‘Never seen it so bad’: violence and impunity in Brazil’s Amazon

segunda-feira, 9 de maio de 2016
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One of the perpetrators of arguably Brazil’s most internationally high-profile murders in recent years is currently walking around free. In 2013, amid much media coverage, Lindonjonson Silva Rocha was sentenced to 42 years prison for killing two nut collectors-turned-environmental activists in southern Pará, but then in November last year he escaped.

One of the perpetrators of arguably Brazil’s most internationally high-profile murders in recent years is currently walking around free. In 2013, amid much media coverage, Lindonjonson Silva Rocha was sentenced to 42 years prison for killing two nut collectors-turned-environmental activists in southern Pará, but then in November last year he escaped.

One man who knew both victims, “Zé Cláudio” Ribeiro da Silva and his wife Maria do Espírito Santo, is Felipe Milanez, a political ecologist at the Federal University of Recôncavo of Bahia, activist, film-maker, former deputy editor of National Geographic Brazil, and the editor of the recently-published book, Memórias Sertanistas: Cem Anos de Indigenismo no Brasil. Here I interview Milanez, via email, about Zé Cláudio and the Brazilian Amazon:

DH: What’s the latest on Lindonjonson? How did he get out and do Zé Cláudio and Maria’s relatives have anything to fear?

FM: He escaped through the prison’s front door in an organized plan with the collaboration of prison officials. Members of social movements accused the prison director of receiving a bribe, and he was fired. Lindonjonson’s brother, the rancher José Rodrigues, who is widely believed to have ordered the killings, is also free. He was found not guilty in 2013 – a trial that was then “annulled”, the year after, by the state court which ordered a re-trial and issued a warrant for his arrest. The relatives of the murdered couple are afraid they’ll be the next victims. Some people in the Praialta Piranheira reserve – which Zé Cláudio and Maria were protecting from illegal loggers, charcoal producers and cattle ranchers – have seen both brothers walking around free. But the police don’t arrest them, something which seems to confirm what the victims’ families have been arguing: that there were more people involved in the killings, mainly big ranchers and loggers.

DH: Tell me about your personal involvement with Zé Cláudio and Maria. You wrote an article in Vice which a congressman read out in Congress, I understand.

FM: I met Zé Cláudio and Maria in October 2010 while I was investigating the violence chain of pig iron production, based on illegal charcoal and timber. They were a very charismatic couple, locally admired, part of an intense and highly politicized social movement in southern Pará. I tried to draw attention to their struggle, writing short pieces for the media and inviting them to give a TEDx Talk. We became friends. When I interviewed them, they shared their thoughts and ideas with me, fearing they could be killed and wanting their message to reach more people. One interview was read out in Congress when their deaths were announced, and the congressman who did so was booed by the rancher lobby. I’ve been working in conflict areas for the past decade, so they weren’t the only ones receiving death threats whom I’ve met, or have been killed, but the way it happened was extremely brutal and cruel. It shocked the region, the country, and drew international attention.

DH: I see that a local communist party leader in Pará, Luis Antônio Bonfim, was just killed on 12 February. How common is this kind of violence in Brazil?

FM: In 2015 49 activists – 45 in the Amazon – were killed, making it the most violent year since 2004, according to the Pastoral Land Commission (PLC), and representing a huge regression of policies put in place under the Lula administration to control violence and deforestation. Violence has been legitimized as a normal part of politics. It has become informally “acceptable.” I’ve never seen, working for the past 10 years in the Amazon, a situation so bad. All of my friends in Marabá receive death threats. They are part of various social movements, either in the PLC or Landless Workers Movement (MST), or working for the state, such as IBAMA [the government’s Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources), and are afraid of being killed like they never were before.

DH: Can you elaborate on what you mean by violence being “legitimized”?

