Making a killing

As indigenous climate protectors die, businesses profit.

Welcome to HEATED, a newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis.

My parents were in town yesterday and I don’t see them very often, so today’s issue is relatively brief. But don’t worry—I made sure it’s still SUPER depressing.

You’re welcome.

They guard the climate. Then they die.

Indigenous peoples only make up about half a percent of Brazil’s population. But they are massively, disproportionately important to the fight against global climate crisis—because they help protect the Amazon rainforest.

Ninety-eight percent of Brazil’s legally protected indigenous lands lie within the Amazon, according to PBS News. So when farmers, loggers and miners have come knocking, attempting to pillage the land for profit, they’ve often been thwarted by government-backed indigenous resistance.

But Brazil’s new far-right president Jair Bolsonaro no longer wants to honor the country’s agreements with its native peoples. Instead, Bolsonaro wants to open up protected indigenous land for development.

And now, native people who defend the Amazon from development are turning up dead.

Illegal logging on Pirititi indigenous Amazon lands with a repository of round logs on May 8, 2018. (Felipe Werneck/Ibama via flickr via AP).

A “disturbing symptom” of far-right leadership

One of those people was Emyra Wajãpi.

In July, the 68-year-old chief of the Wajãpi people was found lifeless in a river in the remote Amapa region, which is almost entirely covered by the rainforest and officially protected for the tribe. The Wajãpi consider themselves protectors of the Amazon.

A witness told CNN that “a group of heavily armed wildcat [gold] miners and non-indigenous people” had infiltrated the region, and “violently stabbed Emyra all over his body, including his genitals.” The account was confirmed by multiple news outlets, including the New York Times.

Bolsonaro, however, has publicly denied that the incident was a murder, and renewed his call for increased mining in indigenous regions.

Still, the United Nations high commissioner for Human Rights called the murder “a disturbing symptom of the growing problem of encroachment on indigenous land—especially forests—by miners, loggers and farmers in Brazil.” She added that Bolsonaro’s plan to open the Amazon up to more development could lead to “incidents of violence, intimidation and killings.”

And indeed, the Brazilian advocacy group Indigenous Missionary Council estimates invasions of Indigenous lands by outsiders have increased 150 percent since Bolsonaro's election last year.

In addition, data released last week by Greenpeace’s investigative outlet Unearthed show that wildfires have doubled in indigenous areas of the Amazon this year. The data “strengthens fears that criminals, emboldened by the election of President Jair Bolsonaro, are deliberately targeting Indigenous and conservation zones as the agencies charged with protecting them are weakened and defunded,” the outlet reported.


Which companies are benefitting?

It’s possible, and perhaps even probable, that only rogue criminal groups are directly responsible for murdering Brazil’s indigenous peoples and decimating their land.

But these criminal groups have created the business environment that Bolsonaro always desired: A smaller, more frightened native population that is increasingly reluctant to fight back against development in the Amazon.

For Bolsonaro, indigenous bloodshed is an economic boon, and corporations from all over the world are taking advantage. Here are just a few of the companies doing business with a leader widely accused of enabling indigenous population—and thus climate—decimation:

  • Cargill. One of the top exporters of Brazilian soy and the largest private company in the U.S, Cargill has said it plans to invest at least $121 million in the country through the year, and said it will not meet its goals to reduce deforestation in the Amazon.

  • Capital Group, BlackRock, and Vanguard. The investment companies “collectively hold hundreds of millions of dollars in investments in Brazil’s major meatpackers,” the Washington Post reported in August. “Foreign investors have enormous influence over what happens in the Brazilian Amazon,” according to the report. “Big banks and large investment companies play a critical role, providing billions of dollars in lending, underwriting and equity investment to soy and cattle companies. This capital and financial security enables agribusiness to maintain and expand operations, causing further devastation to the Amazon.”

  • Shell. The oil company “is the largest foreign producer in Brazil, which has become a heartland for us," an executive recently said. The company’s CEO also said yesterday that it has “no choice” but to keep making long-term investments in oil and gas, despite the ongoing climate crisis. Shell plans to invest $12 billion in Brazil over the next six years.

It is precisely the point of Bolsonaro’s anti-indigenous platform to attract businesses to the country. Some businesses, however, aren’t taking the bait. As The New Republic reported last month:

Despite Bolsonaro’s pro-business platform, international outrage over the rainforest fires have left Brazilian agribusinesses in a tough spot. U.S.-based VF Corporation, which owns brands like Vans and Timberland, and Sweden’s H&M Group have said they will no longer buy Brazilian leather, after cattle ranchers were accused of contributing to the deforestation. 

The piece recommends taking consumer-based actions against companies that work with Bolsonaro. “Corporations in particular can transcend national boundaries, and are at least somewhat responsive to consumer pressure,” it reads. “They could yet provide a way around intransigent governments—an interesting turn of events for groups more accustomed to being environmental villains than champions.”

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