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Murders of indigenous leaders in Brazilian Amazon hits highest level in two decades

Protests outside the government building in Brasilia on the December 7, following the death of two Guajajara indigenous leaders. Image by Tiago Miotto/Cimi

  • Erisvan Guajajara, 15 years old, was found dead with multiple stab wounds Friday in the Brazilian Amazon. It is the 10th murder of indigenous people recorded this year.
  • The body of Erisvan was found in a soccer field in the town of Amarante, in the Northeast state of Maranhão. And on December 7, two Guajajara leaders — Firmino Silvino Guajajara and Raimundo Bernice Guajajara — were killed in a drive-by shooting in a nearby area.
  • Four Guajajara indigenous people have been reported killed in the last two months. In November, Paulo Paulino Guajajara, who was on the frontlines of Amazon protection as part of the indigenous Forest Guardians group, was also murdered. The crimes remain unsolved.
  • Seven indigenous leaders were murdered as of December 2019, making it the country’s deadliest year for indigenous leaders in two decades, according to an NGO linked to the Catholic Church. Indigenous leaders have been calling for action to halt increasing violence against indigenous people.

A young indigenous Guajajara man was found dead with multiple stab wounds Friday in the Brazilian Amazon, making 2019 the country’s deadliest year for indigenous peoples since 2016 with a total ten murders.

The body of Erisvan Guajajara, 15 years old, was found in a soccer field in the town of Amarante, in the Northeastern state of Maranhão, according to the victim’s sister Lucivânia Guajajara. “What they did to him was an atrocity. There wasn’t any blood where he was found. They killed him elsewhere and dumped his body,” she told Mongabay. The murder was also reported by the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), an NGO linked to the Catholic Church.

It is the latest death in a wave of increasing violence against the Guajajara people and indigenous people overall in the Brazilian Amazon this year. A total of 10 indigenous people were killed this year; seven were indigenous leaders, the highest number in two decades, according to data from the Pastoral Land Commission, an arm of Brazil’s Catholic Church.

“Another brutal crime against the Guajajara people!” Sônia Guajajara, the executive coordinator of the National Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), said on Twitter.

On December 7, two Guajajara leaders were killed in a drive-by shooting – Firmino Silvino Guajajara and Raimundo Bernice Guajajara. In the same attack, another two were injured by the gunfire – Neucy Vieira and Nico Alfredo.

“We are human, we don’t deserve to die like this,” said Magno Guajajara, an eyewitness to the attack and relative of the deceased, in a WhatsApp audio file sent to Mongabay. The leaders were riding back to their village on motorbikes after attending a meeting with a utility company at the time of the attack. “The people in the surrounding towns have this rage, this hate, this prejudice, this intolerance against us, indigenous people,” he said. “And we are paying for it with our lives.”

These attacks come shortly after the murder of another Guajajara leader – Paulo Paulino Guajajara, who was a member of “Guardians of the Forest,” a group of 120 indigenous Guajajara who risk their lives to fight illegal loggers in the Arariboia indigenous reserve — one of the country’s most threatened indigenous territories, where Paulo Paulino and Erisvan lived — and to protect the uncontacted Awá people.

Protests outside the government building in Brasilia on December 7, following the death of two Guajajara indigenous leaders. In this photo, an indigenous man raises the photo of indigenous leader Paulo Paulino Guajajara, reportedly murdered by loggers in November. Image by Tiago Miotto/Cimi

After the latest attack, Guajajara leaders summoned a meeting in the El Betel indigenous village in Maranhão to discuss survival strategies and ways to pressure authorities over their rising body count, according to Mídia Índia, a collective of indigenous communities of various ethnicities. A public hearing will be held with government officials to combat the rising violence against their people, Mídia Índia said.

Escalating violence

Murders of indigenous people make up 37% of all rural killings this year, up from 7% in 2018, according to CPT data.“These crimes reflect the escalation of hate and barbarism inflamed by Jair Bolsonaro’s government, which is attacking us daily, denying our right to exist and promoting the historical illness of racism,” said Sônia Guajajara in a statement last week.

