New chapter in conflict with industry that wants to ‘plant’ jet fuel in the Amazon
August 29, 2023

Members of the Tembé nation were shot in Tomé-Açu on Monday August 7th 2023. Indigenous communities and quilombolas demand recognition of traditional territories in a dispute with the Brazil Biofuels group (BBF), a producer of palm oil that wants to sell biofuels to airlines. Image: Marcos Weiske/Repórter Brasil

This article was originally published on Repórter Brasil, on 8th August 2023, with contributions from: André Campos, Carlos Juliano Barros, Hélen Freitas, Isabel Harari, Leonardo Sakamoto and Paula Bianchi.

Three indigenous people from the Tembé ethnic group were shot on Monday August 7th in Tomé-Açu, in the most recent chapter of the violent land conflict, which started three years ago in the northeast of Para State, when the Brazil BioFuels group started palm oil production in the region. 

The company plans to use palm oil, also referred to as ‘dende’, as the prime material in a type of biodiesel used in aviation.  Starting in 2025, the aim is to supply fuel to the principal national airlines. 

However, local Indigenous, quilombola and riverside locals confirm that the BBF dende plantations overlap with traditional territories. Repórter Brasil was in the conflict region last year, where it heard testimonies from people living in these communities that have suffered violence attributed to the military police and BBF’s private security company.

The news regarding the shooting was disseminated on Monday afternoon by Brazil’s National Council on Human Rights.  The Council had travelled to Tomé-Açu specifically to investigate the denouncement of violations against local communities involved in the land dispute. 

“They did this in direct retaliation to our visit to take testimonies from the Indigenous people regarding the cultural impacts resulting from dende production in the region”, affirmed Virginia Berriel, the representative from the Unified Workers Central labour union and Councillor to the National Council on Human Rights. The mission is part of the preparations for the Amazon Summit, which started on Tuesday August 8th, in the capital of Para, Belem.

According to Berriel, the Indigenous witnesses affirmed that the waterways and the crops of the Turé Mariquita community, where the three people shot live, were contaminated by the pesticides used in the palm production.

The National Council Human Rights mission also heard testimony from Indigenous people describing how they were threatened by gunmen.  “We are being shot at, this is becoming a real massacre here in Tomé-Açu. We are requesting urgent assistance”, affirmed Paulo Turiwara, regional Indigenous leader in a WhatsApp message sent to Federal Public Prosecutor. 

When sought for comment, BBF confirmed that company equipment was burned and structures were destroyed by Indigenous individuals on its property also on Monday August 8th.

“During the action, approximately 30 armed attackers threatened and harmed company employees prior to setting on fire dozens of tractors, agricultural equipment and company structures.  The private security team was able to control this criminal action taken by the invaders and protect the lives of the employees that were present”, stated the declaration.

In April 2023, the Para State Public Prosecutor requested the preventive arrest of the BBF president — Eduardo Schimmelpfeng — and the company’s Head of Security, for crimes of torture against the community of Vale do Bacaia in Acará, a town near Tomé-Açu.

The State Public Prosecutor’s request resulted from an event in October 2021 when BBF security knocked down farmers´ homes. On this occasion, the group released a response claiming that their employees had been threatened by “invaders who had for quite some months attempted to illegally appropriate the BBF plantations”.

In relation to the areas in dispute, the company told the Reporter Brasil, in August 2022, that “overlap does not exist in the areas of the company with the traditional community territories and that it exercises peaceful, justified and continuous possession of its areas”.

Imprisonment following the attack

Felip Tembé, a member of the Tembé First Nation and 23 years old, shot in the ribs on Monday August 7th, was arrested by the police following being attended to at the local emergency hospital. A press release from the Para State Secretary of Public Security and Social Defence, stated that Felipe was “detained to clarify the damage caused to private property”.

The Secretary stated furthermore that the private security guard responsible for shooting Felipe was sent to the penitentiary system and that even though this case occurred on private property it has taken all the necessary measures to clarify exactly what has happened”.

In protest, various Indigenous representatives went to the police station demanding Felipe’s release.Tires were burnt and roads closed.The Secretary’s press release affirmed that Felipe was released once he had given his testimony.

Representatives of the Tembé Indigenous Association of Acara Valley accused the Military Police of intervening in a violent manner in the community, “accompanied by heavily armed security employees from the Brazil BioFuels company (BBF)”. Additionally, the entity states that a bridge that offers access to the community has been interdicted, impeding movement to and from the community. 

In August, Kauã També, an indigenous youth from the same First Nation, had also been shot in the village of Bananal, another area claimed by the First Nation and under dispute with BBF. In a document sent to the Federal Prosecutor, the Association stated that “shots came from the Military Police or the company’s armed security, on that day, and they had acted in a truculent manner”. 

According to a report from Globo1, the Federal Prosecutor notified the Para governor, Helder Barbalho, of the MDB party, that measures must be taken to contain police violence on Indigenous territory.  The Secretary denied that the bullets originated from his team and reported that the episode would be clarified. 

Brazil BioFuels group

The owner of a dende plantation larger than 75 thousand hectares in the Amazon, with the production capacity of more than 200 thousand tons of oil per year, the BBF group operates dozens of thermoelectric power plants in Brazil’s northern region. These use biodiesel and vegetable oil that is actually produced by the company itself for energy production.

Currently, the group intends to supply the aviation market.  In April 2022, BBF closed a deal for exclusive commercialisation with Vibra Energy, the largest distributor of aviation fuel in the country. On this occasion, it was announced an investment of R$2 billion to produce biodiesel from palm oil.

The fuel, made from renewable sources, seeks to supply the aviation sector’s demand for alternatives to fossil fuels.  Traditionally used by commercial aviation, kerosene is derived from petroleum and represents an important emission source of greenhouse gases. 

Representatives from the major Brazilian airlines – Latam, Gol and Azul – participated in the event where BBF’s investment was announced. According to BBF itself, they will be the most interested in the product. In 2022, the three companies confirmed with Reporter Brazil that there did not exist any type of commercial link with the company.