The Anthropology & Environment Society strives to understand human-environment relationships in changing contexts throughout the globe, such as the case of rising deforestation and violence in Brazil. Members engage in research, scholarship, and advocacy on timely topics in order to develop new understandings of contemporary issues and strategies to create better futures for people and the planet.
Violence against environmentalists and land defenders is becoming increasingly common worldwide and in Brazil, particularly in areas where logging and agricultural expansion are dominant economic forces (Global Witness 2015). Nowhere is this violence more apparent than Maranhão state in northeast Brazil, which is now the second-most violent state for land conflicts in the country (Milanez 2017). Indigenous groups advocating for land rights and defending their territories from loggers face the most violence in the region. So far in 2017, Indigenous Gamela community members were brutally attacked by local ranchers in April (Watts 2017), and a couple from the Jê-speaking Gavião-Pykobjê community was murdered by a logging truck carrying illegally-sourced hardwood in March (Melo 2017). Members of the Tupi-Guaraní-speaking Guajajara community were assassinated in 2016 (Milanez 2017), and at least five members of the Tupi-speaking Ka’apor community have been killed since 2010 (Greenpeace Brasil 2016). In my own fieldwork with the Jê-speaking Ramkokamekra-Canela, also in Maranhão, illegal logging represents a constant threat, chipping away at valued hardwood species of ipê and pau d’arco in the territory’s “real forest” (caxàt-re kô in Canela) land type. “It is life-threatening,” my research assistants have frequently told me when describing the ramifications of researching illegal logging and causes of deforestation in the territorial landscape. Violence against Indigenous peoples and their advocates is often met with impunity in Maranhão and throughout Brazil. My own encounters with known associates of hired assassins have further confirmed the everyday threat of violence that permeates this region.
Environmental anthropology can serve as a springboard to address intertwined environmental destruction and violence in contexts such as this. Environmental anthropologists can conduct research on and develop collaborations with governmental and non-governmental agencies working on environmental issues, and communicate the realities of deforestation and violence to broader audiences (see Melo 2017). Most importantly, we can do what we do best—conduct ethnographic fieldwork on environmental issues relating to deforestation. The fieldwork I have conducted with Canela community members on participatory mapping and environmental classification demonstrates the complexities of Indigenous land management practices that promote environmental sustainability and biodiversity, and discourage deforestation (Miller 2016). The maps we created, including native flora and fauna, land types, and areas where gardening, hunting, gathering, and illegal logging occur, can be used to document and combat deforestation in the territory.
This kind of environmental anthropological research can be a first step towards demonstrating the expertise and brilliance of Indigenous and traditional environmental management,to apply in future endeavors to combat illegal logging. Next steps could involve taking on advocacy roles to condemn deforestation and violence, and to advocate for policies and practices that support rather than further marginalize Indigenous and traditional peoples. Examples of anthropologists’ advocacy work abound in Brazil, one recent example being the Forum on Violations of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights. And while the threat of violence continues to impede certain types of research on illegal logging and deforestation, environmental anthropological research is still possible in fraught contexts such as northeast Brazil. Indigenous people continue to defend their lands and, in my research assistant Liliana’s words, “be courageous” in managing and maintaining their diverse environments. We too can take heart and be courageous in our work as environmental anthropologists committed to understanding and working with Indigenous and traditional peoples—the land defenders.
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Cite as: Miller, Theresa. 2017. “Deforestation, Illegal Logging, and Violence in Brazil.” Anthropology News website, August 4, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.567