FOR THE GOVERNMENT of Brazil, the World Cup was viewed as an unrivalled opportunity to showcase Brazil as a modern, progressive country with the ability to deliver major projects both economic and cultural.
In reality, this image has proven to be a domestic PR fiasco provoking unprecedented social unrest and resentment at the way in which trillions of dollars can be spent on stadia and infrastructure while there is no money for health and education, anger at how suddenly the police can be everywhere to protect foreign tourists while their own people remain the daily target of police brutality in the favelas, and at how human rights defenders who speak out for the rights of their communities face threats and the risk of assassination in a climate of virtual impunity.
While those working on the issues of environmental or indigenous peoples’ rights are particularly vulnerable those demanding accountability for police violence or on the issues of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights are also frequently targeted.
Violence, discrimination and poverty are at the heart of both opposition to the hosting of the World Cup and to the government’s general economic policies. Instead of delivering the new roads, public transport and other services that have been promised for years the government has simply given a green light to the private sector for the voracious exploitation of natural resources, which has brought mining and logging companies and ranchers and illegal squatters into conflict with local communities and indigenous peoples who are trying to protect their traditional way of life and the increasingly fragile environment, especially in Amazonia.
Those opposed to these mega projects and who demand the right to give their free and informed consent are targeted by the state and its agencies; the mining and logging companies and the hired gunmen of the ranchers. The state attitude to social movements and popular demonstrations has been to criminalise them. The national media – ostensibly private – has actively promoted government policies, uncritically repeating the government’s discourse to smear protesters and human rights defenders as violent extremists which in turn is used to justify a violent response. This has been executed by the heavy hand of the law with frequent and excessive use of lethal force by the police, the introduction of repressive legislation such as the National Security Law, the Anti-Terrorist Law, the Anti-Mask Law (banning the use of masks in demonstrations in Rio de Janeiro), and the frequent use of surveillance and agents provocateurs against demonstrators.
Rosivaldo Ferreira da Silva, known as Cacique Babau, is the leader of the Tupinamba people in Bahia. The Tumpinamba were the first indigenous people to have contact with the original Portuguese colonisers. Long marginalised from economic development and state investment in their well-being, since 2000 they have been campaigning to have their traditional lands officially demarcated. In 2009 the National Indian Foundation made a ruling recognising several areas as indigenous territory but so far the Minister of Justice has not signed it into law.
In the struggle for their land rights, the Tupinambá have been the target of criminalisation, vilification, threats, torture and attempted murder, involving the state, farmers and national media. In 2008, over 130 heavily armed Federal Police invaded the Sierra Village in a military operation, on the basis of a writ for repossession of the land, a writ which was subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court. Since August 2013, the Tupinambás’ land has been militarily occupied by order of the Federal Government to “ensure law and order”. However, the community complains that they continue to be the target of overt surveillance and direct violence.
Silencing the opposition
Cacique Babau himself has been imprisoned three times and in 2010 was held for five months in a maximum security prison because of his persistence in defending the historic rights of the Tupinamba people. In 2014, a major national media company aired a report on national news, based on false information, that aimed to discredit the campaign led by Cacique Babau. In April 2014, Cacique Babau was again arrested, this time on the basis of a warrant presented by the Federal Police in Brasilia.
The existence of the warrant only came to light when Cacique Babau was issued an emergency passport to attend the canonisation by Pope Francis in Rome of Father José de Anchieta, and where it was expected that Cacique Babau would denounce violations of indigenous rights in Brazil. The Federal Police requested that the passport be suspended thus preventing the defender from travelling to the Vatican. Five days later, the Superior Court ordered his release on the grounds that there was no reason for his detention. Many other indigenous leaders have been similarly targeted.
The crisis for human rights defenders in Brazil is typified by the situation in Para state which has the highest number of human rights defenders at serious risk. Brazilian NGO Terra de Direitos has recorded that in Para state alone 46 human rights defenders are at imminent risk of assassination by hired killers, quite apart from human rights defenders facing lesser forms of intimidation. Ten years ago, the National Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders was set up by the Brazilian Government and was first implemented in Para State. Despite this, the programme is now effectively paralysed due to lack of proper management, the absence of any legal framework to support its work and the lack of any consistent methodology in dealing with cases.
Consider the cost of this event
Osvalinda Marcelino Alves Pereira is a rural community worker. The community she lives in is part of a resettlement programme in western Para organised by the National Institute of Agrarian Reform in an area of great biodiversity which has attracted the interest of commercial logging companies. In 2012 alone, 130 miles of illegal roads were built in the area and more than 3,300 acres of land taken over illegally by logging companies. Because she reports on illegal logging and challenges illegal land occupations she regularly receives death threats from logging companies and thugs working for the ranchers.
The defence of human rights remains critically dangerous work in Brazil. According to the Comissão Pastoral da Terra (Pastoral Land Commission – CPT) 1,855 rural workers and activists received death threats in the past 10 years, mostly linked to their work on the issues of environmental protection and land reform. The characterisation of HRDs as “enemies”, combined with the criminalisation of their actions as a result of pressure from transnational companies and powerful economic groups, has raised the risks they face exponentially.
As the world gathers around TV sets to celebrate every goal at this year’s World Cup, it is worth considering the massive cost of this event – not just in dollars, but in the changes wrought on Brazilian society in the name of the ‘beautiful game’. Perhaps it is time to pause our celebration of football players and focus instead on the courage of Brazil’s other everyday heroes.
Mary Lawlor is Executive Director of Front Line Defenders. See Front Line Defenders World Cup Campaign at sportshrd.org.