FM: I mean that the rule is impunity – so the case of Zé Cláudio and Maria is not an exception. And that killing has become politically acceptable to achieve economic goals. From 1964 to 2010, the PLC has counted 914 murders of activists and rural workers in Pará alone, from which only 18 cases were brought to trial, with 11 intellectual authors and 13 killers found guilty. Last year, 19 activists were killed in Pará, 7 in the same reserve where sister Dorothy Stang, an American nun, was killed in 2005. All those responsible for these killings are free. Zé Cláudio and Maria were two victims of this tragic situation, and the feeling in the Praialta Piranheira reserve is that the only law to be respected is violence.

DH: Sometimes Brazil’s Amazon is described as like the US’s old “Wild West”, in terms of violence. Is that a reasonable – or nonsense – comparison?

FM: In some ways it does make sense, this comparison, and it has also been compared with Russian expansion eastwards, as a “frontier movement”, although the contemporary “expansion” in the Amazon is technically an invasion and was started by the brutal military dictatorship in the late 1960s and 1970s. It has been a humanitarian catastrophe for indigenous peoples and local collectives – even today genocides are happening – and caused an ecological holocaust. But the Amazon frontier is incomparably more violent then the US’s, incomparably more unequal and unjust to the poor, and a great source of income to land grabbers and big international capital extracting natural resources. In the US expanding the frontier was planned in a democracy, but in Brazil, in the Amazon, it was done during a dictatorship. What is astonishing is that our current democracy hasn’t made the life of the people living in the forest any easier: indigenous and traditional peoples don’t have the right to be consulted about what affects them and their territories, and they’re still seen as being disposable. And the violence is now increasing, as there is an increase in land grabbing, mining and mega-dam-building. Such economic investments are made in contradiction to social rights in the Constitution.

DH: You say “humanitarian catastrophe.” Can you elaborate?

FM: I mean the genocides, ethnocides, epistemicides, slavery, forced displacement of social groups, dispossession and the disruption of social systems. This is happening today in different parts of Brazil. From 2003 to 2014 there were 390 Indians killed in Mato Grosso do Sul, mostly Kaiowa Guarani, fundamentally in conflict with ranchers and soya plantations. The Guarani consider this genocide. And to combat falling commodity prices, the government now wants to increase extraction of natural resources such as iron ore and weaken indigenous rights and the rights of nature. The Belo Monte mega-dam alone affects 12 indigenous lands and 21 maroon communities. I’ve seen the recently-contacted Arara coming to Altamira, treated by the consortium building the dam as beggars. One Arara community has been completely dysfunctional for the past 4 years: their land has been invaded, with increasingly high levels of deforestation and illegal logging associated with the pressure of building the mega-dam.

DH: And “ecological holocaust”?

FM: I mean the destruction of environments: almost 20% of Brazil’s Amazon and 45% of the Cerrado – the savannah – are deforested, while the main tributaries of the Amazon from the eastern border of Peru and the Andes have around 150 proposed dams, and from the southern banks of the R. Amazon big rivers such as the Tocantins, Xingu, Madeira, Teles Pires and now the Tapajos have been or are being dammed. Last year there were 40,000 fires in indigenous lands in just one state, Maranhão, while the Xingu Park, surrounded by soya plantations, is burning every year. For the first time in their history, the Kuikuro have witnessed a typhoon on their land.

DH: You’ve touched on some of the major “drivers” of these horrors: logging, ranching, charcoal, iron ore, soya and mega-dams. Any others? Who are some of the most feared operators and who’s financing a lot of it?

