Site icon Conservation news

Violence spikes during Brazil elections, rural minorities fear worse

  • Brazil has seen a major upswing of violence in recent years, with 63,880 homicides in 2017, a trend that includes both urban and rural areas, and parts of the Amazon where land grabbing and other environmental crimes are common.
  • The highly polarized Brazilian presidential election between progressive candidate Fernando Haddad and far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro seems to have escalated threats and acts of violence across the country. In the period after the 7 October first round election, three land activists were murdered in the Amazon.
  • Critics have accused Bolsonaro of perpetrating “fake news” and of inciting violence, especially against minorities, including urban LGBT communities, and rural indigenous groups, Quilombos (descendants of runaway slaves living in remote rural communities), and the landless peasant movement (MST).
  • The runoff presidential election is scheduled for Sunday, 28 October, and polls show Bolsonaro with a significant lead over Haddad, with Bolsonaro expected to be Brazil’s next president, barring surprises. Whether Bolsonaro will carry through on incendiary promises made during his candidacy is unknown.
Aloisio Sampaio, a trade unionist known as Alenquer, and leader of a landless peasant occupation. He was one of three activists murdered in the Amazon over a three-day period in October shortly after the initial Brazilian election. Image by Thais Borges.

As Brazil lives through the last feverish week prior to this Sunday’s second round presidential election, reports have come in indicating an alarming increase in violent threats and attacks since the campaign’s start – occurring in both urban and rural areas.

Brazil has not faced such a polarized election since its shift from a military dictatorship to democracy in 1985. A progressive Workers’ Party candidate, Fernando Haddad, faces extreme right-wing politician, Jair Bolsonaro, who has tapped into a vein of extreme social and racist prejudice that, when inflamed, may be leading to intensified conflict.

Violence was already increasing in Brazil before the election. There were a record number of homicides – 63,880 – in the country in 2017. This works out at 30.8 homicides per 100,000 people, one of the highest rates in the world.

Although most of the deaths occur in cities, largely due to gang warfare, there has been a steady rise in rural violence as well, particularly in areas of Amazonia which are being penetrated by the economic frontier – regions prone to land theft, illegal logging, illicit cattle ranching and mining.

Three recent murders in Amazonia occurred shortly after this year’s first round election on 7 October, and may have been committed by perpetrators emboldened by an expectation of less or no punishment under a new far-right government.

In just three days in October three assassinations, all believed to be the result of land conflicts, occurred in rural areas in the north of the country. On 11 October Aluisio Sampaio, known as Alenquer, a well-known rural trade unionist and landless movement leader, was killed in Castelo de Sonhos in Pará state. A day earlier an indigenous leader, Erivelton Tenharin, was shot dead in Colniza in Mato Grosso state as the result of what the local indigenous association believes to have been a plot organized by loggers. And on 12 October another indigenous leader, Davi Mulato Gavião, who was campaigning against illegal logging in indigenous territory, was assassinated in Maranhão state.

Romualdo Rosário da Costa, known as Moa de Katendê – a capoeira teacher, composer of popular music, and a supporter of candidate Haddad – reportedly murdered by a Bolsonaro supporter. Image courtesy of The Intercept.

Reported election violence

Cases of apparently election-related violence have occurred all over Brazil:

In the city of São Paulo, a cook named Luisa Alencar stencilled an “EleNão” sign onto a wall. EleNão (HimNo) is the rallying cry of the women’s movement opposed to Bolsonaro. She says that two military policemen happened by. One pushed her against the wall, shouting obscenities in her ear, adding, “EleSim [HimYes].” Alencar says that she was then arrested, taken to the local police station, stripped naked and shut in a cell. She claims she was only freed after she said: “EleSim,” under duress. Alencar commented later: “I had the feeling I was living under a dictatorship.” Police responded by saying Alencar was arrested for marijuana possession and not mistreated.

In the city of Salvador, 1,200 miles north of São Paulo, two days earlier, 63-year-old Romualdo Rosário da Costa, known as Moa de Katendê – a capoeira teacher, composer of popular music, and a supporter of candidate Haddad – was talking about the election results with his brother. A stranger interrupted their chat. An argument ensued. The man later laid in wait in the street then stabbed Moa de Katendê 12 times, killing him.

