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In Brazil, an Indigenous land defender’s unsolved killing is the deadly norm

A framed photo of Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau

A framed photo of Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, murdered in 2020. Ari received death threats from land invaders before he was killed, yet the question of who murdered him and why remains unanswered. Image © Bitate Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau.

  • Two years after the death of Indigenous land defender Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau in Brazil’s Amazonian state of Rondônia, questions about who killed him and why remain unanswered.
  • Perpetrators of crimes against environmental activists are rarely brought to justice in the country, with a government report showing zero convictions for the 35 people killed in incidents of rural violence in 2021 — about a third of them in Rondônia.
  • Indigenous groups and environmental activists in Rondônia say they fear for their lives as the criminal gangs that covet the Amazon’s rich resources act with impunity in threatening defenders and invading protected lands.
  • Activists and experts point to a combination of the government’s anti-Indigenous rhetoric and the undermining of environmental agencies as helping incite the current surge of invasions and violence against land defenders in Rondônia and the wider Brazilian Amazon.

Tangãi Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau recalls the evening of April 17, 2020, when his brother left their village deep in the Amazon rainforest to go out for a routine motorbike ride. It was the last time Tangãi saw him alive. Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau’s body was found the next morning on the side of a dirt track in the Tarilândia area of Jaru municipality, in the state of Rondônia. According to government reports, he was killed by deliberate blows to the head. “My nephew was passing through the area and found him,” Tangãi told Mongabay by phone.

Ari’s death came one day before Indigenous Peoples Day, which recognizes and celebrates Indigenous communities in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America. More than two years on from that day, questions about who committed the crime and why remain unanswered. “We still have a broken heart. We don’t know exactly why this happened,” Tangãi said. “It leaves us both sad and angry.”

Initially, the murder was investigated at a state level, but was escalated to the Federal Police later in 2020, according to Salomão de Matos, chief of the local Civil Police, in a phone call to Mongabay. When the killing of an Indigenous person appears to be linked to violations of Indigenous rights under the Constitution, it’s treated as a federal crime. However, while the Rondônia office of the Federal Police confirmed the investigation is ongoing, it said it couldn’t disclose any details.

The Ministry of Justice, which oversees the Federal Police, didn’t follow up on a request for comment on the case.

A framed photo of Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, murdered in 2020. Ari received death threats from land invaders before he died, yet the question of who killed him and why remains unanswered. Image © Bitate Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau.
Rondônia is a state in the north of Brazil that’s mostly covered in the Amazon rainforest. Its rich, biodiverse jungle is threatened by increasing rates of deforestation driven by agricultural expansion, especially cattle ranching and soybean farming.

In 2021, at least 27 human rights and environment defenders were killed in Brazil, including 19 land rights defenders, according to a report from Front Line Defenders. This marked a 69% increase from the previous year, making Brazil the third-deadliest country for land defenders, after Colombia (138 killed) and Mexico (42 killed). In Brazil, activists say Ari’s death is part of that trend — and warn of the possibility of more killings to come.

“We’re really worried this will happen again with us, especially we activists who are on the front line, searching to protect our land,” Bitate Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau told Mongabay by phone. Bitate is a distant relative of Ari and also lives in the Uru-Eu-Uaw-Uaw Indigenous Territory that the latter called home. “It’s difficult for there to be punishment for crimes against activists. It’s very complicated [in Brazil].”

The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people say they doubt whether those responsible for Ari’s death will be identified and bought to trial. “We are worried that [this case] can’t be solved,” Bitate said. Justice is rare for Brazilians killed in environmental and human rights activism. In 2021, 35 people were killed in rural violence, up by 75% from the previous year, according to the Catholic Church-affiliated Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), which has been keeping track of the issue since 1985. Government documents reveal there were zero convictions in those cases. A report from Human Rights Watch revealed that since 2009, there have been more than 300 deaths related to land conflicts in the Brazilian Amazon, of which just 14 — 5% — were brought to court.

While progress in the investigation into Ari’s killing remains shrouded in uncertainty for those close to him, the heavy price he paid for protecting his territory hasn’t been forgotten. In November 2021, more than a year and a half after his death, Txai Suruí, a close friend of Ari and an Indigenous activist from Rondônia, honored his memory during her speech at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. “As you close your eyes to reality, the defender of the land Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, my friend since I was a child, was murdered for defending the forest,” she said.

Ari was a teacher in his community of about 150 Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, a Tupi-speaking group that, until 1981, had remained uncontacted by the outside world. He was also a member of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau patrol team. Working alongside Tangãi, the group scoured their territory, looking for signs of invasions while tracking illegal loggers and taking videos of illicit activity on their smartphones to report to local authorities. The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous Territory sprawls for 1.87 million hectares (4.61 million acres) across the protected Pacaás Novos National Park and was demarcated in 1991. The occupation and exploitation of demarcated Indigenous territories is prohibited by law; these lands are reserved for the exclusive use of the Indigenous communities. However, that hasn’t prevented rampant illegal invasions of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau and other Indigenous territories across Brazil.

