“They’re paying with their lives,” a human rights activist says about indigenous groups trying to protect the rainforest from mining and agribusiness.
The remote indigenous community of the Waiapi were invaded by illegal gold miners armed with automatic weapons and shotguns who murdered one of its chiefs in Brazil’s northern Amazon last week, according to several of the group’s leaders and indigenous rights activists.
The action is part of a campaign to begin mining the Waiãpi indigenous reserve in the coastal Amazon rainforest. The victims are blaming Brazil’s President Bolsonaro, whose slurs against indigenous people and calls for the exploitation of reserves have been interpreted as encouragement for actions like these.
The body of chief Emyra Waiapi, 68, was discovered last Monday with several stab wounds, one of the group’s leaders, Viseni Waiapi, said in an audio message sent to NBC reporters Saturday in Portuguese.
“We are in great danger,” Viseni said. The invaders assaulted women and children and were accompanied by a pit bull as they roamed around several Waiapi villages day and night last week, using special night vision goggles to navigate the area in the dark, he said.
Since 1988 the 600,000-hectare (1.4 million-acre) Waiãpi reserve has been designated traditionally occupied indigenous lands. Besides protecting the Waiãpi people, after whom the reserve is named, this decision helped preserve the rainforest’s incredible richness.
This attack on Waiapi land is one of the latest in a slew of ongoing, and increasingly frequent, invasions and assaults on indigenous territories throughout Brazil by illegal miners, ranchers and loggers.
Currently, there at least 10,000 miners illegally occupying and exploiting Brazil’s indigenous Yanomami land in northern Brazil. These sorts of invasions have increased by 150 percent since Brazil’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, took power earlier this year, according to a report published in April by Amazon Watch, an indigenous rights and rainforest conservation advocacy group.
“Bolsonaro represents the biggest attack on the Amazon in the last 30 years,” Amazon Watch Program Director Christian Poirier said.
On Monday, Bolsonaro said he was not convinced that Emyra was murdered. “There is no strong indication that this Indian was killed there,” Bolsonaro told reporters outside the presidential palace in Brasilia, adding that he intends to disprove the claims surrounding the killing.
Since Bolsonaro’s election last October, Bolsonaro has repeatedly vowed to allow commercial mining and farming on indigenous lands,which are officially reserved for indigenous people’s exclusive use under Brazil’s Constitution since 1988. One of the areas he wants to open is the National Reserve of Copper and Associates (Renca), which overlaps with Waiapi land.
Just this past Saturday, as the Waiapi awaited backup from federal police to defend themselves against the miners who were invading their lands, Bolsonaro reiterated his intention to pursue commercial ventures in indigenous lands while speaking at a graduation ceremony for new armed forces paratroopers. He said he intended to partner with the “first world” to pursue such commercial projects and that his recent decision to nominate his son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, as Brazil’s ambassador to the United States, is a strategic move to ensure this happens.
Many indigenous groups, advocates and environmentalists say Bolsonaro’s invested interest in promoting international mining and agribusiness projects in the Amazon is fueling the surge in attacks against indigenous groups, along with his long history of racist rhetoric toward indigenous people.
Bolsonaro has said that indigenous peoples do not have a culture and has compared them to zoo animals. He has also said they should be assimilated into the public or integrated into the army. Years ago, he suggested that Brazil should have killed off its indigenous peoples, saying “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.”
According to the most recent Apina statement, many families are afraid to hunt or work in their fields for fear of running into more armed invaders. Some have moved villages to join other families for more security.
Indigenous rights advocates say international pressure on Brazil’s government to protect its indigenous peoples and the Amazon is vital. Poirier said the U.S. State Department should pressure Bolsonaro’s administration into upholding Brazil’s constitutional rights that protect indigenous peoples and their lands.