FM: Capital expansion is certainly the main driver, but it doesn’t work alone. Local histories of violence, state lack of responsibility to the poor, elite privileges and racism are other ingredients. Recent developmentalism has been pushed by the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) playing the role that the World Bank did during the dictatorship, financing huge slaughterhouses and mega-dams. In the most violent region, southern Pará, where Zé Cláudio and Maria were killed, the main driver of blood today is the expansion of iron ore mining by Vale, the S11D project, and its infrastructure, such as the expansion of the Carajás railway. Vale was privatized in 1997, a moment of neoliberalism expansion in Brazil that continues strongly today. It has promised to invest around US$15 billion in S11D, but only big ranchers, who have grabbed public land, benefit from Vale’s local investments. Both the PLC and MST claim these ranchers are hiring militias and gunmen to keep the landless out of the company’s sight. And Vale doesn’t pay regular taxes in Brazil due to export incentives, and provides minimal compensation to local communities. The main result is violent land conflict with peasants and indigenous communities. One “Hawk” Indian leader I met last year has described Vale as an “ogre”.

DH: Earlier you said indigenous peoples don’t have the right to be consulted about what affects them. But what about international law? Hasn’t Brazil ratified the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, and isn’t it bound by the jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights?

FM: Although Brazil has ratified ILO 169, as well as the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights, it doesn’t make any effort to implement it. Even with the rights recognised in Brazil’s Constitution, it’s the same. For example, the government delays identifying and demarcating indigenous lands – the main cause of violence. There are also ploys it uses, such as considering any impact of projects as “indirect”, such as Belo Monte, to escape having to do the consultation process, or using a juridical exceptional measure from the dictatorship, “Security Suspension”, to evade unfavourable court decisions. One recent decision based on “Security Suspension” allowed the continuation of Belo Monte. The Munduruku, threatened by the São Luiz do Tapajós mega-dam, recently drafted their own consultation protocol in which they claim that the government isn’t acting according to ILO 169.

DH: How much political will do you see in the government to address these issues and seriously improve things? What would you tell Dilma [Rousseff, the president] if you spoke to her, and how can other governments and members of the public, or other potential allies around the world, contribute?

FM: I don’t see – and the government doesn’t show – any will to improve things. It’s getting worse. Nature, the Amazon, the Indians. . . they’re all seen as obstacles. If I could speak to Dilma, I doubt she’d pay any attention, but the main thing would be: “Listen to the Indians and take them seriously. Listen to the peasants and take land reform seriously. Listen to the millions impoverished by development projects: they are the ones who know what development means, much better than your economists.” Internationally, other governments, especially from the Global North, must take responsibility for their investments, particularly if it comes from big European companies like Nitro, Alstom, GDF Suez, Bayer, Siemens etc. that are making profit out of destruction and displacement. And I would quote what the Kayapó chief Megaron told the French National Assembly two years ago: “Your companies are investing in the Amazon, it is affecting us, destroying our forest and we aren’t being consulted. Why do you do that? And you’re buying illegal timber. Why do you buy that?” A new international solidarity movement must emerge far beyond what the neoliberal “international cooperation” has done in the past. After all, we’re all sharing the same planet. We should fight together.

DH: Your book, Memórias Sertanistas. . .Tell me what it’s about.

FM: It documents memories of the government’s National Indian Foundation [FUNAI] officials who have worked to protect the rights of indigenous peoples living in what we call today “voluntary isolation.” Through the testimonies of 10 “sertanistas” and two indigenous leaders, I investigate the violence against indigenous peoples during the dictatorship – 1964-1985 – that affects contemporary territorial struggles. Genocides, massacres, epidemics, tragic forced contacts. . . but also the forms of political resistance that were produced, in a contradictory way, within the Brazilian state. Their life stories and experiences are fundamental to face contemporary challenges.

DH: One final question, coming back to Zé Cláudio and Maria. I know you made a film about them, and you’re preparing a book with their relatives, friends and others. But what about Lindonjonson and his brother? Is anyone taking legal steps to apprehend them?

FM: The fight against impunity is very painful. Lindonjonson’s escape hasn’t made any headlines, and without public pressure the police in Pará just don’t act. Lawyers from the PLC and Human Rights Defenders Society in Pará are doing their best to push a very slow, unjust justice system. They all hope a new trial of José Rodrigues will happen in 2016, as they are all hoping the police will arrest both him and Lindonjonson.

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