- Indigenous leaders and human rights advocates held a press briefing on August 4, the day before the Olympic Games’ opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro.
- They highlighted new data showing that 33 indigenous people and 23 environmental activists had been killed in Brazil this year.
- They pointed to government turmoil and the erosion of protections for activists and indigenous communities as factors in the violence.
On the eve of the Olympic Games’ opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro, indigenous leaders and human rights advocates spoke out today to highlight the rising violence against indigenous people and environmental activists in Brazil.
Already this year, there have been 33 killings of indigenous people in the country, according to new data presented at a briefing in Rio this morning by the Catholic Church-affiliated Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI). There have also been 30 attacks against indigenous communities in the past year, according to CIMI. Most of the killings and attacks have taken place in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, where the indigenous Guarani Kaiowá are reclaiming traditional lands.
Brazil is the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists, including some indigenous community leaders, according to On Dangerous Ground, a report released in June by London-based NGO Global Witness, one of the groups participating in the briefing. In 2015 alone, 50 people involved in struggles to defend their lands, rivers, and forests from hydroelectric dams, logging, cattle ranching, and other industries were killed in Brazil.
Since the 2012 summer Olympics in London, 150 environmental defenders have been killed in Brazil, Global Witness maintained at the briefing this morning. New data from Brazil’s Pastoral Land Commission, another Catholic Church-affiliated organization, suggests 2016 is on track to match the 50 killings last year.
“We have documented 23 cases this year of land and environmental defenders killed in Brazil, most of them in the Amazon states of Maranhao, Para and Rondonia,” Global Witness senior campaigner Billy Kyte told Mongabay via email. “Logging and agribusiness are the main drivers of killings of these defenders.”
“For many visitors to the Rio Olympics, Brazil is synonymous with its vast, plentiful rainforests and traditional ways of life. Yet the people who are trying to protect those things are being killed off at an unprecedented rate,” he said in a press statement.
The grim reality of violence against indigenous people and environmental activists in various regions of Brazil stands in contrast to the multicultural image being presented to the world by the Olympic host country in the lead up to tomorrow’s opening ceremony, the activists maintained.
“The findings released by CIMI and Global Witness show that the image Brazil is presenting to the world masks the violent reality of our daily lives as indigenous peoples,” Sonia Guajajara, the national coordinator of Brazil’s Association of Indigenous Peoples (APIB), said in a statement.
Guajajara and other indigenous leaders used the spotlight provided by the Olympics to highlight several cases around the country. They also noted that the violence against indigenous people and environmental activists in Brazil has a direct connection to many countries participating in the games: the products of agricultural plantations and illegal logging that are driving deforestation and violence are largely for export.
“A series of factors are fueling this cycle of violence and the systematic violations of the rights of indigenous peoples in Brazil,” CIMI executive secretary Cleber Buzatto said in the August 4 APIB statement. “These are the failures of the Brazilian government, the impunity of the militias and the men who direct them, and continued demand from other countries for imports of agricultural products produced in Brazil.”
Brazil is the world’s second largest exporter of soy, and it also produces palm oil and eucalyptus. The expansion of agricultural plantations, cattle ranching, and illegal logging further into the Amazon region is driving deforestation. Attacks on indigenous communities around the country have been linked to the expansion of export-oriented agriculture.
“In less than a year, we have recorded more than thirty paramilitary attacks on local communities of Guarani Kaiowá. Led by ranchers and plantation owners who produce agricultural commodities that are mainly for export, these militias carry out attacks that kill people and cause dozens of injuries,” said Buzatto.
In Brazil, indigenous people in particular face threats that go beyond attacks and killings, according to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz.
“Even in contexts where direct physical violence was not reported by indigenous peoples they face profound threats to their existence. This arises from the actions and omissions of the State and private actors in the context of development projects imposed upon indigenous peoples without any consultation or attempt to obtain their free prior and informed consent,” Tauli-Corpuz said in a statement following her visit to Brazil in March.
Instead of rectifying the situation, the Brazilian government is considering constitutional amendments (PEC 215 and PEC 65) that would greatly weaken the country’s already stagnant indigenous land titling and demarcation processes, as well as loosen oversight and permiting requirements for development projects. The government has also effectively abandoned implementation of its protection program for human rights defenders, according to Global Witness.
The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro will kick off with tomorrow’s opening ceremony and wrap up on August 21.
The games are being held amid ongoing political turmoil in Brazil. Government agencies have failed to fulfill their commitment to clean up polluted waterways for the Olympics, and poor sanitation infrastructure is a driving factor behind the ongoing Zika virus outbreak in the country. After years of decline, the deforestation rate in the Amazon hit its highest level in eight years in June.
There is also the issue of ongoing violence against indigenous people and environmental activists. If the 2015 rate of killings of environmental activists holds this month, two people defending lands, forests, and rivers in the country will be killed over the course of the games.
“We are calling on the government to strengthen its national protection program for activists under threat, and for Congress to prevent constitutional amendment PEC  from being passed into law,” Guajajara said in a statement issued by Global Witness. “Without these provisions, we risk seeing yet more murders on Brazil’s environmental frontiers.”
While the international spotlight shines on Brazil, the country’s environmental activists and indigenous people hope to direct some light toward their fight to protect their lands and resources from destruction despite all-too-often deadly consequences. Long after the Olympic crowds have come and gone, they will remain.
|CORRECTION: A previous version of this story quoted Sonia Guajajara as calling on the Brazilian congress to prevent the passage of a constitutional amendment known as PEC 65. A spokesperson confirmed that in fact the amendment in question is PEC 215.|