Violence in Brazil’s Amazon are also crimes against humanity, lawyers tell international court

  • Three organizations, including Greenpeace Brazil, filed a case with the International Criminal Court (ICC) pressing for the investigation into a network of politicians, law enforcement and business executives they suspect are responsible for systematic attacks against land defenders.
  • They documented over 400 murders, 500 attempted murders, 2,200 death threats, 2,000 assaults and 80 cases of torture that occurred between 2011 and 2022.
  • Former Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro is one suspect in these crimes, yet the organizations say the attacks are part of a larger system operating in Brazil, and will likely continue even when he’s out of office.
  • If the criminal court choses to go forward with this case, it will be the first time they investigate crimes against humanity committed in the context of environmental destruction.

On the morning of May 24, 2017, police and military carried out an operation in the Santa Lúcia farm in Brazil’s northern Amazon state of Pará, killing 10 unarmed rural land users. Witnesses say the men and women were killed while trying to take shelter and hide in the rain. The police say they were following court orders to clear the area. Even though the Public Prosecutor’s Office initially charged 13 police officers for their alleged role in the massacre, the officers were only temporarily arrested and then released.

The criminal investigation lasted five years before it closed, but it never concluded who was the mastermind who ordered the killings.

This is but one example of the violent crimes that have occurred in the Brazilian Amazon over the years, listed in the online evidence platform created by Greenpeace Brasil, Climate Counsel, a legal advisory firm, and Observatório do Clima, a network of civil society organizations.

In November, the three presented this information to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, and co-filed a communication pressing the court to investigate an organized network of politicians, law enforcement and business executives, who they suspect have for years been systematically attacking Indigenous communities and rural workers in the Brazilian Amazon.

The Pataxó people
The Pataxó face both shrinking space for their subsistence livelihoods and an increase in conflicts as real estate and monoculture developments encroach on their territory. Image by André Mellagi via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

After over five years of research, the three organizations found that over the past 10 years, there have been over 12,000 land or water related conflicts in the Brazilian Amazon. These attacks have been part of an organizational policy to clear people from the forest, for the sake of extracting resources or expanding agriculture activities, they tell Mongabay.

These internal policies solidified over the years through the collusion of like-minded actors, motivated by their economic interests in developing the Brazilian Amazon, according to the communication the lawyers submitted to the ICC.

Agriculture exports account for nearly 30% of Brazil’s GDP, maintaining it as an important, and influential, industry for the country. The country is one of the largest beef exporters in the world and is the largest soybean producer, which is mostly used to feed its cattle. The vast beef sector has been responsible for about 80% of all deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

Most of the crimes listed on the platform – which include murder, persecution, and forced evictions – have gone uninvestigated and unpunished, as illegal logging, mining, cattle ranching and agriculture in the rainforest flourishes. After accumulating for so many years, these kinds of abuses may amount to crimes against humanity, say the three organizations in a press release.

“So, the politicians are taking care of passing laws. The law enforcement officers take care of basically attacking civilians in the Amazon… and public officials are co-opted to favor these corporate executives who bribed them, you know, and so on and so forth,” says Paulo Busse, lawyer for Greenpeace Brasil and Observatório do Clima, explaining the systemic operations of the network.

Cattle in a ranching area, next to a recently deforested and burnt area, in Candeias do Jamari, Rondônia state. Overflights organized by the Amazon in Flames Alliance -- Amazon Watch, Greenpeace Brazil and the Brazilian Climate Observatory -- between September 13th and 17th documented land use change and fire around the cities of Porto Velho, Rondônia, and Lábrea, Amazonas. Photo © Victor Moriyama / Amazônia em Chamas (Amazon in Flames Alliance)
Cattle in a ranching area, next to a recently deforested and burnt area, in Candeias do Jamari, Rondônia state. Overflights organized by the Amazon in Flames Alliance — Amazon Watch, Greenpeace Brazil and the Brazilian Climate Observatory — between September 13th and 17th documented land use change and fire around the cities of Porto Velho, Rondônia, and Lábrea, Amazonas. Photo © Victor Moriyama / Amazônia em Chamas (Amazon in Flames Alliance)

Richard Rogers, founder of the nonprofit Hague-based legal group Climate Counsel who helped file the communication with the ICC, says this case is distinct from other cases the ICC has investigated, like war crimes or genocide based on particular events. Rather, they are providing evidence of abuse over several years in the Brazilian Amazon, which do amount to crimes against humanity, he says.

If the ICC decides to proceed with an investigation, it would be groundbreaking, added Rogers, as the court has not yet accepted any case of this kind; Crimes against humanity committed in the context of environmental destruction.

Many actors in Brazil’s agriculture sector have long denied this destruction in the Amazon rainforest. This includes the Brazilian growers’ association CNA, who told local media in September that only 30% of Brazil’s territory is used for agriculture, which is much less that other countries, and insists that the sector itself uses sustainable methods that are rarely acknowledged.

In the lap of the international criminal court

With the information and material submitted to the ICC, it’s now up to the international court to evaluate the information and decide whether or not to move forward with an official investigation into specific individuals who may be involved in crimes against humanity. This will decipher whether or not to hold a trial.

