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Brazilian state complicit in violence against forest defenders, report says

  • A report by Human Rights Watch details 28 murders and 44 murder attempts or death threats since 2015 in the Brazilian Amazon, in which the victims were targeted for reporting illegal loggers.
  • Impunity is the norm: very few cases make it to court, reports of intimidation are ignored by the authorities, the police make serious omissions in investigations, and the federal protection program for defenders is ineffective. The HRW report’s author says criminals “are empowered: they believe that they can do whatever they want.”
  • Indigenous initiatives to monitor and patrol their territories have compensated for cuts in funding and human resources for public environmental agencies, but have placed these communities at greater risk of retaliation.
  • Violence against defenders of the forest has been a recurring problem for many years, but it has increased under the Bolsonaro administration, which has sabotaged efforts to combat it, withdrawing from Brazil’s commitments assumed in the Paris Agreement to eliminate illegal logging in the Amazon by 2030.

Violence and impunity are the fuel that feeds the fires in the Amazon: not just the ones broadcast across the world this August, when it was revealed that fires in 2019 had increased by 80 percent since the previous year, but also those that regularly affect the forest during the summer months — part of a process of deforestation that benefits illegal loggers and land grabbers, while also destroying trees, land and the lives of those who fight to keep the forest standing.

That’s the conclusion of a study carried out over the course of three years by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and published Sept. 17. In the report, the organization documents 28 murders and 44 death threats over that period in the Brazilian Amazon. In all the reported cases, there is reliable evidence that those behind the attacks were land grabbers or illegal loggers — a criminal network that, far from being adequately addressed by successive Brazilian governments, is now being strengthened by the discourse and actions of President Jair Bolsonaro.

“This is the first time in 20 years that we have produced a report on human rights and the environment in Brazil,” said César Muñoz Acebes, HRW’s Brazil researcher and the author of the report. “The level of intimidation, threats and violence is impressive, but the State’s response is extremely inadequate. To our surprise, Brazilian authorities barely even had records of these crimes. This is why we need to start from scratch and visit every small town in which they are carried out to talk to lawyers, victims and witnesses.”

The most frequent victims are indigenous peoples and members of small communities: people like Marlete da Silva Oliveira, Raimundo de Jesus Ferreira and Venilson da Silva Santos, who were killed on March 21 this year in the municipality of Baião, in Pará state. Each of them was shot in the head before their bodies were burned by their killers. The police attributed the execution order to Fernando Ferreira Rosa Filho, the farmer who employed the victims and allegedly feared that they would report his participation in illegal logging and drug trafficking in the region.

The massacre didn’t end there. The report, which is full of details, explains how, “after killing the three employees, the hitmen then travelled 20 kilometers to the home of Dilma Ferreira Silva, in the Salvador Allende settlement. Her house was located on the dirt road that trucks used to transport illegally-harvested timber.” The settler had also considered reporting the farmer’s illegal activities to the authorities, but they tied her hands behind her back, gagged her husband, and stabbed them to death, along with a neighbor who had been visiting them.

In this Amazonian “wild west,” what is at stake is the commercial value of the forest, where just one ipê — a tropical hardwood that’s highly sought-after for its timber — is worth up to between two and six thousand 6,000 reais ($1,440). To highlight this, the Portuguese version of the report by Human Rights Watch used the title “The Ipês Mafia,”, a reference to the way in which officials from the national environmental agency, IBAMA, refer to the problem.

The study explains how the illegal extraction of wood is the first link in every criminal chain. Once the most valuable trees have been taken — for which criminal gangs use increasingly sophisticated methods, to evade the satellite monitoring carried out by environmental agencies — what is left is burned, to make way for cattle pastures and occasionally plantations. Afterward, it will all be passed on to the legal market through bribes or fake licenses.

An operation of this scale and complexity, in the middle of the jungle, is very unlikely to be the work of amateurs. “Organized crime is responsible for deforestation in the Amazon,” said Raquel Dodge, Brazil’s former prosecutor general, in an interview with researchers. The Federal Public Ministry has already broken up some of these groups, such as one that deforested 180 square kilometers (70 square miles) over the past few years in Boca do Acre, in Amazonas state. As well as farmers, five IBAMA employees and four state military police officers were involved in the scheme. The group, consisting of 22 people, was reported to the authorities in June this year.

This web of illegalities is responsible for 90 percent of all deforestation in the Amazon, prompting HRW to warn of the risk of non-compliance with the commitments entered into by Brazil in the Paris Agreement, which anticipates the complete elimination of illegal deforestation in the Amazon region by 2030. “To achieve this goal, criminal groups will need to be dismantled and those who report them will need to be protected,” the HRW report said.

