Surge In Amazon Deforestation And Violence Against Indigenous Communities In Bolsonaro’s Brazil

The Amazon rainforest comprises over half of the world’s remaining rainforests, with 60% of it located in Brazil. As the largest and most biodiverse area of rainforest in the world, the Amazon is hugely important to the wellbeing of the planet, yet recent years have seen an intensifying assault on the rainforest and its indigenous inhabitants. Trees are being illegally cut down with impunity, and indigenous people have been persecuted by landgrabbers with the open approval of Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro.

Deforestation has largely been driven by the cattle industry (around 80% according to a 2009 Greenpeace report), along with logging, mining, oil and agrobusiness interests. Since the 1960s, around 17% of the Amazon has already been deforested, with the rate increasing as transport construction projects have made the area more accessible. While the rate of deforestation fell between 2004 and 2014, it has risen spectacularly since the election of Bolsonaro. Space research agency INPE found that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon was 64% higher in April 2020 than one year before, bringing the rate of destruction to an 11 year high according to Reuters. Bolsonaro has openly called for more mining and farming in the region, while Environment Minister Ricardo Salles was recorded in May stating that the COVID-19 pandemic provided a distraction which would allow deregulation in the Amazon that would benefit cattle ranchers and agribusiness.

Government agencies have been left completely ineffective at enforcing the law, as a shocking 99% of deforestation in Brazil in 2019 (12,187 square kilometres) was illegal, according to the MapBiomas Alert project. A report by Human Rights Watch has found that thousands of fines issued by the country’s environmental protection agency have gone unpaid.  Carlos Nobre, a climate scientist with the University of São Paulo, said to the New York Times that ‘the Amazon is completely lawless … the environmental criminals feel more and more empowered’. Research in 2013 by Leydimere Oliviera and others found that deforestation decreased the yield of farms around the Amazon, meaning that further expansion is self-defeating. Research by Nobre indicated that once deforestation of the Amazon reaches 20-25%, it will turn mostly into unproductive savannah. Despite this, environmental crimes and deforestation are only increasing, directly due to the actions of Brazil’s government.

The assault on the Amazon has been accompanied by brutal violence against Brazil’s indigenous people, who face having their home desecrated by land grabbers. Last November, Paulo Paulino Guajajara, known as Kwahu, was murdered by loggers when they ambushed him and a friend in the forest. Kwahu was an Amazon Guardian, patrolling the forests by his home in the eastern Amazon, which had been increasingly targeted by loggers. This is indicative of a growing trend of violence against indigenous people. The Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI) reported that from January to September 2019 there were 160 incursions into Brazil’s indigenous land by people engaged in illegal mining, logging, and land grabs. ‘This is the result of the policy of genocide initiated under the Temer government, with stripping of agencies that provide assistance and protection, like INCRA and FUNAI, emphasizing the idea that indigenous territories should be exploited’, said Roberto Liebgott of CIMI.

Government protection for indigenous people has been made almost non-existent, with Bolsonaro transferring the authority to protect Indigenous lands from FUNAI, a government agency tasked with the protection of Indigenous communities, to the Ministry of Agriculture on his first day as president – a move eventually reversed by the Supreme Court. The president of FUNAI, Marcelo Xavier, has deep connections with the agribusiness lobby, as reported by the Guardian, and has sided against indigenous people previously. FUNAI’s budget has been severely reduced since 2017, and in 2019, the federal government decided that every trip into the field must be authorised by Xavier, making support slow to arrive in the event of an attack.

In short, the Brazilian government has been captured at the highest levels by powerful business lobbies intent on environmental destruction with complete disregard for indigenous communities. It now falls on civil society organisations to hold them to account. The international community should exert economic pressure on destructive and illegal industries through that are destroying the Amazon by boycotting their goods, while making it clear to Brazil that it cannot condone lawlessness without foregoing economic assistance and trade deals. At the same time, indigenous communities, NGOs and journalists in Brazil who are combating these crimes must be supported. Climate change is an existential threat to the future of humanity and our planet – the crimes being committed against the Amazon and its indigenous peoples will affect us all, and should be treated as nothing less than an attack on our own home.