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The Killing of an Indigenous Leader in Brazil Is Part of a Global Trend of Attacks on Environmentalists

In 2018, more than 160 land and environmental defenders were killed—many of them Indigenous.
An Indigenous woman holds a Brazilian national flag stained in with a blood-like red during a march in Brasilia on April 26th, 2019, on the last day of a protest to defend Indigenous land and rights.

An Indigenous woman holds a Brazilian national flag stained in with a blood-like red during a march in Brasilia on April 26th, 2019, on the last day of a protest to defend Indigenous land and rights.

Since his first day in office, Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, has vowed to roll back protections for Indigenous lands, freezing demarcations of new federal reserves and paving the way for mining and agricultural interests. As the right-wing leader has kept his promise—including by nominating a federal police officer connected to agribusiness as the head of FUNAI, the country's National Indian Foundation—encroachment onto protected lands by miners, loggers, and farmers has spiked, leading to increasing threats to the Indigenous leaders at the forefront of the resistance.

Last week, a group of miners invaded a remote village in the northern state of Amapá and killed the Indigenous leader Emrya Wajãpi. His body was found with stab wounds in a river, and the case is under federal investigation. While Bolsonaro is putting into question whether the Wajãpi leader was murdered, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, released a statement calling it "tragic and reprehensible." She also added that the Brazilian government's policy opening the Amazon up to mining could lead to "incidents of violence, intimidation, and killings."

"President Bolsonaro has blood on his hands," Christian Poirier, director of the Amazon Watch Program, said in a statement. "His regime's reckless policies and its wanton neglect of threatened forest communities is directly linked to rising violent criminality that spurred the murder of Emyra Waiãpi."

The killing of the Brazilian Indigenous leader fits into a global trend of attacks on environmental activists. According to a new Global Witness report, 164 land and environmental defenders were killed in 2018—an average of more than three every week. Although more than half of the killings happened in Latin America, the Philippines led the ranking with 30 deaths. The researchers, however, point out that the actual numbers are likely higher, as such instances of violence often go unreported, and less apparent tactics such as intimidation don't make the headlines.

This year was the first time, since the annual report's initial publication in 2012, that the researchers documented how governments and companies use the court system alongside "incendiary rhetoric" to portray activists as criminals. "The rise of populist strongmen around the world has brought a clampdown on protest, often under the pretense of protecting national security or fighting terrorism," the report states.

"Criminalization is done to put fear into the hearts of people so they will stop protesting. For Indigenous people, this is a very serious action because when they criminalize a leader, then the whole community or organization gets paralyzed," Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, told the Intercept. "That's what it's intended to do—it's intended to repress freedom of association and the freedom of people to express their own views."

2018 was also the first year Brazil didn't reach the top of the list for the number of killings. But according to the Brazilian advocacy group Indigenous Missionary Council, invasions of Indigenous lands have increased 150 percent since Bolsonaro's election in October of 2018. And as the president continues to pledge to open up Indigenous territories to industry, deforestation of Brazil's Amazon reached an all-time high last June.

"He has virtually declared war on Brazil's Indigenous peoples," said Stephen Corry, director of the organization Survival International. "They, and their allies around the world, will not stop fighting back."