Are Bolsonaro’s Attacks on the Amazon and Indigenous Tribes International Crimes? A Third Court Plea Says They Are

Native groups have accused Brazil’s president of weaponizing the environment to carry out genocide and crimes against humanity.

Arara indigenous children walk at the Arado tribal camp, in Arara indigenous land in Para state, Brazil on March 13, 2019. Credit: Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images

Arara indigenous children walk at the Arado tribal camp, in Arara indigenous land in Para state, Brazil on March 13, 2019. Credit: Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images

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For the third time in two years, Indigenous groups in Brazil are accusing President Jair Bolsonaro of committing international crimes, for his actions against Native peoples and his environmental policies.

On Monday, an Indigenous organization filed what’s known as an Article 15 Communication with the International Criminal Court, asking the court’s prosecutor, Karim Khan, to investigate whether the far-right leader’s actions constitute genocide and crimes against humanity. 

The Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, known as APIB, alleges that Bolsonaro’s policies and public statements have caused the killings of Indigenous leaders, violent conflicts between Indigenous peoples and wildcat miners, the intentional spread of Covid-19 among Indigenous populations and the ruination of Indigenous occupied land. 

“The anti-Indigenous policy currently underway in Brazil is deliberately malicious,” the Indigenous rights group said in its 151-page communication. “These are carefully planned acts that have been perpetrated consistently over the past two years, steered by the clear intention of producing a Brazilian nation with no Indigenous peoples.”

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Bolsonaro’s goal, according to the communication, is to remove or assimilate Indigenous peoples so that their lands can be used for agriculture, mining and other development activities. But tribes have mobilized to resist infringement of their rights and are now calling on the international community for help. 

“We have been fighting every day for hundreds of years to ensure our existence and today our fight for rights is global,” Sonia Guajajara, APIB’s executive coordinator, said in a statement. 

Brazil’s Embassy in Washington and its Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment. But in response to an earlier story by Inside Climate News, it stated that Bolsonaro had “consistently championed” Indigenous people’s well-being and the preservation of the Amazon. 

The policies in question include rolling back environmental and Indigenous protection laws; slashing the budgets of key agencies; encouraging development on protected territories; refusing to enforce laws protecting Indigenous peoples; and casting Indigenous peoples as impediments to Brazilian economic development, according to the Article 15 Communication. 

For instance, Brazil’s 1988 constitution includes a mandate for the government to demarcate—or identify and set aside—all Indigenous territories. Bolsonaro is the first president since 1988 to stop the demarcation process, and he has not protected any additional Indigenous territories since taking office in January 2019. He’s also backed legislation that would open up tribal lands to industrial development. 

The communication also alleges that Bolsonaro has used the Covid-19 pandemic to further his goal of “destroying” Brazil’s Indigenous peoples and their way of life. 

“The President actually encouraged the infection of Indigenous persons by Covid-19, particularly for isolated peoples, by forcing contact on them,” APIB said in the communication, adding that Bolsonaro’s administration has failed to remove trespassers on Indigenous land, leading to increased Covid-19 infections in tribal populations. 

Those trespasses are largely perpetrated by wildcat miners, whose activities have been tied to mercury poisoning and increased malaria infections in Indigenous communities. To begin operations, miners cut down trees and excavate large swaths of land. For gold extraction, they blast mercury into sediment, a process that contaminates water sources and decimates surrounding ecosystems. The process leaves behind open pits, where water collects and mosquitoes proliferate. 

The illegal intrusions have also led to violent conflicts, which APIB says Bolsonaro’s government has failed to prevent or address, creating a culture of impunity. The multi-pronged attacks on tribes and upon the environment they rely upon for sustenance, culture and spirituality threatens their continued existence as a distinct group, the communication says. 

“Bringing disease, death and violence in its wake, wildcat mining is destroying the feasibility of Indigenous ways of life. Environmental destruction means that water can no longer be drunk from the inlets, fish cannot be, and the rivers are no longer an option for building,” the communication says. 

