Indigenous martyrs by Denilson Baniwa
Political savagery and forced disappearance in the Amazon
What happened to the British journalist Dom Phillips and the Brazilian Indigenous expert Bruno Araújo Pereira?
As I heard the alarming news that the British journalist Dom Phillips and the Brazilian Indigenous expert Bruno Araújo Pereira went missing in a remote area of the Amazon rainforest last Monday, I immediately reopened the WhatsApp message Dom had sent me just three weeks ago. We had been in communication since Fall 2019, when Princeton University’s Brazil LAB hosted a conference exploring a new vision to safeguard Amazonia for Brazil and the planet. In the past fifty years, 20% of the Brazilian rainforest has already been lost to illegal logging, cattle ranching, and wildfires. Dom was intrigued by the innovative climate model that my colleagues Stephen Pacala and Elena Shevliakova had developed, simulating what would happen to the world’s climate by 2050 if the Amazon were to be deforested.
In this dire scenario, eliminating the rainforest would make the region’s temperature get up to 4.5 degrees Celsius hotter, making it practically uninhabitable, dramatically altering rainfall patterns, with catastrophic consequences for agriculture and energy production.
The genocidal toll on the incredibly rich human and nonhuman forms of life that make the forest and are made by it would be unstoppable. Without the Amazon, average temperatures worldwide would rise a quarter of degree Celsius by 2050, making it impossible to achieve the aspirations of the Paris Agreement.
Dom wanted to draw from this framework in the book he was beginning to write – How to Save the Amazon – with a fellowship he received from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. He also loved the idea of a bold plan that we started to articulate together with colleagues leading the initiative Amazônia 2030, focused on nature-based solutions and multisectoral collaborations.
The last time Dom and I communicated on May 16th, he wanted to know about the second Amazonian Leapfrogging conference we had just held at Princeton University. “I was deep in the Amazon Forest when this happened but would be interested to see it online. Hope it was a huge success.” I immediately sent him a link to the livestream recording of the conference.
Ever connected and curious, “success” for Dom meant identifying alternative and actionable evidence that could help tackle deforestation, climate change, and social inequality. A most pressing challenge now that certain parts of the rainforest are already experiencing what Brazilian scientist Marina Hirota calls “heterogenous tipping points,” which “destabilize temperatures in Florida and in countries as such England and as far north as Finland and Norway.”
Indeed, Brazilian environmentalists, scholars, and activists gathered at Princeton in early May discussed concrete steps towards a zero-deforestation policy. Added to these were proposals to increase the productivity of deforested areas and to expand agroforestry and reforestation initiatives, with a particular eye toward improving the precarious infrastructures and livelihoods of some 28 million Amazonians. However, this visionary leap depends mightily on politics. And under the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, Amazonia and its protectors do not have a future.
When I reread Dom’s last messages, what came vividly and tragically to my mind were the dire and violent present realities that our Brazilian colleagues outlined during the conference. About 30% of the Amazonian territory has not been legally designated and has become a haven for deforestation and land grabbing. Environmental crime and illicit economies are intertwined. The region where Dom and Bruno disappeared is well-known to be controlled by organized crime. As Ilona Szabó, director of the think-and-do-tank Igarapé reminded us, “drug trafficking, fraud, corruption, money laundering and violent crimes are the daily reality of large portions of the Amazon now”—all against the backdrop of an intentionally withdrawn state and generalized lawlessness. Not to mention the threat to the life of Indigenous peoples, who are the ones who effectively keep the forest standing.
Dom and Bruno’s disappearance embody these brutal and criminal realities intensified under Bolsonaro’s neo-extractivist and anti-Indigenous modus operandi. The government’s “destruction package” (as critics call it) has encouraged illegal mining activities in Indigenous lands, halted the creation of new conservation areas, dismantled systems of land use surveillance, and weakened law enforcement agencies. All these in a context of increased weaponization of the Brazilian society and the normalization of militia violence.
President Bolsonaro’s long delayed meeting with the US President Joe Biden finally took place on June 9th in Los Angeles at the Ninth Summit of the Americas. Tragically, the diplomatic encounter was framed by the disappearance of Dom and Bruno in the Javari Valley, the largest refuge for self-isolated Indigenous groups and under increasing threat.
Earlier last week, the Brazilian President told the media that the two men should have known better and not ventured into “savage territory”. While watching Bolsonaro gloating to Biden that he was, in fact, protecting the rainforest, it was impossible not to be reminded of the savagery of his government, with its utter disregard for the truth, human rights, and the rule of law. A government that is complicit with the many out-of-control realities underpinning the macabre situation Dom and Bruno are in.
Biden followed suit and awkwardly praised Bolsonaro’s conservation policies. As absurd as this diplomatic move was, it was Biden’s non-acknowledgement of the brutal realities embodied by Dom and Bruno’s disappearance that spoke volumes. That this omission is in the discourse of the world’s most powerful leader is not trivial: climate change and the Amazon in particular have unfortunately been relegated to a second-tier issue in the priorities of Biden’s struggling government, resulting in much lower international pressure against the ominous actions of the Bolsonaro’s government on the environment and violence in the region. No wonder Bolsonaro, an unabashed supporter and in some ways a copy-cat of Donald Trump, now claims the meeting with Biden was “fantastic.”
In his May 16th message, Dom added that his Amazonian book was “coming along great. I have been travelling a lot over the last year.”
Dom knew he had to listen to the guardians of the forest, those whose forest-making work and lives are by and large deemed valueless by the Brazilian and international powers that be. He knew where true knowledge of how to save the Amazon and how to redirect the political field come from. As the Brazilian Indigenous activist Txai Suruí noted in her opening speech at COP-26, Indigenous peoples and local communities are not only on the front lines of the climate emergency, they are “listening to the earth” and “must be at the center of the decisions being made.”
Dom is the storyteller and Bruno the ally that threatened Amazonian communities need in order “to stop the forest from becoming a giant cattle ranch” (Dom’s words).
I wonder if Dom had a chance to watch the Amazonian Leapfrogging conference recording I sent him. If he did, I can only imagine how the words of the Indigenous leader Juma Xipaya must have stirred him and reassured him of his truth-telling mission: “We are defending the forest with our bodies, with our children in our arms, under relentless violence. The peoples of the forest need security so that we can continue to be the guardians of the forest, providing a service not only to the Amazon but to the world.”
The world-ending violence that has time and again assailed Indigenous peoples is now engulfing journalists and engaged public officers, such as Dom and Bruno, who put their best selves at the service of safeguarding Amazonia. Right now, we need President Biden to put pressure on Bolsonaro to solve this criminal disapperance and to protect the Amazon and its peoples. We must understand that the future of the rainforest lies in the October presidential election, when Brazilians who care about the Amazon must vote resoundingly to remove Bolsonaro from office.
João Biehl is the Susan Dod Brown Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University, where he directs the Brazil LAB. Acknowledgements: Thank you to Miqueias Mugge, Rodrigo Simon, Adriana Petryna and Denilson Baniwa.
João Biehl é professor titular da cátedra Susan Dod Brown no Departamento de Antropologia da Universidade de Princeton, onde também é diretor do Brazil LAB.
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