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Indigenous chief recovering after assassination attempt in Brazil's "Palm Oil War"

Giovanni Torre -

A prominent Indigenous leader in Brazil is recovering after being shot in the head as part of the bloody "Palm Oil war" being waged in the country.

On 14 May Indigenous chief Lúcio Tembé and another Indigenous man were driving back from the town of Quatro Bocas to the Turé-Mariquita Indigenous Territory, in northern Pará state, when the vehicle became stuck in mud on the unpaved road. While trying to get the car free he was attacked by two gunmen who shot him in the head.

Since taking office on 1 January Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been working to clean up the toxic legacy of his notoriously racist predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, who effectively gave a green light to industry to attack Indigenous people and drive them from their land.

Mr da Silva's administration has been investigating a string of crimes committed during the Bolsonaro era, but violence against land activists has continued.

Mr Tembé's niece, Queila Tembé, told news outlet Mongabay the information the witness had shared with the community.

"At that moment when he [Lúcio Tembé] was standing still, these two hooded thugs arrived, shone a flashlight on him and shot him in the head," she said.

"Then the Indigenous (man) accompanying him jumped out in front of him to try to save him. You can imagine that they (that assassins) thought that since they hit him on the head, that he was dead. So, they got on their motorcycles and headed toward the village.

"I felt very sad, and at the same time, outraged about what had happened. The family's reaction is one of great revolt," she said.

Mr Tembé had assisted Mongabay in an 18-month investigation which in 2021 exposed evidence of water contamination from pesticide use by palm oil company Biopalma, now Brasil BioFuels S.A. (BBF), that has impacted not only the Tembé people of Turé-Mariquita but also other Indigenous lands, Afro-Brazilian Quilombola communities, ribeirinhos (traditional riverside communities), and small farmers.

Mr Tembé acted as a guide and source for the investigative team who also uncovered problems caused by oil palm crops in the region: soil pollution, deforestation, scarcity of fish and game, along with health issues and social and land conflicts.

The chief said the Tembé people were not properly consulted before Biopalma's oil palm venture got up and running.

Mongabay reported that while conducted investigations in the region in late 2019 they were pursued by men on two motorbikes on the same road where Mr Tembé was shot earlier this month.

Mr Lúcio Tembé. Image: Supplied by Paratê Tembé via Mongabay.

On 22 May news outlet G1Pará reported that Mr Tembé had undergone surgery to remove a bullet from his jaw.

Indigenous leader Miriam Tembé, Mr Tembé's cousin, said prior to the surgery that he was "taking medication to reduce the swelling of his face, [because] he fractured his jaw and burst his eardrums on the right side".

"We are anguished and we ask for help, we ask that justice gives us an answer because there is so much impunity, violence is happening, attacks against us, and nothing is being done," she told Mongabay.

"Our feeling is of revolt and injustice, we see no support from the state and competent bodies in our favour."

Ms Tembé, the head of the Acará Valley's Tembé Indigenous Association, said there was "so much violence against us traditional peoples and justice does not act".

"Will more lives have to be lost for something to be done?"

Federal Police said they have opened an inquiry to investigate the crime.

Also this month, Brazil's federal police have brought criminal charges against the former head of Brazil's Indigenous protection agency for alleged acts of omission they believe paved the way for the murders of Indigenous protection worker in Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips the Amazon last year.

Marcelo Xavier was appointed by Mr Bolsonaro as the head of the Indigenous agency Funai in July 2019 and has been accused of playing a key role in dismantling Indigenous protections.

Francisco Badenes, the federal police chief responsible for the inquiry into the murders of Mr Pereira and Mr Phillips, has formally accused Mr Xavier of indirectly contributing to those crimes on the grounds that he had failed take steps to protect Funai workers in the Amazon.

The Guardian reports that the accusation against Mr Xavier and another senior Funai official, Alcir Amaral, is based on the legal concept of dolus eventualis – when a person is aware of the risk of a crime taking place but fails to act to prevent it.

Mr Pereira worked for Funai until he was removed from his post in late 2019 by the Bolsonaro administration, two weeks after he helped lead an operation targeting illegal miners in the remote Javari Valley region. He and Mr Phillips were killed in that same region.

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