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What Indigenous Rights Have to Do With Fighting Climate Change

In Brazil, a struggle over the future of the Amazon is taking place. The struggle will have global impact.

April protest in Brasilia (Sergio Lima/AFP/Getty)

Long before he became president in January, Jair Bolsonaro argued that protections for Brazil’s indigenous peoples were onerous and economically restrictive. “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians,” he said in 1998. So when heavily-armed miners took over an indigenous village in a remote region of the Amazon in late July and killed an elderly community leader, Senator Randolfe Rodrigues publicly blamed Bolsonaro. It’s one of several signs that the fate of the Amazon—and with it, a crucial factor in the global fight against climate change—is increasingly being fought in Brazil on the battleground of indigenous rights and bodies.

Commonly referred to as the lungs of the world, the Amazon produces about 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen. Its destruction, which has proceeded gradually for centuries, is now approaching an irreversible “tipping point,” according to researchers. While the struggle to protect the environment and indigenous lands is not unique to Brazil, the specifics of the Amazon are exceptional. Far from the fringe issue it is often treated as in mainstream political discourse, solidarity with native peoples has become a global ecological imperative.

Recent months have seen a surge of depredation in the Amazon, with Brazilian papers reporting this week that deforestation in July 2019 was 304 percent higher than in July 2018. The Economist, which put the problem on the cover of its August 1 issue, referred to Bolsonaro as “arguably the most environmentally dangerous head of state in the world”: Rather than protecting what is left of the world’s largest tropical rainforest, the president seems intent on opening up the jungle to commercial activities like mining and livestock grazing, his disregard for the ecological and climate value of the Amazon exceeded only by his contempt for its most vulnerable residents.

Bolsonaro’s belligerence toward minorities is one of his defining political characteristics, one that helped fuel his rise to the presidency in a country primed for a reactionary turn after almost a decade and a half of left-wing governments. His right-wing designs on the Amazon hearken back to an earlier era: the military dictatorship that governed the country from 1964 to 1985, which Bolsonaro has variously praised and chided for insufficient brutality against dissidents. The regime saw unmet potential in the region, held back by the lingering presence of disruptive indigenous peoples whose preservation of traditional ways of life got in the way of logging, mining, and cattle ranching.

Indigenous Brazilians, who live on protected lands throughout the country, over half residing in the Amazon rainforest, have faced recurrent violence from those seeking to exploit the land. “The land is our mother. You plant, you take from her, you use her but you respect her, taking care of her,” an indigenous woman told The Guardian in March—an attitude she said white people do not share. During Brazil’s military dictatorship, the generals in power sought to transform the underdeveloped, sparsely-populated region into a modern commercial powerhouse stitched together with highways, factories, and homes. Seeking to build a road from Manaus to the Venezuelan border in the state of Roraima, the regime had no qualms about cutting directly through territory belonging by the Waimiri-Atroari people.

The situation grew tense in the 1970s as local indigenous people watched machines destroying the forest and the regime sought to populate the region with new non-native landless workers. Confrontations between indigenous communities and construction workers resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen workers between 1973 and 1975. The army responded in kind but covered up official violence, with relevant documentation emerging relatively recently. Brazil’s National Truth Commission, which issued its final report in 2014, concluded that 8350 indigenous men, women, and children were killed between 1946 and 1988, 2000 of whom were Waimiri. While the dictatorship was ultimately frustrated in its ambitions to transform the Amazon, the region remained vulnerable to illicit exploitation and sporadic brutality for decades.

More recently, left-leaning Workers’ Party (PT) governments, praised for environmental protection department head Luciano de Meneses Evaristo’s curtailment of deforestation, faced criticism for compromising on environmental safeguards for economic development. President Dilma Rousseff (2011–2016), for example, insisted time and again on moving forward with the construction of the controversial Belo Monte Dam, placing her firmly at odds with indigenous activists and advocates.

On environmental issues, no recent Brazilian administration compares to the outright hostility of Bolsonaro, who removed Evaristo from his post less than two weeks into his presidential term. Deforestation has skyrocketed on Bolsonaro’s watch, despite his claims to the contrary. During a July 19 press conference, Bolsonaro called data collected by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), showing that deforestation in June was 88 percent higher than the same period a year ago, “a lie,” and intimated that INPE Director Ricardo Galvão was working on behalf of a nongovernmental organization with an agenda. “With all the devastation you accuse us of doing and having done in the past,” he said, “the Amazon would be extinguished already.”

Clearly, it is in the interest of both indigenous groups and the international community to try to preserve Brazil’s rainforest. But it’s not clear what approach would be productive: Bolsonaro has long questioned the need for the state to protect indigenous lands, and sees the Amazon as a source of Brazilian wealth threatened by international preservation initiatives: “where there is native land, there is wealth underneath it,” he said in 2017. The recent uptick in interest from the United States, wondering how to save the Amazon—one writer even posited the increased likelihood “of serious confrontations and possibly serious conflict” with other countries if Brazil cannot or will not stem the tide of devastation—are unlikely to be productive. After all, retaining control over the roughly two-thirds of Amazon rainforest within Brazilian territory is one of the most pressing concerns of the country’s armed forces. Influential segments of the Brazilian armed forces believe developed countries are currently waging “an indirect war” against Brazil for control of the Amazon using the Catholic church, NGOs, and international organizations like the UN. These generals care less about protecting the Amazonian rainforest per se than they do about sovereignty, that is, protecting Brazil’s territorial integrity against foreign encroachment. This is why the military today is apt to support Bolsonaro’s forceful claim to the Amazon without any real concern for what is happening in and to the Amazon and its inhabitants. As long as those borders are respected, the Amazon can burn for all they care.

Indigenous peoples are speaking the language of resistance. In January, as Bolsonaro took office, an indigenous man in southeast Pará told conservation news site Mongabay that “for the moment we are waiting to see what action the authorities will take, but, if they do nothing, we shall have to see what we can do.” Two months later, a teenage member of the Wapishana tribe told The Guardian that “we are here to fight to the last indigenous person, be it verbally or physically.”

The international community, accustomed to dismissing indigenous matters as a fringe or ephemeral issues, will have to adjust to today’s reality: The same rapacious forces that have threatened indigenous ways of life for decades imperil the world by accelerating the devastating effects of climate change. We are late, perhaps irreversibly so, to this realization.