As Bolsonaro Keeps Amazon Vows, Brazil’s Indigenous Fear ‘Ethnocide’

URU EU WAU WAU TERRITORY, Brazil — The billboard at the entrance of a tiny Indigenous village in the Amazon has become a relic in less than a decade, boasting of something no longer true.

“Here, there is investment by the federal government,” proclaims the sign, erected in 2012, which is now shrouded by fallen palm tree fronds.

In fact, this tiny hamlet in Rondônia state, called Alto Jamari, home to some 10 families of the Uru Eu Wau Wau tribe, is barely surviving, just like scores of other struggling villages in the region that for decades have served as havens for Indigenous culture and bulwarks against deforestation in Brazil.

Federal aid is drying up at the same time that more outsiders are trespassing on their lands, eager to illegally exploit the forest’s resources, and as the coronavirus poses a deadly threat, having already reached a few remote villages.

Local leaders and Indigenous advocates direct their blame for this deteriorating situation toward one person: President Jair Bolsonaro.

During his run for the presidency, Mr. Bolsonaro promised he would open up the Amazon to more commercial development, including mining and large-scale farming.

“Where there is Indigenous land,” he has said, “there is wealth underneath it.”

Since taking office a little more than a year ago, Mr. Bolsonaro has moved aggressively to further those development goals, putting in place policies that critics fear have set in motion a new era of ethnocide for Indigenous communities.

He has started dismantling a system of protection for Indigenous communities enshrined in Brazil’s Constitution, with his government last year slashing the funding of the National Indian Foundation, the federal agency responsible for upholding those Indigenous rights.

As president, he has vowed not to designate “one centimeter” more as protected Indigenous lands, arguing that living in isolation is an anachronism in the 21st century and an impediment to economic growth.

“The Indigenous person can’t remain in his land as if he were some prehistoric creature,” Mr. Bolsonaro said in February.

Also in February, Mr. Bolsonaro presented a bill to Congress that could effectively legalize the illegal mining ventures that have polluted rivers and torn down large swaths of the Amazon.

The proposed legislation, which Congress has shown no appetite to advance as Brazil battles the coronavirus, would also authorize oil and gas exploration and hydropower plants on Indigenous territories. Under the plan, native communities would be consulted about projects — but would not be given veto power.

Last year, Mr. Bolsonaro bragged that he had “put an end to” what he called “astronomical fines” against companies that violate environmental law in the Amazon, removing one of the few disincentives developers face.

Brazil’s president is keeping his promises about expanding development in the Amazon. And for many of the Indigenous people who live there, the Bolsonaro era is posing an existential threat.

What We Found

Brazil’s 1988 Constitution confers expansive rights to Brazil’s Indigenous people, a form of reparations for centuries of brutal treatment.

While these rights have never been fully upheld, they are being eviscerated in the Bolsonaro era, according to Indigenous leaders and activists.

For communities with small populations, like the Uru Eu Wau Wau, the government’s stance could mean their total disappearance as distinct tribes.

The schoolhouse at the largest of the Uru Eu Wau Wau’s six villages — a modern facility surrounded by a cluster of modest huts — sits empty. Teachers stopped showing up last year because they weren’t being paid.

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Visits from doctors and nurses have become rare, in large part because Cuban doctors who had been providing care in remote villages left abruptly shortly before Mr. Bolsonaro took office in January 2019 in response to threats from the incoming president.

Illegal incursions by loggers into the edges of the territory have become increasingly frequent, putting its residents on a war footing.

“They’re razing down our forest,” Juvitai Uru Eu Wau Wau, 19, said while swinging on a hammock as a toddler pushed a dusty tricycle around a cluster of small huts. As is common, Juvitai uses the tribe’s name as her family name.

Children in the village have picked up on the collective angst, Juvitai said, and constantly ask whether their days living in relative isolation are coming to an end.

“I tell them to be calm,” Juvitai said, sounding uncertain. “This is our land. We’re staying here.”

What We Found

On a satellite image, the Uru Eu Wau Wau territory stands out as an emerald green island surrounded by parcels of razed forest, most of which are now cattle ranches.

In 1991, the federal government officially designated the Uru Eu Wau Wau territory. It encompasses a 6,950 square mile area — a little smaller than the state of New Jersey — where the tribe has built a cluster of small villages. This federal recognition is supposed to confer limited political autonomy, prohibiting outsiders from entering without explicit permission and barring large-scale commercial activity.

