SÃO PAULO – Violence against Indigenous peoples in Brazil grew in 2021, reaching its highest level since 2013, according to an agency of the bishops’ conference.

The Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) said there were 355 reported cases of physical violence against Indigenous people last year, including 176 murders, 20 cases of involuntary manslaughter, 12 attempted homicides, and 14 acts of sexual violence.

The number of suicides, 148, was the highest ever recorded, the report said.

“Violence against Indigenous people attained a level of extreme cruelty. It became something banal. We had already denounced the growing violence in 2020, but nothing was done by the government,” Antonio Eduardo de Oliveira, CIMI’s executive secretary, told Crux.

The main reason for the rise was the increase in incursions into Indigenous territories. CIMI’s report claimed there were 305 cases of outsiders entering Indigenous land with the intention of taking control of the territory or of exploiting their resources. That has been the sixth year in a row that incursions into Indigenous lands rose in Brazil.

The number of occurrences in 2021 was almost three times higher than in 2018, one year before conservative President Jair Bolsonaro took office. In his electoral campaign, he claimed Indigenous peoples had too much land in Brazil and vowed that he would not concede “one additional square inch” of territory to them.

He also gave support to illegal miners and to ranchers who invaded Indigenous lands. According to CIMI, all such policies ended up intensifying the illegal occupation of Indigenous reservations.

“The support to those criminals also came in the form of bills aiming at loosening the protection to Indigenous lands and allowing economic activities inside them,” added de Oliveira.

Bill 191 was introduced by Bolsonaro in 2020 with the goal of opening Indigenous territories to mining enterprises and drilling for oil. The proposal provoked several demonstrations by Indigenous groups and environmental organizations. It is still being debated in Congress.

“The current president also weakened the government’s environmental agencies and the Indigenous National Foundation, so the number of monitoring and control operations has been greatly reduced. We are completely unprotected,” said Adriano Karipuna, a member of the Karipuna people from Rondônia State.

Adriano said that his people’s territory was first invaded in 2017. The situation quickly deteriorated when Bolsonaro took power in 2019. Now, more than one third of their lands are occupied by illegal ranchers. Portions of the Amazon rainforest were replaced by pasture for cattle.

“We have denounced that situation several times to the authorities, but nothing was done,” he said.

Heavy machinery can be heard day and night. Not familiar with noisy environments, the Karipuna have difficulties sleeping due to the equipment. They also fear the intruders may attack their village.

“We have received threats several times from them for denouncing their activities. They say they will attack us in the river or on the road. A mass invasion or a murder can happen any day,” he said.

The expensive machines employed by those invaders show that they are not small farmers or workers, like Bolsonaro has claimed on several occasions, claimed Adriano.

“They are part of powerful groups with money to carry out their projects,” he said.

Seeking reelection, Bolsonaro on August 22 told Brazil’s major TV network, Rede Globo, that the ranchers’ agricultural equipment cannot be destroyed by environmental agents during raids.

“That is very cynical of him. He is obviously protecting those people,” Adriano Karipuna said.

On Aug. 12, members of the Indigenous group learned that the illegal land occupiers were planning to set fire to vast territories in order to accelerate the deforestation. On Aug. 15, the wildfires began – and they have been destroying large areas of Karipuna territory.

“That kind of orchestrated action shows us that the invaders are backed by powerful people. The current administration incentivizes that behavior,” said Sister Laura Manso, a CIMI agent and a member of the Amazonian Ecclesial Conference.

Manso has been working with the Karipuna for several years and saw how the intruders gradually took hold of a great expanse of the group’s land.

“They are under great pressure. They have received several threats. But they do not have anywhere else to go,” she said.

The nun has received several death threats, and she says she fears for her life, but that won’t stop her.

“We are part of a church that believes in life. We know that life always goes on despite so many circumstances of death. We are hopeful about life and have to keep fighting for it,” Manso said.

The escalating violence has forced CIMI agents to exercise extra care over the past few years. According to de Oliveira, territories that have been suffering with large incursions by illegal miners, like the Yanomami land, have also seen the appearance of drug cartels from the Southeast of Brazil, which has made the area even more dangerous.

“They took advantage of the atmosphere of deregulation and gained control of illegal mining in different areas of the Amazon. We had to take our agents out of such territories,” he said.

CIMI has also recommended caution to Indigenous activists all over the country. De Oliveira claimed that the number of Indigenous people killed in 2021 could have been much higher.

“We are going through a time of violence,” he said.

Many of the CIMI workers fear that things may get chaotic during the last months of 2022. Brazil is having its presidential election in October, pitting Bolsonaro against former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has been leading all polls.

“If Lula is elected, land invaders may try to escalate their actions before Bolsonaro leaves his office on Dec. 31. This can be a very dangerous situation for Indigenous groups all over the country,” said de Oliveira.

Adriano Karipuna said that his people will not see a sudden change, even if Lula wins.

“We do not know how those invaders will react to a change in political power, but we know that they will not leave our land on the following day,” he said.

Manso pointed out that the dispute for land in Brazil is a structural problem and has always been connected to political and economic power.

“That is why violence against Indigenous peoples is systemic. We know that they will always have to struggle for their territories,” she said.