An image of destroyed lands in the Karipuna territory, Brazil.

‘Without our territory, we are nothing’: Violence against Indigenous peoples spikes in Brazil

At the COP26 summit on Monday, Brazil promised to fight climate change and committed to ending illegal deforestation by 2028. But many are wary of environmental promises from President Jair Bolsonaro as forest destruction spikes under his administration.

The World

An image of destroyed lands in the Karipuna territory, Brazil. 

Courtesy of Andre Karipuna 

In Brazil, the Karipuna Indigenous Territory stretches as a long expanse of thick green jungle in the western Amazon state of Rondonia. A small Indigenous tribe known as the Karipuna — with only 61 remaining members — calls this area home.

When The World first spoke with Chief Andre Karipuna a couple of years ago, he said he was afraid for their lives. He had received death threats. Land invasions had spiked. At night, he could hear the backhoes from the loggers falling trees on their territory only a few miles away. Government restructuring and budget cuts had gutted the federal agencies that once helped defend their land.

Related: Brazilian Indigenous groups mobilize to defend land rights

Today, it’s worse.

"We’ve been abandoned by the government. ... They are not helping us to protect our land.”

Chief Andre Karipuna

"We’ve been abandoned by the government,” Andre Karipuna said this weekend. “They are not helping us to protect our land.”

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According to a report released last week, Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro and his government are largely to blame for a huge spike in violence against Indigenous peoples, including land invasions and the deforestation of Native territories, such as the Karipuna territory. 

Illegal invasions of Karipuna land have increased 44% over the last year, according to the report, and 2,100 acres of their forest was destroyed in just the last year. 

In several photos shared with The World, the bottom chunk of the Karipuna territory appears to be in a process of clearing and chopping. The trees of a once-pristine jungle lay in charred pieces on the barren ground.

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“Invasions, deforestation, fires ... What happens to our children? We need to protect this place for the generations that will come.”

Chief Andre Karipuna

“Invasions, deforestation, fires,” Andre Karipuna said. “What happens to our children? We need to protect this place for the generations that will come.”

Federal prosecutor Daniel Lobo has said that behind the invasions of Karipuna territory is a criminal network that profits off of logging — often for export — and destroying the forest, in order to clear land and sell it to farmers or ranchers.

“There are no heads of cattle yet on their Indigenous territory,” said Laura Pereira, with Brazil’s Indigenous Missionary Council, a nongovernmental organization that works with the country’s Indigenous peoples, including the Karipuna. “But when you drive in, you already see that some lands have been planted with grass for cattle farming.”

Cattle are big business. Brazil is the largest exporter in the world of meat and soy. Both industries have exploded in this part of the Amazon. Soy production, alone, in the state of Rondonia, has tripled over the last 10 years, to roughly a million acres last year.

Individuals have used Brazil’s Rural Environmental Registry as one means of attempting to steal a piece of Karipuna land. The registry is essentially an online database of environmental land titles, but because there is little oversight and accountability,  87 individuals have registered through the system that they are the owners of the land that actually belongs to the Karipuna. 

“It’s a legal instrument used as a political tool to legitimize illegal holdings on this land,” Pereira said. 

The state of Rondonia has now canceled the extraneous environmental titles on Karipuna land, “but it hasn’t decreased the stealing of Indigenous territory,” Pereira said. “People use this as an instrument to continue to invade, rob and deforest Karipuna land.”

An image of the Karipuna territory in Brazil.

An image of the Karipuna territory in Brazil. 

Credit:

Courtesy of Andre Karipuna

This same model of fabricating titles as a means of stealing Indigenous land has been replicated in at least 200 different Native territories across Brazil, according to researchers. 

Lucia Helena Rangel is an anthropologist who co-authored another exhaustive report published last week by the Indigenous Missionary Council that details how land invasions, violence and killings of Indigenous peoples rose last year amid the pandemic. At least 182 Indigenous peoples were murdered in 2020, 61% more than the previous year.

“What's so concerning now, is that Bolsonaro and his ministries, they‘ve empowered all of those people that have interests in pushing onto Indigneous areas. From the poor guy who thinks he's gonna to get rich mining to the big and powerful, the mayors of cities. He’s said, go for it. It's no longer illegal."

Lucia Helena Rangel, anthropologist and reseacher

“What's so concerning now is that Bolsonaro and his ministries, they've empowered all of those people that have interests in pushing onto Indigenous areas. From the poor guy who thinks he's going to get rich mining to the big and powerful, the mayors of cities. He’s said, go for it. It's no longer illegal,” Rangel said. 

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen such violent, open attacks without a break,” Rangel said. “And the disrespect for the Indigenous people is so great that even when they tried to set up their own health roadblocks to limit the entry of people into their areas amid COVID-19, many were violently destroyed and invaders came in with guns, shooting and sending everyone running.”

Related: Brazil's Indigenous peoples fight COVID-19 amid government neglect

Indigenous leaders spoke during the online launch of the report last week.

"It’s sad to see, to witness, and to accompany the suffering of our people. ... Amid this pandemic, the invasions have increased, along with the crimes against our people.”

Ernestina Afonso de Souza, member of the Macuxi people

"It’s sad to see, to witness, and to accompany the suffering of our people,” said Ernestina Afonso de Souza, a member of the Macuxi people who live near the border with Venezuela. “Amid this pandemic, the invasions have increased, along with the crimes against our people.”

Other groups have also mapped the increasing violence in the countryside. Last year, the number of violent land disputes was the highest on record, according to the Pastoral Land Commission, a Catholic organization that monitors rural conflicts in Brazil. 

Indigenous peoples accounted for a quarter of the deaths.

“Those people who are trying to illegally acquire public lands are aiming at areas that have already been declared either Indigenous or conservation lands or mixed protects for sustainable agriculture, very much based on the green light that Bolsonaro has given that this land will eventually be made available to them."

Jean Bellini, Pastoral Land Commission

“Those people who are trying to illegally acquire public lands are aiming at areas that have already been declared either Indigenous or conservation lands or mixed protects for sustainable agriculture, very much based on the green light that Bolsonaro has given that this land will eventually be made available to them,” said Jean Bellini, an American nun who has lived in Brazil for decades and who works with the Pastoral Land Commission.

Back in Karipuna territory, Chief Andre Karipuna fears for the future. 

The Karipuna’s land is officially recognized by the Brazilian state. But a long-awaited Supreme Court case could impact this and hundreds of Native lands across Brazil. The ruling is still pending. Indigenous peoples, including the Karipuna, are watching the case closely, with the hope that it will offer ever-greater protection for their lives and land. 

“We are afraid of being pushed from our homes, which is the only place we have,” he said. “Us Indigenous peoples, without our territory, we are nothing.”