The territory, still technically owned by the federal government, is now home to about 220 Uru Eu Wau Wau people, as well as a few smaller uncontacted tribes whose exact populations are unknown.

The Uru Eu Wau Wau have endured illegal incursions from loggers for years. But in February of last year, it became clear the tribe was facing a far graver threat when some 200 men strode into their territory with the apparent intent to establish a permanent settlement.

After the Uru Eu Wau Wau protested and the incursion drew the attention of the Brazilian news media, the federal police did step in to expel the men. But such enforcement actions are rare, and it’s impossible for the authorities to effectively patrol such a vast region, which both the loggers and tribes know well.

Soon after the police left, someone opened fire on a government plaque at one of the main entrances to the territory that signals that the area is protected. It sent a chilling message to the Uru Eu Wau Wau.

“What we’re seeing is the result of a government that is in favor of deforestation in the Amazon,” said Bitate Uru Eu Wau Wau, a leader in the community. “It has emboldened invaders to come into Indigenous territories.”

What We Found

Federal prosecutors in the state said these incursions are part of a wave of illegal squatters who raze protected land, harvest the wood and then carve out land parcels for which they create fake titles.

Loggers, miners, cattle ranchers and others have used this approach in the Amazon for many years, and it has often paid off because lawmakers have time and again created pathways for squatters to rightfully own land they took possession of unlawfully.

But while their tactics are not new, prosecutors say the squatters have become increasingly brazen since Mr. Bolsonaro’s election, abetted by his disdain for environmental fines and the government’s attitude toward development.

“The objective is to create facts on the ground,” said Daniel Azevedo, a federal prosecutor in Porto Velho, the Rondônia state capital, who focuses on environmental and Indigenous crimes.

Deforestation in Indigenous territories across Brazil has risen sharply in recent months. From August 2018 to July 2019, 1,634 square miles of forest cover was slashed, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Studies. That represents a 74 percent increase from the same period a year before.

The Uru Eu Wau Wau territory was among the 10 hardest hit by deforestation during that time.

Mr. Azevedo said law enforcement officials can build cases against particularly egregious drivers of deforestation. But he added the authorities are ill equipped to roll back the forces driving deforestation at a time when squatters feel backed by elected officials.

“They take comfort in the political reality, sensing that local politicians, senators, even the president supports their cause,” Mr. Azevedo said.

The Uru Eu Wau Wau is one of several Indigenous communities that have seen a sharp rise in land incursions and threats in the Bolsonaro era. Further north, the Yanomami and Munduruku tribes have been invaded by thousands of gold miners.

In 2019, at least seven Indigenous leaders were killed in conflicts over land.

At a meeting last year with the governors of Brazil’s nine Amazonian states, Mr. Bolsonaro made clear he saw Indigenous lands and their inhabitants as a drag on Brazil’s potential.

“Indigenous people don’t lobby, don’t speak our language, and yet today they manage to have 14 percent of our national territory,” he said, using a figure slightly larger than the government’s own statistics. “One of their intentions is to hold us back.”

What We Found

Mr. Bolsonaro, who won the presidency with 55 percent of the vote, has many supporters who agree with his contention that Indigenous communities should not be in control of the 12.5 percent of the country’s landmass demarcated as Indigenous land.

Daniel da Cunha, 60, who lives just outside the Uru Eu Wau Wau territory, said those territories should be carved up so jobless people can put them to profitable use.

“They don’t work,” he said of Indigenous people. “They don’t bring in money for Brazil, only burdens.”

Some lawmakers argue that Mr. Bolsonaro is right to want to upend Brazil’s Indigenous policy, but favor a more moderate approach.

Arthur Oliveira Maia, a center-right congressman from the state of Bahia, said that under the current legal framework, no one, including the Indigenous tribes themselves, can profit from the reserved territories.

“Commercial endeavors in Indigenous territories could be done gradually, setting aside 10 or 15 percent of the land,” he said.

He added that he favored starting out with agriculture, which tends to have a lower environmental impact, rather than mining.

“Today Indigenous people are struggling,” he said. “The emancipation of these people is only possible through economic means.”

What We Found

Mr. Bolsonaro has long spoken derisively about Indigenous people. In 1998, when he was a fringe far-right lawmaker, Mr. Bolsonaro said it was a “shame that the Brazilian cavalry hadn’t been as efficient as the American one, which exterminated the Indians.”

What Mr. Bolsonaro did not acknowledge is that Brazil’s Indigenous people were almost wiped out after Europeans arrived in the early 16th century.