“The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau are people who come from a historical struggle to defend their territories,” Laura Vicuña told Mongabay by phone. Vicuña is a regional coordinator of the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI) in Rondônia, an advocacy group affiliated with the Catholic Church. “They do the work of monitoring and surveillance of their lands, and in some situations, the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau detain people within their territory and call the police so that the police can then come and do their job. [The Indigenous people] also destroy some equipment [that the criminals use]. It’s a way of the Indigenous people having control over their territory.”

Defending land rights through physical patrols can be perilous, given the risk of deadly retaliation from active criminal gangs operating in the area. “When [environmental activists] denounce crimes, they end up suffering reprisals, threats, and revenge. Indigenous leaders end up being killed,” said Rodrigo Agostinho, a federal congressman with the Brazilian Socialist Party who has long advocated for environmental issues. “It’s a really sad moment that we’re living in, especially for those who fight for the forest,” he told Mongabay by phone.

A statement published by CIMI revealed that Ari had received threats from illegal loggers operating inside the Indigenous territory before his death. Death threats come “all the time” to environment and land rights defenders from people who covet the land’s natural resources, according to Ivanete Bandeira Cardozo, who leads the Kanindé Ethno-environmental Defense Association, an organization that defends the rights of Indigenous people. In a video recorded by Kanindé in 2019, Awapu Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, leader of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau patrol team and Ari’s cousin, said: “Our land is one of the most deforested and dangerous in Brazil. We know that nowadays there are thousands of miners, land grabbers and loggers here. I was threatened with death three times this year alone. Now armed invaders are looking for me near my village. They even said they would kill our children.” However, he added, “our warriors will continue to resist, but we do not want war or death.”

In June this year, the Indigenous patrol team and Funai, Brazil’s Indigenous agency, reclaimed an abandoned Funai post to help prevent land invasions within the Indigenous territory. The base’s location is by an entry point into the land commonly used by intruders. Image © Bitate Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau.
An area inside the Karipuna Indigenous Territory in Rondônia state set on fire by illegal loggers. Despite its protected status, the Karipuna land face some of the highest deforestation rates of all Indigenous territories in the Brazilian Amazon. Image © Tommaso Protti/Greenpeace.

Those behind the death threats are rarely identified or brought to justice. In 2021, there were at least 132 death threats reported across Brazil, according to an analysis by the CPT. None of the perpetrators behind the threats were ever convicted, Josep Iborra Plans, an agent from the CPT, told Mongabay by phone. The real number of death threats is likely higher; however, these threats aren’t always taken seriously by the authorities. Human Rights Watch found that sometimes police in Brazil refuse to register complaints about death threats. A 2018 report from CIMI revealed that, in some cases, Indigenous individuals have been arrested for slander after attempting to report death threats against them.

“The environmentalists, unfortunately, for a large part of the community, are seen as people who hinder the state’s growth and development. So there’s a clash, they become targets,” Pablo Hernandez Viscardi, a prosecutor with the Rondônia State Public Ministry, told Mongabay by phone. “This impacts everything. It may impact on the matter of an investigative hearing of acts of crime against their lives and their physical well-being. [It also impacts] the state’s movement to protect them.

“There is a part of the population for who, it’s not that they support these acts of crime, but they also don’t criticize this type of harmful action against environmentalists,” Viscardi added. “So they don’t have much social protection.”

According to the Humans Rights Watch report, other reasons for impunity are the police’s failure to conduct proper investigations into the alleged crimes, sometimes on the grounds that these incidents occur in remote communities or far from the nearest police station.

An Indigenous man from the Karipuna people walks through a deforested area within the Karipuna reserve during a monitoring and surveillance patrol. Image © Tommaso Protti/Greenpeace.
Karipuna people stand for a photo in the village of Panorama in the Karipuna Indigenous Territory, an area that was demarcated in 1998 yet still suffers constant invasions by illegal loggers. Image © Tommaso Protti/Greenpeace.

Criminal gangs ‘feel unstoppable’

The onslaught on environmental activists in Rondônia and across Brazil predates the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, which came to power at the start of 2019. Many cases from earlier remain unresolved, such as the killing of Indigenous leader and activist Manoel Quintino da Silva Kaxarari in 2017, and the murder of human rights activist Nilce de Souza Magalhães in 2016; the alleged perpetrator who confessed to killing Nilce escaped from jail shortly after his arrest.

The attacks on environmental activists and Indigenous land defenders has intensified under Bolsonaro, according to Cardozo from Kanindé and other activists in Rondônia and across the Amazon. Cardozo said the president’s rhetoric against Indigenous communities and the environment, coupled with the government’s undermining of environmental agencies, has empowered illegal loggers, land grabbers and gold miners.

