Brazil: Risk of bloodshed in the Amazon unless government protects Indigenous peoples from illegal land seizures and logging
- Illegal land seizures and logging on the rise in Indigenous territories in Brazil’s Amazon
- Recent reductions in government monitoring aggravate the risk of conflict
- Looming dry season set to intensify pressure on traditional lands
There is an imminent risk of violent clashes in Brazil’s Amazon region unless the government protects Indigenous peoples’ traditional lands from increasing illegal land seizures and logging by armed intruders, Amnesty International warned today.
Amnesty International recently visited three different Indigenous territories in northern Brazil where illegal intruders had begun or expanded efforts to seize land and/or cut down trees. Indigenous leaders told the organization that they had received death threats for defending their traditional lands. They also fear new intrusions in the dry season (May/June to October/November) when easier physical access to forests facilitates clearance and burning.
“Brazil’s Indigenous peoples and their land face enormous threats and the situation will soon become untenable in the dry season,” said Richard Pearshouse, Senior Crisis & Environment Advisor for Amnesty International.
“The government must protect Indigenous peoples who are defending their land, or blood will be shed.”
Brazil’s Indigenous peoples and their land face enormous threats and the situation will soon become untenable in the dry season. The government must protect Indigenous peoples who are defending their land, or blood will be shed.
In April 2019, Amnesty International interviewed 23 Indigenous people in three territories in northern Brazil: Karipuna and Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau in Rondônia state, and Arara in Pará state. Amnesty International also interviewed 13 people knowledgeable about intrusions in Indigenous territories, including government officials, Public Prosecutors and representatives of non-governmental organizations.
According to representatives of non-governmental organizations and authorities, intruders are often local individuals who are encouraged and supported to occupy plots of land and/or sell the timber by local farmers and politicians.
Indigenous peoples in some territories conduct patrols to monitor and protect their land from these intrusions. As the intruders are often armed, there is a high risk of violent clashes with Indigenous peoples.
In all three sites, Indigenous leaders have repeatedly denounced recent illegal land seizures and logging to government authorities. However there have been only limited responses from government authorities, and illegal land seizures and logging have continued.
An intrusion by some 40 illegal intruders into Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territory in January 2019 resulted in a government surveillance operation in the area a few days later in which one person was arrested and later released. A much larger intrusion into Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territory followed, in April 2019, estimated to involve many hundreds of illegal intruders. A government surveillance operation led to two people being arrested a week after the April intrusion.
Gunshots during the night
Indigenous peoples from all three territories told Amnesty International that illegal intruders had recently cut new paths into the forest near their villages and roads. In some territories they also described frequently hearing sounds of tractors and chainsaws inside the territories.
A 22-year-old Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau woman described how she felt in the days after the intrusion in January 2019:
“When I heard about the invasion, I was scared because it is very close to the village. I had never seen one so close. I was afraid they would come here. I couldn’t sleep anymore. There were gunshots during the night for several nights. I was scared. I put the children to sleep, but I couldn’t sleep.”
When I heard about the invasion, I was scared because it is very close to the village. I had never seen one so close. I was afraid they would come here. I couldn’t sleep anymore. There were gunshots during the night for several nights. I was scared. I put the children to sleep, but I couldn’t sleep.
Amnesty International’s researchers observed traces of roads and paths inside the Indigenous territories previously used by intruders, as well as pictures and videos of markers delineating plots and paths, and a tractor carrying timber.
A Karipuna leader told Amnesty International about fears the situation may escalate to violent clashes in the dry season:
“They [the illegal intruders] left a message that we [the Indigenous leaders] should not walk in their paths, we would disappear … If government doesn’t protect the territory, a tragedy between intruders and Indigenous might happen. During the dry season, intrusions will increase even more because authorities haven’t taken any measures.”
They [the illegal intruders] left a message that we [the Indigenous leaders] should not walk in their paths, we would disappear … If government doesn’t protect the territory, a tragedy between intruders and Indigenous might happen. During the dry season, invasions will increase even more because authorities haven’t taken any measures.
The government’s response to these illegal land seizures and logging remains inadequate. The surveillance of Indigenous territories depends in large part on coordination among different governmental bodies. Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) lacks police powers and relies on the support from other institutions, such as the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) and the Federal Police (Polícia Federal). Experts told Amnesty International that surveillance operations have been reduced because of budget constraints over recent months.
Indigenous people expressed their frustration to Amnesty International that few intruders are held accountable, while experts highlighted the need to investigate those supporting and funding the illegal land seizures and logging.
Between January and April 2019, the Federal Public Prosecutor’s office (Ministério Público Federal) sent at least four letters to the Ministries of Justice and Women, Family and Human Rights – the Ministry responsible for the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) since January 2019 – describing a deterioration of the security situation in the Karipuna and Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territories and warning of a risk of conflict. The office requested the immediate support from the National Security Force (Força Nacional) while authorities develop a long-term protection plan for the territories.
To date, the Ministries of Justice and Women, Family and Human Rights have not coordinated with the National Security Force to protect the Karipuna and Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territories and the long-term protection plan remains unresolved.
“Unless FUNAI and the other authorities step up the fight against illegal land seizures and logging, violent clashes between Indigenous peoples and intruders are incredibly likely,” said Richard Pearshouse.
“The government should promptly affirm its commitment to the protection of Indigenous territories and ensure they are respected.”
Deforestation in Indigenous territories worsens
Illegal land seizures and logging are usually less common in rainy season (October/November to May/June) than dry season (May/June to October/November). The NGO Imazon has reported the loss of 12 square kilometres of forest inside Indigenous territories in the Amazon during the first three months of the year. This represents a 100% rise compared to the same period in 2018.
