During his first year in office, Bolsonaro has scaled back enforcement of environmental laws, weakened federal environmental agencies, and harshly criticized organizations and individuals working to preserve the rainforest.

More than 300 people have been killed during the last decade in the context of conflicts over the use of land and resources in the Amazon – many of them by people involved in illegal logging – according to figures compiled by the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT, in Portuguese), a nonprofit organization, and cited by the Attorney General’s Office.

Human Rights Watch documented 28 killings – plus 4 attempted killings and over 40 cases of death threats – in which there was credible evidence that those responsible were engaged in illegal deforestation and saw their victims as obstacles to their criminal enterprise. Most of the cases are from the past five years. Some victims were environmental enforcement agents. Most were members of Indigenous communities or other forest residents who denounced illegal logging to authorities.

In the Terra Nossa settlement in Pará state, a resident was killed and another disappeared after they announced plans to report illegal logging to authorities in 2018. The brother of one of the victims, who was investigating the crime, was also killed, as was the leader of a small farmers’ trade union after he too announced plans to report the illegal logging. Residents of the settlement reported that all four men were killed by an armed militia working for a criminal network of landowners who were, according to an internal government report, engaged in illegal logging.

Those responsible for the violence are rarely brought to justice. Of the more than 300 killings registered by CPT, only 14 ultimately went to trial; of the 28 killings Human Rights Watch documented, only two went to trial; and of the more than 40 cases or threats, none did.

This lack of accountability is largely due to the failure by police to conduct proper investigations. Local police, who acknowledged the failure, say it is because the killings take place in remote areas. Yet, Human Rights Watch documented egregious omissions in investigations of killings that occurred in towns, not far from police stations, including the failure to conduct autopsies.

Investigations of death threats fare no better, with officials in some locations refusing to even register complaints of threats. In at least 19 of the 28 documented killings, threats against the victims or their communities preceded the attacks. Had authorities investigated, the killings might have been averted.

Indigenous communities and other local residents have long played an important role in Brazil’s efforts to curb deforestation by alerting authorities to illegal logging activities that might otherwise go undetected. Scaling back environmental enforcement encourages illegal logging and results in greater pressure on local people to take a more active role in defending their forests. In so doing, they put themselves at risk of reprisals.

Since 2004, Brazil has had a program to protect human rights and environmental defenders, but government officials interviewed agreed that the program provides little meaningful protection.

During Bolsonaro’s first eight months in office, deforestation almost doubled compared to the same period in 2018, according to preliminary official data. By August 2019, forest fires linked to deforestation were raging throughout the Amazon on a scale that had not been seen since 2010.

Such fires do not occur naturally in the wet ecosystem of the Amazon basin. Rather, they are started by people completing the process of deforestation where the trees of value have already been removed; they spread through the small clearings and discrete roads that have been carved by loggers, leaving veins of dryer, flammable vegetation that serve as kindling to ignite the rainforest.

As the world’s largest tropical rainforest, the Amazon plays a vital role in mitigating climate change by absorbing and storing carbon dioxide. When cut or burned down, the forest not only ceases to fulfill this function, but also releases back into the atmosphere the carbon dioxide it had previously stored.“The impact of the attacks on Brazil’s forest defenders extends far beyond the Amazon,” Wilkinson said. “Until the country addresses the violence and lawlessness that facilitate illegal logging, the destruction of the world’s largest rainforest will continue unchecked.”

Cases documented in the report include:

  • Gilson Temponi, president of a farmers’ association in Placas, Pará state, reported to prosecutors in 2018 illegal logging and death threats from loggers. In December of that year, two men knocked on his door and shot him to death.
  • Eusebio Ka’apor – a leader of the Ka’apor people who helped organize forest patrols to prevent loggers from entering Alto Turiaçu Indigenous Territory in Maranhão state – was killed in 2015. Shortly after his death, six of the seven members of the Ka´apor Governing Council, which coordinates the patrols, received death threats from loggers.
  • Osvalinda Pereira and her husband, Daniel Pereira, both small-scale farmers, have received death threats for nearly a decade since they began reporting illegal logging by a criminal network in Pará state. In 2018, they found two shallow graves dug in their yard, with wooden crosses affixed on top.
  • Dilma Ferreira Silva, an environmental activist in Pará state, and five other people were killed in 2019 under orders – according to police – of a landowner involved in illegal logging who feared that Silva and the others would report his criminal activities.