"We are in great danger": In Amazon, indigenous Waiapi chief is killed by illegal miners

“They’re paying with their lives,” a human rights activist says about indigenous groups trying to protect the rainforest from mining and agribusiness.
Waiapi people in Manila village in the Waiapi indigenous land in Amapa state, Brazil, in March 2019.
Waiapi people in Manila village in the Waiapi indigenous land in Amapa state, Brazil, in March 2019.Apu Gomes

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By Teresa Tomassoni

Illegal gold miners armed with automatic weapons and shotguns, invaded the remote indigenous community of the Waiapi and murdered one of its chiefs in Brazil’s northern Amazon last week, according to several of the group’s leaders and indigenous rights activists.

The body of chief Emyra Waiapi, 68, was discovered last Monday with several stab wounds, including to his genitals, one of the group’s leaders, Viseni Waiapi, said in an audio message sent to NBC reporters Saturday in Portuguese.

“We are in great danger,” Viseni said. The invaders assaulted women and children and were accompanied by a pit bull as they roamed around several Waiapi villages day and night last week, using special night vision goggles to navigate the area in the dark, he said.

This attack on Waiapi land is one of the latest in a slew of ongoing, and increasingly frequent, invasions and assaults on indigenous territories throughout Brazil by illegal miners, ranchers and loggers.

Currently, there at least 10,000 miners illegally occupying and exploiting Brazil’s indigenous Yanomami land in northern Brazil. These sorts of invasions have increased by 150 percent since Brazil’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, took power earlier this year, according to a report published in April by Amazon Watch, an indigenous rights and rainforest conservation advocacy group.

“Bolsonaro represents the biggest attack on the Amazon in the last 30 years,” Amazon Watch Program Director Christian Poirier said.

On Monday, Bolsonaro said he was not convinced that Emyra was murdered. “There is no strong indication that this Indian was killed there,” Bolsonaro told reporters outside the presidential palace in Brasilia, adding that he intends to disprove the claims surrounding the killing.

Since Bolsonaro's election last October, Bolsonaro has repeatedly vowed to allow commercial mining and farming on indigenous lands, which are officially reserved for indigenous people’s exclusive use under Brazil’s Constitution since 1988. One of the areas he wants to open is the National Reserve of Copper and Associates (Renca), which overlaps with Waiapi land.

Just this past Saturday, as the Waiapi awaited backup from federal police to defend themselves against the miners who were invading their lands, Bolsonaro reiterated his intention to pursue commercial ventures in indigenous lands while speaking at a graduation ceremony for new armed forces paratroopers. He said he intended to partner with the “first world” to pursue such commercial projects and that his recent decision to nominate his son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, as Brazil’s ambassador to the United States, is a strategic move to ensure this happens.

Many indigenous groups, advocates and environmentalists say Bolsonaro’s invested interest in promoting international mining and agribusiness projects in the Amazon is fueling the surge in attacks against indigenous groups, along with his long history of racist rhetoric toward indigenous people.

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Bolsonaro has said that indigenous peoples do not have a culture and has compared them to zoo animals. He has also said they should be assimilated into the public or integrated into the army. Years ago, he suggested that Brazil should have killed off its indigenous peoples, saying “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.”

"This government is massacring our rights"

Fiona Watson, advocacy and research director at Survival International, said this sort of “hate speech” has sent a message to invaders that they have a “green light” to stake claim on indigenous territories with a sense of impunity. “Lots of the invaders feel emboldened now.”

These invaders are committing illegal activities and should be arrested, prosecuted and fined, she said, suggesting there be paid federal employees stationed on indigenous lands to help monitor and protect vulnerable groups like the Waiapi. The community remained completely isolated until the 1970s when it was nearly annihilated by a measles outbreak spread by illegal miners who got access through a new road.

Today, there are around 1500 Waiapi living in small thatched roof villages carved out of dense rainforest in Brazil’s northern state of Amapá near French Guiana. The community attributes its resilience to having well demarcated lands, which were officially recognized by the Brazilian government in 1996, and maintaining its traditional ways of living and protecting the rainforest.

Over the years, community members have vigilantly monitored their lands in order to ward off illegal gold prospectors and loggers. In March, the Waiapi told reporters for NBC News who were visiting their land that invasions had become an increasing concern since Bolsonaro became president.

“This government is massacring our rights and our indigenous peoples,” Viseni said from his village in the Amazon, wearing a traditional headdress of toucan feathers. “They are already starting, killing the indigenous peoples."

Watson said the current situation in Brazil’s Amazon region has become a “war zone” in which indigenous peoples are on the front lines protecting the world’s largest rainforest, which produces 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen. “They’re paying with their lives.”

After Emyra’s body was discovered last Monday, community members alerted other Waiapi villages by radio, according to a statement about the attack provided by a council of Waiapi leaders called Apina. By the end of the week, the miners invaded another nearby village, entering residents’ homes and threatening them, forcing them to flee. That night, the Waiapi reported the attack to FUNAI, the Brazilian government’s primary agency tasked with protecting indigenous peoples, and requested the presence of federal police to help them in defending their territory.

In another urgent request for help, one of the Waiapi leaders who also serves as a political councilman, Jawaruwa Waiapi, sent a voice message to Brazil’s Amapá state senator, Randolfe Rodrigues: “A Waiapi community is at risk of death or conflict,” he said. “The Waiapi will act if no help comes from the army or federal police.”

While waiting two days for the police to arrive, the Waiapi sent a group of their own warriors to guard the villages being invaded and gunshots were heard along the only road that leads into Waiapi territory. By the time police arrived on Sunday, the invaders had fled into the jungle.

The police left that same night after meeting with members of the Waiapi community, according to a second statement released Monday by Apina. Before leaving, they told the Waiapi they would use satellite imagery to look for signs of illegal gold mining in the area, but this did not alleviate the community’s concerns for their safety.

According to the most recent Apina statement, many families are afraid to hunt or work in their fields for fear of running into more armed invaders. Some have moved villages to join other families for more security.

Indigenous rights advocates say international pressure on Brazil’s government to protect its indigenous peoples and the Amazon is vital. Poirier said the U.S. State Department should pressure Bolsonaro’s administration into upholding Brazil’s constitutional rights that protect indigenous peoples and their lands.

Other indigenous groups are calling for a boycott of beef and soy products produced in Brazil as another means of pressuring the government to take action against illegal land invaders, Watson said.

“If they think they are going to suffer economically, they may be more willing to try and sort this out and do something,” she said.

In the meantime, Watson said indigenous groups need GPS equipment, bulletproof vests and radios for their own land defense efforts. “If we do want to save the Amazon rainforest for the benefit of humanity, we have to find better and more immediate ways of supporting the indigenous peoples.”

Apu Gomes contributed reporting for this story.