ffrom Europe to Peru, then you land in Guyana. For nearly five hours, you fly over a deep green carpet dotted with meandering rivers that range from muddy brown to jet black. The same is still true of the vast Amazon rainforest. However, this bird’s-eye view is deceiving. Above ground, large tracts of forest have been eroded away. It was an attack that began centuries ago, when colonists were making their way up rivers. Since the 1960s, chainsaws, bulldozers and highway construction hastened its pace.The problem is two opposing visions of the region, economic development or environmental protection, and two groups of people: the mostly indigenous tribes on the one hand, and ranchers, farmers, loggers and Galin Perros (Wildcat Miner) On the other hand.
Now, the conflict has reached even the most secluded regions of the Amazon, as the murders of indigenous tribal advisor Bruno Pereira and British journalist Don Phillips earlier this month showed. They were shot dead while returning by boat from a research trip in the Javari valley, an area the size of Austria near the Peruvian border and home to 16 isolated tribes, according to Brazil’s federal police. Police said the killers were illegal fishermen, and three of them have been arrested.
The pair were far from the first forest defenders to die tragically. The 1988 murder of Chico Mendes, leader of a rubber workers’ union in Acre, southern Java, sparked international outrage. His killer was the son of a rancher who wanted union land. Mendez’s death prompted far-reaching changes in Brazilian policy that dovetailed with the country’s 1988 democratic constitution. The government has banned wildcat mining, set aside vast tracts of forest as indigenous reserves or national parks, and stepped up enforcement against deforestation. This change peaked under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his 2003-08 environment minister, Marina Silva, who later who worked with Mendes. Deforestation decreased from 27,700 square kilometers (10,700 square miles) in 2004 to 4,400 square kilometers in 2012. Likewise, after centuries of decline, Brazil’s indigenous population has continued to grow, from less than 100,000 in 1960 to 1.1 million today, benefiting from better health care and protection of land and livelihoods.
Over the past decade, however, environmental progress has reversed amid pressure from farmer lobby groups and budget cuts. The fate of Mr Pereira and Mr Phillips highlights a new threat. Organized crime has spread across the Amazon as Brazil emerged as a big consumer and exporter of cocaine. Javari joins the Amazon River where Brazil meets Peru and Colombia. It has become a drug route. Conservationists say drug smugglers have diversified into environmental crimes, such as smuggling unexplained timber and endangered animals. Murder rates in rural Amazonia are rising and are now higher than the national average.
The most insidious threat comes from Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president since 2019. He has contempt for environmentalism and Aboriginal reserves, which he believes unfairly hold back economic development (a minority of Aboriginal people agree with him). A former military officer, he embodies the military’s nationalist view of the Amazon: If Brazil is to secure its claim to it, it must be addressed. He won the votes of many of the 29 million people who now live in the Amazon region, including farmers, Galin Perros and citizens.
Mr Bolsonaro slashed enforcement spending by the environment agency Ibama by two-thirds and weakened its powers. As for Funai, the agency protecting indigenous peoples, Mr. Bolsonaro called it a “rat’s nest”. He brought in officers to run it. This all encourages those who violate environmental laws, such as illegal fishermen on the Java Ri River.The president appeared to blame Mr Phillips for his own death, saying, “That Brit is not welcome in the region because he writes a lot against Galin Perros, environmental issues, people don’t like him. He should be more careful. “
Environmentalists hope former President Lula can defeat Mr Bolsonaro in October’s presidential election. Lula’s campaign platform promised to defend the rights and lands of indigenous peoples, rebuild Ibama and Fornay, and fight deforestation. But at Amazon, every year, everything gets harder.
Read more from our Latin America columnist Bello:
Ecuador’s president sees little hope of implementing reforms (June 16)
Latin American Politicians Tired of War on Drugs (June 9)
A test of whether large-scale mining is socially sustainable (May 26)