Mist rising from the Amazon rainforest at dawn. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.
Mist rising from the Amazon rainforest at dawn. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

“What we have done through this filing is to lay out the evidence, a sort of aerial view of the evidence, and construct the argument for [ICC prosecutors] about why this may amount to crimes against humanity,” says Richard Rogers.

The ICC currently has a total of 31 cases with investigations in 17 countries (none of these include Brazil). Twenty-one of these cases are classified as crimes against humanity and the judges have issued ten convictions and four acquittals.

Since Brazil’s last president Jair Bolsonaro held office in 2019, at least four other communications have been filed with the ICC, pressing the international court to investigate the outgoing president for crimes against humanity for the same reasons. None of these investigations have been opened by the ICC.

One of these communications was filed last year by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples from Brazil (APIB), an organization that represents nearly one million Indigenous people in the country, many of whom have been victims of Bolsonaro’s policies, they say.

Chantelle Teixeira, lawyer and legal advisor with the Missionary Indigenous Council in Brazil (CIMI), says the exploitation of the Amazon rainforest is systematic and has the authorization of the state itself. Teixeira is not part of this ICC communication.

“These aren’t occasional invasions,” she says, “but invasions that are also a model of development.”

Read more: Crime and no punishment: Impunity shrouds killings of Indigenous Amazonian defenders

A network of actors 

The group’s online platform displays all the evidence the three organizations submitted to ICC prosecutors, and is available to the public and policymakers who can also evaluate and use the information themselves.

Large operation of illegal goldminers on the Uraricoera River in the protected Yanomami Indigenous Territory in the north of Brazil. Photo courtesy of Bruno Kelly / Amazônia Real.

The evidence they collected details conflicts in the Brazilian Amazon between the years 2011 and 2022 and a network of actors they suspect are responsible for abuses.

Busse says a team of investigators read and analyzed data and reports by a wide variety of environment and human rights organizations in Brazil, did extensive field work and interviews with victims in the Amazon, and visited, analyzed and digitally re-created crime sites in the rainforest.

During this period, over 400 murders, 500 attempted murders, 2,200 death threats, 2,000 assaults, 80 cases of torture and 100,000 expulsions or evictions against rural and Indigenous people were documented.

After all this, they were able to identify systemic abuse, and various public and private actors in the network, which includes politicians in congress and corporate executives, but also local politicians and police forces across the country, who all profit in some way from resource exploitation in the Amazon. Meanwhile, crimes against Indigenous communities in these areas of economic interest remain ignored, says Teixeira.

Busse says what they lack is the material evidence linking particular corporate or political actors to crimes on the ground in the rainforest, or cases of bribery. But, he says, after 20 years of working on cases in the Amazon, these dynamics are obvious; there has just been no willingness by Brazilian officials to investigate them.

That’s why they’re asking the ICC to investigate further, he says.

A framed photo of Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau
A framed photo of Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, murdered in 2020. Ari received death threats from land invaders before he was killed, yet the question of who murdered him and why remains unanswered. Image © Bitate Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau.

Recent research by the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), a human rights organization in Brazil who co-signed the communication for the ICC, shows that only 10% of all murders committed against land defenders in Brazil between 1985-2021 were ever brought to trial. The majority of these assassinations occurred in the Amazon, during the expansion of the agriculture, logging, cattle-ranching, and mining frontiers.

The fact that violent crimes are left in impunity indicate that these criminals are being protected by people in influential positions, Teixeira tells Mongabay.

One example of this is Brazil’s agro-industrial sector, mainly cattle and soy production, who hold strong political and financial clout in the country, say the lawyers. This influence has allowed the industries to escape environmental regulations and expand production in the Amazon, in many cases forcing Indigenous and rural populations from their homes.

At times, these kinds of expulsions have also turned violent, like the police enforced massacre at the Santa Lúcia farm in Pará. According to the organizations’ communication, the police and military were merely carrying out court orders to clear the area, but despite this documentation and witnesses of the event, no one was held responsible.

Neither the Brazilian federal police or the civil police of the state of Pará responded to Mongabay’s request for comment.

Members of the “Guardians of the Forest,” an Indigenous patrol, pose for a photo in the Arariboia Indigenous Territory in Brazil’s Maranhão state. The reserve is one of Brazil’s most threatened Indigenous territories. Paulo Paulino Guajajara, right, was killed in 2019, while Laércio Guajajara, second right, was shot and injured in the same incident. Image courtesy of Sarah Shenker/Survival International.
Members of the “Guardians of the Forest,” an Indigenous patrol, pose for a photo in the Arariboia Indigenous Territory in Brazil’s Maranhão state. The reserve is one of Brazil’s most threatened Indigenous territories. Paulo Paulino Guajajara, right, was killed in 2019, while Laércio Guajajara, second right, was shot and injured in the same incident. Image courtesy of Sarah Shenker/Survival International.
Indigenous Guajajara leader Paulo Paulino Guajajara was shot dead in an ambush by loggers in the Amazon. He was one of the “Guardians of the Forest,” a group of Guajajara indigenous people that risks their lives fighting illegal logging in the Araribóia indigenous reserve. He posed for this picture on Jan 31, 2019. Image by Karla Mendes/Mongabay
Indigenous Guajajara leader Paulo Paulino Guajajara was shot dead in an ambush by loggers in the Amazon. He was one of the “Guardians of the Forest,” a group of Guajajara indigenous people that risks their lives fighting illegal logging in the Araribóia indigenous reserve. He posed for this picture on Jan 31, 2019. Image by Karla Mendes/Mongabay.

