A local leader of the Waiãpi indigenous community in the Brazilian Amazon has been murdered amidst ongoing tensions over land usage. Emyra Waiãpi was found with stab wounds near the village of Mairry in Amapá state on 24 July. Three days later an estimated 50 gold miners, known as garimpeiros, stormed the 600,000-hectare Waiãpi reserve. They are reported to have been armed and fired shots, forcing the local community to flee to neighbouring settlements.
The brash encouragement of Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, to utilise the natural resources of the Amazon has emboldened the garimpeiros in an already tense situation. The senator for Amapá, Randolfe Rodrigues, placed the blame firmly of Bolsonaro and said that his “government is encouraging this conflict, encouraging garimpeiros to enter. Their hands are dirty.” A resident of the nearest town of Pedra Branca told reporters that “It is because he, the president, is threatening the indigenous peoples of Brazil.” Michelle Bachelet, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, called the murder of Emyra Waiãpi a “disturbing symptom of the growing problem of encroachment on indigenous land.”
Bachelet pointed out that much of this encroachment comes from miners, loggers and farmers. Illegal gold mining activity is increasing rapidly and brings widespread harm to both people and environment. It requires extensive deforestation and the mercury used to extract the gold pollutes rivers. The Amazon rainforest is known as the world’s biggest “carbon sink,” its trees absorbing around two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, which equates to six percent of global emissions. Furthermore, indigenous communities that live in remote areas are at severe risk from disease as a result of external contact.
In 2017, the former president Michel Temer faced widespread backlash after attempts to open the Renca reserve for mining. Bolsonaro has also fawned over the moneymaking prospects of the Amazon, couching what he sees only as a business opportunity as some kind of ‘civilizing mission.’ His pretext is to give the “wonders of modernity” to what he calls the “prehistoric men” living on reserves. Brazil’s indigenous agency, Funai, has faced severe cuts even before Bolsonaro’s presidency, but the nomination of a former policeman with links to agribusiness as its president only shows a continuation in the disregard for the indigenous population.
Bolsonaro has postured against international criticism with regards to the Amazon by making it an issue of national sovereignty. He has told foreign reporters that, “You have to understand that the Amazon is Brazil’s, not yours.” It is not surprising that Bolsonaro is incapable not only of comprehending the climate emergency itself, but also of recognizing it is an issue for humanity as a whole. His condescension and ignorance of Brazil’s indigenous population sets a dangerous tone and it will loom over the murder of Emyra Waiãpi much like Donald Trump’s rhetoric looms over white supremacist terrorism in the United States. His view of the Amazon and the natural resources that it contains as a “business” betrays a view that is constrained only to profitability.
To fully address climate change in a systematic manner it will require the recognition that it is not just a scientific matter but also one of social justice. It will be necessary to re-alter attitudes towards the environment so that it is no longer regarded as a commodity but as an integral part of ecological and humanitarian well-being. The indigenous communities, who have spent generations protecting the natural environment, should be recognized and respected for their efforts to defend such land. Jair Bolsonaro, and the form of politics that he represents, is ill equipped to do this.