You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Bolsonaro’s Violence Against Indigenous Amazonians Is Also an Environmental Catastrophe

The Brazilian president is fomenting violence against native populations that are defending their land from mining and deforestation.

Men from the Kayapo tribe protested outside Brazil’s Supreme Court in August.

The power had flickered out just as the meeting at the Conference of Bishops worship space was set to begin. It was mid-August, and without working AC, Belém—the capital city of Pará in the Amazon, situated just south of the equator—was brutally hot and suffocatingly humid. That left the 50-odd social movement leaders, trade unionists, indigenous land defenders, feminists, and educators to fan themselves with whatever flyers and pamphlets were around. There was an indignity beyond all the sweaty brows. “This is the product of a private company that robs us of our energy bills,” said an activist with the Movement of People Affected by Dams, a group started in 1991 to fight the privatization of Brazilian electricity that began under its military dictatorship. “We pay the highest rates and we produce the energy here. People have to decide if they’re going to have electricity or pay the rent and eat.”

This meeting of mostly women organizing near the mouth of the Amazon typically happens once a month. As Covid-19 tore through Brazil, claiming over 600,000 lives, the activists met less often. But today was a special occasion. With opening poems and prayers, they welcomed a delegation of parliamentarians and social movement leaders from the Progressive International (PI), an organization that connects left parties, politicians, and activists around the world.

The groups that organized the meeting have been under constant threat from President Jair Bolsonaro since he took office at the beginning of 2019, waxing nostalgic about the dictatorship and once promising to “cleanse” Brazil of its left-wing “criminals.” It’s not only pure animus fueling attacks against political opponents, but the drive to transfer much of the country’s wealth into private hands by opening new zones for mining, ranching, and other extractive interests—most aggressively in the Amazon and Cerrado. That’s an inherently violent process that has required cracking down on small-d democracy, criminalizing resistance of all sorts, and declaring open season on indigenous land defenders.

In Pará, a gold rush has accelerated violence by miners. In May, a calamitous police action to seize illegal mining equipment sparked violent backlash among small-scale, so-called artisanal miners. They went after police and then turned their guns on the Fazenda Tapajós village, inhabited by Munduruku people, setting fire to the homes of movement leader Maria Leusa Kaba and her mother. “We fear for the lives of those who struggle tirelessly to defend the lives of the Munduruku people and the future of everyone on this planet,” the Munduruku Organizations of Resistance wrote in an emergency communiqué. “For simply defending our river and the still-standing forest, we have become victims of the death-policies of this government.”

The physical violence against indigenous populations has come at a tremendous cost to the planet. Brazil’s carbon emissions climbed 9.5 percent in 2020, driven largely by deforestation in the Amazon. A report released in October from the Indigenous Missionary Council, an organization within Brazil’s Conference of Bishops dedicated to defending the rights of natives, found that murders of indigenous people had spiked by 61 percent in 2020, while land invasions are up 141 percent since 2018. Brazil is now the fourth most dangerous country on Earth for environmental defenders.

“This is an emergency,” Bico Rodrigues, coordinator for the National Coordination of Quilombola Black Rural Communities, or CONAQ, told the PI delegation at another meeting. Those communities trace their roots back to groups of escaped slaves who formed free societies beyond the reach of the plantation system. CONAQ, he said, has a dual mission: to ensure that the tremendous value generated in Quilombola communities remains there, and to protect against land invasions. The struggle to resist physical violence and the fight to protect the environment are intertwined. “It’s impossible to separate the two things,” Rodrigues told me. “In the countryside there are paramilitaries, police, the military itself, and those that are stealing land forcibly with invasions.”

These may be the waning months of Bolsonaro’s administration. Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party has led in virtually every poll ahead of next year’s election. But both the right and left are attempting to ensure Bolsonaro’s legacy isn’t forgotten. In August, the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), a group representing the 300 tribes within Brazil, requested that the International Criminal Court (ICC) try Bolsonaro for crimes against humanity, genocide, and ecocide—a symbolic charge that environmental defenders worldwide want to be added to the ICC’s roster. “All this environmental destruction that is being legalized is very dangerous not only for Brazil, but for the entire planet,” the group wrote in its 148-page complaint to the ICC.

The charges have made no noticeable impact on Bolsonaro’s behavior. He and his allies in Congress are using the remaining months of his current term to try to strip away the considerable rights baked into Brazil’s 1988 constitution. The country’s right wing, in league with agribusiness and mining interests, has pushed a pair of bills that would effectively erase the process for defining and protecting indigenous lands. If they become law, the bills would legalize already operating illegal mining and open the door for new mining, power plants, and massive agriculture projects to proceed without the consent of affected communities, in violation of protections mandated by the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Brazil’s Supreme Court is also expected to decide soon whether to accept a “marco temporal” (“time limit”). The court could rule that tribes only have the right to claim traditionally held territories if they can prove they were physically occupied when the constitution was ratified. If the court decides against indigenous people, APIB coordinator Sônia Guajajara explained, it would “represent an open invitation for farming and mining interests to destroy precious ecosystems in the name of commerce.” Tribes converged in Brasília throughout the summer to demonstrate against both the land rights bills and the marco temporal. They set up a sprawling, bustling encampment within the “fuselage” of the capital’s famed airplane layout, completed in 1960 as a showcase of the country’s Western-facing modernity. Both measures have been stalled since the summer.

Left-wing politicians face considerable threats, too. “Being killed is a concrete possibility,” Talíria Petrone, a federal deputy with PSOL—the Party for Socialism and Liberation—told the PI delegation. Her friend and PSOL city councillor for Rio de Janeiro, Marielle Franco, was killed in 2018 in what is widely considered a political assassination, which has not been thoroughly investigated by authorities. Petrone has faced death threats, and in 2019 federal police uncovered an assassination plot against her. “Many of our representatives can’t leave their homes,” Petrone said. At the meeting, she said she couldn’t go back to Rio de Janeiro, which she represents, though the lawmaker eventually returned in an armored car in late October.

“The democratic crisis and the climate crisis go together,” she added, “and they’re speeded along by the same forces.”