On 20 October, in the Amazon state of Rondonia, 2,500 miles west of Salvador, Bolsonaro supporters set fire to three vehicles belonging to the federal government’s environmental agency, IBAMA. And in Trairão, a town in Pará state in east Amazonia, men set another vehicle ablaze, this one belonging to Brazil’s other major environmental agency ICMBio (The Chico Mendes Institute of Conservation and Biodiversity). Shots were heard but no one injured. Many Triarão residents allegedly make their living from illegal logging, so the environmental agencies are widely disliked.

According to IBAMA and ICMBio employees, Bolsonaro’s inciteful rhetoric has increased animosity toward the agencies, and emboldened critics to make threats. Since the 7 October election, the hostile climate in Pará state has worsened to such an extent that, in a surprise move, the Military Police (PM) announced on 22 October that it was temporarily halting all operations then underway conducted in cooperation with ICMBio to control illegal deforestation in Trairão district. According to the PM, the level of intimidation after the burning of the vehicle, and subsequent destruction of a bridge leading to the Itaituba National Forest, had become so intense that the police were fearful for the safety of their officers.

An IBAMA environmental agency vehicle in flames in 2017. On 20 October, 2018 in the Amazon state of Rondonia, Bolsonaro supporters allegedly set fire to three IBAMA vehicles. The candidate has promised to bring the agency under the direction of the Agricultural Ministry, which typically opposes environmental regulation. Image courtesy of IBAMA.

Although the PM has said that after the election they will hold a meeting between ICMBio employees and local residents to see if they can resolve tensions, it may not be easy to restore law and order. Bolsonaro has said that he is going “to put an end to the industry of fines,” implying that the regulatory agencies profit from financial penalties imposed for environmental crimes, though very few landowners, in fact, ever pay them. Bolsonaro has also said: “We’re going to put an end [to] all activisms in Brazil. We’re going to get the state off the neck of the farmers.”

A Mongabay contributor also witnessed election-related intimidation in Amazonia. On 20 October he attended an LGBT demonstration in Belém, the Pará state capital, at which many shouted “EleNão.” Angry men, threatening violence, disrupted the event and forced participants to put away their rainbow emblazoned flag, the symbol of the LGBT movement. Bolsonaro has repeatedly made incendiary remarks against the gay community.

On 22 October, the same Mongabay contributor was contacted in Belém by a father who alleged that his son, wearing a pro-Haddad T-shirt, was approached by policemen who threatened the son and two friends, saying the only reason the officers weren’t going to cut the young men up into little pieces and put them in the trunk of their car was “these shitty human rights.” The police warned that, with Bolsonaro’s election, all this would change.

Bolsonaro pretending to shoot a gun, a gesture he often uses in his speeches and television appearances. Image by Carlos Eugênio.

Election violence up, or not?

Besides media reports, there are other indications that the tension caused by the election has led to a spike in violence. A study by the prestigious Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV) shows that the number of violent attacks reported on Twitter more than doubled from 7 to 13 October, compared with the 30 days before the election.

However, Marcos César Alvarez, a sociologist from Nucleus of the Study of Violence, at the University of São Paulo, urges caution in analyzing the facts, because he believes that the current flooding of social media with “fake news” may be encouraging people to report aggression they would have earlier ignored. “The number of cases may be increasing as a result of the dispute over narratives,” he said. “Scientifically, we can’t be sure that there really is a wave of [rising] violence.”

Although supporters of Haddad’s candidacy have also committed acts of violence, surveys have repeatedly found that the majority of aggressive acts are being committed by Bolsonaro supporters. A survey, carried out jointly by Agência Pública and Open Knowledge Brasil, a non-profit information sharing network, found that, during the first ten days of October, Bolsonaro supporters carried out at least 50 attacks. However, it should be pointed out that candidate Bolsonaro, who was nearly stabbed to death during a campaign event, has also been victim to the escalating violence.

Presidential candidate Fernando Haddad and his Workers’ Party deny that they ever distributed erotic baby bottles as suggested by “fake news” social media memes. Image courtesy of Brasil feliz de novo.

Fake news on the rise

What is certain in Brazil is that there has been a massive increase in “fake news” during the election, particularly via WhatsApp, used by 44 percent of the population to obtain their political information. And much of that fake news has been inflammatory, a new reality for Brazil that could, in future, spark an escalation in violence in places like the Amazon where conflict has already seen an upswing.

