Death in the Amazon

There is plenty of room for the international community to offer logistical support and equipment in the battle against transnational criminal networks. But these strategies only work if the Brazilian government wills it.


Photo: Courtesy of the author.

Last month, a Brazilian expert on Indigenous people and a veteran journalist for The Guardian were murdered by illegal fishermen along the Rio Itaquaí. Although police arrested three suspects, they acknowledged the suspected killers might not be the intellectual authors of the assassinations. Justice requires a full, transparent accounting.

Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips are not the first martyrs advocating for the preservation of the Amazonian oasis and the Indigenous communities that people its serpentine rivers and emerald forests. Chico Mendes, Dorothy Stang, and hundreds of lesser-memorialized figures met similar fates because of their resistance. Nevertheless, the recent murders represent a bleak reminder of how burgeoning criminal networks, aided by lackluster official responses, have supercharged traditional criminality. Barring a radical departure from Brazil’s current trajectory, a dystopian future emerges on the horizon.

The pair were murdered just outside the Terra Indígena Vale do Javari—the second-largest reservation in Brazil. Encompassing a territory roughly the size of Portugal, Vale do Javari protects some 6,000 inhabitants and contains the largest population of “uncontacted” groups. Although the government officially demarcated boundaries in 1998, invasions have not stopped.

Traditionally, loggers, wildcat miners, ranchers, and missionaries were the principal culprits ignoring and violating the environmental and indigenous statutes established in the 1988 constitution and subsequent legislation.

During the PT presidencies of Lula da Silva (2003-2011) and Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016), new regulations and increased enforcement precipitated a steep decline in deforestation rates. After Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016, annual increases continued unabated. With greater territorial safeguards and basic access to healthcare, Brazil’s Indigenous population grew from roughly 400,000 in 1995 to (likely) over 1 million (once the 2022 census is completed). Life expectancy extended from 45 years in the nineties to 62 years today—although this figure still trails non-Indigenous Brazilians by more than a decade. Despite several large infrastructure projects, which generated friction with Indigenous groups and environmental activists, overall trends pointed towards greater institutionalization of environmental regulations and human rights. Nevertheless, illegal invasions, violence, and intimidation persisted.   

While Brazilians have long encroached on Indigenous land and leveled swathes of rainforest, the situation is taking an even more sinister turn as organized criminal networks expand operations in the lightly-policed tri-border area between Colombia, Peru, and Brazil.

Concurrently, Brazil has transformed into the second-largest market for cocaine consumption after the United States and a key export hub for smuggling routes to Europe. The Vale do Javari has emerged as a lucrative transit point in the Brazilian drug trade, worth USD $8-11 billion annually. Gangs like Primeiro Comando da Capital and Comando Vermelho, which historically operated in large cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, have expanded into the lawless hinterlands of the Amazon and forged links with Colombian drug cartels. Moreover, local gangs are increasingly global, collaborating with criminal outfits in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

In the process, Brazilian gangs diversified their criminal enterprise. Beyond drugs, gangs are taking over illegal logging, mining, and hunting protected species like tracajás, queixada, and pirarucu. The associated habitat destruction, pollution, overhunting, and overfishing directly threaten the ability of Indigenous people to survive. Alarmingly, rising global prices for commodities, minerals, and wood means more invasions are likely. Worse still, attracted by the lucrative opportunities, smaller gangs like the local Família do Norte have entered the fray, and the ensuing battle for territory has produced skyrocketing violence. Brazil’s northern areas have become the country’s most violent regions, far exceeding the national average. In the North, homicides are increasingly located in rural and intermediary towns with high rates of deforestation, which dramatically diverges from data from other parts of Brazil.     

There is an increasing nexus between land conflict, environmental crimes, and Indigenous territories. Criminal organizations are turning their weapons on citizens who resist. Global Witness’s 2021 report identified 20 murders of human rights and environmental activists last year in Brazil—a figure they explicitly recognize as underestimated. More recent data from the Comissão Pastoral da Terra and the Conselho Indigenista Missionário both show an uptick in assassinations, death threats, and violent land invasions.

Despite a penchant for “law-and-order” politics, President Jair Bolsonaro adds to the combustible situation by offering full-throated support for illegal invasions. He even suggested Phillips and Pereira were responsible for their deaths, stating they were viewed “poorly” by locals because they covered illegal mining and environmental irregularities and shouldn’t have been there on an “adventure.”

His comments are not an aberration. Bolsonaro reiterates support for opening Indigenous territories to mining, agriculture, and logging operations while celebrating his refusal to demarcate new Indigenous territory. In the name of economic opportunity, he weakened environmental protections while attacking academics, activists, and journalists who criticized the effects of his policies.

With already diminished funding, Bolsonaro-appointees spent less than half the funds allocated to IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency. The result was the lowest number of citations and fines in two decades. Bolsonaro’s appointments frequently have little conservation expertise and have repeatedly been accused of unilaterally reducing or canceling fines. Bolsonaro’s first Environmental Minister, Ricardo Salles, was forced to resign after interfering with a police investigation into an illegal timber smuggling operation.

Most egregious has been the treatment of FUNAI, the agency charged with protecting and collaborating with Brazil’s Indigenous people. After experiencing cuts under former President Michel Temer (2016-2018), FUNAI’s budget and personnel have been entirely eviscerated in the Bolsonaro era. The agency is a shell of its former self, undermined by an intentional strategy to “corrode and destroy the organization from within.”

The majority of FUNAI’s regional offices are now headed by Bolsonaro appointees—most with military or police backgrounds. Bruno Pereira worked at FUNAI, heading the division on isolated or recently contacted groups—until political interference in his work became too much. He was removed from his post in 2019 after leading one of the largest captures of illegally mined minerals. His replacement was an evangelical missionary. Too often, technical vacancies remain unfilled.

In a recent interview, Sydney Possuelo—a long-time advocate for Indigenous rights and someone who helped demarcate several Terras Indígenas, including Vale do Javari—minced no words when attributing ultimate culpability for the murders.

Everyone working there is at risk…it’s getting worse. There have always been illegal invasions, but it’s getting worse because they have the approval (beneplácito) of the authorities. They feel protected by the President. The President’s comments on various occasions grant succor to the invader.

On the one hand, certain policies and institution-building could ameliorate the situation. FUNAI and IBAMA need capable, committed leadership at the helm, coupled with restored levels of funding and spending. Government services and capacity must demonstrate greater territorial penetration. Elite units need the training and resources to enforce the existing rules and work closely with Indigenous groups to ensure their territorial lands are protected and criminal activity is punished. There is plenty of room for the international community to offer logistical support and equipment in the battle against transnational criminal networks. But these strategies only work if the Brazilian government wills it. The current administration does not.     

Until Brazilian politics change, the list grows of valiant and honorable humans, killed for defending what is right. A life-giving river of abundance is becoming a fetid swamp of bodies.

Grant Burrier is a Visiting Associate Professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and currently serves as President ex-officio for the New England Council of Latin American Studies. 

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