Studies indicate that, where traditional lands of Indigenous peoples are primary forests, demarcation of Indigenous territories can play a protective role against deforestation. Conserving primary forests is key in the fight against climate change because when forests are cleared or burnt, stored carbon is released into the atmosphere mainly as carbon dioxide.
Protecting the human rights of Indigenous peoples is key to preventing further deforestation in the Amazon. The international community should be watching carefully and supporting those Indigenous communities on the front lines of the fight to protect the world’s most precious forests.
“Protecting the human rights of Indigenous peoples is key to preventing further deforestation in the Amazon. The international community should be watching carefully and supporting those Indigenous communities on the front lines of the fight to protect the world’s most precious forests,” said Richard Pearshouse.
ADDITIONAL BACKGROUND AND TESTIMONIES
In addition to the three territories researched by Amnesty International, other Indigenous territories in Brazil also face increasing pressure from illegal intruders. In February 2019, the non-governmental organisation Repórter Brasil reported the existence of at least 14 demarcated Indigenous territories with recent invasions or intrusions from illegal intruders.
Indigenous territories are protected by Brazil’s laws and international human rights law. The Constitution recognizes Indigenous peoples’ rights to the land, its use and natural resources. Illegal land seizures and logging inside Indigenous territories constitute crimes under federal law. Brazil has ratified ILO Convention 169 which guarantees indigenous peoples the right to free, prior and informed consultation over projects that affect their lands and rights.
The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territory
Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territory comprises an area of 1,867 thousand hectares in Rondônia state, northern Brazil. The process of demarcation of the territory was concluded in 1991. The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people with a population of 200 live in six villages in the northern part of the territory. In April 2019, Amnesty International visited two of the villages close to the locations of recent intrusions and interviewed community members.
Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people told Amnesty International that on 11 January 2019 they confronted about 40 invaders, who were armed with sickles and machetes, cutting a path into their territory about two kilometers away from one Indigenous village and just beside the road they use to enter and leave their territory. When told to leave, the intruders allegedly replied that more intruders would be coming and threatened to kill the Indigenous children.
Another intrusion into Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territory took place in early April 2019. Local media reported intruders saying they entered the Indigenous territory under the assumption the government would divide up the territory and allocate titles to them. Local media reported the presence of more than one thousand intruders in the Nova Floresta area, while FUNAI communicated to local indigenous people that the intrusion likely involved 500 intruders. The actual number of illegal intruders involved in the April 2019 intrusion is uncertain.
Soon after the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people denounced the invasion to authorities, FUNAI and federal police officers went to the start of the path which had been cut by the illegal intruders but did not arrest anyone. In late April 2019, a new operation conducted by FUNAI, Federal Police, IBAMA and ICMBio arrested two people.
The Karipuna territory
The Karipuna Indigenous territory comprises an area of 153 thousand hectares in the municipalities of Porto Velho and Nova Mamoré (Rondônia state) and was demarcated as such in 1998. The Karipuna are a Indigenous people with 58 members and the only village lies on the banks of the Jaci Paraná river. Beside the village, there is a plantation where they grow manioc, pumpkin, sweet potato, banana and corn.
Karipuna leaders told Amnesty International that the closest paths into their territory are two kilometers away from their village and they had been recently re-cleared. The presence of intruders, even during the rainy season, coupled with death threats they received few months ago, limit their activities such as hunting and collection of cashews. They fear the risk of conflict as illegal intruders get even closer.
A 26-year-old Karipuna leader said:
“We are few to do the surveillance and we don’t have police powers. It is very risky and we are already being threatened. If government doesn’t act, we might lose our territory, it might be the end of the Karipuna. I don’t know if there are new paths, because we don’t patrol so often to avoid contact with intruders. They are armed with guns.”
Despite an interim court decision from June 2018 ordering federal and state authorities to implement a plan to protect the territory with a minimum of 10 days of surveillance per month, government patrols have been severely curtailed.
The Arara territory
The Indigenous territory Arara is located in Pará state, northern Brazil. Demarcated in 1991, the territory with 274 thousand hectares is home to about 400 Arara people living in six different villages. Four of them lie along the Iriri river, while two others are in the northern limits of the territory, adjacent to route BR-230, also known as the Trans-Amazonian highway.
Arara people told Amnesty International in December 2018 illegal intruders began opening new paths into their territory from along the highway and marking plots of land with their names. The plots were separated by a few hundred metres. Confronted by FUNAI’s agents in an operation in late December 2018, they reportedly told the agents that Bolsonaro will authorize the sub-division of the land and logging.
After reports made by FUNAI, in January 2019 IBAMA and Federal Police flew over the Arara territory and identified three new sites of deforestation. Another attempt of illegal land seizure was identified in a more remote location of the territory in February 2019. At that time, Arara people submitted a letter to the Public Prosecutor’s Office denouncing the invasions and requesting government support to avoid a conflict. According to Arara people and authorities, illegal land seizure has been temporarily halted by government intervention, while illegal logging remains a problem.
During a visit to the territory in April 2019, Amnesty International researchers saw paths and roads used for illegal logging. They also heard a chainsaw being used nearby as they walked along one of the paths. Arara people told Amnesty International illegal logging continues to take place in the territory. According to a 43-years-old Arara man:
“FUNAI used to go with us to inspect sometimes. The last mission was in February. Since then, they didn’t provide more. We denounced and they [FUNAI] claim they don’t have resources. If measures are not taken, there will be more land seizures”.