In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, indigenous groups fear more violence

Rights groups warn that the far-right leader’s rhetoric, actions towards native groups will lead to increased violence.

Brazil indigenous land
An indigenous man lies on top of a Brazilian flag representing the natives killed in the struggle for their lands, next to a large red flag reading 'Indigenous Genocide, Demarcation now!' [File: Eraldo Peres/AP Photo]

Amarante do Maranhao, Brazil – Davi Gaviao, an indigenous man with a mental illness was known to spend his days wandering the streets of Amarante do Maranhao, a poor and remote rural town on Brazil’s Amazon frontier.

By nightfall, he would usually return to the nearby 42,000-hectare Governador indigenous reserve where he lived with around 1,500 other Gaviao Pykopje tribespeople, in Maranhao state.

But in mid-October, days after the first round of Brazil’s presidential elections, Davi was killed, shot dead by two men on a motorbike as he lay asleep outside a local supermarket.

Sebastiao Wagner Bezerra, a local civil police chief, confirmed to Al Jazeera that an investigation into Davi’s murder was “advancing” but the motive was still unknown.

Rumours spread that Davi had somehow “offended” the matriarch of one of the powerful landowning families that dominate the region. Others speculate that he was killed for being indigenous.

Amarante’s economy, specialists say, is based in large part on illegal timber, much of which is plundered from indigenous reserves like Governador where Davi lived.

“Some locals here see indigenous people as a barrier to progress,” said Guaraci Mendes da Silva, a substitute regional coordinator in Maranhao state for Brazil’s National Indigenous Foundation (Funai).

Davi’s murder comes amid rising violence against indigenous people and rural peasants in Brazil’s Amazon states, enabled by recent cuts to indigenous and environmental budgets.

And now, with the election of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who took office on January 1, local indigenous activists fear even more violence due to the president’s history of anti-indigenous rhetoric and alliance with Brazil’s powerful farming lobby.

A sign marking an indigenous territory is riddled with bullet holes [Tommaso Protti/Al Jazeera]
A sign marking an indigenous territory is riddled with bullet holes [Tommaso Protti/Al Jazeera]

Shortly after being elected at the end of October, Bolsonaro said in a TV interview, “As far as I am concerned, there is no more demarcation of indigenous land.” 


Increased gun ownership for rural property owners and opening up indigenous lands for mining were also measures touted throughout his campaign.

Hours after assuming office on Tuesday, Bolsonaro issued an executive order transferring the responsibilities of regulating and creating new indigenous lands from the indigenous affairs agency, Funai, under the Justice Ministry to the Agricultural Ministry. Funai will be moved to a new ministry for family, women and human rights.

Analysts fear that such a move and rhetoric empowers violent loggers and land grabbers in largely lawless and remote rural areas and towns like Amarante.

“It’s a discourse that legitimises violence against indigenous people,” said Cleber Buzatto, executive secretary of the Indigenous Missionary Council, an advocacy group, said of Bolsonaro.

‘Sends a message’

In July, Bolsonaro visited Eldorado do Carajas, in the Amazon state of Para, which neighbours Maranhao, site of a 1996 massacre in which 19 rural workers protesting by blocking a highway were killed by military police. Two former police colonels are serving 228 years for the crime.

Brazil’s O Estado de S Paulo newspaper reported that Bolsonaro said, “Who needed to have been arrested were the MST, (Landless Worker’s Movement) who are scoundrels and shameless. The police reacted not to die.”

Luiz Antonio Nabhan Garcia, president of the Democratic Association of Ruralists (UDR), a group of right-wing farmers and activists opposed to land reform, now appointed as Bolsonaro’s secretary for land affairs, told Brazil’s O Globo in a recent interview that he would not “negotiate” with landless peasant movements.

“The tendency is for rural violence to increase even further, it’s very worrying,” said Paulo Cesar Moreira, a national coordinator for Brazil’s Pastoral Land Commission. 


Brazil is already the world’s deadliest country in sheer numbers for indigenous, land and environmental activists with a record 57 killings in 2017 according to NGO Global Witness.

Impunity is a huge driver of violence and Maranhao is one of the worst affected states. According to Brazil’s Pastoral Land Commission, a rural violence watchdog, of 157 land conflict killings in Maranhao between 1985 and 2017, just five ended up in court.

