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Brazilian woman threatened by Amazon loggers wins global human rights award

  • Rural community leader Osvalinda Alves Pereira is the first Brazilian to receive the Edelstam Prize, a Swedish award given to human rights defenders. She was honored this November for her brave stand against illegal loggers and for her defense of the Amazon agrarian reform community of Areia in Pará state.
  • Illegal loggers there have repeatedly threatened Osvalinda and her husband with violence, forcing them out of their community and into urban safe houses. Now the couple has returned to their rural home; threats to Osvalinda and her community have resumed since she received the Edelstam Prize.
  • Illegal deforestation, especially the illegal export of rare and valuable Amazon woods, has been strongly aided by the deregulatory policies of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, according to critics, who also say that the president’s incendiary rhetoric is emboldening illegal loggers and others to violence.
  • Still threatened by logging militias in Amazonia, Osvalinda received the award just a week after President Bolsonaro in a speech tried to shift responsibility for the policing of Amazon illegal deforestation away from Brazil and onto its foreign trading partners who are importing timber from the South American nation.
Osvalinda Alves Pereira and her husband Daniel stand in the doorway of their home in Pará state before they were forced to flee to an urban safe house. Image by Lilo Clareto / Repórter Brasil.

“Imagine being a peasant farmer in the Amazon and waking up every morning in fear of criminals who arrive at your home on motorbikes and simulate graves in your backyard,” said Caroline Edelstam, inviting the public to step into the shoes of Osvalinda Alves Pereira during a virtual Edelstam Prize award ceremony on November 24th.

Osvalinda, who lives in Pará state in the Brazilian Amazon, is the first Brazilian to receive the prestigious Swedish Prize, given to those who have contributed exceptionally and with great courage to the defense of human rights.

Threatened by illegal logging militias for nearly ten years, Osvalinda lives in Areia, in the municipality of Trairão. Areia — an agrarian reform settlement — and the road running through it, form the gateway to a corridor of Amazon protected areas, which are meant to serve as a barrier against Amazon deforestation. But the trees in the protected areas are also much coveted by illegal loggers, willing to commit violence against those standing in their way in this remote, lawless region controlled by corrupt rural elites.

Today, Pará is the Brazilian state with the nation’s highest number of land use and natural resource conflicts. Between 1985 and 2017,  more than 700 people were murdered in Pará state due to land conflicts, and only 22 were prosecuted in relation to those deaths. according to the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission

“This is a place forgotten by the government. Nobody is looking at what is going on here. Money and the people with power are in charge,” said Osvalinda in a video sent to Edelstam.

In 2012, when she set up a women’s association to train settlers in the principles of agroforestry that she was already using with success on her own land, Osvalinda received an unexpected proposal from local loggers: She should close down her association and work for them instead, setting up a sentry box to control traffic flow to the protected areas, and collecting bribes from those using the road. She refused.

Graves placed as a threat at Osvalinda’s and Daniel’s home in the Brazilian Amazon. Image by Osvalinda Pereira 2018.

At the time, Osvalinda’s training efforts were causing a major headache for illegal loggers: She was providing a viable economic alternative to the settlers (most of whom were working for the illegal loggers in conditions analogous to slavery).

Shortly after turning down the loggers’ offer, the threats began. Frequently, Osvalinda and her husband Daniel were intimidated by armed gunmen circling their remote home on motorbikes. In 2018, the couple awoke one morning to find two freshly dug graves with crosses a hundred yards from their home. The message couldn’t have been clearer and the federal government’s Program for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders moved them out of the region, hiding them in several safe houses in Brazilian cities.

But the couple found it depressing to be trapped in an urban apartment, away from their land, so four months ago they decided to return to their rural Amazon home. The intimidation soon started again, and they were warned that a price had been placed on their heads — a gunman was offered R$90,000 (US$17,700) to kill them.

A deserved honor, received at great risk

Osvalinda received news of her award with delight and fear: “I was happy to win the award, because it showed that the outside world was watching our struggle, that we are not alone. But at the same time, it’s clear that when people here in the region learn about it, they may feel more anger towards us. So we have to take care. Our only form of transport is a motorbike so, when I need to go to the city, I always have the feeling that I am going to get a bullet in the back.”

The Edelstam Prize was created in memory of Swedish diplomat and ambassador Harald Edelstam (1913-1989). He gained fame by aiding hundreds of Jews and members of the Norwegian resistance to escape Nazi persecution. He also helped save more than 1,300 people from prison or death following the 1973 military coup in Chile. His example of courage is a central criterion for the selection of honorees.

During the awards ceremony, Osvalinda received greetings from the Prime Minister of Sweden, Stefan Löfven, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.

“The actions of human rights defenders like Osvalinda are profoundly beneficial to all of us. In recognizing Ms. Pereira, we are also honoring all those who defend human rights, including our right to a healthy environment,” said Bachelet. The UN representative also pointed to the dangers caused by governments who fail to hold criminals to account. “Impunity fuels further attacks on human rights defenders,” she said.

After years of intimidation, a third of Areia’s land plots are in the hands of land thieves. Image by Mayangdi Inzaulgarat.

In Brazil, the award was reported in mainstream newspapers and on social networks. Former Environment Minister Marina Silva said on Twitter: “We hope that the international recognition of Osvalinda’s work may serve as another alert to the Brazilian authorities that they need urgently to protect her life and that of her family.”