Regarding the latest crime,  the Military Police of Maranhão state reported that the murdered indigenous boy was another person — 28-year-old Dorivan Soares Guajajara — claiming that he was involved with drug trafficking, according to news portal G1. Lieutenant Coronel Jorge Araújo Junior reportedly ruled out hate crimes and conflicts with loggers as potential motives. FUNAI also issued a statement about Dorivan’s death, denying connections with land disputes, news portal UOL reported.

But the Forensic Medicine Unit, known as IML in the neighboring town of Imperatriz, confirmed to Mongabay that Erisvan was the victim, not Dorivan. Mongabay contacted the military police battalion, but no sources were available for comment as this story went to print.

Murders of indigenous leaders is at a level not seen in two decades. Seven indigenous leaders have been killed, 26% of all murders over land conflicts in Brazil. Killings of indigenous peoples overall reached 10 this year, the highest number since 2016. Source: Pastoral Land Commission (CPT)

Since President Jair Bolsonaro took power in January, he has weakened environmental and indigenous protection agencies, replacing lifelong public servants with military personnel, slashing funds, and campaigning against environmental enforcement like fines. “The government is giving a green light to the criminal networks. The climate on the ground is of fear,” César Muñoz, the director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) told Mongabay.

Land invasions in indigenous territories have more than doubled in the last year, according to partial data from CIMI. Over 153 different lands have been encroached upon, with over 160 cases registered in the first nine months of 2019. The expectation is that this number will rise further when the last quarter of the year is accounted for.

Activists claim that Bolsonaro’s long history of racist and anti-indigenous remarks has reportedly empowered land grabbers and loggers to invade indigenous territories without fear of reprisal. “He is openly supporting exploration by agribusiness and mining companies, putting indigenous people as an enemy to the nation’s progress and development,” said Antônio Eduardo Cerqueira, CIMI’s executive secretary.

Environmental defenders and public servants have also been targeted and killed this year. In March, a leading environmental activist Dilma Ferreira Silva was murdered in Pará where her struggle against hydropower dams made her a target. In November, Maxciel Pereira dos Santos was executed in front of family members in the state of Amazonas. He was a lifelong public servant at FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous agency.


Indigenous groups protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s policies in Brasília. Image by Karla Mendes / Mongabay.


Of over 300 murder cases in the last decade, only 14 were brought before a judge, according to a recent report by HRW. Their investigation analyzed 16 murder cases from 2015 onwards, and identified severe flaws. “In at least two, police detectives didn’t visit the crime scene. In another five, there hadn’t been an autopsy,” the report states.

For Magno Guajajara, the message is coming from the Bolsonaro administration. “They come and shoot and kill and do what they want, because they know they have support,” he said.

Protective measures were requested before the wave of murders in Maranhão, after an escalation of invasions and threats was identified. Francisco da Conceição, the head of the human rights department of Maranhão state, sent a letter to the Federal Police in August warning about “constant threats due to illegal logging activity in the region, where over 30 trucks of wood are extracted daily.” But no additional protective measures were taken at the time, the government of Maranhão said.

Following the deaths of Firmino and Raimundo, Brazil’s Justice Minister Sérgio Moro sent a Federal Task Force to the region “to prevent any further criminal incidents.” The case is currently under investigation by the Federal Police, who said in a statement that evidence collected so far has not implicated loggers.

In response to the increased attacks on Brazil’s indigenous people, civil society is summoning the federal government to act. “Our hope is that they [the government] will revisit their stance and open a channel for dialogue. But until now, the Justice minister has not invited them in to talk,” says Cerqueira.

Mongabay reached out to the Ministry of Justice and the Federal Police for further clarifications. The Federal Police responded that the investigations are confidential and they would not be giving interviews on the topic. The Ministry of Justice did not respond to request for comment.

Banner image: Protests outside the government building in Brasilia on December 7, following the death of two Guajajara indigenous leaders. Image by Tiago Miotto/Cimi.

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