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Critics Say Brazil's President Isn't Protecting The Rainforest Or Its People


It's been almost seven months since Jair Bolsonaro was sworn in as president of Brazil. He's a retired Army captain from the far right who has promised to scale down environmental laws, making it easier for loggers, ranchers and miners to exploit the riches of the Amazon.

Environmentalists see him as a threat to the forest and to the indigenous people who live there. Their worries are now growing after a deadly incident in which illegal miners known as wildcats invaded a village in an indigenous reserve in the Amazon. NPR's Philip Reeves is in Rio de Janeiro covering this story and joins us now. Hi, Phil.


MARTIN: What happened?

REEVES: Well, this happened in a very remote area in the Brazilian state of Amapa. If you look on a map, it's in the top right-hand corner of the country. It's almost all rainforest. And a group of wildcat miners took over a village and drove out the indigenous people who live there. It's taken a while for the news to come out because the area is very remote, but one village official eventually raised the alarm with this message to his local senator.


UNIDENTIFIED VILLAGE LEADER: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: He's saying they've got a big problem with these illegal miners who've invaded, that they're armed. And he says - it goes on to say they've already killed a village leader. And he appeals urgently for help, saying there's a risk of more bloodshed. The authorities have now confirmed the body of the village leader was later found in a river, reportedly with stab wounds. And the federal police have launched a criminal investigation.

MARTIN: Wow. So there are people in Brazil who are blaming Bolsonaro for nurturing the conditions that would lead to this kind of attack. What's behind that?

REEVES: Yeah, this happened on ancestral lands that belong to the country's indigenous people. And, you know, they're supposed to be protected by the Constitution. About 13% of Brazil comprises these protected, indigenous areas. And Bolsonaro believes and has very openly argued for a long time that demarcating land in this way is an obstacle to growth, and he wants to open up some of these areas.

Many indigenous people still live in the traditional way in the forest, and Bolsonaro wants to integrate them into the mainstream of Brazilian society. And there's a lot of concern that by taking this stance, Bolsonaro's emboldening illegal loggers and goldminers and ranchers and so on who are eager to get their hands on the riches within the Amazon. And, you know, this is setting a lot of alarm bells ringing, not only among indigenous organizations and those who support them, but also within the much larger community in Brazil and internationally who are fighting to protect the rainforest itself.

MARTIN: What does he want to do with those lands? If he wants the indigenous people to be assimilated into the mainstream culture and he wants to open up the lands, what does he want to with them?

REEVES: Well. He's recently been talking about setting up partnerships with international commercial operators, especially in the U.S., to explore these places for minerals. He says that's one reason why he's developing closer relations with the U.S. and why he wants to send one of his sons to be ambassador in Washington.

He's also been talking about legalizing wildcat mining, the importance of showing respect to these illicit miners. And that's the kind of talk that Bolsonaro's critics say that they feel legitimizes land invasions like the one we just seen and leads to bloodshed.

MARTIN: And as you mentioned, this is animating larger conversations about the future of the Amazon in general.

REEVES: Oh, yeah. I mean, concern about this issue really is growing rapidly within Brazil and also internationally, especially in Europe. Bolsonaro arrived in office in January promising to roll back environmental regulations, and he is doing that. People who work for enforcement agencies say he's weakening them and undermining them and sidelining them.

MARTIN: NPR's Philip Reeves for us in Rio de Janeiro. Thanks, Phil.

REEVES: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "ONTARIO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.