Environmental Activism Militancy and Risk in Brazil

Broken twig
Photo (detail): © Sidney Possuelo

Defending the environment in a country marked by the predatory exploitation of its population and its resources can be very dangerous. After the violent death of an environmentalist and a journalist in the Amazon, the gravity of the situation has come to public attention, reinforced by the testimonies of those who, fearing reprisals, are forced to leave the country.

By Tânia Caliari

Brazil has the greatest biodiversity on the planet, but it is also among the countries with the most income and land, being one of the most unequal nations in the world. The combination of social vulnerability, the absence of the State and criminal exploitation of resources has resulted in a series of violent acts against traditional peoples and those who militate for the preservation of the environment.

According to a report by the NGO Global Witness, in 2020, Brazil was the fourth country with the most murders of environmental activists in the world – 20 cases were reported, a number that is only second to those of Colombia, Mexico and the Philippines. The conflicts over land, water, and mineral and forest resources are an historic problem in the country, and the murder, in 1998, of rubber tapper Chico Mendes marked this dynamic. 

With the understanding that the survival of workers on the Amazonian rubber plantations depended on forest conservation, the ecologist founded the first extractive reserve in Brazil, in the state of Acre. Honored by the UN for his defense of the environment, his death had international repercussions, raising awareness in the country, at the time just out of the military dictatorship, about the issue of the environment. Chico Mendes’s death, however, was not an isolated case. That same year, 104 murders due to rural conflicts were recorded, according to data from the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), an entity that tracks violence against river communities, indigenous people, peasants and landless workers.

Weakened Surveillance

The murders, in 2022, of indigenist Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips, in the Javari Valley on the border between Brazil, Peru and Colombia, is also not considered an isolated case, having taken place at a time when Brazilian government agencies eased up on repression of environmental crimes. Since the beginning of President Jair Bolsonaro’s government in 2019, decrees, normative instructions, ordinances and newly enacted laws were issued that weakened environmental surveillance and encouraged criminal activities. “In this political scenario, these things do not occur by chance. The murders of Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips have Bolsonaro’s administration’s fingerprints all over them, and this is being repeated in several other places. Some cases are having national and global repercussions, whereas others do not,” says Maurício Angelo, a journalist specialized in covering the mining sector in Brazil.

Pereira and Phillips disappeared on June 5, 2022, while crossing the Itacoaí River toward the city of Atalaia do Norte, after meeting with indigenous people from the Javari Valley, where the Marubo, Korubo, Mayoruna, Matis, Kanamari, Tsohom Djapa, and Kulina Pano, as well as at least 16 other indigenous groups comprise the largest population of isolated indigenous communities in the world. 

Constant Threats

Phillips, a journalist who had been living in Brazil since 2007 and was collaborating with publications such as The Washington Post, The Guardian, and The Financial Times, was writing a book on sustainable development in the Amazon. Pereira was a licensed indigenist at FUNAI, the Brazilian agency that oversees indigenous issues, but at the time of his murder, he was providing technical assistance to the indigenous organization Unijava. According to investigations, Pereira and Phillips were found dead, their bodies dismembered and hidden by men who have long exploited fishing and illegal hunting in the region. 
For Eliesio Marubo, an indigenous individual and lawyer for Unijava, the threat against defenders of the environment is longstanding and constant in the region.
“This has existed as long as Javari has existed. What is happening now is more action on our part, when we investigate criminals, denounce and share data with the authorities,” says Marubo, who attributes the murders to the reaction of criminals against the surveillance attitude of the indigenous people, assisted by Pereira in the drone operation and mapping activities. 
Pereira’s widow, anthropologist Beatriz Matos, told Piauí magazine that her husband had an existential commitment to the indigenous cause and to the defense of the territories of native peoples. When he was killed, he was in dialogue with the region’s residents about alternatives to predatory fishing. “It is a difficult task because illegal fishing and drug trafficking make much more money than the management, Matos said, for whom the murderers, encouraged by the federal government’s behavior, felt comfortable committing the crime in broad daylight: “They probably thought it would be just another murder to be forgotten.”

Persecution and Espionage

The journalist Angelo highlights the complexity of environmental crimes in the Amazon, where activities such as deforestation, and illegal fishing, hunting and mining overlap with drug trafficking, land grabbing, exploitation of work which is analogous to slavery, police corruption and illegal lobbying of politicians with an interest in these dynamics. According to him, there are risks to covering socio-environmental agendas in the country.

“Threats occur in many ways, not only against our physical integrity, but also through moral and judicial harassment, data exposure, cursing and online persecution, in addition to espionage by large mining companies,” he says. The UNESCO report,  “Ameaças que Silenciam” (Threats that Silence), relays that between 2016 and 2020, a total of 14 journalists were murdered in Brazil, which already places the country among the ten nations with the most murders of press professionals. 

Exile and Fear

It was the death of another indigenous leader, named Paulo Paulino Guajajara, in November 2019 in the state of Maranhão, that led another FUNAI public servant, Ricardo Rao, to flee to Europe. “There is no such thing as self-exile. Those who go into exile do so because they have been forced to leave their land,” says Rao. “I came here because a police detective put a pistol to my head. My friends are being murdered, and I was warned that I would be next,” he adds. 
Days after the death of Paulino Guajajara, Rao prepared a dossier accusing police and authorities of participating in the exploitation of indigenous lands and homicides in Maranhão and forwarded it to the Brazilian House of Representatives. He then traveled to Norway, where he was in contact with the Lapps, whom he had met during the Indigenous Olympics held in Brazil in 2014. Rao obtained temporary asylum in Norway and later moved to Italy, from where he closely monitors the situation in Brazil. 
Impacted by the murders of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira (with the latter he had shared trainings and some missions), Rao recently accused FUNAI’s current president, Marcelo Xavier, during an event held in Madrid on indigenous peoples, calling him a militiaman and accusing him of being ultimately responsible for the death of Bruno Pereira for having collaborated in the dismantling of the institution. 

Xavier was appointed to the post by President Jair Bolsonaro. The video of the accusations went viral, drawing worldwide attention to the violations that occur in Brazil. “By leaving the country, I wanted to give greater visibility to the gravity of the situation. If my denunciations had been reverberated at the time, perhaps those who shot at Bruno and Dom would have held back,” Rao reflects. 

The fight for environmental preservation in Brazil cannot, however, advance without the commitment of the Brazilian government. For Angelo, Brazil must resume public policies that worked in the recent past –between 2004 and 2016, deforestation in the Amazon decreased by 72%. “We have accumulated an entire framework of intelligence and experience with satellites and institutional actions to combat environmental crime. We are talking about things that demand more State. What we are seeing today is the absence of the State and criminals who are unafraid of sanctions,” he summarizes.