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The Politics of Denial, The Brazilian President, and The Fate of Amazonia

With the murder of the Amerindian, Paulo Paulino Guajajara, on November 1st by Brazilian illegal-loggers, was clear evidence of genocidal practices against Brazil’s indigenous population continuing today. Paulino’s people, O Povo Guajajara, are some of the most numerous native peoples in Brazil, numbering nearly 30,000 and living in the Amazonian state of Maranhão in northeast Brazil. Paulo Paulino was also a member of the self-designated group, “Guardians of the Forest” (Guardiões da Floresta), who patrol their enormous indigenous reserve, Araribóia, some 1,595 square miles (4,130 square kilometers), almost twice the size of Rhode Island, in order to protect the forest against illegal loggers and illegal poachers.

According to CIMI (Conselho Indigenista Missionario, Catholic Indigenist Missionary Council) in 2018, the murder of indigenous peoples grew by 20% from the previous year to 135 cases and in the previous thirty-years there have been 1,119 homicides of Brazilian Native peoples. Most of these murders occurred in the Brazilian states of Roraima and secondarily in Mato Grosso do Sul. Such incidents in their majority are driven by soy farmers (fazendeiros) and cattle ranchers (rancheiros) and should be alarming to everyone around the globe. Fazendeiros and rancheiros do not want “Indians” (Índios) on their lands, or near their lands, and land-grabbers want to take indigenous lands for themselves, as illegal-loggers and goldminers wish to exploit Native lands. Moreover, invasions on indigenous reservations in Brazil have doubled from the year prior with as many as 153 documented cases by CIMI from illegal-goldminers (garimpeiros), illegal-loggers, land grabbers, and poachers. Even worse, the crimes against Brazilian indigenous peoples are rarely prosecuted. As the indigenous kinswoman to the murdered Indian, and leader, Sonia Guajajara, remarked: “The indigenous genocide of Brazil is legitimized by the discourse of the president [Bolsonaro]”.

As such, the genocide happening now against indigenous peoples in Brazil has received relatively little attention outside the country. Anthropologists, like myself, fear this genocide happening against Brazilian indigenous peoples will likely endure in the long-term because of the rhetoric of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his economic development policies for Amazonia.

Furthermore, adding to these tragedies we know that the Brazilian Patanal (wetlands) is currently burning. These conflagrations are similarly colossal as the record-breaking fires in the Brazilian Amazon in the recent past months. In the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul the fires are said have consumed an area of at least 50,000 hectares (193 square miles) or about the size of the Island of Guam already. While at present, there is allegedly a 31-mile (50 kilometer) fire advancing across the Brazilian wetlands (patanal). According to reports these fires began on October 25th and have increased because of dry conditions and high-winds. 

And aside from these man-made environmental disasters in Brazil, there have been others still. On the 25th of January, the Brumadinho Dam in Minas Gerais state collapsed, killing at least 250 people with a giant mud-slide releasing tons of toxic waste from an iron-ore mine nearby. It was Brazil’s worst industrial accident to date, proving how Brazilian business regulations are severely lacking. Ironically, a similar dam disaster occurred in Minas Gerais years earlier in November of 2015, when the Mariana Dam collapsed, which also released toxic-sludge from an iron-ore mine, killing nineteen people, but completely contaminating the Rio Doce, causing an unprecedented environmental disaster at the time.

Equally, there are the planned and ongoing hydro-electric dam constructions in the Brazilian Amazon, such as the Belo Monte Dam along the Xingu River which would flood thousands of kilometers of indigenous lands and adversely affect the livelihoods and well-being of numerous indigenous peoples inclusive of the Arara, Araweté, Asurini, Juruna, Kayapó, Parakanã, and Xikrin, as well as negatively affecting the immense biodiversity in the region. In addition, dam constructions are planned for the Upper Madeira River, the Jirau and San Antônio dams. Like the Belo Monte Dam, the ones along the Madeira River will disastrously affect Apurinã, Cassupá, Jiahui, Karipuna, Karitiana, Katawixi, Mura, Oro Ari, Oro Bom, Parintintin, Pirahã, Salamãi, Tenharim, Torá, and Urueu Wau Wau indigenous peoples and the biodiversity of this lower region of the Amazon.

