In early June, Brazilian Indigenous advocate Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips were murdered in Brazil for helping defend the rights of people living the Vale do Javari protected area.
The murder wasn’t a surprise. Pereira had received death threats from invaders and organized criminals, which the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Vale do Javai (Unvaja) had brought to the attention of federal authorities, even naming Amarildo da Costa, now in prison, as one of the persecutors. Yet the Brazilian police did not stop the crime from occurring.
The story echoes with a multitude of similar planned killings that have come before. In 1988, rubber tapper and forest defender Chico Mendes was shot for organizing forest-dwellers to oppose ranchers taking land in the Brazilian state of Acre. Well before climate activism was at the height it is now, Mendes promoted the idea of establishing extractive reserves that would protect valuable rainforest and safeguard local livelihoods. His murder made him the face of the tragic dangers of environmental defense, which have only risen since. Last year, some 60 percent of the 358 human rights defenders killed were protecting land, environment or Indigenous peoples.
Gomercindo Rodrigues, a lawyer in the city of Rio Branco, worked for years with Mendes and helped institute Brazil’s national Council of Rubber Tappers. Shortly after the bodies of the Pereira and Phillips were discovered buried in forest near the Itaqua River in Amazonas state, Landscape News spoke to him about the broader context of this high-profile murder.
How did you feel when you heard about the murders of Pereira and Phillips?
My feeling is the same as when Chico Mendes was killed – 34 years have passed, and those who defend Indigenous peoples, defend the populations of the forest, defend the environment are dying. It’s a sensation of immense sadness because time passes, and the situation doesn’t change. These are announced deaths. There were threats – everyone knew it – and even so they were killed. Dom and Bruno were persons who were doing their jobs, and for that they were threatened and ended up losing their lives for doing exactly what should have been done by the government itself: protecting Indigenous people, preventing contact with isolated peoples, and guaranteeing that these populations could live according to their ways, following their cultures. They were killed exactly for that reason.
Why isn’t the government obeying its own laws, safeguarding protected areas and their guardians?
This is a situation that has not changed and that has lasted more than 60 years in Amazonia. Community leaders, religious leaders, supporters, lawyers, environmental activists, and traditional and Indigenous peoples have been and are being killed. It’s not even through what I would call an omission on the part of the state. It’s collusion on the part of the state.
By not doing its job guaranteeing the rights of these people, the state is an abettor. While it should be taking precautions to protect, instead it is pretending that it has nothing to do with [the murders]. Because it is not doing its job, we have this violence, and powerful people feel incentivized to kill because of their sense of impunity.
That’s why I say the authorities, the Brazilian state, is a participant in all of these crimes that have been happening over various decades.
What do you know about what’s been happening in the Vale do Javari?
It’s a region that is very isolated, far from everything, lacking communication. So if in the urban centers of Amazonia the poor have no rights, you can imagine how in that region where communication is difficult and there is little information forthcoming, the local press doesn’t even care about it .
So in these distant places, people are left abandoned to their own luck. More than that, they are thrown by the Brazilian state under the domination of the violent, of bandits, really, of organized crime. In that region, there’s illegal mining and logging, raw materials being taken across the border into Peru or Colombia. The Brazilian armed forces, which have the constitutional duty to protect the borders, have let that happen. In fact, over the past few days the border has been described as a sieve.
This is supposed to be an area of uncontacted Indigenous people, and they have even been letting evangelical pastors come in and circulate, evangelizing and converting the population – a total lack of respect.
What can we do with the momentum that has been built around this killing to address the larger issues of the dangers facing environmental defenders?
I think people have to take advantage of this moment to transform this anger that we feel about what’s happening into action – to turn inaction into action. We cannot just say this can’t happen anymore. We have to do something to avoid it happening. We need to do what the rubber tappers here in Acre did with the empate [a method of physically impeding heavy machinery used to cut down and clear forest] and fight against the devastation and destruction.
And it’s important, I think, that people in other countries, especially the rich countries, pay attention to the companies that sponsor and patronize the destruction: the mining companies, for example, that exploit the mineral wealth in Amazonia and companies that buy raw material from the illegal loggers and miners. People need to take a position, pressure those companies and governments and demand real commitment from them. Because if not, they will continue to destroy the forest, and I believe this has to stop.