The environmental lawyers submitted a list of names to the ICC of people they’ve identified as being potentially part of this network, but did not make the list public for security reasons, says Busse, adding that naming the accused could put witnesses and victims at further risk of attack.

As these are not legal accusations, they also have an obligation to protect the identity of the accused until a formal investigation can be undertaken and more evidence accrued.

It’s now up to the ICC to examine the information they submitted and decide how to proceed, added Busse.

Read more: In Brazil, an Indigenous land defender’s unsolved killing is the deadly norm

Bolsonaro: One of the suspects

Busse says past Brazilian governments may have been responsible for turning a blind eye to environmental crimes or not doing enough to stop them. In their communication, they document a number of violent conflicts in the Amazon since 2011, which overlap with the previous administrations of Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer, yet this neglect doesn’t amount to crimes against humanity, they tell Mongabay.

But the previous president Jair Bolsonaro is a different story, says Busse, as he is the first national leader “that is a real criminal about it,” and an obvious suspect in this network, he adds.

“He knew, he was informed by a lot of different actors in Brazilian society that there was this problem of human rights violations going on the Amazon, and he positioned himself, he manifested several times that he was in favor of it,” Busse told Mongabay via video call from his home in Sao Paulo.

Bolsonaro has made public statements saying Indigenous people were “evolving” to become more like human beings. His administration has allowed large landowners to obtain federal property certificates for land inside Indigenous territory, slashed budgets to fight environmental crimes, and passed 195 executive degrees critics say undermine Indigenous protections.

President Jair Bolsonaro with the Economy Minister Paulo Guedes and the governor of Amazonas, Wilson Lima.
President Jair Bolsonaro (centre) with the Economy Minister Paulo Guedes (right) and the governor of Amazonas, Wilson Lima (left). The governor, allied with Bolsonaro, was reelected in the 2022 elections. Photo by Alan Santos/PR.

All this has encouraged illegal activity in the Amazon to continue, says Busse.   

According to CIMI’s annual report on violence against Indigenous people from 2021, invasions and illegal exploitation of resources in Indigenous land in Brazil tripled since Bolsonaro took office in 2019. These actions have been repeatedly ignored by law enforcement, they add.

These kinds of connections might not be enough to condemn Bolsonaro for a specific murder, says Busse, “but we’re accusing him of a group of cases that together constitute crimes against humanity. It’s a different legal analysis.”

Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment about these accusations, when Mongabay reached out in December before he stepped down from the presidency.

In 2021, the Brazilian Embassy in Washington told local media that “the Bolsonaro administration is taking concrete action to improve the lives of Indigenous peoples and ensure the future of the Amazon,” when asked to respond to separate communication brought to the ICC.

Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva with Indigenous people.
Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said at his inauguration and at the COP27 climate summit that climate mitigation will be his administration’s highest priority. Image courtesy of Ricardo Stuckert.

Environmentalists and human rights workers are hopeful that Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, the new left-wing president that took office on January 1st, 2023, will reverse many of Bolsonaro’s policies.

So far, Lula has announced the creation of a Ministry of Indigenous People, which would be the first one in the country’s history. He has promised to stop deforestation, work on sustainable development opportunities in remote communities, and further recognize Indigenous land rights.

However, Rogers says it’s important to remember that Bolsonaro is a product of the system, not the creator of it. The same network of people responsible for these crimes has still been left to operate since he left office in on January 1st.

If an ICC investigation is opened, Teixeira tells Mongabay, he’s likely to cooperate with the international court. But, his main challenge will be the conservative majority in Congress who don’t share his views, but who he’ll have to negotiate with in order to pass policies.

According to Busse, about 50% of Brazil’s Congress is made up of politicians connected to the network.

Others, namely Indigenous peoples in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory in Roraima state say they’re realistic and don’t believe in a miracle following Lula’s election. Their state’s elected governor, a pro-mining political ally with a similar ideology to Bolsonaro, was reelected in the elections.

But, adds Rogers, their online evidence platform could be a useful tool for the new government, to help them understand the real dynamics in the Amazon and how to create better policies, or pursue other legal action against offenders.

Read more: ‘We’re not going to give Lula a free pass’: Q&A with Indigenous leader Beto Marubo

Banner image: Karipuna people stand for a photo in the village of Panorama in the Karipuna Indigenous Territory, an area that was demarcated in 1998 yet still suffers constant invasions by illegal loggers. Image © Tommaso Protti/Greenpeace.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast:We discuss how the Brazilian presidential election could alter the outlook for the Amazon going forward with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as president (recorded before the election). Listen here:

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