What is the danger of criminal retaliation

Brazil: Criminal networks attack defenders of the rainforest

(São Paulo) - The deforestation of the rainforests in the Brazilian Amazon is largely the result of criminal networks. Anyone who gets in their way will be attacked or intimidated. The government, in turn, is not protecting the activists or the rainforest, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 165-page report "Rainforest Mafias: How Violence and Impunity Fuel Deforestation in the Brazil's Amazon" documents how illegal logging by criminal networks and the resulting forest fires are linked to violence and intimidation against activists and the failure of the state to commit these crimes adequately investigate and hold those responsible to account.
 
"When Brazilians defend the Amazon rainforest, they face threats and attacks from criminal networks involved in illegal logging," said Daniel Wilkinson, assistant director of environment and human rights at Human Right Watch. “The situation will only get worse under President Bolsonaro. His attack on the country's environmental authorities puts the rainforest and the people living there in even greater danger. "
 
Human Rights Watch's research has shown that criminal networks have the logistics to coordinate the large-scale extraction, processing, and sale of timber. They also use armed men to intimidate, and in some cases kill, those trying to defend the rainforest.
 
On September 23, 2019, the United Nations will hold a summit to discuss global efforts against climate change. As a contribution to this, Brazil committed itself in 2016 to putting an end to illegal logging in the Amazon region by 2030.

Human Rights Watch interviewed over 170 people, including 60 members of indigenous communities and other residents of the states of Maranhão, Pará, and Rondônia. Dozens of government officials in Brasília and across the Amazon were also interviewed, many of whom reported how President Jair Bolsonaro's policies are undermining environmental laws.

During his first year in office, Bolsonaro didn't just shut down environmental law enforcement. It has also weakened the country's environmental authorities and harshly criticized organizations and individuals working to preserve the rainforest.
 
More than 300 people have been killed in the past decade in connection with conflicts over land and resources in the Amazon. Many of them have been the victims of people involved in illegal logging, according to Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT), a non-profit organization quoted by the Attorney General's office.

Human Rights Watch documented 28 killings, 4 attempts to kill, and over 40 death threats, in which there was credible evidence that those responsible were involved in illegal logging and that the victims were seen as obstacles to the criminal activity. Most of the cases occurred within the past five years. Some of the victims were environmentalists, most were members of indigenous communities or other rainforest residents who reported illegal logging to the authorities.
 
In the Terra Nossa settlement in Pará state, one resident was killed and another disappeared in 2018. Both had previously announced that they would report illegal logging to the authorities. The brother of one of the victims investigating the crime was also killed, as was the leader of a peasant union after he announced that he would report the illegal logging. Settlement residents reported that all four men were killed by an armed militia working for a criminal network of landowners involved in illegal logging, according to an internal government report.

Those responsible for these acts of violence are rarely held accountable. Of the more than 300 killings recorded by the CPT, only 14 cases went to court. Of the 28 killings documented by Human Rights Watch, only two were charged. Not one of the 40 documented threat cases ended up in court.

The impunity is largely due to improper police investigations. The local police acknowledge this and see the reason that the killings are taking place in remote areas. However, Human Rights Watch also documented glaring failures, such as unsuccessful autopsies, in investigating killings in urban areas near police stations.

The investigation into death threats is not going any better as officials in some places refuse to officially take complaints about threats. In at least 19 out of 28 documented killings, the attacks were preceded by threats against the victims or their community. Had the authorities investigated properly, the killings might have been prevented.

Indigenous communities and other residents have long played an important role in Brazil's efforts to curb rainforest deforestation by alerting authorities to illegal logging that would otherwise go undetected. The relaxation of environmental regulations encourages illegal logging and puts more pressure on local people to take an even more active role in defending their forests. Those affected run the risk of retaliation.

Since 2004 there has been a program for the protection of human rights and environmentalists in Brazil. The government representatives interviewed agree, however, that this program hardly offers any effective protection.
 
According to preliminary official data, deforestation almost doubled during the first eight months of Bolsonaro's tenure compared to the same period in 2018. In August 2019, forest fires caused by deforestation raged across the Amazon. It is the most devastating fire of its kind since 2010.

Such fires do not occur naturally in the humid ecosystem of the Amazon basin. Rather, they are laid by people who want to complete the clearing process where the valuable trees have already been felled. The fires spread across the small clearings and secluded roads created by loggers, leaving streaks of drier, more combustible vegetation that spark the rainforest fires.

As the largest tropical rainforest in the world, the Amazon plays an important role in the fight against climate change as it absorbs and stores carbon dioxide. If the rainforest is cut down or burned down, it can no longer fulfill this function and even releases the previously stored carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

"The impact of the attacks on Brazil's rainforest activists extends well beyond the Amazon," said Wilkinson. "As long as the country does not fight the violence and lawlessness that facilitate illegal logging, the destruction of the world's largest rainforest will continue unchecked."
 
 
A selection of the cases documented in the report:

  • Gilson Temponi, president of a farmers' association in Placas, Pará state, reported to law enforcement agencies in 2018 about illegal logging and death threats from the loggers. In December 2018 of that year, two men knocked on his door and shot him.
  • Eusebio Ka'apor, a Ka'apor leader who helped organize forest patrols to prevent loggers from entering the Alto Turiaçu indigenous area in Maranhão state, was killed in 2015. Shortly after his death, six of the seven members of the Ka'apor community council that coordinates patrols received death threats from loggers.
  • Osvalinda Pereira and her husband, Daniel Pereira, both smallholders, have received death threats for nearly a decade when they began reporting illegal logging by a criminal network in Pará state. In 2018 they found two excavated graves in their courtyard with wooden crosses attached.
  • Dilma Ferreira Silva, an environmental activist in Pará state, and five other people were killed in 2019, according to police, on the orders of a landowner involved in illegal logging who feared that Silva and the others would report his criminal activities.