Killing the Messengers: Rising Violence Against Journalists and Indigenous Leaders Defending the Amazon

In February 2005, the body of 73-year-old Sister Dorothy Stang was found on the side of a remote dirt road 33 miles from Anapu, Pará, in Brazil’s AmazonBasin. Seven bullets pierced her body. The first hit her in the abdomen, then after she fell face down, the killers fired bullets to the back and four to the head.

The masterminds turned out to be Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura and Regivaldo Pereira Galvão, wealthy farmers who opposed the U.S. missionary for creating the first sustainable development program in the Anapu region of the Amazon on lands formerly exploited by large landowners and loggers that had been confiscated by the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA).

The missionary’s death drew world-wide attention to the violence that environmental activists are exposed to around the globe, specifically in the Amazon region. It wasn’t until this year- on April 16, 2019,14 years after the assassination–that Pará’s Civil Police finally arrested Galvão, who was condemned to 30 years in 2010.

On July 30,  the British-American NGO Global Witness released its annual report on attacks against land and environmental defenders. The report “Enemies of The State? How governments and business silence defenders” registers 164 defenders killed in 2018, an average of more than three a week, with many more attacked or jailed. The Philippines leads the world with 30 killed, followed by Colombia with 24, India with 23 and, in fourth place, Brazil with 20. The report finds that the majority of the killings happen in the mining industry. Hydropower, agribusiness and logging projects follow close behind. According to the document, “more than half of 2018 murders took place in Latin America, which has consistently ranked as the worst-affected continent since Global Witness began publishing data on killings in 2012”.

Global Witness’s Senior Campaigner Alice Harrison states in the press release, “…it is a brutal irony that while judicial systems routinely allow the killers of defenders to walk free, they are also being used to brand the activists themselves as terrorists, spies or dangerous criminals. Both tactics send a clear message to other activists: the stakes for defending their rights are punishingly high for them, their families and their communities.”

The Global Witness report notes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s willingness to open Indigenous reserves to mining, agriculture and infrastructure has triggered a rise in invasions of indigenous lands by armed gangs of land grabbers, causing constant fear in those communities. A delegation from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights meeting with Indigenous leaders in Pará in November 2018 found out why firsthand when they were intimidated and threatened by proxies of the soy industry. In Pará, at least eight land and environmental defenders involved in agricultural and land disputes were killed last year.

The writing was on the wall. Ten days after Bolsonaro took office, dozens of men invaded protected indigenous land of the Uru-eu-wau-wau tribe in a remote corner of the Amazon in the state of Rondonia in northern Brazil,armed with machetes, chainsaws and firearms. In a 2017 campaign rally in the rural state of Mato Grosso Bolsonaro said: “if I become president, there won’t be one square centimeter of land designated for indigenous reservations”.

Amazon Watch director Christian Poirier thinks the lack of protection from the government is a big part of the problem.

“I don’t believe that authorities are prepared to engage the scale of criminality in Brazil and across the Amazon in general. In fact, what we’re seeing in Brazil is quite the opposite.” He notes that the focus on coordinated law enforcement acts to combat drug smuggling  in the region ignores other threats to the environment and the people living there and often harms rather than protects local communities, “Indigenous peoples are being caught in the crossfire of conflicts between smugglers and police,” Poirier reports.

Attacks on Brazil’s Indigenous peoples and their Rights

Brazil rivals Colombia, Peru and Ecuador as vivid examples of violence against environmentalists, human rights activists, journalists and indigenous peoples. those identities often intersect, making the individuals at greater risk of violent attacks.

Poirier told me that as the stewards of vast tracts of resource-rich lands, “indigenous peoples are being increasingly marginalized by the government, which foments hatred against them and other minorities”. He contends that this has intensified under Bolsonaro.

It’s the wealth of natural resources and historic patterns of resource exploitation in Latin America that have attracted actors and interests seeking maximum gain and willing to silence anyone who dares to expose their unscrupulous means. The Amazon rainforest, which spreads through Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, harbors especially coveted and increasingly scarce resources for contemporary society, which has led to mounting violence.

