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Cláudio José da Silva is the coordinator of the “Forest Guardians” of Caru Indigenous Territory, in the Brazilian Amazon. The Guardians patrol indigenous land to detect illegal logging and report it to the authorities. © 2019 Brent Stirton/Human Rights Watch

Thousands of Indigenous people from communities throughout the Amazon and elsewhere in Brazil had planned to gather in the nation’s capital on April 27 in what has become a massive annual mobilization to defend Indigenous lands and rights. Instead, they have remained in their towns and villages to protect themselves from the spread of Covid-19. But their message to officials, now delivered remotely, is more urgent than ever.

Even as the pandemic puts the brakes on Brazil’s economy, illegal logging and mining continue at full speed in Indigenous territories throughout the Amazon.

Wildcat gold mining along the Tapajos river in the Amazon slowed down for a while with the news of the novel coronavirus spreading through the world, but is now back in full throttle. Boats are once again going up and down the river, a resident told Human Rights Watch, carrying supplies for the many illegal mining sites along its banks. And closer to the Venezuelan border, miners encroaching on Yanomami territory unscrupulously advance their excavations.

Land invasions – from trespassing to illegal land seizures – are a driving force behind deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, as the authorities’ failure to enforce the law has opened the door to criminal networks and other people illegally pursuing timber, minerals, and other riches.

Indigenous communities are especially vulnerable. The Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), a nonprofit organization, registered at least 160 cases of invasions of Brazil’s Indigenous territories from January through September 2019—a dramatic increase over previous years—and many others may not have been reported.  In the year leading up to July 2019, deforestation in Indigenous lands in the Amazon increased 65 percent, according to Brazil's National Space Research Agency.

These invasions have not only increased but become more brazen since President Jair Bolsonaro took office last year, according to federal prosecutors and local residents who spoke with Human Rights Watch.

The president’s aggressive rhetoric against forest defenders—and his sabotaging of the agencies tasked with protecting the environment and Indigenous rights—has given carte blanche to land invasions in the Amazon. And it has left  the agencies unable to deploy as quickly or as often as needed to deter invasions on protected areas, including Indigenous lands.

So Indigenous people are left to patrol and protect their lands by themselves, and in doing so, they confront criminal networks and other intruders emboldened to threaten, assault, or kill whoever stands in their way.  Paulo Paulino Guajajara, a forest guardian in northeastern Brazil’s Arariboia Indigenous Territory, was shot dead in November while trying to defend his community from invaders. This month, Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, an Indigenous leader known to patrol the land against illegal logging, was killed in the state of Rondônia.

This violence against Indigenous people is part of a bigger problem throughout the Amazon, where forest defenders are paying a heavy price as they fight what increasingly seems like an uphill battle. Overall, deforestation increased by almost 30 percent last year, and preliminary data indicate that the amount of forest cleared in the first quarter of this year may have been more than 50 percent higher than in the same period in 2019.

Scientists warn that deforestation, fires, and climate change, may be rapidly pushing the Amazon toward an irreversible “tipping point” at which the rainforest will stop producing enough rain to sustain itself. This could cause enormous harm to Brazilian agriculture by disrupting regional weather patterns, while further accelerating climate change as large amounts of carbon stored in the rainforest are released into the atmosphere. 

With Brazil currently facing a pandemic, some officials might argue that now is not the time to step up efforts to protect Indigenous territories. But Brazil can protect public health while enforcing its laws, and this is not a problem it can afford to put off. Given the devastating consequences that the rainforest’s destruction will have for the entire country—and the world—it is both unjust and a dereliction of duty to leave Indigenous peoples and other local communities to fight this desperate battle on their own.

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