Amarante do Maranhao, a municipality of some 40,000 people is home to two large indigenous reserves; Governador and Arariboia. Together, a handful of indigenous lands and conservation units concentrate 70 percent of the remaining Amazon forest in Maranhao state.

According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, just 25 percent of Maranhao’s previous 110,000 square kilometres of Amazon forest remains, the majority of which was cleared for agriculture and cattle ranching.

Recent data showed that across Brazil’s Amazon states, deforestation increased by nearly 50 percent during the August to October election period.

“Bolsonaro’s discourse throughout the campaign, that he’ll end Ibama [Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources] or the environmental ministry, this sends a message to those that commit environmental crimes, that they will be tolerated,” said Marcio Astrini, public policy coordinator for Greenpeace Brazil. “It has an immediate effect.”

Government data pointed to an overall increase of nearly 14 percent in Amazon deforestation in 2018 compared with the previous year, the worst result in a decade, which the government blamed on illegal logging.

Ibama destroyed several irregular sawmills in Amarante and the surrounding municipalities last year [Tommaso Protti/Al Jazeera]
Ibama destroyed several irregular sawmills in Amarante and the surrounding municipalities last year [Tommaso Protti/Al Jazeera]

Experts warn that unless deforestation slows, the Amazon will reach a point of no return and eventually begin to turn into shrubland.

“If the deforestation continues and passes 20 – 25 percent, there is the risk of the beginning of the process of the Amazon turning into Savannah,” said Carlos Nobre, one of Brazil’s leading climate scientists.

Nobre said that 16 percent was already gone and could be accelerated through climate change, global warming and forest fires.

Ricardo Salles, Bolsonaro’s environmental minister, has called climate change a “secondary issue” and environmental fines “”ideological.”

‘We have no resources, no support’

In poor rural Amazon towns like Amarante do Maranhao, many locals who depend on the timber trade for their income agree with Salles, leading to conflicts with authorities and indigenous groups.

Last year, Ibama destroyed several irregular sawmills in Amarante and the surrounding municipalities.

“The objective of destroying these sawmills was to protect the biodiversity inside of indigenous lands and conservation units,” said Roberto Cabral, surveillance operations coordinator of Ibama, who was once shot and injured by loggers in the region.

Rosinan Alves dos Santos, 43, said that he had worked at a sawmill that was destroyed by Ibama last year and that afterwards was unemployed for nearly eight months. Now working at another irregular sawmill, he said he could earn 50 Brazilian real (about $13) a day, more than Brazil’s minimum wage.

“They come here and destroy our jobs,” he said of Ibama. “For us, this is the only work we have.”

Roberto Cabral of Ibama said, “There is a false impression that the jobs that sawmills provide are providing prosperity,”

Cabral added that “if you look at cities where clandestine sawmills are present, the city doesn’t develop, because there are no taxes paid.”

Forest guards say that they receive regular threats [Tommaso Protti/Al Jazeera] 
Forest guards say that they receive regular threats [Tommaso Protti/Al Jazeera] 

Al Jazeera visited the Governador indigenous reserve earlier this year. For decades, the Governador reserve has been plundered by illegal loggers and in 2013, tribesmen set up an indigenous forest patrol guard initiative to keep the loggers out.

“Before, illegal logging in our territory was basically liberated,” said Marcelo Gaviao, 37, the leader of the forest guard. Marcelo Gaviao said he and other leaders receive regular threats.

But it’s far from stopped. It was here, last year, that Sonia Vicente Cacau Gaviao and José Caneta Gaviao, were killed when they were hit by a speeding truck local leaders say belonged to loggers.

Marcelo Gaviao also said that some indigenous on Governador are “co-opted”: that they pass information to loggers in exchange for payment. 


“Even during our monitoring group we have people who pass information about missions,” he said.

Al Jazeera recently accompanied the forest guard on a night patrol of the territory. At one point, Marcelo Gaviao and four other forest guards dressed in camouflage and armed with shotguns in a pick-up truck, sped after a truck laden with timber they suspected was taken from their reserve but gave up after a brief chase, fearful of a violent confrontation.

Now, with the murder of Davi Gaviao and the new Bolsonaro government, Marcelo Gaviao, his forest guard and the community fear escalating violence and increased invasions of their territory.

“We are really scared after what happened to Davi,” Jonas Polino Sançao, a local indigenous teacher and activist said. “We have no resources, no support.”

Source: Al Jazeera