SÃO PAULO – On April 18, 2020, the lifeless body of Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, a 34-year-old indigenous teacher and guardian of the forest, was found near his motorcycle on a road in the city of Jaru, Rondônia State. The body was bruised and showed signs of beatings, according to his family.

Indigenous activist Txai Suruí mentioned the death of her longtime friend in her speech during the opening of COP26 in Glasgow.

According to Txai and other activists who knew Ari, he was killed due to his work as a protector of the forest. The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people’s territory has been suffering with a growing number of incursions over the past few years. An estimated 1,000 illegal loggers and miners are currently operating in its lands.

Without enough help from governmental agencies and the police, the community is forced to mobilize its own guards to prevent the invaders from reaching its villages. Ari’s family believes that he was killed by some of the loggers which are deforesting the territory.

His case is only one among several accusations of killings, attacks, threats, and invasions of indigenous lands listed in the 2020 edition of the Violence Against Indigenous Peoples in Brazil Report, annually published by the Bishops’ Council’s Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI).

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting decrease in social and economic activities for many in Brazil, violence against indigenous groups increased in the South American country last year. In comparison with 2019, the number of killings grew by 61 percent, to 182. The total number of attacks reached 304, including cases of sexual assault and willfully injury.

Many of such incidents are part of greater conflicts, frequently involving land disputes and the actions of economic groups interested in the exploitation of native territories.

According to CIMI’s report, in 2020 there were 96 conflicts over territory rights and 263 invasions of indigenous territory for illegal exploitation of natural resources or land grabbing. There are 832 indigenous territories whose ownership has not been transferred yet to the peoples who have historically lived there. That is one of the most important causes of conflict and violence, CIMI said.

The problem has been growing since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019. He not only pledged to not grant new lands for indigenous peoples, but also changed the policy for native populations in Brazil, reducing the assistance that the government must give to them.

On several occasions, he expressed his wish to alter the Brazilian legislation and allow the natural exploitation of indigenous territories by private industry. Many consider that such statements ended up serving as an incentive for miners, loggers, and agribusiness to invade the territories.

“The report shows that there has been a mischaracterization of the rules and of the managing agencies that should secure assistance, protection and monitoring of indigenous territories,” Roberto Liebgott, one of CIMI’s coordinators, told Crux.

He claimed that the government incited land invasion and exploitation and has a dismissive attitude when it comes to “the indigenous peoples’ sanitary, nutritional, territorial, and legal insecurities.”

“That combination generated the highest levels of violence in almost 30 years,” Liebgott said.

Sister Laura Manso, a CIMI activist among the Karipuna people and a member of the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon Region, emphasized the responsibility of the Bolsonaro administration for the worsening living conditions of the indigenous population in Brazil.

She mentioned the fact former Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said during a cabinet meeting with Bolsonaro in 2020 that his administration should use COVID-19 as a distraction to loosen environmental regulations.

“Since then, invasions of indigenous lands and the killing of activists have continually grown,” she told Crux.

An additional sign of the governmental negligence concerning indigenous people has been the high number of COVID-19 cases, according to Archbishop Roque Paloschi of Porto Velho, CIMI’s president.

“While the whole world made an effort to take care of the most vulnerable during the pandemic, Brazil did the opposite. Government leaders disseminated denialism and hate,” he told Crux.

According to the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), there have been 60,870 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the indigenous population since the beginning of 2020, with 1230 deaths. At least 162 indigenous groups have been affected by the pandemic.

“We also have to stress the arbitrary acts that have been happening in the National Indian Foundation [the government’s indigenous agency, known as FUNAI]. It has always been directed by anthropologists and experts. Now, its head is a police chief,” Paloschi said.

FUNAI’s current president is Marcelo Xavier da Silva, a former federal police officer whom activists accuse of supporting farmers who want to exploit indigenous lands.

When several indigenous communities decided to impose barriers around their territories to restrain the access by outsiders during the pandemic, FUNAI’s directors preferred to echo Bolsonaro’s campaign against social distancing measures.

CIMI’s report accuses FUNAI of acting against the indigenous’ interests and in favor of the agribusiness and great landowners in the Bolsonaro administration.

“But the Brazilian natives are still fighting for their rights, as they have always done. The Church is their ally and will keep walking with them,” Paloschi said.