The group’s communication “supplements the facts’ of a prior Article 15 Communication, filed in November 2019 by Brazil’s Human Rights Advocacy Collective and the Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns Commission for Human Rights. That communication also accused Bolsonaro of crimes against humanity and genocide for the destruction of the Amazon and harm to Indigenous peoples. Another communication was filed in January by Almir Narayamoga Suruí and Raoni Metuktire, two Brazilian Indigenous leaders, accusing Bolsonaro of crimes against humanity for similar acts. 

All three communications allege that acts of environmental destruction, like deforestation and the widespread use of pesticides, have been weaponized to perpetrate crimes against humanity. Under Bolsonaro, Brazil has lost over 7,700 square miles of Amazon Rainforest, an area nearly as large as New Jersey. Scientists warn that the forest loss is approaching an irreversible tipping point where it will not be able to regenerate itself, posing an existential threat to its Indigenous residents. 

“For Native Brazilians, the land is a place of symbolic exchanges that uphold Indigenous collective life. Without it, the collective lives of the Indigenous peoples collapse,” APIB said in the new communication. 

The International Criminal Court’s Office of the Prosecutor, which is reviewing all three Article 15 Communications, did not respond to a request for comment. If Khan decides to open a preliminary investigation into Bolsonaro, it would be the first time the court investigates a Brazilian, and the first time the court scrutinizes actions so closely linked to environmental destruction. 

In 2016, under Khan’s predecessor, Fatou Bensouda, the prosecutor’s office issued a policy statement saying the office would prioritize crimes related to environmental destruction, illegal exploitation of natural resources or the illegal dispossession of land. 

In recent years, the confluence of environmental destruction and human rights violations has come sharply into focus as ecological crises like climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution intensify, primarily affecting people who are least able to adapt to the changes and least responsible for them.

Those crises have catalyzed a global movement to create a new international crime of ecocide, which generally would outlaw acts that cause severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment. For now, the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction is limited to genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and aggression. 

In its communication to the International Criminal Court, APIB said that the alleged crimes against humanity were “perpetrated through massive destruction of the environment” and implied that Bolsonaro’s actions would constitute ecocide if it were an international crime. Suruí and Metuktire’s communication also accused Bolsonaro of committing ecocide. For now, the ecocide accusations are symbolic, but according to legal experts, they illustrate the need for a new international crime to address current realities, namely, the ability of individuals to commit mass acts of environmental destruction that have consequences for humanity at large.   

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On the same day APIB filed its communication, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a 3,000-page report making clear that climate change is human-caused and will worsen in the years to come. The report, issued by over 200 scientists, said the warming planet has already caused extreme weather events like heat waves, flooding and drought around the world. 

Another peer reviewed study, published July 29 in the journal Nature Communications, estimated that climate change could cause 83 million deaths by the end of the century if current rates of warming continued. Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest has contributed to the warming, with the forest now releasing more carbon dioxide than it accumulates or stores.

The sobering scenarios laid out in these reports have given new urgency to calls to make ecocide a crime to address the underlying causes of global environmental crises. 

On the day the IPCC report was released, British lawyer Phillipe Sands, who is involved with the Stop Ecocide campaign, tweeted: “​​Beyond a wake up call on global warming- world needs a range of tools to prevent these horrors, including ecocide and crimes against humanity.” 

To give the International Criminal Court authority to prosecute ecocide, at least two-thirds of the court’s member countries, about 82, would have to agree to do so. The United States is not a member of the court and disputes whether the prosecutor can exercise jurisdiction over American nationals who are alleged to have committed crimes on the territories of member states. 

For now, Brazil’s Indigenous peoples are hoping that Khan decides to make good on his office’s 2016 promise to prioritize crimes with an environmental nexus. 

“We believe there are acts in progress in Brazil that constitute crimes against humanity, genocide and ecocide,” Luiz Eloy Terena, APIB’s legal coordinator, said in a statement. “Given the inability of the current justice system in Brazil to investigate, prosecute and judge these conducts, we have denounced these acts to the international community.”

He added, “APIB will continue to fight for the right of Indigenous peoples to exist in their diversity. We are Brazil’s first nations and we will not surrender to extermination.”