Brazil’s president has long seen protected indigenous land as a treasure trove of resources. In 2015 then-Congressman Bolsonaro told the newspaper Campo Grande News that “gold, tin and magnesium are in these lands, especially in the Amazon, the richest area in the world.”
“I’m not getting into this nonsense of defending land for the Indians,” he added.
Bolsonaro defends his current efforts to build in the Amazon as a means of assimilating native Brazilians so they will no longer need their territorial homelands.
“The Indian has changed, he is evolving and becoming more and more a human being like us. What we want is to integrate him into society,” he said in a video posted to social media in January.
The statement prompted a lawsuit by indigenous Brazilians accusing the president of racism, a crime in Brazil.
Resistance as conservation
Accelerating deforestation under Bolsonaro has sparked violence in the Amazon.
Seven indigenous land activists were killed in 2019, according to the Brazilian not-for-profit Pastoral Land Commission, the most in over a decade. Indigenous environmental leaders in the Colombian and Ecuadorian Amazon have also been murdered.
Such killings mostly go unsolved. But Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples Association says one indigenous activist killed in 2019, Paulo Guajajara, was gunned down by illegal loggers in November for defending Guajajara territory as part of an armed group called Guardians of the Forest.
“We are protecting our land and the life on it,” Guajajara told Reuters shortly before his murder. “We have to preserve this life for our children’s future.”
Indigenous Brazilians have also defended their land in court.
In 2012, the Munduruku sued to stop the construction of mega-dams and waterways in the Tapajós River Valley – projects that would have ended life as they know it. Federal prosecutors agreed, filing in support of the Munduruku and calling for the suspension of the largest dam’s environmental license.
Under legal pressure, the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources in their April 2016 decision curtailed the entire infrastructure plan, conserving 7% of the Amazon Basin.