exterminate our peoples. No more rights violations and violence! Enough of impunity!”
The Federal Public Ministry (MPF) said it has been following the case closely since Aug. 4. “At the time, the Federal Police and the State Public Security Secretariat were called and they have been on the scene since early morning, including when three [sic] more Indigenous people were shot,” the MPF said in an emailed statement. It added that it’s awaiting the return of a Federal Police team that is carrying out diligence and hearings, collecting data and evidence related to the conflict so that the appropriate measures can be taken.
The minister of Indigenous peoples, Sonia Guajajara, called the attacks a “tragic moment” precisely “when the eyes of the world are turning to the Brazilian Amazon,” referring to the Amazon Summit that began Aug. 7 in Belém that she joined and brings together the heads of eight Amazonian countries. In an emailed statement, the ministry said it “will continue to follow the case and hopes that the investigations will result in the proper punishment of those involved.”
Following the shootings, Indigenous peoples held a protest outside the police station in the town of Quatro Bocas, where Felipe Tembé, the latest shooting victim, was jailed for what they say were unclear reasons. “Have you arrested the security guard who shot my son?” Urutaw Tembé demanded as seen in a video from the demonstration on Aug. 7.
Felipe Tembé was finally released at around 11 p.m. on Aug. 7, Indigenous leaders say, following the mobilization of more than 300 people in front of the police office.
The Indigenous leaders headed to Belém on Aug. 8 for a demonstration during the Amazon Summit, where Lula was expected to attend.
In an emailed statement, Funai, the federal agency for Indigenous affairs, said it’s monitoring the situation and has already requested “the necessary measures regarding the situation of violence against the Tembé people.” A meeting of Funai’s president, Joenia Wapichana, with the Indigenous Tembé is scheduled for Aug. 8, the agency added.
Funai noted that the conflict between BBF, previously called Biopalma, dates back nearly 15 years, stemming from the expansion of its oil palm plantations into areas bordering Indigenous territories. In 2021, Mongabay published findings from an 18-month in-depth investigation that revealed the environmental impact of oil palm crops on Indigenous and traditional communities in the region.
Funai said it has documented all incidents of conflict in the case. It noted that at a meeting on April 28, all parties involved agreed that the Indigenous and other traditional communities in the region “will remain in possession of the BBF company’s plantation areas [neighboring the communities,] being able to harvest oil palm, as well as its commercialization, without interference from the company, until the analysis of the issue is completed.”
The Federal Police did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment.
In a voice message to Mongabay, Turiwara chief Paulo Portilho suggested the case only was getting attention because it was being shared online.“Thank goodness, lady, that Indigenous people today have cellphones and the Internet to report what happens inside the villages,” he said. “Because otherwise the Indigenous would die silent, without being able to show their pain. It’s very complicated what’s happening to us these days.”