But, as Osvalinda feared, news of the award has already led to repercussions in the agrarian reform settlement where she lives. The weekend after the ceremony, her family awoke at dawn to the sound of dogs barking. “They came in here, tore off the sign for the Agro-extractive Project, and threw it on the road. We see this as a message.”

Analysts say violent elements among ruralists in the Brazilian Amazon have been emboldened by the rhetoric of the country’s president. A week before the ceremony recognizing Osvalinda, on November 17, Jair Bolsonaro while attending an emerging economies summit of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), claimed in a speech that Brazil is the target of “unjustifiable attacks” on its environmental management of the Amazon, and maintained that countries who blame Brazil for deforestation are also importing timber illegally plundered from the Amazon. “In the next few days, we will reveal the names of the countries that import this illegal wood across the immensity that is the Amazon Region,” he threatened.

Two days later, Bolsonaro went back on his promise, saying he wouldn’t name any guilty countries, but instead would announce a list of foreign companies illegally buying timber. But he has, to date, not done this either, maybe because even if the wood has been exported illegally, that timber typically leaves Brazil under a veneer of legality.

Night traffic: Photo documentation of trucks loaded with illegally harvested timber along the access road to the Areia settlement. Note that the trucks lack license plates or any form of identification. Image by Mayangdi Inzaulgarat.

Government enabled timber smuggling

Suely Araújo knows well the complex problems faced by those trying to curb illegal logging. A former president of IBAMA, the country’s environmental agency, she is now a senior public policy specialist at the nonprofit Observatório do Clima, a network of Brazilian environmental organizations.

She explained to Mongabay the process by which illegal Brazilian timber is laundered using fraudulent documents: “Due to the volume of timber being illegally exported, it can’t slip through the ports undetected, but must have some kind of legal cover. It will probably have at least the Document of Forest Origin (DOF), or equivalent document [originating] in the states that have their own control system.”

However, possession of a DOF is far from a guarantee of legal harvesting and transport. On 25 February 2020, Bolsonaro’s IBAMA president gave into loggers’ demands and undid the Institute’s Normative Instruction No. 15/2011 (IN15), which required a port in-person inspection of wood for export, and instead required only that the company shipping the wood show its DOF, a document filled out by the logging company, and created not to authorize export, but only to register domestic transport of timber.

Long-time career IBAMA specialists, not appointed by the Bolsonaro government, spoke out strongly against the change, warning it could lead to wholesale laundering of timber for export, but were ignored by the government.

An example of a crime hiding behind an official DOF document was uncovered on 15 November 2020 on the Mamuru River, at the border between Pará and Amazonas states. Four barges loaded with 6,000 square meters (65,000 square feet) of timber harvested in the Brazilian Amazon were bound for Belém, for export. By chance, one of the barges ran aground. Federal Police boarded the vessel and, upon close examination, discovered that although the timber had a DOF, the document stated that the shipment was made up of cheap, common wood. In fact, it included rare, expensive species, such as ipê.

It is these same types of illegal timber logging and laundering schemes that are allegedly being carried out in Osvalinda’s community — and which are the source of threats against her. According to monitoring carried out by the NGO, Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), in 2017 alone logging companies cut and removed 23,000 cubic meters (248,000 square feet) of valuable ipê wood from the corridor of protected areas. The companies’ trucks used the road running through Osvalinda’s Areia settlement as their exit route. The value of the illegally extracted timber was put at R $208 million (US $41 million).

A view of the Amazon worth fighting for, as seen from Osvalinda’s home in the agrarian reform settlement of Areia in western Pará state, Brazil. Image by Thais Borges.

Deforestation a systemic problem under Bolsonaro

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon during Bolsonaro’s watch reached its highest annual level in more than a decade (using August 2019 – July 2020 statistics). But fines for environmental crimes declined, along with fines for illegal logging. These dropped from 1,903 fines in 2018, to 1,122 in 2019, the first year of the Bolsonaro administration. From January to September of this year, only 517 fines for illegal logging were imposed, according to IBAMA.

Suely Araújo says that the reduction in fines for environmental crimes is a direct result of Bolsonaro’s 2018 campaign promise that, if elected, he would curtail what he called the government’s environmental “fines industry.”

Similarly, the undermining of Brazil’s environmental agencies, with huge cuts in funding and authority, began in January 2019. Araujo notes that, under Bolsonaro, responsibility for Amazon field operations has largely been delegated to the military, which has little experience in environmental policing. “It is a sad picture of dismantling, with the government fulfilling, directly or indirectly, the promises made in Bolsonaro’s electoral campaign,” she comments.

According to Federal Public Prosecutor Gabriel Dalla, who has been following Osvalinda’s case, this disruption in environmental monitoring is making human rights defenders even more vulnerable. “When the state is unwilling to take action against criminal acts, such as illegal logging, those carrying out these crimes can — and they often do — have a false, illegal and unconstitutional feeling that their acts are legitimate. In this context, one of the possible consequences is that they behave more aggressively and more frequently against the people they believe are acting against them.”

The fact that Osvalinda was given this prestigious award, says the prosecutor, shows that the global community is watching and concerned about the survival of the Amazon forest and the safety of those defending it courageously and at great personal risk.

Banner image: Osvalinda Alves Pereira, winner of the Edelstam Prize.

Osvalinda and her husband Daniel, at home in the Amazon in 2017. Image by Walter Guimarães.