November 7, 2019

Amazon under Fire: A letter of protest by Brazilian scientists published by the New York Review of Books

As Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro stood before the United Nations in September of 2019 downplaying media reports of increasing forest fires under his administration and denouncing world-renowned indigenous leaders such as Raoni Mektuktire and Sonia Guajajara, who he claimed were being manipulated by foreign interests, the Brazilian Amazon continued to burn. Enormous fires have broken out in different parts of it as deforestation has reached levels not seen for over a decade, with an area of forest the size of Hong Kong cut down in the month of August alone. 

During the first dry season after Bolsonaro's inauguration, forest fires in the Amazon were up 80% over the previous year. Photo: Dado Galdieri / Wall Street Journal (2019)

Since taking office in January of 2019, President Bolsonaro has used his powers to undermine the cultural, territorial, and human rights of indigenous peoples that are guaranteed in the Brazilian Constitution. His public statements have contributed to a climate of lawlessness and impunity, and to a tacit understanding that legislation protecting indigenous territories and other areas will not be enforced. Over the past year, indigenous lands in Brazil have seen a surge in invasion by illegal loggers, gold miners, and land speculators, and there has been an alarming increase in aggression against indigenous peoples. In early September, 2019, Maxciel Pereira dos Santos, a contractor for FUNAI, Brazil’s federal Indian agency, who had over a decade of experience protecting isolated indigenous peoples of the Javari Valley, was murdered execution-style on a busy street in the town of Tabatinga. A little over a week later, men associated with illegal loggers and hunters staged an armed attack on a FUNAI guard post in the region. 

Photo: Agencia Jovem de Notícias (2018)

Scientists such as ourselves have documented how the traditional knowledge and management strategies of Amazonian indigenous peoples have contributed to safeguarding global biodiversity and climate stability. To an outsider, these territories may seem “uninhabited” or “unused,” but in fact the vast expanses of intact forests that constitute indigenous lands are essential to their sustenance. Indigenous peoples occupy and use their land in ways that take advantage of hundreds of species of plants and animals while preserving the place of other organisms in the ecosystem; in many cases, landscapes have been enriched with useful plants and groves of fruit and nut trees such as the Brazil nut and the açai palm. Villages and communities are surrounded by gardens that produce staple foods, old gardens in various stages of regeneration, and rivers, forests, and mountains, all of which provide a rich and dispersed base of resources—such as fish, game, fruits, garden lands, and the raw materials for adornments, canoes, houses, and so on—that have sustained indigenous peoples’ way of life for centuries or millenia, dating back to pre-colonial times when indigenous populations were much larger. These lands may also constitute sacred spaces, places of mythical origin, or sites of ancestral history.

Since 1988, the Brazilian Constitution has recognized the central importance of indigenous lands for these peoples’ continuing existence and has guaranteed a legal process for demarcating them for indigenous peoples to inhabit and use. Once they are demarcated and signed into law, indigenous lands become inalienable assets of the Brazilian state.  

A recent unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brazil overturned the administration’s attempt to remove the legal responsibility for indigenous land demarcation from FUNAI and give to the Agriculture Ministry, which is controlled by the ranching lobby. Despite this victory, the ongoing and wide-ranging initiatives to weaken environmental, indigenous, and scientific institutions remain deeply troubling. Moreover, expressions of hatred and aggression, widely disseminated in the media, have further encouraged illegal invasions as well as violent actions against indigenous peoples in different parts of our country, including the Wajãpi of Amapá state, the Awá-Guajá of Maranhão, the Kayapó, Munduruku and Apyterewa-Parakanã of Pará, the Karipuna and Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau of Rondônia, and the Yanomami of Roraima and Amazonas states. The current administration’s ongoing actions of dismantling and defunding FUNAI, Brazil’s federal indigenous protection agency, only increase the risk of further violence to these people.

Illegal gold miners have expanded their activities with impunity in indigenous territories such as the Kayapo Indigenous Lands in southern Pará state. See more reporting by Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker. Photo: G.H. Shepard Jr. (2019).

Ranching and mining lobbies have spread a false dichotomy between indigenous peoples’ rights and economic growth. There are currently large areas of abandoned farm- and pastureland that could be put to productive use without having to cut down a single acre of indigenous lands. Furthermore, the destruction of forest cover to serve the agricultural industry is short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating, since well-established scientific evidence points to the necessity of the Amazon rainforest in creating an “aerial river” that delivers rainfall to the rich agricultural lands of southern Brazil. Scientists fear that deforestation in the Amazon could soon upset rain patterns throughout Brazil and further destabilize the global climate. 

