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Brazil: Authorities must investigate and prosecute those responsible for destruction of the Amazon

    September 03, 2019

    Brazilian authorities must investigate and prosecute those responsible for starting illegal fires in the Amazon to prevent further destruction of the rainforest, Amnesty International said today as it launched an online campaign to pressure President Jair Bolsonaro and his government to step up protection of Indigenous territories and environmental reserves.

    “The devastating fires in the Amazon are the symptom of a larger crisis of illegal deforestation and land seizures. On paper Brazil has strong laws to protect Indigenous territories and environmental reserves. Yet President Bolsonaro has actively undermined those protections, resulting in the devastation we see today,” said Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

    “While the President has now signed a decree temporarily banning fires for land clearance, this does not eliminate the potential for further fires because he has taken little action to deter or prevent the illegal deforestation and land seizures that drive them.

    “The Brazilian authorities must immediately investigate and prosecute those responsible for these catastrophic fires, otherwise we will inevitably see them getting worse throughout the rest of President Bolsonaro’s time in office.”

    On August 29 President Bolsonaro enacted a decree prohibiting land clearance fires for 60 days as part of the government’s response to the crisis. However, one official working for Brazil’s national environmental agency who spoke to Amnesty International on the condition of anonymity, told us he feared the decree will likely have limited effect because most of the recent fires were already prohibited by existing laws. 

    According to representatives of non-governmental organizations and local officials, the people starting the fires are often individuals who are encouraged to occupy plots of land in Indigenous territories and environmental reserves by local farmers and politicians.

    The conversion of forests into pasture in the Amazon often follows a pattern, whereby plots of land in the forest are identified and illegally seized, trees are cut down and cleared, then fires are lit (often repeatedly in the same area) before grass is planted and cattle eventually introduced.

    Amnesty witnessed a fire raging in the Indigenous territory Manoki, in Mato Grosso state on 23 August. The burning area of the forest had been fenced off. Manoki leaders told Amnesty International that they expected the fire was intended to make pasture for grazing cattle.

    Call for Brazil’s government to enforce and fund existing protections

    “Sending in the military and ordering a short-term ban are only temporary fixes to a much larger problem. Beyond fighting the fires, Brazil needs to enforce its own laws, step up monitoring and patrols of illegal land seizures in protected areas and Indigenous territories, and investigate and hold those responsible for human rights abuses,” said Kumi Naidoo. 

    Since April 2019 Amnesty International has visited four different Indigenous territories in Brazil’s Amazon: Karipuna and Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau in Rondônia state, Arara in Pará state, and Manoki in Mato Grosso state.

    Experts and Indigenous people interviewed by Amnesty International expressed intense frustration at the lack of enforcement of Brazil’s laws to protect Indigenous territories and environmentally protected areas. They also told Amnesty International that government surveillance operations to monitor and prevent illegal land seizures and deforestation have been reduced because of budget constraints over recent months.

    In the four Indigenous territories we visited, the rate of deforestation is almost 80 per cent higher than what it was over the same period in 2018. In some sites, Indigenous community leaders also reported receiving death threats for defending their traditional territories.

    An official working for Brazil’s national environmental agency in Rondônia state, who spoke to Amnesty International on the condition of anonymity, explained “If we had had people to conduct inspections, the situation would have not reached this level”.

    An indigenous Manoki man, who also spoke to Amnesty International on the condition of anonymity, told us “IBAMA has stopped coming. I don’t know why. We’ve prepared reports, marking the coordinates where illegal logging is taking place and sending them to IBAMA. But now they have stopped [coming]”.

    Brazil's National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) and its main environmental agency (IBAMA) face substantial budget cuts this year. According to government data, FUNAI's expenses for the protection of Indigenous territories incurred this year until August 28th have fallen 10% over the same period in 2018. International media has reported that IBAMA's overall budget has shrunk by 25%.

    “This is both a human rights crisis and an environmental crisis,” said Kumi Naidoo. “Over the long term, strengthening the civilian authorities responsible for combatting deforestation and illegal land seizures is the only way forward.

    “For the sake of the Amazon rainforest, the people who call it home, and the rest of the world that depend on it for our climate’s stability, Brazil must do more to combat illegal land seizures and deforestation.”

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    For more information or to arrange an interview please contact: 

    Lucy Scholey, Media Relations, Amnesty International Canada (English branch), 613-744-7667 ext. 236 lscholey@amnesty.ca​​​​​​​