Illegal cattle ranching is destroying the Amazon rainforest – and putting our planet at risk

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro must take meaningful action, both for the Indigenous peoples across his country and the wider world

Richard Pearshouse
Tuesday 26 November 2019 14:46
Drone footage shows recently deforested land in the Amazon

Yara lives deep in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, in a small wooden house with her husband and two children. Her village has only 20 or so people, her whole Indigenous group is just 200-strong.

When I meet her, she’s eager for me to understand just how dangerous life for Brazil’s Indigenous peoples has become under President Jair Bolsonaro.

“When I heard about the invasion, I was scared because it is very close to the village”, Yara, in her early 20s, told me.

“There were gunshots during the night for several nights. I was scared. I put the children to sleep, but I couldn’t sleep anymore.”

Threats, violence, intrusion, displacement. This is the reality of life for the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, an Indigenous people that live in the state of Rondônia.

The Amazon is their home. It is where they and many other Indigenous peoples have lived for hundreds of years, surviving off the trees, animals and fruits of the forest, and playing an essential role in maintaining the biodiversity in their part of the world’s largest ecosystem.

But their lives – and their homes – are at risk.

In January 2019, about 40 intruders brandishing firearms, sickles and machetes cut a path into the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau’s territory, just over a mile away from Yara’s village. When confronted and told to leave, the gang allegedly replied that more intruders would be coming and threatened to kill the Indigenous children.

In April, local media reported that an estimated 1,000 people again tried to invade part of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territory, assuming that the Brazilian government would divide up the land and grant it to them. Repeated attempted invasions took place over the following months.

The federal police, federal environmental agents and Army eventually intervened. In September, authorities launched an operation to arrest the criminal group responsible for the illegal land seizures. One month later, the leader had been arrested, while others were fugitives from justice.

Aerial footage shows Amazon wildfires burning and devastation left behind

This is a problem that is not going away and it’s not unique to Rondônia. The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau are just one of numerous Indigenous and traditional communities on the frontline of the fight for land in the Amazon.

Earlier this year, the world watched in horror as vast swathes of the Amazon burned. For months, wildfires raged and wiped out huge chunks of the rainforest that are vital for the future of our planet.

But what is causing these infernos? And who is starting them? At Amnesty International, this is an issue we’ve been investigating for many months.

Cattle ranching is a multi-billion pound business in Brazil and illegal land seizures are on the rise. Criminals known as grileiros aid would-be farmers by terrorising Indigenous peoples, seizing their land.

Cattle farmers and grileiros follow a simple pattern to convert tropical rainforest into pasture. Plots of land in the Amazon are identified, trees are cut down and cleared, and then fires are lit, before grass is planted, and cattle introduced.

Shockingly, around two-thirds of the areas of the Amazon deforested between 1988 and 2014 has been burned and converted to grazing pasture – a total land area of almost 500,000 square kilometres, equivalent to five times the size of Portugal.

This is happening in both Indigenous territories and reserves, which is another category of protected forest area home to peasant communities. In both cases, residents have rights to the land but the Brazilian authorities are failing to protect those rights.

Their lands have been invaded, torched, and misappropriated for cattle farms. Those living there have been threatened, and in some cases forcibly evicted. People defending their territories and communities have been killed.

By visiting people living in protected areas, researching official data, and reviewing satellite imagery, we know that illegal land seizures, by-and-large linked to cattle ranching, are on the rise across the communities we have monitored. Those on the ground agree: this trend has worsened since President Bolsonaro took power in January.

While the Bolsonaro administration slashes environmental protections at the federal level, some state authorities are effectively enabling illegal cattle farming.

Rondônia’s authorities know there are illegal cattle farms within protected territories. According to data obtained through a Freedom of Information request, there were almost 300,000 cattle in Indigenous territories and environmentally protected areas at the end of 2018. State officials continue to register farms and authorise the movement of cattle to and from these farms, despite it being illegal.

It’s time to for the Brazilian authorities to take meaningful steps to end illegal cattle farming in protected areas. It’s time to stand together to protect the homes and livelihoods of the Amazon’s Indigenous peoples and traditional communities.

After all, it’s not just their future we’re fighting for. It’s the future of our entire planet.

Richard Pearshouse is Head of Crisis and Environment at Amnesty International

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