Bolsonaro insists that development in the Amazon is a question of Brazilian sovereignty, and that foreign interests should not intervene. Yet Brazilian indigenous representatives and environmentalists are calling for nothing more nor less than the enforcement of existing laws and the protection of indigenous rights as enshrined in the Constitution and in multiple international agreements to which Brazil is a signatory. International treaties and economic accords should include provisions to guarantee these constitutional, human, cultural and territorial rights of indigenous peoples.

Kayapó warriors rehearse battle maneuvers in a war dance to protest the administration's hostile policies. Photo: G.H. Shepard Jr. (2019). See additional reporting by Andres Schipani and photos by Dado Galdieri in The Financial Times.

The struggle for land remains a perennial source of political mobilization for indigenous peoples, as backlogs of land demarcation claims remain unresolved, and many other issues related to their rights remain unfulfilled. Anthropologists, cultural heritage professionals, and other researchers have been crucial allies of indigenous peoples in these struggles. Moreover, indigenous leaders and intellectuals today increasingly speak in their own names, defend their own interests, elect their own political leaders, and have an ever-greater role in protecting their cultural and territorial heritage. While there are a plurality of indigenous voices in contemporary Brazil, including a small number who favor the opening up of indigenous lands to mining and other outside interests, to date all of the historically recognized, broadly representative indigenous organizations who have expressed their views on the current administration have condemned its assaults on indigenous territories and rights. 

As scientists working in Brazilian research institutions and universities, we are deeply concerned about these grave threats to indigenous peoples’ territory, heritage, and well-being, which are inextricably connected to the well-being of Amazonia, global biodiversity, and climate stability.

This letter, signed by 65 Brazilian scientists in protest of president Jair Bolsonaro's attacks on indigenous peoples, was first published by the editors of the New York Review of Books on November 7, 2019. 


Adriana Queiroz Testa, anthropologist 
Alexandre Clistenes, biologist
Aline da Cruz, linguist 
Ana Rosa Guimarães Bastos Proença, tourism researcher
Ana Vilacy Galúcio, linguist
Bruna Franchetto, linguist
Caio Ferrari de Castro Melo, lawyer
Camila Loureiro Dias, historian
Carmen Lúcia Reis Rodrigues, linguist
Carlos Fausto, anthropologist
Carlos Zimpel, archeologist
Claide de Paulo Moraes, archeologist
Claudia Lopez, anthropologist
Cristiane Barreto, archeologist
Cristina Adams, human ecologist
Décio Guzmán, historian
Denny Moore, linguist
Edithe Pereira, archeoloigst
Eduardo S. Brondizio, anthropologist
Eduardo Góes Neves, archeologist
Eduardo Nunes, anthropologist
Eduardo Ribeiro, linguist
Fabíola Andréa Silva, archeologist
Felipe Milanez, political ecologist 
Gabriel Soares, anthropologist
Gabriela Prestes Carneiro, archeologist
Geraldo Andrello, anthropologist
Gessiane Picanço, linguist
Glenn H. Shepard Jr., anthropologist
Hein van der Voort, linguist
Helena Pinto Lima, archeologist
Ian Packer, anthropologist
Ima Guimarães Vieira, botanist
Isabela Galarda Varassin, botanist
Julia Otero, anthropologist
Juliano Franco Moraes, ecologist
Kristine Stenzel, linguist
Lucila de Jesus Mello Gonçalves, psychologist
Lucia Hussak van Velthem, anthropologist
Lúcia Sá, Professor of Brazilian Studies
Márcio Meira, anthropologist and former FUNAI president
Marcos Magalhães, archeologist
Marcos Vital, biologist
Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, anthropologist
Maria Candida Barros, linguist
Maria Carolina Loureiro Fernandes, social scientist
Marília Fernanda Pereira de Freitas, linguist
Marinus Hoogmoed, zoologist
Mark Harris, anthropologist
Marta Amoroso, anthropologist
Myrtle Shock, archeologist
Nelson Sanjad, historian
Orlando Calheiros, anthropologist and photographer
Nicole Soares-Pinto, social scientist
Regina Oliveira, biologist
Renato Sztutman, anthropologist
Ricardo Ventura Santos, anthropologist
Rita Natalio, artist, anthropologist and member of the Indigenous Forum of Lisbon 
Roberto Araujo, anthropologist
Roberto Ventura Santos, geologist
Ruth Monserrat, linguist
Sidney da Silva Facundes, linguist
Sylvia Caiuby Novaes, anthropologist
Teresa Avila Pires, zoologist  
Tiago Gomes dos Santos, zoologist