One of two illegal sawmills found by Human Rights Watch on the outskirts of the Governador indigenous territory in the municipality of Amarante do Maranhão, in Maranhão state, in 2018. The sawmill operated in the open air, just a short distance from the main road, and was connected to the local power grid. Image by Brent Stirton/Getty Images for Human Rights Watch. 

Indigenous resistance

Various sets of data consulted by Human Rights Watch show that the biggest areas of preserved Amazon forest in Brazil are situated within the perimeter of indigenous reserves, which makes these territories prime targets for criminals. “All indigenous territories are being watched by loggers,” said Luciano Evaristo, IBAMA’s former director of environmental protection.

It’s therefore no coincidence that indigenous peoples play a central role, organizing initiatives amongst themselves to monitor and combat deforestation within their reserves. “This contribution has become all the more vital in recent years given the diminished ability of Brazilian environmental agencies to deploy inspectors to monitor what is happening on the ground,”, the HRW report said.

This was what happened in Maranhão state, where indigenous peoples from five different groups created the Guardiões da Floresta (Forest Guardians) patrol in response to the scant government presence on the ground: in 2018, IBAMA had only nine officers serving the whole state, an area the size of Italy.

FUNAI, the government agency that protects the interests of Brazil’s indigenous peoples, has 26 employees working in an area inhabited by 37,000 indigenous peoples. According to a report obtained by HRW, the agency’s budgetary constraints are so severe that managers are financing trips with their own salary in an effort not to miss important meetings. “FUNAI is in the most critical state I have seen since I started working there 30 years ago,” said Eliane Araújo, the agency’s state coordinator in 2018.

The Forest Guardians carry out regular expeditions to the remotest parts of their lands and inspect the borders of indigenous reserves, – traditionally the areas most vulnerable to attacks by invaders. They also use a GPS system to provide precise coordinates to the authorities. A group of “women warriors” from the Caru indigenous territory, inhabited by the Awá Guajá and Guajajara peoples, is even learning to use drones to improve monitoring.

The situation is extremely urgent, because where loggers see money, indigenous people see a soul: “We, the Pyhcop Catiji people, believe there is life after death, that our spirits transform themselves into trees, into animals,” said Eýy Cy, the chief of the Gavião people. “So, it is not just a tree, not just a forest that is there. What is there is a life, my ancestors’ lives.”

But the risks of these operations have increased substantially. There have been extreme situations, such as the discovery of areas used by international traffickers for marijuana production. The Guardians also reported that, on one of the occasions when police accompanied them to deforested areas, the criminals responsible were not arrested because the police claimed it was impossible to take them into custody in the jungle.

They now fear new reprisals. The community told HRW about threats, attacks and eight assassinations carried out by loggers who invaded their territories. However, because the crimes were not duly investigated by the authorities, HRW was unable to prove they took place.

Chief Eýy Cy and his son in the main village of the Governador indigenous territory, in Maranhão state. The Pyhcop Catiji people who live there created a group called the Forest Guardians, which patrols the forests in order to report illegal deforestation. Image by Brent Stirton/Getty Images for Human Rights Watch.

Impunity and fear

All those interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that violence has been a recurring problem in the Amazon for many years. “We gave accounts of 28 cases, but the Pastoral Land Commission, which is linked to the Catholic Church, has records of over 300 victims from the last 10 years,”, said HRW’s César Muñoz Acebes.

Despite this, the majority of deaths and threats go unreported to the court and security forces, who have failed to prevent intimidations, thus increasing the level of fear amongst these populations. In fact, of the 28 assassinations mentioned in the report, only two of these made it to trial. Among the 40 documented threats, police investigators only managed to take one case to court. This scenario appears even grimmer in consideration of the fact that 19 of the 28 murders reported by HRW were preceded by threats against the victims or their communities.

Such was the case of Gilson Temponi, who was killed in Rurópolis, in Pará state, when he opened the door to the criminals who rang his doorbell on Sept. 12, 2018. He was killed for reporting the activities of illegal loggers in a nearby rural settlement — fulfilling his duty as a leader of a union of small farmers. The police opened an inquiry to investigate the accusation of deforestation, but there were no hearings for the death threats, — an act of negligence that cost the victim his life.

The size of the Amazon and a lack of resources are the excuses most frequently given for the authorities’ inaction. They argue that it’s difficult for them to access the places where murders happen to carry out a suitable investigation. When put to the test by the researchers, this hypothesis did not hold up.

Checking police methods in a sample of six murders in Maranhão, HRW identified serious omissions in the investigations. In two cases, the police never went in person to the scene of the crime, and in five, no autopsy was performed on the bodies — both of these being fundamental elements in investigations. Furthermore, contrary to what the police say, the majority of these deaths took place in urban centers, where there were police stations that functioned normally.