The volume of false news has been colossal: in the seven weeks before the first round of the election in early October, Brazil’s leading fact-checking agency, Agência Lupa, in a joint project with two Brazilian universities, collected and analyzed posts in 347 WhatsApp chat groups. This was, they said, “just a small example of the estimated hundreds of thousands of [social media] groups that millions of Brazilians use every day to gather information.” They explained, however, that it was particularly difficult to monitor WhatsApp because its conversations are encrypted.

From 100,000 political images they selected the 50 most widely shared. Of these, 28 were “fake news,” either manipulated or used out of context to give a misleading message. Others had no factual backing. Only four were considered true. The vast majority of the misleading images were circulated by Bolsonaro supporters.

This proliferation of “fake news” appears not to be random. It seems to be honed to appeal to the deeply ingrained social prejudices assumed to be common to potential Bolsonaro supporters, a tactic similar to that used during the US election of Donald Trump.

Jair Bolsonaro suggests during a TV interview that the book he is holding, entitled Sexual Apparatus, is part of the PT’s program to combat homophobia in schools. However, analysts say the charge is baseless. Image courtesy of TV Globo.

The fake news in Brazil against Haddad portrays the candidate as belonging to the rich elite, and circulates a video of him in a Ferrari, claiming he owns it, though he doesn’t. False news also implies that, if elected, Haddad will promote homosexuality, claiming he will appoint Brazil’s best-known gay man as education minister, even though he has no plans to do this. PT supporters have also had to distribute a social media rebuttal of the claim, made by Bolsonaro supporters that, when he was mayor of São Paulo, Haddad distributed baby bottles shaped like a penis to promote “promiscuity and gayism [sic].” Bolsonaro fans have also claimed without any basis that Haddad is in favor of incest.

As Bolsonaro himself has little social media expertise, some analysts suggest outside sources are helping organize the misinformation campaign. Although no journalist has managed to infiltrate the Bolsonaro team – and the media must itself be careful not to promote “fake news” – some voters contend that the campaign is being masterminded by people influential in shaping Trump’s social media effort. Rafael Azzi, who has a doctorate in linguistics and philosophy, expresses that view: “The techniques used by Bolsonaro are following to the letter the tactics created by [Steve] Bannon for Trump – which are being followed by extreme right-wing movements throughout the world.”

In August, Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, who is a close aide to his father, boasted on Instagram of meeting Steve Bannon, who helped engineer Trump’s win and was formerly with Cambridge Analytica, a consultancy known for its election interference and propaganda tactics. Later Eduardo said that Bannon had offered to help his father’s campaign: “The support involves internet tips, perhaps an analysis, interpreting data, this kind of thing.” On several occasions, the elder Bolsonaro has expressed his admiration for Donald Trump. “He’s an example for me,” he said.

The landless peasant occupation at KM Mil, an Amazon settlement along the BR-163 highway near the town of Novo Progresso in Pará state. The region is known for its land grabbers and violence. Bolsonaro has made clear his lack of support for the landless movement, even threatening its members. Photo by Thais Borges.

A hate campaign against rural minorities

Brazil’s current wave of “fake news” appears to especially foment hatred toward populations historically the target of intolerance, including LGBT communities, indigenous peoples and quilombolas (3,000+ rural communities largely made up of descendants of runaway slaves).

Some say Bolsonaro has helped provoke a shift toward rising violence through his words and acts. He daily poses for photos pretending to shoot a gun. He also said he would use the armed forces for routine street patrols, describing the nation as “at war.”

Bolsonaro doesn’t conceal his view that indigenous communities already have too much land, especially in the Amazon where they’ve resisted invasions of their territories by land grabbers and agribusiness: “Whenever I can, I’ll reduce in size an indigenous reserve. It’ll mean a big fight with the UN [United Nations] … They [the indigenous] are on the offensive, practically seeking to make agribusiness unfeasible,” Bolsonaro said, adding that, “it interests other countries that we are made unviable … If we don’t take forceful action, large areas will become other countries within Brazil.” In taking this view, Bolsonaro is echoing the jingoistic language of national security, employed by the military governments that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985.

Dancing Munduruku warriors. The 15,000-strong Munduruku indigenous group has battled with the Brazilian government to get its lands formally demarcated for decades – a right guaranteed under the 1988 constitution. Bolsonaro has come out strongly against indigenous land rights, and many analysts fear violent conflict if the candidate becomes president and presses forward with his plan to exploit the Amazon. Photo by Mauricio Torres.

