Violence in Brazil’s Amazon are also crimes against humanity, lawyers tell international court

Violence in Brazil’s Amazon are also crimes against humanity, lawyers tell international court

Three organizations, including Greenpeace Brazil, filed a case with the International Criminal Court (ICC) pressing for the investigation into a network of politicians, law enforcement and business executives they suspect are responsible for systematic attacks against land defenders.They documented over 400 murders, 500 attempted murders, 2,200 death threats, 2,000 assaults and 80 cases of torture that occurred between 2011 and 2022.Former Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro is one suspect in these crimes, yet the organizations say the attacks are part of a larger system operating in Brazil, and will likely continue even when he’s out of office.If the criminal court choses to go forward with this case, it will be the first time they investigate crimes against humanity committed in the context of environmental destruction. On the morning of May 24, 2017, police and military carried out an operation in the Santa Lúcia farm in Brazil’s northern Amazon state of Pará, killing 10 unarmed rural land users. Witnesses say the men and women were killed while trying to take shelter and hide in the rain. The police say they were following court orders to clear the area. Even though the Public Prosecutor’s Office initially charged 13 police officers for their alleged role in the massacre, the officers were only temporarily arrested and then released.

The criminal investigation lasted five years before it closed, but it never concluded who was the mastermind who ordered the killings.

This is but one example of the violent crimes that have occurred in the Brazilian Amazon over the years, listed in the online evidence platform created by Greenpeace Brasil, Climate Counsel, a legal advisory firm, and Observatório do Clima, a network of civil society organizations.

In November, the three presented this information to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, and co-filed a communication pressing the court to investigate an organized network of politicians, law enforcement and business executives, who they suspect have for years been systematically attacking Indigenous communities and rural workers in the Brazilian Amazon.

The Pataxó face both shrinking space for their subsistence livelihoods and an increase in conflicts as real estate and monoculture developments encroach on their territory. Image by André Mellagi via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
After over five years of research, the three organizations found that over the past 10 years, there have been over 12,000 land or water related conflicts in the Brazilian Amazon. These attacks have been part of an organizational policy to clear people from the forest, for the sake of extracting resources or expanding agriculture activities, they tell Mongabay.

These internal policies solidified over the years through the collusion of like-minded actors, motivated by their economic interests in developing the Brazilian Amazon, according to the communication the lawyers submitted to the ICC.

Agriculture exports account for nearly 30% of Brazil’s GDP, maintaining it as an important, and influential, industry for the country. The country is one of the largest beef exporters in the world and is the largest soybean producer, which is mostly used to feed its cattle. The vast beef sector has been responsible for about 80% of all deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

Most of the crimes listed on the platform – which include murder, persecution, and forced evictions – have gone uninvestigated and unpunished, as illegal logging, mining, cattle ranching and agriculture in the rainforest flourishes. After accumulating for so many years, these kinds of abuses may amount to crimes against humanity, say the three organizations in a press release.

“So, the politicians are taking care of passing laws. The law enforcement officers take care of basically attacking civilians in the Amazon… and public officials are co-opted to favor these corporate executives who bribed them, you know, and so on and so forth,” says Paulo Busse, lawyer for Greenpeace Brasil and Observatório do Clima, explaining the systemic operations of the network.

Cattle in a ranching area, next to a recently deforested and burnt area, in Candeias do Jamari, Rondônia state. Overflights organized by the Amazon in Flames Alliance — Amazon Watch, Greenpeace Brazil and the Brazilian Climate Observatory — between September 13th and 17th documented land use change and fire around the cities of Porto Velho, Rondônia, and Lábrea, Amazonas. Photo © Victor Moriyama / Amazônia em Chamas (Amazon in Flames Alliance)
Richard Rogers, founder of the nonprofit Hague-based legal group Climate Counsel who helped file the communication with the ICC, says this case is distinct from other cases the ICC has investigated, like war crimes or genocide based on particular events. Rather, they are providing evidence of abuse over several years in the Brazilian Amazon, which do amount to crimes against humanity, he says.

If the ICC decides to proceed with an investigation, it would be groundbreaking, added Rogers, as the court has not yet accepted any case of this kind; Crimes against humanity committed in the context of environmental destruction.

Many actors in Brazil’s agriculture sector have long denied this destruction in the Amazon rainforest. This includes the Brazilian growers’ association CNA, who told local media in September that only 30% of Brazil’s territory is used for agriculture, which is much less that other countries, and insists that the sector itself uses sustainable methods that are rarely acknowledged.

In the lap of the international criminal court
With the information and material submitted to the ICC, it’s now up to the international court to evaluate the information and decide whether or not to move forward with an official investigation into specific individuals who may be involved in crimes against humanity. This will decipher whether or not to hold a trial.

Mist rising from the Amazon rainforest at dawn. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.
“What we have done through this filing is to lay out the evidence, a sort of aerial view of the evidence, and construct the argument for [ICC prosecutors] about why this may amount to crimes against humanity,” says Richard Rogers.

The ICC currently has a total of 31 cases with investigations in 17 countries (none of these include Brazil). Twenty-one of these cases are classified as crimes against humanity and the judges have issued ten convictions and four acquittals.

Since Brazil’s last president Jair Bolsonaro held office in 2019, at least four other communications have been filed with the ICC, pressing the international court to investigate the outgoing president for crimes against humanity for the same reasons. None of these investigations have been opened by the ICC.

One of these communications was filed last year by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples from Brazil (APIB), an organization that represents nearly one million Indigenous people in the country, many of whom have been victims of Bolsonaro’s policies, they say.

Chantelle Teixeira, lawyer and legal advisor with the Missionary Indigenous Council in Brazil (CIMI), says the exploitation of the Amazon rainforest is systematic and has the authorization of the state itself. Teixeira is not part of this ICC communication.

“These aren’t occasional invasions,” she says, “but invasions that are also a model of development.”

Read more: Crime and no punishment: Impunity shrouds killings of Indigenous Amazonian defenders

A network of actors 
The group’s online platform displays all the evidence the three organizations submitted to ICC prosecutors, and is available to the public and policymakers who can also evaluate and use the information themselves.  » …
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