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Human Rights Day: The environmental defenders protecting the Amazon

9 December 2021
Latin America - Eviction of indigenous people by police

This Human Rights Day please keep all human rights defenders in your prayers as they defend the Amazon for future generations.

Across the world, Human Rights Day is marked every year on 10 December to commemorate the day in 1948 when the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

CAFOD has supported indigenous people to access their rights in the Amazon for over three decades, and has witnessed time and time again how they are threatened, expelled and forced from their ancestral lands.

Legal battle in Brazil

If current proposed changes in legislation pass in the Brazilian Congress, indigenous people and the environment will be extremely negatively impacted. In particular, indigenous communities across Brazil are facing a legal battle of a lifetime, in which indigenous rights to ancestral lands could be decimated overnight.

Back in August, CAFOD supporters joined a demonstration in London outside the Brazilian embassy. You marched in solidarity with indigenous people protesting peacefully in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, who were calling for indigenous rights to their ancestral land to be guaranteed. The court case has been postponed and delayed. The Xokleng people still have no official, legal entitlement to their land and the future of all indigenous lands awaits the outcome of this case once it resumes. 

In October, our Brazilian indigenous partners Jessica and Sineia from the Indigenous Council of Roraima (CIR), and Mauricio from the Hutukara Yanomami Association (HAY), travelled to participate in COP26, meet with CAFOD supporters, and raise awareness of the situation indigenous people face in defending their territory and guaranteeing their rights.

Latin America - Mauricio from the Hutukara Yanomami Association

Mauricio from the Hutukara Yanomami Association.

This year, Brazil has seen the worst deforestation rate in over 15 years. Mauricio told us how important it is for indigenous voices to be heard, saying that his people’s struggle is “to defend our territory so that our people can live well” and also “to tell world leaders that we exist, that we are the defenders keeping the forest standing".

Mauricio, Jessica and Sineia’s very lives are increasingly threatened as they defend indigenous rights to somewhere to live, to quality healthcare and education, to clean water and to their territory. On his return to Brazil after the COP, Mauricio did not stay in the city of Boa Vista, where he is unsafe, but returned to his community in the northern Amazonian rainforest.

Supporting communities who face increased risks

Elsewhere in Roraima state, last week the indigenous community of Pium, in the region of Tabaio, reported a violent eviction from their land by the military and civil police of Roraima, during the implementation of a court order by the district judge. The area that the community occupies has been traditional land of the Wapichana and Macuxi peoples for more than 30 years. This land is used collectively - it is where indigenous families plant and harvest, and raise animals.

Latin America - Eviction of indigenous people by police

Police evictions are part of a wider trend of violence against indigenous communities.

Despite community leaders’ attempts to discuss the eviction peacefully with the police, the police threw tear gas, two young people were injured by rubber bullets and the police destroyed 15 homes. This eviction is part of a wider trend in Roraima of violence against indigenous communities linked to the national political context and anti-indigenous rhetoric.

Members of our local partner CIR have been targeted and threats against their security have increased as a result of these recent violent events. CAFOD has provided emergency support to CIR to enable this community to access justice and provide them with emergency food and medicines, and will continue to support CIR to improve their security in the face of increased risks. 

We must, therefore, be aware that caring for life and the natural environment is an essential part of our evangelising mission as a Catholic Church. But what’s more, and extremely painfully, we must recognise that every two days in 2020 an Amazonian environmental leader lost his or her life.

Pedro Barreto, Archbishop of Huancayo, Peru, and President of the Amazonian Ecclesial network REPAM

Mauricio adds: “We have lost a lot of indigenous leaders...According to information from the Indigenous Missionary Council, more leaders were murdered during this pandemic than during previous years."

But Mauricio has some hope. For the first time, at COP26 indigenous voices were present in official spaces. He says that this was a historical victory for indigenous people – but that they must claim this space, so that world leaders hear and listen to their voices as they defend their ancestral territory and our common home.

During this Advent period, when we look forward to the coming of Christ, Cardinal Barreto also has hope “that all of us, united, can overcome, not only the health pandemic, but also other social pandemics that affect human rights. Christ is our source of hope.”

This Advent, let us light the candle of hope

With your donations we continue to provide support to the Yanomami, Ye’kuana, Macuxi and Wapichana peoples in the Brazilian Amazon - among others - to ensure that they have a safe place to call home, so they can thrive and continue to valiantly protect our common home for us all.

On this Human Rights Day we ask you to remember our partners CIR and HAY and all human rights defenders in your prayers, and to stand in solidarity with them as they defend the Amazon in the battle against climate change for future generations.

Restore the rainforest

This special charity gift can help communities obtain the legal right to make the land in the Amazon their permanent home, protecting it from deforestation and cultivating in harmony with nature.