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Environment

Olympic harmony in Rio masks murder in the Amazon, say activists

Since the last Olympic Games in 2012, 150 indigenous activists have been killed in Brazil while trying to protect their land. Campaigners warn the new interim government is moving to erode indigenous protections further.

Brazilian indigenous athlete Kamukaika Lappa Yawalapiti carries the Olympic Torch at the Indigenous Peoples Memorial in Brasilia on May 2, 2016. Copyright: Getty Images/AFP/Y. Chiba

Brazilian indigenous athlete Kamukaika Lappa Yawalapiti carries the Olympic Torch in Brasilia

As Rio de Janeiro prepares for the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Games on Friday, many are excited to see which world records will be set by the gathered athletes. But a different kind of record is already being set in the city this week - the largest mural created by a single artist.

The 3,000-square-meter (32,290-square-feet) mural unveiled on Sunday was commissioned to depict five indigenous faces from five different continents, welcoming people as they travel down the city's 'Olympic Boulevard.'

It is just one part of the country's concerted effort to celebrate its multi-ethnic heritage, which has also included representatives of Brazil's indigenous tribes coming from the depths of the Amazon rainforest to carry the Olympic torch.

But on Thursday morning, a group of indigenous activists stood before the world's media in Rio and said all is not as it seems. While the government is trying to present an image of harmony and peace with Brazil‘s native peoples, the country's new emergency acting president, Michel Temer, is waging an unprecedented attack on the rights these tribes have secured since the end of Brazil's dictatorship, they said.

Sonia Guajajara

Sonia Guajajara told journalists the government's praise of indigenous people doesn't match its actions

Race for riches

The culprit is not so much Temer as it is the country's economic boom in previous years - the boom that enabled Rio to host the Olympic Games in the first place. As natural resources become more valuable and the government wants to build ever-more grand infrastructure projects, people are seeking to extricate native people from their land by any means necessary - often through violence.

"The image Brazil is presenting to the world during the Olympics masks the violent reality of our daily lives as indigenous peoples," Sonia Guajajara, the national coordinator of Brazil's Association of Indigenous Peoples, said.

The speakers unveiled new data from activist protection group Global Witness and the Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples (CIMI) showing that since the 2012 Olympics in London, 150 activists have been killed in Brazil while trying to protect environmental resources. Already this year, 23 activists have been killed while attempting to defend their land, forests and rivers. Most of the deaths are linked to logging and agribusiness.

Murders in the Amazon

A study unveiled in June by Global Witness found that last year Brazil had the highest number of murders of environmental activists in the world.

"For many visitors to the Rio Olympics, Brazil is synonymous with its vast, plentiful rainforests and traditional ways of life," Global Witness campaigner Billy Kyte said. "Yet the people who are trying to protect those things are being killed off at an unprecedented rate."

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Indigenous people face eviction in Brazil

The increase in conflict in recent years is due to two factors. First, Brazil's economic boom drove a thirst for more land. Then the country's subsequent economic downturn, paired with a shift toward agriculture and mining, meant that prospectors (both legal and illegal) were going to ever-more extreme lengths to extract resources.

Most of the deaths this year occured in southwestern state of Mato Grosso do Sul, where hundreds of people of the Guarani Kaiowá have been resisting land grabs. "In less than a year we have recorded more than 30 paramilitary attacks on local communities of Guarani Kaiowá, led by ranchers and plantation owners who produce agricultural commodities that are mainly for export," CIMI executive secretary Cleber Buzatto said. "These militias carry out attacks that kill people and cause dozens of injuries."

He blamed the raids on "the failures of the Brazilian government, the impunity of the militias and the men who direct them, and the continued demand from other countries for imports of agricultural products produced in Brazil."

Another flashpoint of violence has been on the Tapajos River, where the government is planning a massive 5-mile (8-kilometer) wide dam.

A wooden cross marks the spot where the body of an environmental activist was found in Maranhão, Brazil

A wooden cross marks the spot where the body of an environmental activist was found in Maranhão, Brazil

The 'soy king' takes power

Shortly before she was forcibly removed from office in a corruption scandal earlier this year, Brazil's suspended president Dilma Rousseff instituted a handful of reforms meant to increase protection of indigenous peoples. But these have been walked back since Temer‘s interim government took control.

Most controversially, Temer is making moves to undo indigenous protection guarantees enshrined in the country's post-dictatorship constitution of 1988. The constitution recognizes indigenous peoples' rights to their lands, imposes a moratorium on soybean plantation expansion and created the basis for the government to recognize more than 191 million hectares of indigenous lands. At the time it was enacted, it placed Brazil as a world leader in conservation and indigenous rights.

But Temer's administration, which has strong ties with rural landowners, has been hostile to these principles. Temer appointed Blairo Maggi as agricultural minister in May. Nicknamed the 'soy king,' Maggi owns the world‘s largest soybean producer, making him one of the richest men in Brazil.

Brazilian acting President Michel Temer

Brazilian acting President Michel Temer has been accused of trying to undo indigenous rights

Change on the cards?

Maggi has put foward a constitutional amendment, known as PEC 65, which would annul environmental and indigenous protection laws for large-scale infrastructure projects. It currently looks likely the measure will pass Brazil's congress, where agricultural interests have had growing power in recent years.

"It has never been more urgent to protect Brazil's rainforests and the people who defend them, yet the country's new leaders are actively dismantling laws and institutions designed to do just that," said Guajajara. She said that if PEC 65 is passed, there will be "more murders on Brazil's environmental frontiers."

Since assuming power, Temer has also folded Brazil's human rights ministry, which has meant implementation of the country's protection program for human rights defenders has effectively been frozen, says Kyte. Temer is also trying to name as head of the National Indian Foundation a general with alleged links to the coup that brought the military to power in 1964.

Kyte says that while celebrations of Brazil's ethnic diversity and indigenous heritage are commendable, they should not be used to hide what is currently happening in the country. "With the Olympics spotlight on Brazil, protection is vital for those on the frontier of the struggle to save the environment and the way of life of hundreds of indigenous communities."

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