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 April 22, 2020
Fight against Amazon destruction at stake after enforcement chief fired

 Brazil's environmental agency, IBAMA, has stepped up efforts to fight environmental crimes during the COVID-19 crisis amid concerns that loggers, land grabbers and illegal miners could infect indigenous populations. But the continuity of these operations is now uncertain, following the firing of IBAMA's enforcement director, experts say.

On April 19, celebrated as Brazil's national indigenous day, the country's flagship Sunday night news program, Fantástico, showed video of IBAMA enforcement missions destroying illegal mining equipment on indigenous reserves in Pará state, in the Amazon region. The program also detailed investigations of land-grabbing schemes on two indigenous reserves in Pará.

It was the second week in a row that Fantástico broadcast images of IBAMA agents destroying illegal mining equipment in Pará, which insiders say led to the sacking of enforcement director Olivaldi Azevedo last week.

"He was fired because he couldn't stop the enforcement against it," Elizabeth Uema, a former IBAMA employee and executive secretary of the National Association of Environmental Specialist Careers (ASCEMA), told Mongabay, adding that the dismissal was directly related to the success of the enforcement missions.

President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly spoken out against enforcement teams destroying illegal mining equipment, and his ministers have met with representatives of the artisanal mining sector.

Azevedo's sacking was widely celebrated on dedicated Facebook pages and Whatsapp groups for illegal miners seen by Mongabay. "This shit should have been arrested for what he did," one user wrote on Facebook.

On April 20, Brazil's Federal Prosecutor's Office (MPF) launched an investigation into Azevedo's dismissal, questioning whether IBAMA's operations in Pará would be affected and citing risks to the region's indigenous people.

While Azevedo's expertise may not be missed at the agency, Uema said, such disruptions can jeopardize ongoing operations that require meticulous planning.

Fears that some of IBAMA's most experienced enforcement staff would also be dismissed began to circulate after the firing and continue to linger at the agency.

Environment Minister Ricardo Salles told the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper that Azevedo's departure was "consensual" and that enforcement missions would continue in Pará as planned.

Azevedo's replacement, Olímpio Ferreira Magalhães, another São Paulo military police officer, had no environmental experience until last September, when he was chosen by Salles to head the IBAMA office in the city of Manaus, Rubens Valente reported in his UOL news column.

Escalating invasions

Mongabay recently reported about escalating outsider encroachment in the Amazon amid the pandemic, raising concerns of a worsening scenario in the coming months coinciding with reports of a drop in enforcement activities.

From December 2019 to April 2020, forest cover spanning at least 23 football pitches was destroyed for illegal mining on Kayapó indigenous reserve in southern Pará, according to satellite images from MapBiomas Alerta, a system that validates and refines native vegetation loss alerts in all Brazilian biomes with high-resolution imagery, published by Veja magazine.

Across Brazil's Amazon, the latest figures from the country's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) show that deforestation climbed by 29% in March 2020 compared to the previous year, raising concerns that illegal extraction gangs continue to operate undeterred by the pandemic.

Bolsonaro's government has touted a controversial bill that would permit mining on indigenous lands and which is awaiting a vote in congress. Last year the president signed a bill that critics say effectively legalizes land grabbing, which expires May 19 this year. Critics say both measures have encouraged invasions of indigenous lands and deforestation.

COVID-19 and increasing violence

As of April 20, there were at least 31 indigenous people confirmed to have been affected with COVID-19 living on reserves or in far-flung rural areas. At least three indigenous people have died from the disease, including a 15-year-old Yanomami boy, according to data from Brazil's Social Environment Institute (ISA).

The figures are expected to increase following the deaths of two indigenous leaders from COVID-19, both from Amazonas state. Sateré-Mawé leader Otávio dos Santos and Aldevan Baniwa who died while in intensive care in the state capital Manaus, one of the cities worst affected by the pandemic, amid complaints of a lack of tests.

"This disease is worse than measles! It is worse than the others!" Bedjai Txucarramãe, a Kayapó indigenous leader told Fantástico, before images of IBAMA agents destroying illegal mining equipment.

In Rondônia state, the epicenter of last year's Amazon fires, indigenous leader Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau was found dead this past weekend, suspected to have been murdered with blows to the head, near the edge of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau reserve, which is constantly targeted by loggers and land grabbers.

Mongabay recently reported that authorities in Rondônia were monitoring two men who had been released from prison because of the pandemic who had been arrested in 2019 for leading an illegal invasion of the reserve.

In its annual report released April 17, Brazil's Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) noted that nine indigenous people were killed in land conflict issues in 2019, the highest number in 11 years.

Court decision against missionaries

In Brazil's far-flung Vale do Javari region, near the country's border with Peru, indigenous activists are celebrating an important court victory after a judge ordered that North American missionaries accused of trying to convert the region's isolated indigenous communities be banned from entering the reserve or removed from the region if necessary, citing coronavirus fears.

"It would be genocide," said Antenor Vaz, a former coordinator for isolated and recently contacted peoples at Brazil's indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI.