“If something happens to our people, we blame the Brazilian state,” wrote a group of indigenous leaders to Brazil’s federal government two weeks ago. They were writing from the vast green state of Para, where they said armed groups of miners were invading protected Amazonian indigenous lands with heavy machinery.
“Our children increasingly lose the possibility of living in the future, as everything is being polluted and deforested. This is their tactic, they want to kill us to end our territory,” the letter continued, demanding police action. “We will not accept this. We will fight until the end.”
Four days later, the headquarters building shared by some of those groups was invaded by illegal miners, according to the Federal Public Prosecutor’s office in Para state – this time not in search of precious metals, but what some victims believe was a mission of intimidation.
The office in the town of Jacareacanga, used to organize, sell handicrafts, and deal with bureaucratic matters on behalf of their peoples, was trashed and fires set to documents and furniture, the Association of Indigenous Women Munduruku Wakomborum said in a press release.
Neither Brazil’s Federal Police nor its office in Para State responded to requests for comment from CNN.
‘They sent me messages on WhatsApp threatening me’
On March 25, the day of the attack, members of the association were back in their villages, they said. No one was there to stop the attack.
“They sent me messages on WhatsApp threatening me. There was no time to get down from the village to the city (to try to prevent the raid),” said one leader of the Munduruku women’s group to CNN. She has asked to remain anonymous out of fear for her safety.
The Munduruku have long alerted authorities to illegal gold miners, loggers, and land grabbers accused of trespassing on their land, but have recently stepped up efforts in response to what they describe as more frequent and invasive illegal operations. Now, they say, the miners are retaliating.
“They sent me audio after the raid at the association saying that they are going to my house to kill me, get my family,” said the Munduruku women’s group leader.
“It is not the first time. This has been happening for three years. Six months ago they threatened me again. The Federal Public Prosecutor’s office is aware of this, we made all the complaints,” she added.
Tensions in the region have been rising since March 14, according to the Federal Public Prosecutor’s office in Para, which has opened an investigation into the Jacareacanga attack. That’s when some Munduruku people saw a fleet of heavy machines in one of the most important rivers of their land, with a helicopter overhead. An armed group forbade them from approaching the area, according to indigenous witnesses cited by the Federal Public Prosecutor’s office.
The Public Prosecutor’s statement added that it had repeatedly alerted federal authorities to increased gold-mining in the area, and since 2017 had been requesting the courts to compel federal forces to step in and “prevent a violent attack by illegal miners on indigenous people.”
A March 2021 study by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) shows that the Munduruku indigenous land has faced some of the greatest pressure from illegal mining in the Brazilian Amazon. Altogether, the study shows that illegal mining operations extend across at least 20 square kilometers on Munduruku land in Para state.
The federal government under President Jair Bolsonaro has generally taken a supportive view of extractive industries like mining and logging in the protected Amazon forest.
In May 2020, Ricardo Salles, Brazil’s environmental minister, suggested the government should take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to “change all the rules” and “simplify norms” around environmental regulations.
At local levels, illegal miners have also found political support. Giovani Kabá, President of Jacareacanga’s City Council, released a statement hours after the raid calling for the passage of a federal law that would legalize gold mining on indigenous land, among other activities such as oil and gas extraction, and hydroelectric dams.
Kabá did not address the raid on the indigenous groups’ headquarters directly. However, his statement urged police to “avoid” activity in the area, citing the risk of spreading Covid-19.
“The ideal would be that the state security forces avoid new operations against gold miners, as these contribute to the displacement of people,” he wrote. Kaba did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
In a group letter submitted to the Federal Public Prosecutor’s office in Para after the attack, the indigenous associations once housed in the vandalized office said they felt they had no recourse anymore.
“We are screaming every day, asking the police to act on this group of criminals who want to devastate our territory and who threaten our own lives and integrity,” they wrote.
“We feel very insecure in Jacareacanga. We don’t have where to run to. The illegal gold miners are supported by the FUNAI (the national agency charged with indigenous affairs), local police, and councilors,” the Munduruku women’s group leader told CNN. FUNAI and Para State Federal Police did not respond to requests for comment.
In a chillingly personal echo of the indigenous groups’ earlier plea for help, she added: “If anything happens to me, the State is to blame.”