The Indigenous population in modern day Brazil plunged from estimates of between three million and as many as 11 million people in the 1500s to 70,000 by the 1950s as entire tribes were killed off, while huge numbers were enslaved.

After Brazil’s generals seized power in the 1960s, the repressive military government — which Mr. Bolsonaro has long lionized — treated Indigenous people living in the Amazon as obstacles to economic growth.

The country’s 1988 Constitution tried to redress some of these wrongs.

It ended the military-era policy that had encouraged the assimilation of Indigenous people and recognized their “customs, languages, beliefs and traditions.”

The Constitution also established a process of land demarcation that over the years created the vast patchwork of 567 protected Indigenous territories. In 2010, when Brazil conducted its last census, about 517,000 of the country’s 897,000 Indigenous people lived in those lands.

On his first day in office, Mr. Bolsonaro transferred the land demarcation process from the National Indian Foundation, known as FUNAI, to the Ministry of Agriculture, which is heavily influenced by the agribusiness lobby. The Supreme Court blocked the move, finding it unconstitutional, but all pending demarcation cases remain frozen.

In addition to the challenge on transferring FUNAI, Mr. Bolsonaro has encountered other setbacks or delays. Leaders in Congress have signaled they are not in a hurry to move forward on his bill to authorize energy projects in Indigenous lands.

But the power of the presidency still gives him plenty of opportunity to further his vision.

The government recently appointed a former Christian missionary, Ricardo Lopes Dias, to head the FUNAI division in charge of protecting uncontacted tribes. While Mr. Dias has pledged not to use his post to proselytize, his appointment incited fears the government will allow missionaries to make contact with isolated communities, which are vulnerable to dying en mass from common diseases during such encounters.

A representative of FUNAI said the agency is investing in entrepreneurship and sustainability programs like artisanal fishing and small-scale honey-making ventures that are meant to encourage the autonomy of Indigenous communities.

For years before Mr. Bolsonaro became president, FUNAI had already been contending with personnel shortages and lean budgets, which forced the agency to abandon several outposts in remote areas and cut the frequency of visits to villages.

While the agency’s authorized budget had remained relatively steady in recent years, the Bolsonaro administration made a sharp cut to programmatic spending for 2020, earmarking $9 million for programs to uphold Indigenous rights, about 40 percent less than the year before.

The association that represents career employees at the agency said in a statement the reduction means FUNAI has an increasingly thin presence on the ground, leaving those communities besieged by land grabbers at greater risk.

“This is the first time in which government planning,” the employee association said, “does not contemplate the Indigenous rights guaranteed by the Constitution.”

What We Found

Whenever the Uru Eu Wau Wau learn of new incursions into their territory, they set out on foot to survey the damage and burn settler encampments. As a group prepared at dawn for one recent expedition, warriors in the tribe slathered poison on the tips of their arrows.

Ivaneide Bandeira Cardozo, an activist who often accompanies the Uru Eu Wau Wau, looked ashen, fearing what a confrontation with loggers could lead to.

“You need to promise me that if you run into them you won’t kill,” she pleaded.

“If we don’t kill, it will get worse day by day,” one of the men responded.

During an arduous six-hour hike through dense forest, the Uru Eu Wau Wau waded through water and clouds of buzzing insects to reach a large stretch of land that had recently been reduced to ashes.

The Uru Eu Wau Wau could do little more than take photos of the damage and then set fire to the small encampment.

When asked about what the Bolsonaro administration’s policies may do to communities like these, Ms. Cardozo, who has supported the tribe for decades, looked dejected.

“Their objective is to force them from their lands and turn them into ordinary citizens in the periphery of cities, into beggars,” she said. “To me that amounts to a policy of genocide and ethnocide.”

One of the oldest members of the tribe, Borea Uru Eu Wau Wau, has scars on her back from bullet wounds she suffered during an ambush by rubber trappers in the 1980s. A sister, aunt and grandmother were killed then, she recalled.

Since the new wave of incursions began, Borea has experienced flashbacks, which have left her with a fatalistic view about the future.

“It takes too long to wait for justice, for which we’ve waited and waited,” she said, speaking barely above a whisper. “It’s easier to kill.”

The Takeaway: Mr. Bolsonaro is determined to expand the economic exploitation of the Amazon, whatever the costs.

Ernesto Londoño reported from Uru Eu Wau Wau territory, and Letícia Casado from Brasília.