This was an act of terror, and should be widely condemned.
Emyra Wajãpi was a leader of the Wajãpi indigenous community, a group located in the north of Brazil—until he was murdered this week by a group of armed miners, who stabbed him to death and threw his body into a river.
On Saturday, Wajãpi community leaders issued a cry for help to the Brazilian government, stating that they were being invaded by troops bearing rifles and weapons and requesting the assistance of the army. Though a police force was en route, they did not arrive in time, and the community was forced to flee.
The invasion comes as a shock but not a surprise. In recent months, Brazil's far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has explicitly encouraged loggers, miners, and farmers to invade protected areas and land occupied by indigenous communities, arguing that the Brazilian government has the right to develop and profit off of any and all of its national territories. Under Bolsonaro, deforestation in the Amazon has skyrocketed, though he has repeatedly denied the validity of studies that reveal just how much land has been lost during his reign.
"The president is responsible for this death," said Brazilian lawmaker Rodolfe Rodrigues to the The New York Times. Bolsonaro has a history of making racist comments about indigenous people and is currently telling the public that the murder did not happen.
The Wajãpi people united in protest against invadersImage via survivalinternational.org
In March 2019, Bolsonaro met with U.S. President Donald Trump, and they signed a letter of intent promising the "sustainable development of the Amazon" (read: the ravaging of indigenous lands). Bolsonaro has also drafted plans that would legalize artisanal mining in protected lands, and that—to add insult to injury—would encourage indigenous communities to mine their own lands.
His priorities are crystal clear. "Brazil lives from commodities," Bolsonaro said in a recent speech. "What do we have here in addition to commodities? Do people not remember this? If the [commodities] business fails, it will be a disaster." These comments come at a time when mining and pollution present unparalleled threats to the planet's well-being and when indigenous ways of life present one of the best models of combating climate change and developing sustainable infrastructure.
The killing of Emyra Wajãpi should be viewed as a serious act of domestic terror among international communities. The U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has decried the death, calling it "a disturbing symptom of the growing problem of encroachment on indigenous land – especially forests – by miners, loggers and farmers in Brazil." World leaders should follow suit in denouncing these actions and reaffirming their commitment to conserving protected lands.
Wajãpi Indigenous Tribe Image via Victor Moriyama
If they do not, a genocide could ensue. "This government is massacring our rights and our indigenous peoples," said a Wajãpi leader to NBC News. "They are already starting, killing the indigenous peoples."
Indigenous communities of the Americas have endured relentless persecution since the arrival of Europeans in the 1400s. The Wajãpi did not receive protected land until 1996, after a 21-year period of brutal military rule. In the 1970s, their community was almost completely wiped out by disease—brought by invading gold miners.
Jair Bolsonaro ran on a far-right, pro-torture, pro-militarization platform.
Over the last 30 years, Brazil has transitioned from dictatorship to shaky democracy, raising hopes that the country would soon be able to economically compete with other developed countries on the world stage. With the presidential election of Jair Bolsonaro on Sunday, the progress of the world's 4th largest democracy seems to have stalled. Bolsonaro is a far-right, pro-gun, pro-torture politician who gained 55.1% of votes after a deeply divisive election cycle.
The new Brazilian president is a 63-year-old former military paratrooper who promised Brazilians he would crush corruption, crime, and a supposed communist threat if elected to the presidency. Bolsonaro was an extremely polarizing candidate who has spoken against women, gay people, Brazilians of color, and even democracy — the New York Times reports that he once said, "Let's go straight to the dictatorship," while serving as a congressman. Given the fascistic nature of his views, he struggled to find a running mate until early August.
But despite early obstacles, Bolsonaro convinced much of Brazil that his extremist views hold merit. After the election results came out, Bolsonaro continued to refer to the democracy of Brazil as a communist state, saying, "We cannot continue flirting with communism … We are going to change the destiny of Brazil."
Bolsonaro's leftist opponent, Fernando Haddad, who gained 44.8% of the vote, urged Brazilians not to give up hope. "We will continue with our heads held high, with determination and with courage," he said. "We have a lifelong commitment to this country and we will not allow this country to go backwards."
But Bolsonaro has international support, as well. The White House confirmed that President Trump called Bolsonaro to congratulate him, and Trump later tweeted, saying,
Many fear that Bolsonaro's election is a symptom of the same world-wide swing to the political right that resulted in Trump's election in the United States, as well as other shifts towards extreme conservative values like those seen in the UK during the Brexit decision. Bolsonaro's election coincides with the former progressive president's failure to stymie an uptick in Brazilian street violence over the last couple of years.
Consequently and effectively, Bolsonaro's campaign strategy was to promise militaristic strength, something that apparently spoke to a frightened Brazil. It becomes difficult not to see the similarities between the events in Brazil and America's 2016 election, wherein voters chose contextless nostalgia and fascist rhetoric over progress. The Brazilian election serves as yet another lesson for champions of democracy and progressivism: fear is a powerful tool that allows politics to default to the mob. If people don't feel safe, all thoughts of equal rights and social justice become second priority.