Fears over rising violence in Amazon as 'forest guardians' battle logging
'We'll fight until the end, until the last breath.' A self-styled "guardians of the forest" group are battling illegal logging in the Amazon
By Karla Mendes Karla Mendes - 13. May 2019
ARARIBOIA TERRITORY, Brazil - Following traditional rituals, indigenous chief Olimpio Santos Guajajara paints his face with red dye from urucum seeds as he prepares to go on patrol to protect Brazil's Amazon rainforest.
He is the leader of about 120 Guajajara Indians who call themselves "guardians of the forest" and fight illegal logging in the Amazon where rainforest destruction hit the highest level in a decade in 2018, according to government data.
On a rarely permitted visit, the Thomson Reuters Foundation followed 12 "guardians" on a three-day patrol in the northeast state of Maranhao where they set fire to an illegal logging camp and to piles of timber ready to be sold.
"Today our land is under threat ... Logging, fishing and hunting are all forbidden on indigenous lands by law," said Santos, wearing string necklaces with tattoos lining both arms.
"It's destroying our lives. It's destroying our culture."
But he said the government had failed to clamp down on illegal logging and concerns about land are escalating with no sign of an end to the encroachments which was fuelling violence.
"We take action ... and are defending the law," he said, explaining that the face paint was an appeal to "Mother Forest" to protect the guardians.
"It is a very big war that we are facing still today."
Brazil's 900,000 indigenous people make up less than 1 percent of the population and live on reservations that account for 13 percent of the country. They are increasingly concerned about illegal logging and agriculture encroaching on the jungle.
Brazil led the world in rainforest destruction in 2018, according to independent monitoring group Global Forest Watch.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that more than a quarter of the Amazon rainforest will be without trees by 2030 if the current rate of deforestation continues.
The Arariboia territory where the Guajajara live is also home to the Awa Indians, hunter-gatherers whom indigenous rights group Survival International has described as the most threatened tribe in the world.
Bruno Pereira, coordinator for uncontacted tribes at FUNAI, Brazil's indigenous affairs agency, said this tension has led to the emergence of forest vigilante groups, or guardians, across the Amazon, with fears conflicts will escalate.
But he said it was a complicated situation as loggers paid some of the locals to co-opt them into their activities which was also pitting indigenous tribes against each other.
"Whole towns have been built on the proceeds from illegal logging inside the indigenous lands. It is an extremely violent region," Pereira said.
"There are even conflicts among themselves as they are trying to survive within their land ... I don't think they (the guardians) are acting in the best way but I do understand that they are so desperate that they have to act like this."
Santos said at least three Guajajara Indians had been killed in conflicts with illegal loggers since the group started in 2012. Some estimates put the number of land activists murdered across the Amazon as high as 80.
Catching illegal loggers deep in the Amazon with ‘Guardians of the Forest’ | Nightline
•Feb 19, 2020 - Full documentay - see below.
The indigenous people of the Brazilian Guajajara tribe are taking it upon themselves, risking life and limb, to track and apprehend illegal loggers in their ancestral land.
Human rights groups have voiced fears that the situation could get worse under Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro, who put indigenous land decisions under the Ministry of Agriculture, sparking concerns that more land would be opened to farming.
But on May 9, a congressional committee voted to reverse President Bolsonaro's decree giving the Agriculture Ministry power to define tribal lands and removing the country's indigenous affairs agency from the Justice Ministry.
The decision must still be ratified by the full lower house of Congress and then the Senate.
Amazon forest guardians fight to prevent catastrophic tipping point
•Sep 13, 2018
In Brazil's Maranhao State, indigenous groups are battling a powerful logging mafia to protect the region's remaining and fragile Amazon rainforest. After years of decline, deforestation is again on the rise, threatening a terrifying climate change tipping point. Special correspondent Sam Eaton reports with support from the Pulitzer Center, in collaboration with The Nation and PRI’s The World.
But Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina Dias said the administration's push to repeal a ban on commercial farming on indigenous land was in response to requests from indigenous people themselves.
"Since I was a congresswoman (in 2015-2018) I received more than 150 indigenous people saying: 'we would like to be able to lease a plot of land in our area'," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in her office in Brasilia, the capital.
This would be on land that has already been cleared rather than deforesting new areas, she added.
"So they (indigenous people) would like the law to be changed ... so that they can lease and produce on the land. The ideal is they produce in their own areas," she said.
Not everyone agrees, however.
Joenia Wapichana, the first indigenous woman to be elected to Brazil's Congress, said indigenous people have the right to receive full government support to farm their land "but this does not justify opening indigenous land up for leasing".
Forest guardian brigade leader Olimpio Guajajara looks on as a logger's shack burns in Maranhao, Brazil on 31 Jan 2109. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Karla Mendes
The guardians' work against illegal logging is widely recognised by government bodies in charge of protecting indigenous rights and the environment.
But although citizens' arrests are legal under certain circumstances, authorities have warned against the danger of indigenous people going head-to-head with loggers and taking justice into their own hands.