In July of this year, the Yanomami territories in the northern Brazilian Amazon, bordering and including those lands in Venezuela, were invaded by an estimated 20,000 illegal goldminers (garimpeiros), polluting the Rio Branco with mercury, and spreading disease to the Yanomami people. In 1992 Yanomami land reserves in Brazil were designated as a protected park covering some 37,000 square miles (nearly 100,000 square kilometers), an area a bit bigger than the state of Indiana. Such recent invasions are reminiscent of the garimpeiro incursions of the 1980s, causing mass-deaths among the Yanomami from the garimpeiro spread of “white” diseases such as measles, which indigenous peoples living in remote areas have little immunity.

Organizations such as the “Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America” (SALSA) have sent open-letters about the unprecedented fires in Brazilian Amazonia, stating: “Since taking office earlier this year, President Jair Bolsonaro and the ‘ruralist’ parliamentary block have sought to open indigenous lands up to mining and logging operations; have slashed the budgets and oversight potential of environmental agencies; have backed an ‘economic liberty’ suite of policies for agribusiness; have vowed that the government will not demarcate ‘one more centimeter’ of indigenous land in Brazil, and have taken steps to try to decertify (rob) existing indigenous reserves. The parliamentary assault on indigenous peoples and on Amazonian ecosystems is vast, coordinated, and has been decades in the making…As anthropologists who have the privilege of working with the originary peoples of Amazonia, we also have the obligation to condemn the racist rhetoric and genocidal policies pursued by the current Brazilian government (dated August 25th, 2019).”

When Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, recently addressed the United Nations Assembly on the 24th of September, he unfortunately disseminated a dangerous propaganda message about the Yanomami living on rich mineral reserves by declaring: “In these reserves, there is plenty of gold, diamond, uranium, niobium, and rare earths, among others.” Thereby, encouraging the types of egregious invasions by the thousands of garimpeiros illegally invading Yanomami territories and underlining how such few Indians live on such immense reserves of land. Such treacherous rhetoric gives a “green light” to land-grabbers, illegal-loggers, illegal-miners, and poachers to invade Native Brazilian lands with impunity. What is more, Bolsonaro’s political oratory has provided greater impetus for soy farmers and cattle ranchers to burn more land for their crops and livestock.

In sum, President Bolsonaro practices a politics of “denial”, by denying that man-made catastrophes such as the fires in Amazonia, or now in the Patanal (wetlands), or the genocide against indigenous peoples are anything but real. In the mind of Bolsonaro and many of his supporters, the man-made environmental disasters occurring in Brazil are concocted by the fake media, by communists, by NGOs, and by foreign conspirators—all supposedly willing to undermine Brazil’s sovereignty and its national authority to deal with such issues alone.

In fact, in his UN speech, Bolsonaro also remarked: “The Amazon is not being destroyed nor consumed by fire, as the media is falsely portraying.” He also avowed: “Brazil reaffirms its unwavering commitment to the highest human rights standards, with the promotion of democracy and freedom—of expression, of religion, and of press.”

It is with a heavy heart that I state this but Brazil’s human rights record points to the contrary of President Bolsonaro’s hyperbolic pronouncements. Aside from the increased violence against indigenous people and a notable increase in man-made environmental disasters, as I mentioned above, Brazil has a horrendous record in “freedom of expression” of its press and in “human rights standards” in general as recounted by organizations as Amnesty International and  Human Rights Watch. As their separate reports have detailed, there are presently in Brazil excessive and notorious examples of assaults on the media, police abuses, domestic violence, gender discrimination, harassment of educators, and violence against environmental activists.

As the indigenous leader, Executive Coordinator of APIB (Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples Articulation, Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil), and kinswoman of murdered Paulo Paulino, Sonia Guajajara, exclaimed recently: “We no longer want to be statistics; we want measures from the government, the bodies that are increasingly being scrapped [like the National Indian Foundation, FUNAI, Fundação Nacional do Índio], and thereby precisely not able to protect the very people who are paying with their lives for doing the work that is the responsibility of the state. We demand urgent justice!”

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J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. He has a PhD from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice (2015).

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