An historic assault is being waged on the Amazon rainforest and the indigenous people who have called it home for thousands of years as the world’s population takes shelter from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rose more than 50% in the first three months of 2020 compared to the same three-month period last year, according to preliminary satellite data released by the Brazilian Space Agency’s deforestation monitoring system.
Even before the pandemic struck, scientists warned that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s development-friendly policies could transform the world’s largest rainforest into a drier, savannah-like landscape. Once this “tipping point” is crossed, scientists said, the ecosystem could begin emitting more greenhouse gases than it captures, effectively turning a vital tool in the fight against climate change into another source of harmful emissions.
Brazil’s indigenous reserves hold some of the most pristine sections of the rainforest in the world and have long been targeted by illegal logging and mining operations seeking to exploit their natural resources. Since the outbreak started, however, Brazil’s environmental agency has scaled back more enforcement measures, leaving the forest and its indigenous tribes even more vulnerable to a litany of deadly threats.
“Our territory keeps being invaded by loggers and hunters,” Laercio Guajajara, a member of the Guajajara tribe in the state of Maranhao, told ABC News. Even in the midst of the global health crisis, he said, there were “still a lot of invasions.”
Now, those so-called invaders could leave more than just environmental destruction in their wake.
“We are desperate,” Andre Karipuna, a 27-year-old member of the tiny Karipuna tribe of in the state of Rondonia, told the Environmental Justice Foundation. “The Karipuna are a small isolated community and just one infected person could rapidly pass the virus on to the whole tribe.”
Brazil’s indigenous tribe’s have already been under increased pressure since Bolsonaro took office in 2019. He immediately began slashing funding and enforcement at FUNAI, the country’s department of indigenous affairs that provides essential services to indigenous communities across the nation. In July 2019, he appointed a federal police officer with connections to agribusiness to head the agency.
Some tribal leaders have taken defense of their lands into their own hands. Last summer, ABC News was granted rare access to one such group, the Guajajara tribe’s “Guardians,” embedding within their ragtag convoy of trucks and motorcycles during a four-day patrol over several dozen miles of dense terrain.
With cameras rolling, the “Guardians” pursued an illegal logging operation deep into the jungle, employing satellite imagery, intelligence gathering and old-fashioned tracking along the way. The resulting documentary, “Guardians of the Amazon” captured a complex struggle, featuring powerful industrial interests, complicit tribal villagers, indifferent government agencies — and an ever-present fear of violent reprisals.
Now, in the midst of the pandemic, the Brazilian government is again advancing controversial legislation regarding indigenous lands, potentially compounding tribes' vulnerability to invasion and infection.
In April, Bolsonaro's indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI, passed the controversial law IN 09. The new rule prevents long-held indigenous lands waiting for official demarcation from being labelled as "indigenous" in the land registry as they wait.
Environmental groups allege the new law provides a route for those who illegally occupy indigenous lands to claim the land is not indigenous. According to Greenpeace, the seemingly obscure rule change will have drastic consequences for the nearly one third of indigenous lands still awaiting official designation by the government.
Another controversial rule, Provisional Measure (MP) 910, first decreed by Bolsonaro in December 2019, is now being considered for permanent law. The measure allows those who illegally deforested and occupied protected federal lands before December 2018 to purchase the property at reduced prices.
Critics allege the rule is a reward for illegal land grabbers and criminal gangs who seized protected lands from indigenous tribes, and an analysis by the not-for-profit organization IMAZON found the measure could lead to the added deforestation of up to 16,000 square kilometers of rainforest by 2027.
The Bolsonaro administration denies the new land ownership rules would facilitate and legitimize land-grabbing, arguing new landowners will be required to preserve up to 80% of their land and will only grant legal titles to those who occupied federal lands in a “tame and peaceful way for many years.” The measure could be passed by a virtual vote within a few weeks, without being subject to standard scrutiny, according to environmental groups.
Since the enforcement rollbacks, reports of illegal logging and violent attacks across the region’s indigenous reserves have increased. Grave concern is widespread among indigenous tribes both large and small.
In early April, Indigenous leaders from the Yanomami reserve, the country’s largest, began reporting an increase in illegal gold mining during the pandemic. BBC Brasil published satellite photographs showing illegal miners moving into an area of the reserve where one isolated community lives. Some leaders reportedly blamed the invasions for the April 10th death of a 15-year-old boy who was the first among Yanomami known to die from the virus.
The Karipuna indigenous tribe of Rondonia -- one of the smallest and most vulnerable indigenous tribes in the country with less than 100 people – submitted a complaint to federal prosecutors on April 8th stating non-indigenous people were clearing inside their reserve.
"It is urgent that the authorities take surgical and structural measures to combat land grabbing underway [at the reserve]" the complaint reads, demanding the identification, arrest, and withdrawal of the invaders.
Some tribes are reporting an increase in land-use related bloodshed during the pandemic. On April 18th, a 33-year-old indigenous leader of the Uru-eu-wau-wau reserve in Rondonia was reportedly assassinated. The leader had been known for his outspoken criticism of illegal logging.
And in March, Zezico Rodrigues Guajajara of the Guajajara tribe in the state of Maranhao was killed by a shotgun-wielding assailant that has yet to be found, according to Amazon Watch. A teacher and longtime supporter of the Guajajara’s “Guardians of the Forest,” Zezico was reportedly gunned down while riding his motorcycle, becoming the fifth Guajajara murdered in as many months.
“Indigenous lands are living a very difficult time,” Erival Guajajara, a 29-year-old member of the Guajajara told ABC News. “We are afraid for our lives because of our vulnerability.”
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