"The guardians inform us and make reports for us (on logging)," said Cassandra Parazi, federal police chief in Maranhao's capital Sao Luis in an interview in her office.
"But it's important that they remain vigilant, this kind of initiative to attack and try to defend (the land) with their own hands is dangerous, it is reckless."
Parazi said the federal police and environmental protection agency Ibama have conducted about a dozen operations in Maranhao state since 2015, destroying sawmills and logging camps, but this was not enough to halt illegal logging in the region.
Corruption was also hampering efforts to protect the land.
"The area is so big, it needs more investment ... There are few roads and a lot of rivers. So (illegal logging) is easy to cover up," she said. "It is very easy to hide in the woods."
Self-styled "Forest Guardians" on patrol in the Arariboia indigenous protected area of Maranhao, Brazil on 31 Jan 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Karla Mendes
The guardians patrol entrances to the forest used by trucks and cars where they approach and identify any illegal logging activity and expel those involved from the land, Santos said.
During a night patrol followed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, a balaclava-clad guardian interrogated a Guajajara Indian whom he suspected of working with illegal loggers.
"You think this is a joke? It's not," he said, as the man denied any involvement with logging.
"If we find out you're deceiving us, that you're lying, it will be much more complicated for you," another guardian said.
Roberto Cabral Borges, coordinator of operations and enforcement at Ibama, said he worried that escalating violence with illegal loggers could make the area even more dangerous.
"Something that started as an environmental crime could be placed aside and become a generalised conflict in the area," Borges said.
Since the guardians were set up in late 2012, they have destroyed some 200 logging camps, Santos said, adding that the group was setting up a charity and a website for donations.
"I ask the world to look at our struggle and recognise our activities as legal ... because we are fighting for our lives and also for the lungs of the world," he said, gazing at a pile of burning wood.
Laercio Souza Silva Guajajara, another guardian, said the group was "not a militia".
"We are defending life, we are not killing anyone. It's our fight for the children, for the old, for the whole world," he said, his face and body painted with black dye from jenipapo fruit and wearing a camouflage hat.
"If we wait for the government nothing will happen ... We'll fight until the end, until the last breath."
The destruction of the Amazon, explained
•Nov 21, 2019
The 2019 fires were just the tip of the iceberg.
The Amazon rainforest has been reduced by about 17% since the 1970s. Cattle ranchers, loggers, and farmers are mostly to blame for the deforestation, but the demand driving them comes from all around the world. Brazil's economy depends on agriculture, especially beef and soy, which is grown on cleared land in the Amazon. Today, president Jair Bolsonaro, is weakening the environmental protections there in order to give agriculture more power. This came to a head when, in summer 2019, more than 30,000 wildfires burned in the Amazon, sparking worldwide outrage.
This is Part 1 of Vox Atlas: The Amazon, a three-part series about the world's largest rainforest, why it's in jeopardy, and the people trying to save it. Watch all three parts right here on YouTube.
Part 1: https://youtu.be/SAZAKPUQMw0
Part 2: https://youtu.be/e1_4JseKlO4
Part 3: https://youtu.be/oGjRNbXeRXI
Here are some sources I found particularly helpful while reporting for this story:
Nepstad, et al. 2014 https://science.sciencemag.org/conten...
Umair Irfan, Vox: https://www.vox.com/science-and-healt...
The Intercept: https://theintercept.com/2019/07/06/b...
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Apocalypse in the Amazon rainforest | DW Documentary
•Jul 23, 2020
A raging fire devastated Brazil’s Amazon rainforest in the summer of 2019. Images of the blaze frightened experts and politicians around the globe. Protecting the unique ecosystem is essential for climate conservation. The sight of forests in the Amazon burning in 2019 struck fear into anyone who saw it. Suddenly, the threat to the climate was tangible. The trees some call the "world’s lungs" were going up in flames. Suddenly, politicians, journalists, and the general population agreed that something had to be done. Because without the Amazon, the world has a big existential problem. In terms of species diversity, the Amazon river and surrounding forest are one of the earth’s richest regions. It’s also home to many indigenous peoples, whose homes are seriously threatened by degradation of the forest. This documentary depicts the current humanitarian and environmental disaster and goes in search of reasons why this unique ecosystem is being destroyed. Satellite images from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, the INPE, form the framework for the film. A renowned scientist and former head of the institute, Ricardo Galvão, was fired by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who said the images damaged Brazil’s reputation and were flawed anyway. Yet the data from 2019 shows a drastic rise in illegal clear cutting. Filmmaker Albert Knechtel went to the region to take stock. He traveled across Brazil, from the Bolivian border to Xingu, traversing the crisis-stricken area and meeting local experts, critics, and residents who describe the situation. Together they sharpen understanding of the region, which is at a crossroads. The next direction the Amazon takes will influence the fate of the entire world.
Guardians of the Amazon (Full Documentary)
•Feb 19, 2020
As the Amazon Rain Forest faces a crucial tipping point amidst the increase of illegal logging activities, Dan Harris and his team embed with the Guardians, a small indigenous group taking up arms to hunt down illegal loggers and fight for their land.