Opinion: A violent tragedy foretold in the Amazon
Updated June 17, 2022 at 5:18 PM ET
After a grim search up and down the winding Itaquaí river of the Javari Valley, the Brazilian federal police confirmed what many already expected. Two of the Amazon rainforest's staunchest advocates were killed in one of its remotest corners. One of them was my friend, Dom Phillips, a curious and compassionate journalist who was researching a book titled How to Save the Amazon. The other was Bruno Pereira, among Brazil's most admired and effective defenders of the forest and its inhabitants.
On Wednesday, federal police said a suspect, a local fisherman in custody for over a week, confessed to fatally shooting the two men. He led officials to where they were buried just over a mile inland from the river. Police said Friday that some of the remains were identified as belonging to Dom and they are still examining the second body. Although police have yet to disclose the motive for the killings, the ongoing investigation is exposing a veritable ecosystem of crime to the world.
Violence and injustice against environmental defenders and journalists are distressingly common in the Brazilian Amazon. Dom and Bruno are not the first victims to gain global attention.
Chico Mendes, famous for unionizing rubber tappers, was assassinated in 1988 by father and son ranchers. While celebrated by global environmental groups, he was reviled by local ranchers and farmers. Another rancher ordered the killing of American nun Dorothy Stang, a veteran rainforest campaigner, in 2005. Both of their deaths drew international condemnation, triggered seismic shifts in national conservation and energized the global environment movement. Tragically, they represent a tiny share of the violence occurring under the forest canopy.
Brazil is among the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental defenders and journalists. A recent study estimates that at least 20 environmental activists were killed in Brazil in 2021 alone. Over 40 journalists have been killed there since the early 1990s. And thousands more Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian leaders and their families are routinely harassed and intimidated. Local environmental activists frequently petition national and international bodies about rising threats and demand more protection, but their calls are often ignored. According to submissions to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the situation is growing worse: Cases of killings, evictions, invasions and sexual violence have risen sharply since 2019.
The relentless violence against environmental defenders and investigative journalists offers a window into the scale of environmental crime and its monumental toll on natural and human ecosystems. The Javari Valley is Brazil's second-largest Indigenous territory and, like many other parts of the Amazon, ravaged by a combination of illegal logging, gold mining, wildlife trafficking and poaching.
Investigators suspect that the killing of Dom and Bruno could have been connected to illegal fishing and poaching in indigenous territories, according to news reports. Bruno, who had received threats a few weeks before the fateful trip, was regarded as a danger to criminals in the area.
Bruno, who previously worked for the local bureau of Brazil's federal agency in charge of protecting indigenous people, called FUNAI, had led high-profile efforts to stop illegal fishing and gold prospecting. He was subsequently demoted, removed from field activities in 2019 and then requested a leave of absence. One of his FUNAI colleagues was gunned down in 2019, a crime that was never solved but possibly linked to local feuds over illegal hunting and fishing inspections. FUNAI was resented by local loggers, miners and hunters — a sentiment echoed by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who described the agency as a "nest of rats."
Many environmental crimes in the Amazon are enmeshed with local crime syndicates, corrupt officials and a small cabal of businessmen. The rise in illegal fishing in particular coincided with the decline in rubber tapping during the 1980s and surged again after authorities started cracking down on unlawful logging, when the Javari protected area was formally created in 2001. The endangered fish caught in the Itaquaí are sold up river by a fish mafia to the bustling markets of Tabatinga in Brazil, Iquitos in Peru and Leticia in Colombia.
There are transnational dimensions to the environmental crime plaguing the Javari Valley as well. The most obvious involves drug trafficking organizations from Colombia and Peru that are aggressively expanding the movement of cocaine to Brazilian and global markets. Brazil's dominant drug factions — the First Capital Command, the Red Command and the Family of the North — are in violent competition to control transshipment routes. Some of them transport their contraband by river, while others are diversifying into gold mining and local businesses to launder their narcotics-related profits. With South America's largest drug cartels fighting to control lucrative trade routes, there is bound to be violent spillover effects. And it is frontier communities that are at the sharp end of violence, as well as pollution and disease imported by outsiders.
Drug traffic aside, spreading environmental crime in the Amazon belies a larger demographic upheaval in Brazil. After decades of rapid urbanization in coastal cities, migration, employment and enterprise are shifting inland. This is turning once second- and third-tier cities into more attractive opportunities, especially for poorer migrants seeking a better life. It is also making them more violent.
While homicide rates eased in many of Brazil's biggest southern metropolises, frontier regions grew deadlier. In 2020, the nine Brazilian states in the Amazon registered far higher rates of murder than the national average. Amazonian cities have a murder rate that is 40% higher than other Brazilian municipalities. As locals well know, danger multiplies under the forest canopy where state institutions are weak, and the rule of law falls short.
All of these factors help explain why deforestation and forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon are occurring at their fastest pace in more than a decade. Roughly 95% of all forest clearing in the Amazon is illegal. Since Bolsonaro took office in 2019, the president and his allies have deliberately weakened environmental institutions and protections. This in turn is incentivizing loggers, miners and hunters to commit environmental crimes with potentially catastrophic implications. Today, the Amazon rainforest is perilously close to a tipping point with dire global consequences. None of these dark facts were lost on Dom and Bruno who understood just how critical the situation was.
As Dom wrote to a colleague weeks before he died: "According to one specialist I spoke to recently, of the 80% forest that is left, around 40% is degraded. ... The Amazon is much less protected and pristine than most people think it is and much more threatened than people realize." Let us pray that the world is listening just as Dom and Bruno asked us too.
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