The indigenous ‘guardians’ giving their lives for their ancestral lands

. Dec 12, 2019
indigenous guardians of the amazon rainforest Photo: Marcelo Camargo/ABr

On a clear enough day, you could probably see the indigenous territory of Araribóia from space. Not because of its size—at 4,130 square kilometers it’s comparable to Los Angeles—but because of its color. In the heart of the northeastern state of Maranhão, the Araribóia is made up of untouched Amazon rainforest vegetation, making this Spain-shaped island of deep, lush green stand out against the pale browns of its surrounding areas.

Since 1990, Araribóia has been protected by the federal government as a demarcated indigenous territory. This means the land belongs to the traditional communities living there and the entry of outsiders is not permitted without authorization from local populations. As a result, deforestation, mining, or hunting are strictly outlawed on protected indigenous territories. Going back to the satellite images of Araribóia, this can be seen by flying over the region. 

Pastures, mining operations and general deforestation push right up to the indigenous territory’s borders, before Araribóia creates a well-defined dark green boundary of untouched forest.

But Araribóia is in danger.

Left to fend for themselves

Since the beginning of the decade, the indigenous territory has been coveted by illegal loggers and poachers. Despite its size and being home to an estimated 5,317 indigenous people—from the Guajajara and isolated Awá tribes—the population living in Araribóia has been left to fend for itself against invaders.

There are no fences, gates, or guards to keep people from trespassing into Araribóia, and the closest office of Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency Funai is located in the city of Imperatriz, some four and a half hours away by road. 

Local Guajajara people complained of seeing loggers leaving the territory with trucks full of deforested timber. Abandoned by the government, they decided to take up arms themselves and protect their ancestral lands, forming a resistance group called the “Guardians of the Forest.”

Their work consists of patroling indigenous territories and capturing intruders, taking them to the nearest police station—often hundreds of kilometers away. Their other strategy is to force trespassers to surrender their vehicles and machinery, which are then destroyed.

This opposition to creeping extractivist interests has put the Guardians’ lives at risk, with many afraid to leave their protected territory after receiving repeated death threats.

War on the horizon

This conflict has come to a head this year, with the murders of three Guardians of the Forest in the last six weeks. 

On November 1, 26-year-old Paulo Paulino Guajajara—a member of the Guardians of the Forest known by his nickname “Big Bad Wolf”—was ambushed and killed by “at least five armed men” when he left his village in search of water accompanied by fellow indigenous leader Laércio Souza Silva, who was wounded. Involved in carrying out the ambush, Márcio Gleik Moreira Pereira was also killed in the crossfire.

Then, just last week, two more indigenous leaders were assassinated in the nearby town of Jenipapo dos Vieiras. Raimundo Guajajara and Firmino Guajajara were killed at Saturday lunchtime by shots fired from a white automobile, according to eyewitnesses.

Prominent indigenous activist Sônia Guajajara, a member of the tribe in question, declared that these crimes were “an escalation of hate and barbarism” promoted by the sitting Brazilian government, and that indigenous people are being “attacked, decimated, and criminalized.”

Sixteen-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that “indigenous people are literally being murdered for trying to protect the forrest (sic) from illegal deforestation (…) it is shameful that the world remains silent about this.”

In response, Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro called the teenager a “brat,” questioning why “everyone pays so much attention to her.”

The power of Bolsonaro’s words

Indeed, Ms. Guajajara and Greta Thunberg are not the only people to lay the blame for these killings on Jair Bolsonaro’s government’s doorstep. 

The indigenous communities in Brazil’s Amazon have blamed the increase on the discourse of President Jair Bolsonaro, who has said he will not demarcate “one more centimeter” of indigenous land while in office, and has encouraged the exploration of natural resources in the Amazon.

Speaking to Folha de S. Paulo‘s Rubens Valente, one member of the Guardians of the Forest said that verbal abuse and persecution have also increased since Mr. Bolsonaro took power. “Before the Bolsonaro government we were threatened, insulted, but it was more disguised,” said Auro Guajajara. “Not now, now it’s explicit.” 

In the last year, the Guardians have seized nine trucks and two tractors from trespassers.

The Guajajara population says they are living in fear, with mothers keeping their children home from school. Some members of the Guardians have been forcibly placed on witness protection programs by the state government.

In response to Saturday’s murders, Justice Minister Sérgio Moro authorized the sending of the National Public Security Force to the Cana Brava indigenous territory, close to where the two Guajajara men were gunned down. However, local leaders have complained that the squad has been deployed to the wrong place, ignoring Araribóia and the illegal routes of logging and poaching.

Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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