“Since the end of 2018 until now, [land invasions] have exploded and are more aggressive than before because [criminal gangs] feel unstoppable,” Cardozo said. “They act without worrying. Nowadays, they invade Indigenous lands, threaten them, deforest it, burn it, certain of impunity.”

The Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for comments.

Scorched land within the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous territory. Land invaders burned the vegetation to clear the area to create space for illegal cattle pastures. Image © Bitate Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau.
A group meeting between the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau monitoring team (Japau Association) and a team from Funai, Brazil’s Indigenous agency, to discuss surveillance strategies to identify illegal activity within the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territory. Image © Bitate Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau.

Bitate, along with other local activists, said federal agencies such as Funai, the Indigenous affairs agency, and IBAMA, the environmental protection agency, have largely abandoned them when it comes to defending their land — and themselves — from environmental violations. Bolsonaro has severely weakened the enforcement power of these agencies since coming into office. As a result, Indigenous peoples and activists depend on the support of NGOs and their own devices to tackle the crimes against their protected lands and their lives.

“[The environmental agencies] don’t do anything,” Bitate said. “They don’t protect us. We don’t have any protection.”

In an emailed response to Mongabay, Funai said that “since January 2020, Funai has supported more than 1,200 territorial inspection actions,” including in the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territory. In June this year, it published a statement saying it had also participated in a patrol in the Karipuna Indigenous Territory, also in Rondônia, meant “to combat environmental crimes in the region.”

One of the biggest challenges in combating violations in the Amazon, according to Agostinho, the congressman, is that environmental crimes aren’t taken seriously enough in Brazil. “Environmental crimes are treated as lesser crimes,” he said. “There’s a lack of structure to combat these practices. The prosecutors don’t know how to deal with environmental crimes. The Federal Police don’t know how to deal with environmental crimes.”

This view of environmental crimes is largely shared among Rondônia’s older generation and stems back to Brazil’s military dictatorship, which from 1964 until 1985, according to prosecutor Viscardi. During this time, the military government sought to connect the Amazon to the rest of Brazil by building highways and developing agriculture in the region. The project’s slogan was “occupy to avoid surrender,” built on the idea that having a more densely populated Amazon region protected it from foreign invasion. With swaths of deforestation encouraged, the current practice of clearing the land through deforestation and burning isn’t viewed as a crime by some locals.

According to the research collective MapBiomas, Rondônia lost 6.7 million hectares of Amazon rainforest between 1985 and 2020, putting it in third place of the Brazilian states with the highest deforestation rates during this period after Pará (first place) and Mato Grosso (second place). Image courtesy of Google Earth.
The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau patrol team found a makeshift tent constructed by intruders within the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous territory. Image © Bitate Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau.

“There is this historical dynamic,” Viscardi said. “It makes the process of investigations and punishment for environmental crimes really difficult, including the development of environmental policies both for the country and the state of Rondônia.”

The invasions of protected lands in Rondônia is increasing. Deforestation in Indigenous territories in the state increased by 29% jump between 2020 and 2021, from 2,400 to 3,100 hectares (5,900 to 7,700 acres), according to data shared with Mongabay by Brazilian conservation nonprofit Imazon. A report from Global Forest Watch showed that a total of 243,000 hectares (600,500 acres) of the forest was cut down in the state in 2021, a 20% increase from the previous year.

While deforestation in Indigenous lands accounts for a small proportion of total deforestation in Rondônia, this doesn’t mean that their protected status is deterring invasions. “It’s not necessarily that these people who are deforesting the surrounding area do so because they respect the boundaries,” Larissa Amorim, a researcher at Imazon, told Mongabay by phone. “No. Some are deforesting within other protected conservation areas, which indicates they are advancing in these protected areas in this region. It’s already happening in the Uru-Eu territory.”

The rate of deforestation in the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous Territory increased by 50% from 2020 to 2021, to nearly 300 hectares (740 acres), according to Imazon. In the same report, Imazon showed that the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territory was the most threatened Indigenous land in the Amazon last year, with the highest number of deforestation alerts around its border in 2021. “This indicates there’s more deforestation activity surrounding this Indigenous land, and there is a higher risk of these occurrences increasing as well within the Indigenous territory,” Amorim said.

Even as the threat of deforestation endures, activists continue to protect the environment and defend their land in Rondônia — but not without fear. “Now, with the elections coming, it’s becoming worse,” said Cardozo from Kanindé, adding that environmental violators are making the most of the current climate of impunity in case the Bolsonaro administration is voted out. “It’s a desperate situation. It’s not sad. We live in terror in the Amazon.”

Read more: Invaded Uru-eu-wau-wau indigenous reserve awaits relief by Brazil’s new government

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