Murder in the rainforest: 1700+ defenders killed, but their legacy lives on

Steve Schwartzman

In late 1988, less than two weeks before he was assassinated by a gunman linked to a group of lawless ranchers, the Amazonian rubber tapper, forest defender and environmental icon Chico Mendes told Jornal do Brasil, “It's not with public proclamations and well-attended funerals that we’re going to save the Amazon. I want to live.”

The jury is still out on what, if anything, is going to save the Amazon. But as the bell continues to toll for murdered environmental defenders in the Amazon and around the world — the most recent victim being Paulo Paulino Guajajara, a rainforest guardian in the Araribóia Indigenous Territory — it’s worth considering what has and hasn’t changed since that winter evening when Chico fell.

What’s behind the murder of environmental leaders

There’s been no change in the killing of environmental leaders. Over 1,700 defenders have been killed since 2000 alone, with only about 10% of the killers brought to justice. A strikingly disproportionate 30% to 40% are indigenous people, and many more are undoubtedly poor people of color. Last year, Global Witness counted 164 murders around the world, community leaders defending collective rights to forests, land and water ecosystems. Individuals or small groups covet these resources for short term profit, regardless of the environmental consequence or local peoples’ rights. In the case of Paulino — part of a group of Guajajara men who stood against illegal loggers as Chico did in his time — they are dedicated to protecting their rainforest territories.

For forest defenders and indigenous people in particular, the situation is worse in countries ruled by extremists like Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro. For the first time in the country’s history, it has a president who publicly promotes lawbreaking. “I primed the fires in the Amazon,” Bolsonaro declared to investors in October in Saudi Arabia, “because I didn’t agree with previous governments’ environmental policies.”

This kind of overt contempt for the rule of law is heard and understood by land grabbers, illegal loggers and miners as presidential endorsement. From there, it’s a short step to murder.

The Bolsonaro administration has also slashed funding for indigenous services. The Catholic Church Missionary Indigenist Council has described the severe cutbacks to its programs to protect forest peoples as “planned extermination.” Twenty-one protected indigenous territories with isolated indigenous groups are currently invaded, and the federal National Indian Foundation’s capacity to control or reverse these invasions has been virtually eliminated.

What it will take to stop the murders and deforestation

In such a dark time, we can’t lose sight of Chico Mendes’ legacy, or the movement he galvanized. Chico died, but he didn’t lose. His murder touched off a loud, sustained international outcry that resulted in real change. Today almost half of the Amazon is officially recognized indigenous and/or protected territory.

This vast network of protected land is one of the principal reasons Brazil was able to reduce deforestation by about 80% from 2005 to 2015. It’s why, even with an outrageous 30% increase in forest destruction this year over last, and tens of thousands of fires, deforestation rates are still far lower than before 2005. Leaders like Joênia Wapichana, Brazil’s first indigenous congresswoman; Sonia Guajajara, Coordinator of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil; and Raoni Metuktire, a chief of the Kayapô tribe nominated for the Nobel prize, are mobilizing effective resistance to the destruction locally, nationally and internationally. They need — and have more than earned — our support. Groups like the Instituto Socioambiental, Rainforest Foundation U.S. and EDF are working to provide it.

How you can help

As they did after Chico's murder, governments, civil society, businesses and indigenous organizations inside and outside Brazil are stepping up today. Outrage over the fires and murders is galvanizing support for new forest policy frameworks that create value for forest protection at scale and benefit both law-abiding farmers and forest peoples.

It has been three decades since Chico Mendes died. If we’re going to save the Amazon, and ourselves, the time for action is now. The organizations supporting environmental defenders need your help. And companies that buy commodities from tropical countries need to hear from you too. Let them know that they need to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains and work with first-mover governments that are putting deforestation control policies into practice.

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