Bolsonaro is aware that such policies will be strongly opposed by the country’s NGOs, many of whom work on environmental issues. He is prepared to take them on: “If I’m elected, there won’t be any money for NGOs. These useless people are going to have to work. Every citizen will have to have a gun at home. There is not going to be one centimeter more of land given to indigenous reserves or quilombolas.”

Bolsonaro has shown particular venom towards quilombolas, communities that are frequent victims of land theft in Brazil. Most quilombolas have proven effective guardians of Brazilian forests, but Bolsonaro has attacked their residents repeatedly, saying that “they do nothing and are not even good for procreation” because they are so fat. He raged: “The lightest weigh seven arrobas,” a measure used to weigh cattle.

Bolsonaro has also often used abusive language when speaking of Brazil’s landless peasant movement, the MST (Movimento dos Sem Terra), and even encouraged landowners to use arms to stop MST land occupations. “If it depends on me, farmers are going to receive the MST by discharging the cartridge of a 762,” he said, referring to a gun using 7.62mm ammunition. And, just to be clear, he added: “If you ask if this means that I want to kill these layabouts, yes I do.”

Bolsonaro’s most confrontational address so far came on Sunday 21 October, when he vowed in a video to purge the country of his left-wing foes. “Either they go overseas or they go to jail,” he threatened. “These red outlaws will be banished from our homeland. It will be a clean up the likes of which has never been seen in Brazilian history.”

Many PT supporters fear that Bolsonaro is now coming close to pledging a return to the repressive tactics practiced by the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil little more than 30 years ago. Marcelo Zero, a PT aide, says that Brazil is about to vote into power “a mediocre, pathetic version of Hitler,” who is “calling for Congress to be closed down.” The last time Congress was shut down was in 1968 during the military regime.”

“The discourse of the presidential candidate legitimizes and incentivizes aggressive postures,” says Michael Mohallem, lecturer in human rights and coordinator of FGV’s Centre of Justice and Society.

That point is echoed by Thiago Krause, at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro: “Elections have always been polarized,” he said. “But now you have a candidate who says that minorities must bow down to the majority and who says he’ll gun down his opponents. Respect for the freedom and physical safety of others is being eroded.”

With so much media attention focused on the country’s urban areas, it is difficult to know fully what is happening in the remote Amazon. But many fear that its forests will become vulnerable to wholesale land grabbing, particularly after Bolsonaro’s pledge to merge the country’s chief environmental agencies with the agricultural ministry, which shows little sympathy for indigenous or traditional land rights.

It is still uncertain as whether Bolsonaro by as radical in his deeds as president, as he has been with his words as candidate, but many Brazilians fear that his rightest administration could do great harm to the environment and to indigenous and traditional people living there. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Voices of moderation

Bolsonaro’s promised policies have shocked Edson Duarte, current Minister of the Environment, from the Green Party, who has struggled to operate effectively under the agribusiness-friendly Temer government. Duarte said recently that the only way of curbing deforestation is by having regulations and implementing them: “Deforestation in Amazonia is linked to command and control signs. If instead of attacking the crime, the authorities attack the environmental [agencies], this is the same as removing the police from the streets.”

It is not just environmentalists who are worried by some of Bolsonaro’s plans for the environment. Sectors of agribusiness, including commodities companies such as Amaggi and Cargill, and international retailers like Carrefour, have joined forces with leading NGOs to ask Bolsonaro to reconsider his proposal that Brazil leave the Paris Climate Agreement and to also express their opposition to his planned fusion of environmental and agriculture ministries. A joint letter to both candidates pointed out: “Proposals like the plan to merge the ministries could upset the equilibrium of forces which must be respected in the sphere of public policies.”

While polls show Bolsonaro winning in a landslide as a result of Sunday’s vote, no one yet knows what kind of president he will be, and whether the harm he appears to have done with his inflammatory rhetoric will extend into the future of his administration.

But many veteran political analysts, who recall the military dictatorship, are fearful.

“Electing Bolsonaro is not necessarily synonymous with burying democracy but it is territory where we need to tread carefully,” says Clóvis Rossi, a highly-awarded Brazilian journalist who wrote extensively in the 1980s and 90s on the transition from dictatorship to democracy in South America. “Even if he doesn’t adopt any measure that infringes the constitutional order, [Bolsonaro] can make an enormous mess of our institutions.”

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.