“On the other hand, we listed 17 cases that happened in remote locations in which there was sufficient investigation and reporting. These were situations that had attracted media attention. Lack of resources is sometimes a limiting factor, but there is also political tolerance of impunity”, Muñoz said.

Another observation made in the study is about the ineffectiveness of the Protection Program for Human Rights Defenders, Journalists and Environmentalists, which in July 2019 had 410 people under its care in Brazil. Currently, the initiative only functions through telephone calls to check on those who have been threatened, which represents a problem in itself. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the majority of the Amazon still lacks telephone coverage, which means that victims of threats have to put themselves in danger by carrying out regular visits to nearby towns to make and receive phone calls.

Consequently, in Pará, prosecutors decided to file charges against the state and the federal governments to demand the effective protection of these defenders of the forest. In April 2019, a judge ordered that security measures for five people who are the target of threats by criminal groups in the Amazon be increased.

Jaciane and Graça Guajajara, the daughters of Tomé Guajajara, who was killed in 2007 by loggers who invaded the Arariboia indigenous territory in Maranhão state to retrieve a truck that had been seized by indigenous residents. Image by Brent Stirton/Getty Images for Human Rights Watch.

The Bolsonaro factor

As if these inadequacies were not enough, researchers warned of the risk of the suspension of the Protection Program for Human Rights Defenders. After seeing its budget triple under the government of Michel Temer (2016 to 2018), the initiative suffered a cut of 20 percent in funding for 2019. Even more worrying, however, is its legal status: Human Rights Watch warns that, operating by means of presidential decrees, “President Bolsonaro, who has disparaged human rights defenders in the past, could easily abolish the program by revoking the decrees.” A bill to enshrine the program as state policy has been pending a vote in the National Congress since 2009.

This measure is not surprising, given the record of the first eight months of the current government, which HRW summarizes in one chapter of the report. This includes controversial measures such as a 23 percent funding cut for the Ministry of the Environment, and the dismissal, on a single day in February, of 21 of the 27 regional directors of IBAMA, who are responsible for approving anti-logging operations. HRW confirmed that, as of August, almost all the positions remained unfilled.

“There is very great concern over the order that officials not destroy the equipment of loggers or miners that are caught carrying out illegal activities. This is not a written rule, but the technicians we interviewed confirmed its existence,” Muñoz said.

The number of fines given out for deforestation in the first eight months of the Bolsonaro administration is the lowest it has been in 20 years, down by 38 percent compared to the same period in 2018. The president also created a reconciliation authority that has the power to revise imposed fines, which, in the view of the experts interviewed, would effectively suspend all charges.

The report also draws attention to the way in which the Bolsonaro government has acted to disrupt the efforts of Brazilian environmental organizations, abolishing and also dissolving forums in which these civil society representatives participate. One of these was the Amazon Fund Steering Committee, which has already received more than $820 million in international donations and now has an uncertain future after Norway announced the suspension of its contributions, having previously provided 93 percent of funding.

The “open hostility by the president and his ministers” toward defenders of the forest is evident in the expressions he uses, such as “industries of fines,” referring to IBAMA, and “radical environmentalist policies,” as he describes the actions of NGOs. However, this criticism has also been directed at the international community at times, when European governments have defended conservationist efforts. Bolsonaro has claimed that foreign intervention is a threat to national sovereignty and even suggested that the Amazon was “like a virgin that every pervert from the outside lusts for”.

“We gathered statements from witnesses who have seen how loggers, who previously acted only at night, are now working in daylight hours. They are empowered: they believe that they can do whatever they want. This is another reason why deforestation doubled this year,” Muñoz said.

In its report, Human Rights Watch suggests measures that could improve the security of local communities and reduce deforestation. “Many of them do not involve any increase in public funds,” Muñoz said. One important step would be to combine the efforts of federal and state public agencies, such as the police, prosecutors and environmental agents.

HRW also called on the new federal attorney general to carry out “reviews of documented cases of violence and threats to identify patterns and perpetrators, seeking federalization of cases of serious violation of human rights that are not properly investigated and prosecuted by state authorities.” Bolsonaro has nominated Augusto Brandão Aras to the position; the Senate still has to approve his appointment.

HRW suggested the National Congress could create a commission of investigation and public hearings to examine the criminal networks responsible for illegal deforestation in the Amazon. There are also recommendations on the Protection Program for Human Rights Defenders and suggestions of legal bases to ensure the preservation of the forest. “Other actors can also make a difference: The Attorney General’s Office, the international community, Brazilian companies. The protection of the Amazon is fundamental for society,” Muñoz said.

Banner image of Cláudio José da Silva, coordinator of the Forest Guardians, in the Caru indigenous territory, on the bank of the Pindaré River. This initiative by the Guajajara people patrols the forest to detect illegal deforestation and reporting it to the authorities. Image by Brent Stirton/Getty Images for Human Rights Watch.