I talked to Brazilian Indigenous leader Dinamam Tuxá to ask him about the current political climate for indigenous land defenders in Brazil. fTuxá, a member of the Tuxá People, is the coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) and legal adviser to the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples and Organizations of the Northeast, Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo (APOINME). He explained that in Brazil’s 519 years history there has always been violence against the native tribes, “with more bloodshed at some historical moments than others. Even with all the advances in the legislation and in Indigenous Peoples human rights, we still face many types of violence, and we lack public policies to cover the historical debt Brazil has with us. Instead, the State keeps taking more”. Approximately 850,000 indigenous people live in Brazil, distributed in 300 tribes. Their reservations cover nearly 13% of Brazilian territory.

Tuxá points out that anti-indigenous practices range from the criminalization of indigenous leaders, to direct attacks, as the attempted murder of Chief Babau and his relatives from the Tupinambá by military and civil police in the southern state of Bahia, supported by farmers and businessman from the hotel sector.  The lack of effective territorial demarcation policies, and attacks from political power structures, the private sector and society create high tensions. In Dilma Rousseff’s government the building of the Belo Monte dam led to an enormous distress among the Kayapó community, led by internationally famous Chief Raoni. When Michel Temer came to power, he weakened the institutions and laws designed to protect environmental activists from attacks from industry and agribusiness players. Budget cuts and the changed political context also eroded the National Program of Protection, according to Amnesty International’s Annual Report 2017/18. Global Witness documents 57 killings of Brazilian land defenders in 2017.

There are also other casualties of the conflicts. The suicide rate among youth in Brazilian Indigenous peoples is nearly three times higher than the average rate, according to the Health Ministry. Dinamam Tuxá asserts that this tragedy is in part due to the lack of treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental health issues that develop due to the confrontations, invasions and external pressures from evangelicals. Even when the courts decide in favor of the tribes, they cannot count on receiving reparations. Indigenous peoples often rely on traditional cultural, spiritual and health treatments, but those methods are diminishing as a result of genocide and territorial usurpation.

The lack of mainstream media attention to their issues, according to Tuxá, is another form of violence and censorship. He says that although the international community is paying more attention to the Amazon since “the world will collapse without it”, the media rarely takes the time to understand the socio-environmental conflicts. The Indigenous agenda, he notes, is usually ignores and the tribes aren’t seen for what they are, in his words, “the true defenders of the land who stave off global warming”.  Tuxá emphasizes the fundamental role of indigenous peoples, “Our culture and practices contribute so the world can have a balanced ecosystem. We are the holders of that ancient knowledge and we own the territories that still harbor the Brazilian forests”.

Global Witness’s Harrison concurs.  “Vicious attacks against land and environmental defenders are still happening, despite growing momentum behind environmental movements the world over. As we hurtle towards climate breakdown, it has never been more important to stand with those who are trying to defend their land and our planet against the reckless destruction being meted out by the rich and powerful”.

Killing the Messengers 

The new Global Witness report confirms that all kinds of land defenders, including activists, Indigenous leaders and environmental journalists, face increased risks and attacks. Another recent report confirms the finding, this one from the Committee to Protect Journalists. They point out that globally at least 13journalists investigating environmental violations have been murdered in the past 10 years  and scores more subjected to beatings, harassments and threats for exposing shady deals involving the environment. In Brazil, veteran reporter Lucio Flavio Pinto who has revealed the rapid expansion of soybean farms in the Amazon and other threats to the region receives constant death threats.

The Committee to Protect Journalists’ South and Central America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick tells the Americas Program that “while violence against journalists anywhere in the world is unacceptable and cause for concern, the targeted violence directed against journalists covering the environmental beat is particularly worrisome, as it is so clearly linked to the important work they are doing”.

Poirier at Amazon Watch says that the violence against journalists and activists is clearly linked. “It is much the same dynamic for anyone who stands in the way of destructive industries, all environmental human rights defenders, and it’s why they are so much at risk today.  There are a lot of parallels between environmental journalists and investigative journalists and environmental human rights defenders.”

The Global Witness report ends with a somber reflection: “We can never undo the sacrifices made by those documented in this report or the damage done to their loved ones. But we can ensure their deaths were not entirely in vain by calling on our governments to urgently tackle the problems that they put their lives on the line to highlight. We should protect and empower the courageous individuals who follow their lead – for their sake and for ours”.

Gabriel Leão writes for Americas Program.