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Illegal miners block Indigenous leaders headed to protests in Brazil’s capital

  • Illegal gold miners slashed the tires of a bus and threatened to set it on fire in a bid to block leaders in the Munduruku Indigenous Reserve from traveling to Brazil’s capital to attend planned protests this week, Indigenous groups and authorities say.
  • Indigenous leaders had to be escorted by police as they tried to reach the capital and take part in protests against invasions of their lands and violence against their people, advocates say.
  • The attacks come weeks after miners fired shots and set houses ablaze in the Munduruku reserve, fueling worries about more violence against Indigenous people after federal authorities retreated from the area.
  • Federal prosecutors and Indigenous groups have called for firmer measures against the illegal miners and permanent protection for the Munduruku Indigenous people.

Illegal miners attacked and tried to block Indigenous leaders in Brazil’s Amazon from traveling to the country’s capital to protest invasions of their lands and violence against their people, in a fresh flare-up that spurred calls on the federal government to step in and protect the Munduruku people.

On June 9, the miners slashed the tires of a bus meant to transport Munduruku leaders from Jacareacanga, in the state of Pará, to planned protests in Brasília, according to Indigenous groups and the  Federal Public Ministry (MPF). The attackers also threatened the driver, saying they would set the bus on fire. Indigenous groups said there were no passengers aboard the bus at the time of the attack.

“We continue to be attacked,” the Munduruku Ipereg Ayu Movement said in a statement on June 9. “We want to denounce what we are experiencing. We are going to Brasília to denounce all the threats we are experiencing [but] we’re not getting out. Our chiefs are imprisoned in the municipality.”

The Munduruku leaders were eventually able to embark on the trip on June 14 with an escort of agents from the Federal Police and the Federal Highway Police, according to Coiab, an umbrella group of Indigenous Organizations in the Brazilian Amazon. The escort was provided after the MPF filed a formal request to federal agencies to “employ agents, vehicles and equipment in sufficient quantity to guarantee the personal safety” of the group, federal prosecutors said in a statement.

Coiab  confirmed to Mongabay on June 14 that the delegation was on its way to the protests in Brasilia. But the episode had heightened existing worries about their safety, the organization said.

Indigenous people from across Brazil are gathering in Brasília to protest several anti-Indigenous proposals currently before Congress. Image by Eric Marky Terena/Mídia Índia, courtesy of Coiab.

Coiab, an umbrella group of Indigenous organizations in the Brazilian Amazon, confirmed to Mongabay on June 11 that the delegation was on its way to the protests in Brasilia, but the episode had heightened existing worries about their safety.

The Munduruku people, who number just over 14,000, have been fighting to keep invaders away for decades. Their reserve was demarcated in 2004, but tensions have escalated since 2018, with illegal gold miners, known as garimpeiros, becoming bolder.

This fresh attack came on the heels of months of violence in the Munduruku reserve, which has only intensified in recent weeks. On May 26, the invaders fired shots and set houses ablaze in the reserve, burning down the home of Indigenous leader Maria Leusa Munduruku, an outspoken critic of illegal mining.

The attack in late May was believed to be in retaliation to a federal police operation to expel garimpeiros  from the reserve, according to rights groups. But despite the escalating violence, police forces retreated from the area just days later, leaving the community unprotected, according to federal prosecutors.

Illegal gold mines in the Munduruku Indigenous Reserve, near the town of Jacareacanga, in Pará state, Brazil. Image courtesy of Christian Braga/Greenpeace.

“Federal authorities retreated at a critical moment, leaving Indigenous leaders who are against the illegal miners even more vulnerable than they were before,” Nara Baré, executive coordinator of Coiab, told Mongabay in a phone interview. “They left them without any kind of protection.”

Baré said that Coiab and other Indigenous groups have called for the permanent posting of federal and local police forces in the Munduruku reserve, but their demand has not yet received a response.

On May 29, the MPF asked a federal court to order police forces to go back to the reserve and guarantee the safety of the Munduruku people. Agents from the National Guard returned to the area late last week, according to the MPF. Prosecutors are now petitioning the court to apply a daily fine of 50,000 reais ($9,872) for the government’s delay in complying with the order.

But Indigenous groups say that, even with federal agents back in the area, the Munduruku people continue suffering threats and intimidation. In one such instance, Indigenous leader Maria Leusa had to be relocated to safety after illegal miners discovered where she had taken shelter after her home was torched, according to Baré.

“We are tired of sounding the alarm and then nothing is done. We keep dying, we keep being attacked,” she said. “Until when will we have to keep fighting to be heard?”

MPF also sharply criticized the federal government’s “lack of planning and structuring in the combat of illegal activities” in the Munduruku reserve, noting authorities are failing to ensure the safety of Indigenous  people and calling for more robust action aimed at expelling the illegal miners from the area.

Federal police agents escorted leaders of the Munduruku Indigenous Reserve on June 14, after they were blocked from travelling to Brasília to take part in protests against invasions of Indigenous lands. Image courtesy of Coiab.

“The operations are always ‘episodic’ and soon after, the territory is abandoned again,” the MPF said in a statement, noting the late-May operation was meant to last 15 days but was abandoned early despite the violent attacks against the Munduruku people.

And the violence has not been limited to the Munduruku reserve. The Yanomami reserve, where thousands of illegal miners are exploiting Indigenous lands, faced days of violent attacks in May, with illegal miners reportedly opening fire with automatic weapons on the village of Palimiú. On June 7, the Yanomami Hutukara Association reported yet another attack, claiming that miners threw gas bombs at Indigenous people and threatened security guards.

The ongoing violence has only fueled outrage among Indigenous people, who say their rights have come under attack on President Jair Bolsonaro’s watch. Since taking office at the start of 2019, Bolsonaro has opposed the demarcation of Indigenous reserves and promised to legalize wildcat mining. In September 2020, the federal government flew Indigenous people who support garimpos (illegal gold mines) to Brasília, to defend the illegal activity in front of lawmakers.

“The federal government has unraveled the agencies responsible for enforcing the law and removing these invaders,” said Juliana de Paula Batista, a lawyer with the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a nonprofit advocating for the rights of Indigenous people. “And it has said it will not punish the invaders. This has served as an incentive and the invasions into Indigenous lands have increased.”

The federal government, the Federal Police and Funai, the government agency tasked with protecting Indigenous interests, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Illegal miners have flooded the Munduruku Indigenous Reserve in the Brazilian state of Pará, raising concerns about deforestation, water pollution and disease. Image courtesy of Christian Braga/Greenpeace.

Dozens of Indigenous groups are gathering this week in Brasília to protest several anti-Indigenous proposals currently before Congress. These include a bill that would allow demarcations of Indigenous lands to be rolled back and a proposal that would free illegal miners to exploit Indigenous reserves.

Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court (STF) was also set to begin judging a landmark case this week, but Indigenous leaders say the process was postponed. The case, stalled since October 2020, will decide whether Indigenous people can only lay claim to demarcate lands they were physically living on when Brazil’s Constitution was signed in 1988, known as marco temporal in Portuguese.

Banner image: Indigenous people are protesting in Brazil’s capital, Brasilía, this month against invasions of their lands and violence against their people. Image by Eric Marky Terena/Mídia Índia, courtesy of Coiab.

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